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Hellenstic Italiote (Canosa) oinochoe in the shape of a sphinx

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: Greek-Hellenistic
: 3rd Century B.C.
: Ceramic
: H: 34 cm
: CHF 76000

Sotheby’s Antiquities New York, June 1st, 1995, n. 116.


The vase is complete and in a good state of preservation.


Reference 12547

The vase is complete and in a good state of preservation. The surface of the clay is covered with a layer of white paint and abundant traces of pink, red, ochre and sky blue paint, used for the decoration as well as the rendering of different anatomical details, still remain. Two blowholes are drilled under the base and on the hindquarters. The sphinx statuette was cast; the spread wings terminating in volutes, the trilobed neck with a broad rim, and the ribbed and high handle were made separately and attached to the body before the firing process. The shape of the vessel is an oinochoe. Two flowers adorn the spout, near the handle’s attachment.

The sphinx is seated on its hind legs, in a resting position but ready to pounce. The body is slender, with balanced proportions and many modeled details (leg muscles, rounded breast, claws); the tail is rolled up to the right. The delicate and feminine face is framed by wavy hair, which falls in braids on the shoulders; the ornament consists of a necklace painted in pink and a palmette drawn on the chest, of earrings and of a medallion that adorns the center of the forehead. Although inspired by Attic prototypes from the 5th century B.C., this vase is Apulian, and more precisely from the region of Canosa, as mostly evidenced by the background painted in white and the use of subtle shades for the polychromy. Like other hybrid beings of Greek mythology, the sphinx acquires her canonical female and winged structure in the Archaic period. An interpretation of the Eastern image, the Greek sphinx keeps her decorative function, adorning helmets (Athena Parthenos), thrones (Zeus from Phidias, at Olympia), and fabrics, etc.; her presence on numerous funerary monuments (statues, archaic steles crowning, coffins, paintings on pottery, etc.) confirms her funerary and apotropaic function in the Greek and Italic world, as a guardian and protector of the tomb.

In Ancient mythology, the only story in which this figure plays a leading role is the Oepidus story: after Oedipus correctly answered the riddle posed by the Sphinx , who had devoured all the other unfortunate candidates, the monster threw herself from her high rock and died. Several moments of this episode are included in Greek imagery (mostly by Attic craftsmen), not only on vase paintings but in sculpture as well (see for example the Phidias group).


Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, Copenhagen 6, pl. 270, n. 2a-b.

MAYO E.M. (ed.), Vases from Magna Graecia, Richmond, 1982, p.302, n. 156.

On Sphinges in general:

DEMISCH H., Die Sphinx, Geschichte ihrer Darstellung von den Anfàngen bis zur Gegenwart, Stuttgart, 1977, pp. 76-116.

Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC) VIII suppl., Zurich-Munich, 1997, p. 1150ff., s.v. Sphinx.

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