This shape of jug, with an egg-shaped body and a circular, funnel-like mouth, is known to archaeologists as an olpe. It was a very popular shape in Corinth. That it imitates metal vessels is made clear by from the torus roll at the juncture of the shoulder and the base of the mouth, and even more so by the roundels to either side of the handle. The decoration consists of several friezes: a band of rays immediately above the foot, two animal friezes at the widest point of the belly, and a band of scales and tongues on the shoulder. The handle and mouth are painted with a uniform black slip.
Both animal friezes depict wild animals against a beige background. A boar, lion, panther, goat, bull, and waterbird face each other in profile. In the middle of the upper frieze, opposite the handle, two lion sphinxes with female human heads face each other across a swan or duck. Sphinxes were fantastical beasts with feline bodies, wings, and human heads, adopted in Greece from the east and Egypt. They were one of the new motifs in the “Orientalizing Period” of Greek art beginning in the seventh century BC. Trade with the Phoenicians on the Levantine coast brought the Greeks into contact with foreign peoples, as did Greek colonization from the eighth century BC onward. These connections led the Greeks to adopt many foreign artistic elements – from vegetal motifs and fantastical animals to the lion so central to eastern art. Hybrid creatures as well as lions, panthers, bulls, and boars were dangerous, and therefore stood as reminders of the perils accompanying voyages to faraway lands to found colonies outside the safety of the polis and motherland.
This jug was made in Corinth during the transition of vase-painting styles from Protocorinthian to Early Corinthian. At the beginning of the seventh century BC, Athens lost its position as the leading Greek center of pottery production; now Corinth assumed its place. The reason in part lay in developments in the firing process, allowing potters to transform the local yellow-tan clay into magnificent vessels with a sleek black finish. Thus the black-figure technique was invented, in which the decoration was painted in black upon a light clay ground. Internal details and contours could then be incised. Highlights and contrasts were achieved by the addition of red, white, and yellow pigments, which significantly increased the popularity of Corinthian ceramics. Corinth became a central node of trade in the seventh century BC, helped by its geographical location. It thus exported its new type of ceramic throughout the Mediterranean, from the Black Sea and the coast of Asia Minor to southern Italy and Etruria. High demand for Corinthian ware led to mass production by the late seventh century, and a corresponding decline in quality – of which the use of rosettes as a filler motif is one indicator. While the rosettes on Protocorinthian vessels like this one consist of individual points, later ones devolve into shapeless blobs with stars incised around them. Another result of the high demand for this pottery was the birth of Corinthian imitations produced by local workshops, for instance in Etruria.