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Painted Storage Jar

Date 6th century B.C.
Object type vase
Medium, technique painted, wheeled, clay

height: 69.5 cm

Inventory number 2003.1.A
Collection Classical Antiquities
On view Museum of Fine Arts, Basement Floor, Classical Antiquity, The ancient Mediterranean

In 332 B.C. the land of the Pharaohs was conquered by Alexander the Great, amd the country was ruled until 30 B.C. by the descendants of Ptolemy. Throughout the 1st century of Ptolemaic rule Greeks migrated in large numbers to Alexandria, the superb new capital founded by Alexander and to the Greek cities of the countryside. The new rulers of Egypt also preserved the institutions of Egyptian religion, maintained the Egyptian cult temples and provided for their priesthood. Traditional architectural types, artistic themes and means of expression survived side by side with the Hellenistic-style architectural and artistic production that was unfolding in the capital and the Greek cities.
Increasing social and religious interaction between Greeks and Egyptians led to a cultural and ethnic merging, to the amalgamation of Greek and Egyptian conceptions and forms in the arts. By the time of the Roman conquest in 30 B.C. Egyptian gods became an important element in Greek religiosity, and the Egyptian population also accepted the Greek interpretation of its pantheon. Roman dominion greatly promoted ethnic and cultural fusion, which made Egyptian architecture, sculpture, painting and minor arts in the Late Roman (3rd–5th centuries) and Early Byzantine (5th–7th centuries) periods an organic part of the culture of the contemporary Mediterranean.
With the general dissemination of Christianity in the 4th century, a new artistic language of images and symbols mingled with the Classical traditions of artistic expression. This new language was greatly influenced by the artistic themes and forms emerging in the great centres of Eastern Christianity, first of all Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and Alexandria in Egypt. The Christian teaching was “inscribed” on the walls of the churches in the form of figured narratives telling the stories of the Scriptures. Images and symbols of the new faith became organic part of the life of the Egyptian Christians. Christian imagery was incorporated into the household of the rich and the poor alike. Figures of saints and sacred symbols occurred on luxury objects produced for aristocrats and on modest objects of daily use made for the household of the less wealthy. The function of the Christian image was the same in both contexts: it was meant to protect the object and its owner from destructive forces.
The Nile silt jar in the Collection of Classical Antiquities was produced some time in the 6th century for the storage of grain. The large vessel was thrown in two parts, and joined at major point. The base ring and the small handles (one of which is a later addition) were separately made and added. The exterior surface of the vessel was covered with a matt creamish white wash and the upper part of the vessel was decorated in dark brown and red painting. Rope impressions below the major point reveal that the lower body was held together with rope supports while the upper part of the jar was added. The thin walls of the vessel and its excellent firing reveal that the jar was produced in a pottery workshop which possessed a good quality kiln built for mass production. Nevertheless, the separately thrown upper and lower parts were joined carelessly, as a consequence of which the vessel wall cracked at one place in the course of the firing process.
The painted decoration was executed in dark brown and reddish orange colours. The pigments used were mineral colours. The quality of the painting indicates that the pottery workshop did not employ a specialist painter: the decoration was the duty of the potter who was, however, aware of the meaning of the images and motifs he painted. The handles divide the upper half of the jar into two panels framed by oval archs and filled with independent symbolic representations. One is decorated with the figure of a dove, the other shows a vine-stock with bunches of grapes, flanked by two doves. The cross painted on the neck of the solitary dove associates the bird with the concept of salvation, and identifies it as an image of the Christian believer, subject of the Redemption. The vine in the other panel is a symbol of Christ, the source of eternal life. The believer is again represented in the form of a bird.
The decorative system as well as the iconography of the jar show the impact of painted vases produced for an elite clientele. The double-line contours of the bird figures recall a characteristic feature of the decoration on a special group of fine vessels. Their majority comes from Saqqara and it may be presumed that the workshop in which they were produced in the 6th century was closely associated with the famous Monastery of Apa Jeremias, one of the great artistic centres of Early Byzantine Egypt.


This record is subject to revision due to ongoing research.

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