by Milette Gaifman. Yale University Press, February 2018. 184 p. ill. ISBN 9780300192278 (h/c), $65.00.
Reviewed July 2018
The Art of Libation in Classical Athens is an extensive and well-organized study of art depicting “libations,” or liquid poured from a vessel onto the ground as part of a ritual, in Athens during the fifth century B.C.E. This volume by Milette Gaifman, Associate Professor of Greek Art and Archaeology at Yale University, builds upon her prior research on the intersection of visual culture and religious rituals in ancient Greece (Gaifman is also the author of Aniconism in Greek Antiquity, Oxford University Press, 2012).
Gaifman offers a comprehensive examination of libation imagery in sculpture and vase painting to provide insight into religious ceremonies and daily life. Libations were performed in various contexts such as symposia, funerals, and sacrifices. Gaifman argues libation scenes in sculpture often intentionally invoked the viewer, inviting beholders to become participants in the scene, while vase paintings focused on the connections between humans and the divine. This suggests that libation ceremonies signified meaningful relationships among the living as well as the gods and the deceased. Featured works include the caryatids of the Erechtheion on the Athenian acropolis. Roman copies of the caryatids, such as those at Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli, suggest these female statues originally held phialai, or bowls used for libations in religious ceremonies. Other examined works include the Parthenon frieze, Attic red-figure vases, white-ground lekythoi, and funerary sculpture. The result is a groundbreaking contribution to the study of classical libation iconography which deepens our understanding of the connections between art, ritual, and social life in ancient Greece. An exemplary work of scholarship, this is the definitive study on the art of libations.
The volume uses photo-quality paper and the images, 127 in color and five in black and white, are high quality. The cover features a pleasing detail of a white-ground lekythos depicting a traveler and a libation bearer at a tomb, attributed to the Bosanquet Painter ca. 450-440 B.C.E., although the book jacket will likely be removed for circulation. The scholarly apparatus includes a bibliography citing both primary and secondary sources, notes, an index, and illustration credits.
The Art of Libation in Classical Athens tackles a challenging topic, making it most useful to graduate students and faculty, though upper-level undergraduates will find the research accessible. This is an essential acquisition for libraries collecting materials on classical art and archaeology.