Hydria (Kalpis) with a siren ornament
Period: Second half of the 5th Century B.C.
Dimensions: Height: 40 cm
Ex-Zoumboulakis Collection, Geneva, ca. 1977.
This vase is composed of various cold-worked elements: the body, the shoulder and the neck were hammered from a single sheet of bronze; to these elements the handles and the foot were soldered. The solid bronze ornament in the shape of a siren (with volutes and a palmette), was cast separately and then riveted to the vase. Although partially restored (the lower part of the vase has been reconstituted, but the foot is original), the hydria is in a good state of preservation; the original surface is covered with a beautiful green patina.
The heart-shaped profi le of the body is elegant, with a broad and fl at rounded shoulder and a short and fl ared neck; the handles are embellished with incised grooves; languettes, small beads and engraved volutes adorn the foot, the lip and the handle attachments. This piece displays remarkable artistic and technical qualities, not only in the hammered elements of the vessel, but also in the statuette, which, despite its miniature size, is perfectly rendered, as well as in the subsidiary decoration of the handles and foot.
Such hydriai, characterized by a rounded and uninterrupted profile from the lip to the base, are called kalpis and appear only around the late 6th century B.C. and are most common in the 5th century B.C. It is a typical Attic form, not only attested in bronze examples, like ours, but also in terracotta imitations, painted in the red fi gure technique.
The main decorative motif is the statuette of a spread-winged siren that adorns the base of the vertical handle; she places her claws on the globe that seems to spring from a palmette. In Classical iconography, sirens were hybrid monsters with the body of a bird, sharp claws and the head of a young woman; they usually appear in groups of three or more, singing and playing instruments (lyre, fl ute, etc.), but on later funerary monuments they are often isolated.
In the Greek world, during the 6th century, large bronze vases, and especially hydriai, were used as funerary urns to contain the ashes of the deceased and be deposited in the tomb. The siren decoration, too, is an indication of the funerary nature of this piece, associated as they are with
death throughout Greek mythology: In the Odyssey, sirens killed sailors who listened to their enchanting voices, but they drowned themselves after Odysseus succeeded in passing their promontory. Like other hybrids and wild animals (sphinxes, lions, etc.), sirens may have served apotropaic roles as tomb guardians.
In Ancient mythology, the Homeric story is the only one where sirens played a leading role: Odysseus dared to listen to their song, tethered to the mast of his ship by his companions, and rendered deaf by wax plugs in his ears (Homer, Odyssey, XXII, 142-200). This Homeric episode is often represented in Greek iconography.
DIEHL E., Die Hydria, Mainz / Rhine, 1964, n. 137, pl. 14-15.
LAMB W., Greek and Roman Bronzes, London, 1929, pl. 58.
MITTEN D.G. – DOERINGER S.F., Master Bronzes from the Classical World, Mainz / Rhine, 1967, n. 107-108.
VON BOTHMER D., Glories of the Past, Ancient Art from the S. White and L. Levy Collection, New York, 1991 108, N. 89.
On sirens’ images, see:
The Odyssey and An Ancient Art, An Epic in Word and Image, New York, 1992, pp. 108-111.