Terracotta Rhyton

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The Rhyton on display in Gallery 171 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is in the shape of a sheep’s head (a young ram, judging by the small horns), with the Greek god of love, Eros, on the fluted top portion. It is just 6-1/2” tall. The detail on the sheep’s head is impressive; the ears, eyes, nostrils and lips are all clearly formed. As well, the horns are clearly depicted. It is not particularly stylized; rather it looks just like a head that a ram might carry on its shoulders today. The departure from nature is only in color. While the ears are pinkish on the interior, the remainder are white, and the skin is marbled brown and black. The horns have a greenish tinge, which may be from the patina that comes from age, or the original color.

On the fluted top portion, Eros is depicted in flesh tones on black, or perhaps the black was painted onto the terracotta and the void left in the shape of Eros in natural terracotta color. The void theory appears most likely when one looks at the damage just in front of Eros, where the painted surface has chipped away, and it appears there is color similar to that of Eros beneath.

On the aforementioned fluted portion, Eros is flying and carrying a small casket. To the left of Eros as viewed from the front left of the piece, there is a pattern not terribly different from a French fleur-de-lis, and a similar but not identical ornament below that. Vertical painted designs around the rim of the vase and a curved handle behind the sheep’s head which make it take the shape of a sheep’s head beer mug complete the ancient work. According to The Met’s web page pertaining to the rhyton, it is a “vase for libations or drinking,” so the beer mug comparison is apt.

The vase is made of terracotta, essentially regular fragile pottery like that used in flower pots today, so it is impressive that it has survived until now. This is especially so when it is considered that The Met estimates that the rhyton is from ca. 350 – 300 B.C, approximately 2300 years ago. Its scarcity may be due to that age, combined with the fragility of the medium. The Met has 8,026 terracotta pieces, but only 42 rhyta.

That it is so old is indeed impressive, but it may be more impressive when a certain feature of its design is noted. The rhyton does not have a flat bottom on which it sits. Instead, it was created in a way that necessitates its being held continuously once it is filled in order not to spill the liquid inside. This begs the comparison to similar Viking vessels. One may imagine feasts in the mead-halls of Beowulf the hero, this mug borne “to the hands of the heroes” (96), and warriors passing it full of mead from one to the other until it is empty. That it is not flat on the bottom means it has rested on its side through the years, and stood a good chance of rolling about or falling from a table, etc., before becoming perhaps discarded, miraculously preserved, and found millennia later. According to The Met, however, this Rhyton is from Greece (or perhaps southern Italy), so it is unlikely a Viking ever touched it.

To craft this Rhyton, an ancient craftsman had to form it from clay, and harden it in a kiln. Whether the painted design was added before or after firing cannot be said from the viewing of the photographs on The Met’s site, except perhaps by someone who is trained in that craft, or who has study ancient terracotta figures. It is interesting to imagine someone making this long ago, and imagining for whom it was made. Was it made for a particular person? Was it mass produced and sold in a market, Ancient Greece’s version of Wal-Mart? Was it made by a hobbyist for personal use? Whatever its history, The Met’s Greek sheep’s head rhyton is a fascinating example of ancient designs and methods in terracotta.

Works Cited

Beowulf. New York: Newson & Company, 1902. Print.

"Terracotta Rhyton." The Metropolitan Museum of Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. <http://www.metmuseum.org/>.