Pottery, Painting, and Mosaics

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Pottery, Painting, and Mosaics




Late Geometric Period: 800-700 B.C.E. The late Geometric Period coincided with the rise of the Greek city-state or polis, and the emergence from the Dark Ages. The resultant prosperity of this time was felt clearly in the art of pottery, which built on styles known as Protogeometric (900s b.c.e.) and Early Geometric (800s b.c.e.). As the name suggests this early painted pottery featured abstract designs such as parallel straight lines, circles and semicircles, meanders, triangles, checkerboards, swastikas, as well as large areas of black glaze. Such controlled designs articulate the shape of the vase and emphasize various parts, such as its neck, shoulder, or belly. Many of these vases were used in a funerary context, sometimes containing the ashes and bones of the cremated, or precious objects owned during his or her lifetime. Such pottery was particularly prominent in Attica, which led the way in further innovations in pottery shapes such as the oinokhoe (wine jug), and the appearance of animals in rows, or friezes, in identical poses.

Human Figure. Around 760 b.c.e. the human figure reemerged en masse in Geometric art and was depicted in funeral scenes on huge vases (sometimes over 1.6 meters high), which functioned as grave markers for the aristocratic dead. A famous example is the Dipylon Vase, from the Kerameikos cemetery in Athens. This huge vase not only has a great range of Geometric designs, but contains

two animal friezes on the neck, and, most importantly, a funeral scene between the handles, where the vase is widest. This vase was a grave marker for an aristocratic woman who is depicted lying in state (prothesis), while mourners raise their hands to their heads in a gesture of grief. The triangular torsos, seen frontally, emphasize their geometric origins, but the figures’ legs in profile seem relatively organic and fleshy by comparison. The corpse itself lies under what is probably a shroud to be placed over it, and is presented to us in a stylized way upturned on its side. Such presentation underlines an important concern for the painter and his public: the need to understand what is being depicted. There is no attempt at perspective, variety of colors, shading, or overlapping, so the painter presents objects not as they would appear, but as how they can be best understood within the limits of his medium.

Wealth and Fame. Similar techniques apply in another Attic funerary vase or kratêr (bowl) from about 740 b.c.e. This example has a mourning scene which involves bringing the dead out for burial (ekphora) and a chariot procession on a lower level which may reflect the dead man’s wealth and interests during his lifetime; in another contemporary funeral kratêr from Attica battle scenes are

depicted, which suggests the deceased may have been a warrior or had heroic aspirations. Interesting in these two krateres is the increased area occupied by the human and animal figures, and slight variations such as the inclusion of the eye, and the depiction of the body in action. The increased interest in the human figure is an important step in Geometric art, and is felt in vase painting from the late eighth century. In some instances the decoration is kept to a minimum and the focus is on human action, whether it be warriors confronting lions, or a couple about to embark a two-tiered ship on a kratêr from Thebes of about 730 b.c.e. The size of this couple emphasises their importance, and some have suggested it may be Paris and Helen eloping, or Theseus fleeing Crete with Ariadne; but their identity remains a mystery.

Early Archaic Period: 700-600 B.C.E. During the seventh century Corinth prospered under tyrants and enjoyed commercial success especially in pottery. Corinth developed new pot shapes such as the aruballos (a round, narrow necked jug for perfume) and olpê (a jug with a sagging belly). As for painting, Corinth broke with the rigid Geometric forms, and included more floral patterns, especially rosettes, as well as more animal imagery ranging from panthers to sphinxes to barnyard animals. Also, Corinthian painters used a range of colors such as red, purple, black, white, brown and orange; moreover, incision was now being used which gave scope for more complex images with overlaps than could be found in the Geometric silhouette technique. Much Corinthian pottery painting was of a miniaturist and precise nature. These new techniques are found on the Chigi Vase, discovered in Veii in northern Italy, dated to about 650 b.c.e. Three levels of activity are depicted on this vase: 1) the Judgement of Paris; 2) a hare hunt, cavalcade, and lion hunt; 3) ranks of overlapping heavy-armed warriors (hoplites) going into battle, accompanied by a piper. Use of incision and polychromy (many colors) adds to the vividness and compact design of these images, especially the hoplite scene, and the piper is expertly rendered in full profile while the warriors have frontal torsos, but legs and heads in profile. Large-scale fresco painting in Corinth flourished at this time, and this vase painter may have worked in that medium too.

Eastern Influence and New Styles. In Attica Orientalizing tendencies were felt in the works of the so-called Analatos painter, who included sphinxes, spirals, rosettes and even some incision in some of his works, such as an amphora of about 680 b.c.e. Much in the painting also owes much to the Geometric style, so it seems a transitional phase. By about 650 Attica had developed the so-called “Proto-Attic” style, which featured on many large-scale funerary vases, four feet high or more. Scenes from myth are often depicted in this style, such as the Blinding of Polyphemus, or Perseus fleeing the Gorgons on the Eleusis Amphora of about 650 b.c.e. In the Polyphemus scene the artist has used shading for the legs of Odysseus and the Gorgons—a technique not seen again on vases for over a century. Interestingly, the narrative of Polyphemus’ drunkenness and blinding, known also from Homer’s Odyssey (circa eighth-seventh centuries b.c.e.), has been compressed into one moment. Homer tells of how Odysseus and his men, on their way home from Troy, are washed ashore on the island of the one-eyed giants, the Cyclopes. The sailors become trapped in the cave of the most brutal of them all, Polyphemus, who proceeds to eat some of Odysseus’ companions. Odysseus cunningly decides to get the Cyclops, who has never tasted wine before, into a drunken stupor, so that he can blind him and escape. On the Eleusis amphora this sequence of events is presented as one image: the wine cup the giant holds alludes to his inebriated state. This interest in narrative is a feature of Attic vase-painting but lacking in much seventh-century Corinthian pottery. Narrative is evident elsewhere, in an Orientalizing plate from Rhodes of about 630 b.c.e. which depicts the Greek Menelaus fighting the Trojan Hector (their names are inscribed); and a storage vase from Mykonos of about 650 b.c.e. has relief sculptures of the Greeks emerging from the Wooden Horse and sacking Troy.


A famous anecdote told by Pliny the Elder reveals the friendly rivalry that existed between two Greek artists.

Parrhasius is said to have competed with Zeuxis. When Zeuxis painted a backdrop of grapes with such success that birds flew up to it, Parrhasius countered with a picture of a curtain so truly represented that Zeuxis, excited by the decisive action of the birds, noisily demanded that the curtain be removed, if you don’t mind, and the picture shown. When he saw his error, he conceded the prize with ingenuous modesty, saying that, although he had deceived the birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist. Zeuxis is said also to have painted at a later date a ‘Boy Bearing Grapes,’ and, when, birds flew up to it, with the same directness of mind he confronted the painting in anger, and said: ‘I painted the grapes better than I did the boy, for had I done him as well, the birds would have been scared away.’

This, then, was what I wished to have agreed upon when I said that painting, and in general representational art, produces a product that is far removed from truth in the accomplishments of its task, and associates with the part in us that is remote from intelligence, and is its companion and friend for no true or sound purpose.

Source: Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 35.65-66.


In a dialogue with Glaucon, Plato has Socrates launch a critique of painting along the following lines:

Then representational art is far removed from truth, and this, it seems, is the reason why it can produce everything, because it touches or lays hold of only a small part of the object, and a phantom at that, as for example, a painter, we say, will paint a cobbler, a carpenter and other craftsmen, though he himself has no expertness in any of these arts, but nevertheless if he were a good painter, by exhibiting at a distance his picture of a carpenter he would deceive children and foolish men, and make them believe it to be a real carpenter....

Source: Plato, Republic

Middle and Later Archaic Periods: 600-480 B.C.E. The art of vase painting from 600-480 b.c.e. underwent many important changes, with Attica often leading the way. After the innovations and success of the Corinthians in the seventh century, Attic potters and painters must have felt a need to compete, and answered the challenge with new pot shapes and developments in the “Black figure” style. In contrast to the miniaturism of a lot of early Corinthian pottery increased vase sizes, especially from Attica, allowed more scope for image making and mythic narratives on the neck and body. Incision was used to good effect and female figures were rendered white in contrast to the usual black for males. An early example is from about 610 b.c.e., depicting on the neck a furious Heracles killing the centaur Nessos whose knees buckle under the force of the hero’s attack, while the belly of the vase shows the Gorgons in pursuit of Perseus. The Attic painter’s interest in narrative is attested in the Francois Vase (circa 570 b.c.e.) which was

exported to Etruria in antiquity. This large vase is a volute kratêr used at parties where its images would be seen at eye level by the reclining revellers; it was made by Ergotimos and painted by Kleitias, whose signatures indicate the pride and opportunity for self-advertisement craftsmen took in their work. The vase depicts several myths on different levels such as episodes from the life of Achilles, the hunt for the monstrous Calydonian boar, Hephaestus’ return to Olympus, among others; its central panel depicts the marriage of Achilles’ parents, Peleus and Thetis, attended by the gods in a procession. Interestingly, many figures are labeled, which allows scholars to identify the myths involved. While it is known that contemporary poets such as Stesichorus and Alcaeus dealt with some episodes that appear on the vase, it is not certain that the vase alludes to these specific poems; its makers may have known the stories from a common tradition that became manifested independently in art and literature.

Regional Variations. By the mid-sixth century other regions such as Lakonia produced their own competent versions of Black figure painting for export. As well, Caere in central Italy had a distinct figural style at this time, using polychromy and white for male figures; a hudria (water jug) found in Etruria, dated to circa 550 b.c.e., injects humor into pictorial narrative by showing Heracles’ overlord Eurystheus cowering in a bronze jar as the hero brings back the three-headed dog of the underworld, Cerberus—the last of his labors ordered by the king. Attica had many fine exponents of the black figure technique around 550-520 b.c.e., including the Amasis Painter (so-called because he painted for

a potter of that name) and Exekias, who both painted large amphorae with figures to match. The Amasis Painter is noted for depicting the wine god Dionysos with his followers, the satyrs and maenads, on wine pourers used at a drinking party, or symposium. Often there is meticulous attention paid to details of dress and musculature in these convivial, generic scenes. Well-known examples of Exekias’ works depict heroic themes such as Achilles’ killing of Penthesileia or the Suicide of Ajax (circa 540-530 b.c.e.). In the former, Exekias uses a complex composition involving an overlap of figures that emphasizes Achilles’ superiority over the crouching Amazon. The two were said to have fallen in love at this rather inconvenient point, and Exekias seems to imply this in the rendering of each character’s eye. His Ajax similarly has an element of pathos about him as he prepares to throw himself on his sword after losing to Odysseus in the contest for the dead Achilles’ arms, and attempting to kill the Greeks during a fit of madness afterwards. Exekias brings out well the hero’s isolation; his crouching posture is rendered in full profile against a stark background balanced by a wilting tree and an almost ghostly set of armor. One can even detect something of his inner torment by the incised lines on his forehead and cheeks. Unlike others who had depicted the hero already impaled on his sword, Exekias chooses the moment immediately prior, and movingly presents Ajax’s plight, as Sophocles was to do in a tragedy on the same theme in the next century.

Red Figure. By about 520 b.c.e., “Red figure” vases begin to appear in Attica, where the technique was pioneered by painting the background black so the figures would be of the same color as the unpainted vase. Thus, the painter was no longer restricted to incision for details as had often been the case with Black figure. Now there were new pictorial methods at hand, such as a choice of brushes of varying thicknesses for depicting contour and relief lines

of the human body; different colors and washes could be used over the figures; effects of shading by color gradation could also be attempted; overlapping figures could be rendered more economically. It is possible that some of these techniques were influenced by large-scale frescoes of the time, but unfortunately these have not survived. Black figure continued to be used into the fifth century on, for instance, amphorae commemorating victories at the Panathenaic Games; and many early examples of Red Figure appear on so-called “bilingual vases” which had black and red figure designs of the same image. An amphora by the Andocides Painter of Attica (circa 520 b.c.e.) shows Achilles and Ajax playing a board game, rendered in both methods. Red figure soon became the favored medium of pot painters, and by the late sixth century more vivid images of the human body were being produced. For instance, the image of Heracles wrestling the giant Antaeus on an Attic kalyx kratêr of circa 510 b.c.e. by Euphronius includes detailed anatomical musculature and some shading on the giant’s belly. His rival, Euthymides, deftly depicted three revellers (or symposiasts) dancing in a variety of poses on an Attic amphora of circa 510-500 b.c.e.; here he employed the three-quarter view, most notably on the central figure whose back is seen in mid-turn. Evidently proud of his achievement, Euthymides wrote down the side of this image: “As Euphronius never did.” While images of myth are found on Red figure vases by, for instance, the Kleophrades painter (active circa 490-470 b.c.e.), or Douris (active circa 490-480 b.c.e.), several scenes depicting symposia are found, as might be expected from such pottery which would be used in such an environment; Dionysus and his entourage are also widely depicted. On one Attic amphora by the Berlin painter, dated circa 490, there is an image of Hermes, a satyr and a fawn, done

against a black background with minimal decoration; the striking setting and the expert overlapping of the figures, with its economy of outline, indicate new possibilities opened up by the red figure technique.

Early and High Classical Periods: 480-400 B.C.E. Although there are no surviving examples, major advances in large-scale painting, such as skiagraphia (shading), are known to have occurred in the fifth century. This practice was pioneered by Apollodorus by the 420s, and developed by Zeuxis, Parrhasius, and others who seem to have rendered their figures more naturalistically and with a greater “deceptive” realism than before. Prior to this time, Polygnotus had achieved fame with his frescoes, which decorated public buildings such as the Stoa Poikile in Athens and the Cnidian clubhouse in Delphi. Pausanias’ description of the works at Delphi in which characters are often depicted on various levels in contemplative poses suggests that Polygnotus’ style had something in common with that of the Niobid Painter, whose kalyx kratêr of circa 460 may copy a large-scale fresco. Pottery painting from 480-400 built on the technical innovations of the late sixth century, and at times shares some features with idealising forms of sculpture (and maybe Polygnotus’ painting style) in depicting characters such as Achilles on the amphora by the Achilles painter (circa 440). One should note here the contrapposto pose of both Herakles (on the Niobid Painter’s vase) and Achilles. The white-ground lekuthos, sometimes featuring polychrome decoration, became a popular funeral offering by circa 450 b.c.e. Many of its themes lent themselves well to the solemnity and dignity of much high classical Greek art, such as scenes of a warrior’s departure on an amphora attributed to the Achilles painter of about 440. Fewer mythological scenes are known from this period (though many may be lost); but notable is the appearance of more decorative scenes such as those by the Meidias painter that emerge later in the century with soft figures in ornate drapery often gesturing delicately, as on a hudria of circa 410 b.c.e. Some see in such florid images a form of escapism, as Athens’ defeat in the Second Peloponnesian War loomed ever closer, but the style was to continue after Athens had recovered to some extent in the next century.

Later Classical Period: 400-323 B.C.E. During the fourth century, painting is held to have reached it highest stage with greater techniques in particular of shading for more convincing illusionistic effects. Certain philosophers, such as Plato, were at times suspicious of such deceptive illusionism, which supposedly played tricks on the senses. However, many famous artists enjoyed success and some friendly rivalry during the fourth century in which advances in technical virtuosity were self-consciously displayed by competing painters such as Apelles and Protogenes. A recently discovered royal tomb at Vergina has yielded rich finds including much gold metalwork in the form of caskets and wreaths, iron and gold armor, and elaborate frescoes of mythological and hunting scenes. Some scholars claim this is the tomb of Philip II of Macedon who died in 336 b.c.e., while others date it towards the end of the century. One of the tombs contains a painting of Hades, god of the Underworld, carrying Persephone off to his domain. Here a variety of colors, applied with swift, confident strokes was employed to depict this frenetic scene, in a flamboyant fashion emphasized by the hand gestures, flowing hair and drapery, and emotive facial expressions of the two figures. The general loss of large-scale painting from this era makes it difficult to understand its style satisfactorily, but something of fourth-century figured style can be gleaned from these sorts of frescoes (which may echo the style of Scopas) as well as surviving pottery and some brilliantly colored mosaics. In a hunt-scene mosaic, framed by elaborate vegetal decoration from the Macedonian capital, Pella, the figures are rendered frontally and in three-quarter view; the musculature of animals and men is well-highlighted by gradations of colour in the stones that are more closely packed than earlier for subtle effects. Many fourth-century pots continued the decorative style of the Meidias painter of the late fifth century, and often involved crowded scenes with figures gilded and painted in white, red, or yellow. In southern Italy scenes from Greek drama become popular. Images on coins continued fifth-century trends in a naturalistic direction, although Athens was not even in a position to mint silver until 393 b.c.e. Developments are evident in more minute attention to details, such as in the image of Zeus from Elis in the fourth century b.c.e.


William R. Biers, The Archaeology of Greece: An Introduction (Ithaca, N.Y. & London: Cornell University Press, 1996).

John Boardman, Greek Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 1996).

Jeffrey M. Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece: 1100-480 B.C.. (Ithaca, N.Y. & London: Cornell University Press, 1985).

Nigel Spivey, Greek Art (London: Phaidon, 1997).

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