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A new cup by the Dokimasia Painter


Cup by the Dokimasia Painter

In 2004, the Fitzwilliam Museum acquired a new cup by the Dokimasia Painter (GR.1.2004). The cup is displayed in case 21 in the Greek gallery (Gallery 21).

Who is the Dokimasia Painter?

The Dokimasia Painter is the modern nick-name of an anonymous painter of red-figured vases who worked in Athens between about 490 and 470 BC. The 'Dokimasia' was the annual inspection of horsemen and horses conducted by the Athenian Council. It is the subject of the painter's name-vase, a cup now in Berlin.

What do the scenes show?

On one side the wine god, Dionysos, holds out his cup to be filled with wine by a satyr; another satyr stands behind the god, playing the double pipes. On the other side two satyrs pursue a maenad. Various types of wine containers punctuate both scenes.

Who or what were satyrs and maenads?

They were the followers of Dionysos. Satyrs were mythical creatures, part man and part horse (hence the tails). They were very fond of wine, and liked to over-indulge in it whenever possible. They were also fond of women, whom they are often shown pursuing or embracing. So, in ancient Greek art and thought satyrs were a way of expressing the more basic and animal-like elements of (male) human nature.

Maenads were the female members of the Dionysian circle. They were presented as 'normal' women who ran away from their homes to enjoy orgiastic dancing and drinking sessions on the mountainsides. So, they embodied male fears of what women might get up to if not kept under strict control. The leafy staff that the maenad carries is called a thyrsos; its head is a bunch of ivy leaves. A thyrsos was useful either for waving in the dance, or as here, as an offensive or defensive weapon.

Why are such scenes appropriate for a Greek vase?

A cup like this was designed to be used at a symposion, a type of serious drinking party enjoyed by the elite male society of ancient Athens. It's appropriate that many symposion vessels bear scenes that relate to the wine god (like side 1 of this cup) and the effects of wine (like side 2). Sometimes you can imagine that the scenes would serve as a prompt for a story or a song.

Did the Fitzwilliam really need another vase?

It's true that the Fitzwilliam already houses one of the best collections of Athenian red-figured vases in the country. However, before the acquisition of this cup, there were few examples of the late archaic red figure that it could display, and these vases are generally reckoned to be the finest of all Greek vases. This cup is of the highest quality, elegantly composed, and beautifully drawn.

The cup was was acquired in London in the 1960s by Sir Christopher Cockerell CBE FRS (1910-1999), the inventor of the hovercraft. Sir Christopher's father, Sir Sydney Cockerell, was Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum from 1908 to 1937. So, it seems particularly appropriate for the Fitzwilliam to become its permanent home.

The cup was acquired with the generous aid of the Art Fund and the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund.