Howard Nowes - 02/28/2017
South Italian, Circa 4th Century BC.
This streamlined, symmetrical, terracotta hydria, which would have been used as a vessel to carry water or wine, is painted with a delicate, reflective black glaze. The black glaze creates the negative space, leaving the exposed terracotta underneath to depict the shapes of the human figures. The hydria has an exquisite tactile sensibility; the glaze feels smooth, and the terracotta sections left empty of glaze are rougher and cooler to the touch.
The circular object between the male and female figures is a tympanum, a percussion instrument that was commonly used as a part of ritual Dionysian worship (Mayo, p.112). The female figure on the left, who is clothed, and holding a mirror to assist the male in preparing for a Dionysian ritual, is a maenad. Maenad is the term for a specific archetype of nymph - one who is a nurturer or nurse figure, who would care for, groom, and prepare Dionysus, or a younger athletic male figure, in advance of a festive ritual.
The younger, nude male models the classic Greco-Roman ideal of male beauty and athleticism, as he reclines in a regal posture, and allows the maenad to attend to him.
The mirror held by the maenad would have been made of polished bronze. In the context and time period of this hydria, the bronze mirror is a symbol of luxury and opulence; due to the scarcity and corrosiveness of bronze, only the elite would have been able to afford such mirrors.
This hydria is influenced by the Darius-Underworld workshop style, as evidenced by the meticulous decorative style of the painting, and the careful attention paid to depicting the musculature on the male figure.
For additional reading on this style of hydria, refer to The Art of Southern Italy, by Margaret Ellen Mayo, Virginia Museum Press, 1983, ISBN 0-917046-12-9.