Decoding Ancient Greek Pottery

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In the Days of ancient Greece, huge amounts of pottery were produced to serve all the basic needs of daily life. In “How to Read Greek Vases” (Yale University Press, 2011), Joan Mertens, curator of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, takes readers through 35 notable examples. Here, Ms. Mertens shares details about a 13-inch-tall terra cotta neck-amphora — a type of storage jar — made in Athens around 540 B.C.

RV-AB322_Vizual_G_20110121004058From about 700 B.C. to 530 B.C., black-figure painting was the predominant technique on Greek vases. The figures and other decoration were painted on with a liquid clay preparation, and details were added with incised lines—an extremely cumbersome process, especially on convex surfaces. The vases were then fired in a kiln, resulting in the contrast between the black painted areas and the orangey background (the natural color of the clay pot).

The body of the vase shows a mythical encounter between Herakles and Geryon. The great Greek hero Herakles, below, aims an arrow at his opponent Geryon on the opposite side of the vase, who is composed of three bodies. (One of the labors of Herakles was to obtain the cattle of Geryon, who lived beyond the ends of the Earth.)

RV-AB324_Vizual_G_20110121004226The artist has taken evident pleasure in articulating details such as the lion skin tied over Herakles’ chest. The placement is exceptional: The story of Herakles and Geryon enjoyed some popularity in vase painting, but the convention at the time was to show both figures on one side of the vase. Having one on each side emphasizes both the shape and the subject matter.

The shape of the vase, along with its handles, reveals its purpose. The hydria, a jar for water, has two horizontal handles at the side for lifting and one vertical handle at the back for pouring. Vases for storage, such as this one, have two handles for lifting. Storage jars often held liquids like honey or oil, dry goods like grain, or small foods like olives.

RV-AB326_Vizual_D_20110121004347The decoration on the neck takes us into the realm of civic observances. A procession of men carry unknown objects, perhaps meat for a sacrifice. The image may be tied to the mythical figures on the body of the vase.

The story of Herakles and Geryon has been associated with Greek colonization and trade, so the procession may reflect a ceremony connected with some venture. Because traveling was so dangerous, offerings were often made before a journey.

The paunchy shape of this vase — it is relatively top-heavy — left a wide expanse for the artist to depict Geryon and his shields. Note how his legs get narrower as the vase gets narrower. Another striking feature of this jar is the complete absence of a foot. Most vases have a firm support at the very bottom, in part to help with stability. The lack of a foot here shows that the potter, or possibly his patron, felt unfettered by the existing conventions of the time — and it made for a tippy jar. Some jars with narrow bottoms would have been placed in a stand. 

Source: The Wall Street Journal [January 22, 2011]

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