Oil containers painted with matt colours on a white background were solely used for burial rites. They contained the oil for anointing the corpse in preparation for the funeral ceremony and were placed under his deathbed. Later, they accompanied the corpse to the grave as a sign that those left behind would continue to take care of the deceased. They were often decorated with funeral or grave scenes for this purpose. In this example, the picture shows a scene on the banks of the underworld river Styx, which formed the border to the kingdom of the dead. Hermes – recognisable by his herald’s staff (kerykeion) and winged sandals – guides a deceased young man who he is escorting to Hades. From the other side, the ferryman Charon is approaching in his boat to fetch the newcomer. He leans on the oar, which he uses to steer the boat forward. His short tunic (exomis) only covers his left shoulder so as not to interfere with his work.
While the yellow colour of the ship and the red of Charon’s clothes are well preserved, the colour of Hermes’ coat has disappeared. Since the painter decided not to outline his drawings in black, only a pale surface remains, like a negative of the original. The two red strips appearing next to the legs were probably braiding on the hem of what might once have been a blue jacket. Only traces of the red colour of the young man’s coat can still be seen today. The area under the handle was once decorated with hints of reeds and other vegetation – probably in shades of green. Since the matt colours were applied after the vessel had been fired, they are very sensitive – especially to the effects of heat – and have changed continually over the years. The artist has been given this name after the Russian collector Count Sabouroff and is known to have painted both white-ground lekythoi and red-figure vases. Yet he seems to have increasingly specialised in grave vessels over the course of his career and images with the dead ferryman Charon were one of his favourites.