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White-ground lekythos showing tiny  lekythoi arranged on the steps of a  grave stele, with youths standing on  either side painted by the Bosanquet  Painter around 440-430 BC.  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New  York, Rogers Fund 1923, Accession  Number 23.160.38. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art Lekythoi could be decorated in the black-figure and red-figure techniques, with scenes from mythology or everyday life. This shape was also frequently decorated in the white-ground technique, where the body of the vase was covered in a layer of white paint made from white kaolin clay, which formed a background for the design. At first the design was created in black-figure technique, but from the middle of the 5th century mineral-based paint colours began to be used to paint scenes in outline. These vases were made for funerary purposes, as the scenes that decorated them indicates.

 

Grave stones (modern replicas) in the Kerameikos cemetery, Athens.  The furthest grave stone shows a  large vase, this one a loutrophoros. Photo © Kate Cooper, 2005.

The vase image usually shows a grave marker, sometimes with the deceased sitting beside it, while a living person approaches to mourn the dead and honour them. Some vases even showlekythoi standing on the grave markers where they have been left as offerings to the dead.

The shape was so characteristic of Athenian cemeteries that large marble models of lekythoi, about 1.5 metres tall, were used as grave markers themselves.

Further Reading:

John H. Oakley, Picturing Death in Classical Athens, the evidence of the white lekythoi(Cambridge, 2004)