Plastic Vase in the Form of a Leg
Culture: Greek, Rhodian
Period: early 6th century B.C.
Dimensions: H: 21.4 cm
Acquired on the US art market, New York, 2001.
Complete but reassembled from fragments; several cracks; surface weathered especially on the hill; painting erased or lost in places (lower part of the foot, calf, and board); two holes for taking of samples for the thermoluminescence test below the hill and mouth.
The vase was hand-modeled in clay of pale grey/yellow color with some luster which is typical for the numerous Archaic pieces frequently attributed to the workshops of Rhodes. The decoration was executed according to the black-figure technique, with the use of black paint and purple (no trace of white is visible), and also the incisions for details.
It represents a leg with well accentuated musculature to the height of the thigh, where the edge of the garment should be. The upper part is flat and provides with a small cylindrical neck with the wide discoid rim. The vase does not have a handle; despite the strong arch, it can stand vertically (however, its stability is shaky).
The vases as this present one are distinguished by their quality of modeling and decoration; for the reason still undetermined, the constantly reproduced leg is the left one, as the shape of the foot clearly indicates it. In this beautiful example one notes the perfectly curved volumes of the calf, the treatment of the knee, with the kneecap surrounded by muscles of the thigh, as well as the shape of the foot with well-rounded malleolus. The anatomy is enriched by the presence of some painted details on the lower part of the calf (only the light traces of painting remain) which could represent the veins or arteries, which supply the muscle.
The painted and incised decoration covers the foot and upper part of the vessel, which is ornamented with the traditional motifs as languettes, series of dots, ample meander, petals and zig-zag.
The foot wears the ceremonial boot made probably of soft leather: called the endromides, these pointed shoes covered the entire ankle and were raised to the third of the calf at the back. It was equally worn by men and women. Here the boot is elegantly decorated by the incisions reproducing a pair of volutes (drawn with compass) and completed by central palmette. On the instep, the system of fastening is composed of crossed laces and a horizontal strap, while the meander friezes ornament the board and the center of the boot. A large rosette painted in black decorates the calf; it might refer to a tattoo.
Developed in the first half of the 6th century B.C., the leg-vases were certainly assimilated with the shape of aryballos and served to contain and transport the cosmetic oils especially used by the athletes after their training: it is possible that the string tied around the neck helped to carry and/or suspend the vessel.
The question if the leg is male (musculature’ strength) or female (the light color of the skin) never found the affirmative respond: some proposed to see here the leg of an Amazon, the warrior-woman, or the leg of a gorgone (but the boot does not have wings). On the other hand, the frequency and vast localization (the continental and east Greek world, the colonies, the Etruscan culture) and the existence of different types make to think that these representations intended to celebrate the sport and athletic ideal which was in the process of establishment in Greece at this period, rather than to make an allusion to any precise personage or myth.
There are also the other and rarer versions of these plastic vases which reproduce a bent leg with the neck modeled at the top of the knee (example in the British Museum), or the legs with the foot wearing a simple sandal instead of the boot.
DUCAT J., Les vases plastiques rhodiens archaïques en terre cuite, Paris, 1966, pp. 134-139 (gr. A, 1).
HIGGINS R., Catalogue of the Terracottas in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum, Vol. II, London, 1959, pp. 29-30, nos. 1650-1651.
JOHANSEN F., Greece in the Archaic Period, Catalogue Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, 1994, pp. 104-105, no. 49.
VRBANCK-PIERARD A., ed., Parfums de l’Antiquité, La rose et l’encens en Méditerranée, Mariemont, 2008, p. 375, nos. III.A.22-23.