Ancient Greece, Athens, ca. mid 6th century BCE. A very special ceramic pyxis, its container upraised and supported by three slab-built legs with each face presenting a figural scene created via the black-figure technique - one featuring a pair of roosters facing one another, another with a sphinx comprised of the body of a lion, head of a woman, eagle wings, and according to some scholars a serpent's tail, and the third with a standing human behind a horse with a bird in flight behind the pair. Above these and encircling the rim of the vessel is a decorative dotted and incised frieze. Size: 5.5" W x 3.25" H (14 cm x 8.3 cm)
The iconography of this piece is very rich. According to legend, the gods sent the Sphinx to plague the town of Thebes as punishment for an ancient crime. This female monster preyed on its youths and devoured anyone who could not solve her riddle. King Kreon (Creon), the regent of Thebes, offered the throne to whomever could destroy her. Oedipus (Oidipous) rose to the challenge, and when he solved the Sphinx's riddle, she dramatically cast herself off the mountainside. Sphinxes were quite popular in ancient art - featured on grave stelae above the tombs of men who died in youth. When found adorning archaic vase paintings, they sometimes are included in a procession of animals and fabulous hybrid creatures such as bird-bodied sirens. Roosters were very popular in Greek visual culture as well. According to mythology, a rooster was standing beside Leto, who was pregnant by Zeus, at the moment she gave birth to Apollo and Artemis. By extension, the rooster is dedicated to solar gods and lunar goddesses. In addition, the rooster is an attribute of Apollo. The ancients would also ritually sacrifice a rooster to Asclepios, son of Apollo and god of medicine, because the rooster heralded the soul of the dead and guided it to the Otherworld. Asclepios by extension is also the god who, using his healing powers, brought the deceased back to life on earth.
Provenance: Antiquities, Christie’s, London, 2 July 1982, lot 218
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