Faculty Publications


Expression of harmony: Representations of female musicians in fifth-century Athenian vase painting.

SelectedWorks Author Profiles:

Sheramy D. Bundrick

Document Type


Publication Date



Throughout the history of ancient Greek culture, music and song played an important role and inspired countless works of art. In Attic vase painting of the fifth century B.C., hundreds of scenes feature mortal women playing music, in a rich variety of contexts and social situations. One particular class of images, featuring women in a domestic setting. represents a significant departure from earlier scenes of female musicians, both in terms of their iconography and of the social status of the women shown. These scenes, which enjoy a brief but intense popularity in the period from c. 470-460 B.C. to c. 420-410 B.C., depict neither Muses nor prostitutes but rather privileged, mortal, Athenian women who engage in musical performance as a leisure activity within the home. The images suggest an important relationship between women and music in Classical Athenian society that is inadequately conveyed in the written record.

Working against the backdrop of contemporary Greek art. musical theory, philosophy, and history, I argue that the imagery of female musicians in a domestic setting contains several layers of meaning. referring both to the actual activities of women and to the symbolic aspects of music and gender as perceived by the Athenians in the fifth century B.C. As a starting point, I focus on composition and iconography, analyzing the formal qualities of the scenes and placing them within the artistic context of the Classical period I consider the identity and social standing of the women represented and the general historicity of the scenes. Although these images are not photographic documents of daily life, the visual evidence nonetheless leads us to reassess the access that elite Athenian women had to musical education. The scenes also reflect contemporary attitudes concerning women and gender roles. They are part of a larger interest in female iconography at this time, which reflects an increased emphasis on the oikos and its relationship to the city as a whole.

The scenes of musical women appear to derive the most meaning from the portrayal of musical performance. Changes in musical iconography of the Classical period recall innovations in musical practice as well as new beliefs regarding the power of music and its influence in society. Musical references in the scenes of women suggest an atmosphere of concord, order, and harmony. This concept of harmonia, in both a musical and a social sense, seems to be an underlying theme of these images. I attempt to demonstrate that the scenes have allegorical meaning in the specific context of Classical Athens, with the musical women embodying fifth-century ideals of social, musical, and cultural harmony.


Full-text article is available through licensed access provided by the publisher. Members of the USF System may access the full-text of the article through the authenticated link provided.


Emory University.