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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

At­tic red-fig­ure skyphos, dec­o­rated with two owls (c450BC). Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity Clas­sics Col­lec­tion, ac­quired 1963. On dis­play, Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity Clas­sics Mu­seum, Can­berra. The sym­bol of the owl has an en­dur­ing his­tory in Greek art and de­sign. It ap­pears in sculp­ture, on pot­tery, on prize am­phoras for the Pana­thenaic Games and on var­i­ous de­nom­i­na­tions of At­tic sil­ver coins.

As a bird of the night, the owl was as­so­ci­ated with funerals, and its im­age has been traced to graves in the Myce­naean pe­riod. It also was be­lieved that the owl had power against the evil eye, which, it has been sug­gested, orig­i­nated from its own large star­ing eyes. Two large stone owls were found on the Acrop­o­lis.

Fur­ther­more, the owl in flight was con­sid­ered a sym­bol of good luck. The sud­den ap­pear­ance of such an owl be­fore the naval Bat­tle of Salamis in 480BC was used to raise Greek morale pre­ced­ing the de­ci­sive vic­tory of the sorely out­num­bered Greeks against the Per­sians.

Much of the owl’s pop­u­lar­ity was tied to Athena, the goddess of war­fare and wis­dom. The owl was Athena’s sym­bol: the bird was of­ten de­picted perched on her shield, fly­ing nearby or even in her hand.

Athena also was the pa­tron goddess of the city of Athens. Dur­ing the 5th cen­tury BC her sym­bol, the owl, fea­tured promi­nently on ter­ra­cotta cups. These owl cups, or skyphoi, were pro­duced in large num­bers in Athens and were so pop­u­lar they were ex­ported to other parts of the Greek world, in­clud­ing south­ern Italy and Etruria, ac­cord­ing to Michael Wat­son in his es­say The Owls of Athena: Some Com­ments on Owl-Skyphoi and Their Iconog­ra­phy.

One such red-fig­ure owl cup, dat­ing from about 450BC, is on dis­play at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity Clas­sics Mu­seum in Can­berra. When I visit the mu­seum, cu­ra­tor El­iz­a­beth Minchin shows me the two-han­dled cup that is dec­o­rated on each side with an owl stand­ing be­tween two sprays of olive, also as­so­ci­ated with Athena.

The func­tion of the owl skyphos was in most cases do­mes­tic and sec­u­lar. It was some­thing to drink from, wa­ter or wine mixed with wa­ter, or it could be used as a dip­per to dip into larger ves­sels. But, Minchin says, used to serve milk.

“Milk was turned into cheese,” she says. “The Greeks thought peo­ple who drank milk were bar­bar­ians and strange. This cup was a cup for wa­ter and wine.”

The owl skyphos is one of Minchin’s favourite pieces in the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion. “One rea­son I like it is that it is some­thing very much from the do­mes­tic sphere. It rep­re­sents life in the every­day world,” she says. “Sec­ond, the im­ages of the olive sprigs and the owl are very much sym­bols of Athens. They rep­re­sent as­pects of the Athe­nian mind­set. Third, the owl it cer­tainly wasn’t de­picted on one side of the cup is quite cutely cross-eyed. I find that quite en­gag­ing.”

Minchin be­lieves the cross-eyed owl wasn’t painted as a prank. “I think it is an ac­ci­dent be­cause the owl on the other side isn’t cross-eyed. I think it is just a case of a painter plac­ing the bird’s eyes a lit­tle bit too close to each other. I think that it is ac­ci­den­tal — an ir­reg­u­lar­ity that brings a smile to your face.”

There have been some dif­fi­cul­ties dat­ing owl skyphoi, but Minchin says the date can be nar­rowed down.

“Af­ter 530BC the paint­ing style in Athens changed and a new tech­nique, red-fig­ure tech­nique, was in­tro­duced whereby fig­ures were re­served in ter­ra­cotta against a black back­ground,” she says. “This tech­nique en­abled far more de­tail to be ren­dered. If you look at our owl, you no­tice that its lit­tle wings and the dap­pled spots showing its feath­ers have all been sketched out in black.

“This style comes about in the early 5th cen­tury and lasts for about 50 years with this par­tic­u­lar owl il­lus­tra­tion, which was a very com­mon and very pop­u­lar im­age dur­ing this pe­riod.

“Our owl skyphos was one of the ear­li­est ac­qui­si­tions for the mu­seum col­lec­tion. As a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a ves­sel in com­mon use, it was a wise pur­chase.”

Ter­ra­cotta, black slip; height 8.2cm, di­am­e­ter 10.5cm

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