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Vessels and Visuals of the Ancient Greeks



Rob Hardy


Chances are if you have ever bought an edition of an ancient Greek text, like the Odyssey, the cover had a picture of heroes on it taken from a Greek vase, with figures in the familiar outline style in flat red and black. These paintings are the way we visualize an entire and influential culture. If you want a primer to help you take a more educated look at these vases, here is The Greek Vase: Art of the Storyteller (J. Paul Getty Museum) by John H. Oakley. The author is a professor of classical studies and has written before on specialized aspects of the vases. Here, however, he presents a beautifully illustrated book of large format, written as an introduction for those of us who know little about his area of expertise. Readers are guaranteed to know lots more after studying these illustrations and the descriptive texts and explanations which accompany them. The vases are mostly from the Getty Museum and the British Museum, and Oakley has examined the objects not just as canvasses for the pictures, but also their shapes and functions within Greek homes and society. He then examines what the paintings can tell us about ancient Greek divinities, heroes, and daily life. 




Do you have good china and everyday china? The Greeks had a version of this. Their fired clay pots could be divided into the coarse and the fine ware. Course pots were tools for preparing, cooking, and storing food. They were generally undecorated. The finer ware, however, had decorations, ranging from a plain glossy covering to geometric patterns to complicated scenes involving many figures. Naturally, these are the vessels depicted here. The decoration was for show, and the show was because the vessels did more than just hold wine or food. Some were used for the ritual drinking of wine, or in the drinking parties known as symposia, or in feasts like those for weddings, or as votive or funerary gifts. A review of the shapes of the vessels here includes the krater, which looks like an urn for a potted flower. The large, open-mouthed vessel was used in the symposium for mixing water with the wine, which was seldom drunk straight. If you are familiar with the sedate question-and-answer forum of Plato's Symposium, some of the depictions here are more lively. Naturally, symposium ware would be decorated with pictures of men at a symposium (just as wedding vessels would picture marriages and trophy vessels would picture athletic contests), and one of the pictures here shows a big drinking cup with an inebriated reveller demonstrating how he can take a drink while balanced naked on his left hand and right foot.  




Athens was a center for this sort of decorated ware, and much of the pieces shown here, if the provenance is known, came from there. Evidence from the wares shows that there were not central factories making the vessels, but that there were many small workshops. There may not have been anything like mass production, but sometimes one painter would paint the same scene repeatedly on the same type of vessel, and then all the vessels of that batch would be fired together as near replicas. Sometimes the painters can be identified, as can their appearance at one workshop and then another. They took a pride in their work and in pushing themselves, sometimes bragging on a vessel itself that another named painter could never have managed work of such excellence. It was a good business for many; there are dedications, for instance, on the Acropolis made by prosperous potters. Sometimes the potters showed themselves at work, so we have evidence of how the craft was run. It is interesting that no one really knows who picked the theme or images for the pots; perhaps it was the painter, or perhaps the painter was commissioned to show a specific person, scene, or story. It's a good guess that the fancier and unique images were commissioned and the ones that can be found in profusion were stock items. 




One chapter here is devoted to pictures of gods and goddesses in the strange Greek pantheon. It isn't always easy to tell if a figure is an immortal or just an earthly person, because the Greek deities dressed the same way that mortals did, and they busied themselves with the same sorts of striving and naughtiness. It is helpful if a name is inscribed near a figure, but relatively few vases have words on them. The painters seldom showed human childbirth, but the births of divinities (who had births, childhoods, and subsequent adulthoods) were a frequent theme. This was especially true if the birth was extraordinary, like Athena born as an adult from the head of Zeus. Showing male gods during their boyhoods was common, but females like Athena are not shown as girls, probably as a reflection of the lowly status of female children. Certainly the vases show Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon and others pursuing their love interests, but the most frequently depicted pursuer is female, Eos, the goddess of the dawn, often shown going after a hunting boy. Of all the deities, the most frequently depicted is Dionysos, the god of wine; it wasn't that he was the most important of the gods, but he happened to be a good theme for drinking vessels.  




Apart from deities, many vases showed the adventures of superheroes, such as Herakles and his twelve labors or Theseus slaying the Minotaur. There are many depictions of Menelaos, Hector, Achilles, and Odysseus during the Trojan war and afterwards. For us, the most famous image of the Trojan War is the Trojan Horse craftily given as seeming tribute to the Trojans but actually containing Greek warriors within it. The Trojan Horse is seldom depicted on the vases, however. The actions of the soldiers once they emerged from it, including murders and rapes, were often shown. 




Oakley's final chapters have to do with illustrations not of gods or heroes but of ordinary people. There are charming pictures of an infant learning to walk, or a baby in a potty stool, for instance, and a trio of youths playing with animal knucklebones as our children play with marbles. Men in an olive orchard beat the upper branches of the trees to bring down the fruits, as they do now. Women might be shown making music or dancing, but wifely chores were generally not shown, even on vessels that were for domestic duties. Oakley writes, "It seems as though domestic labour was not a topic that was deemed socially, politically or culturally relevant for decorating vases; and perhaps the vase-painters' clients did not want to be reminded of the hard work involved in these chores." There are intimate pictures of couples or groups making love, often rendered with surprising delicacy and feeling of the moment. A picture of comic actors shows that they not only wore exaggerated masks, but wore large phalluses as part of the fun. In the more realistic scenes of intimacy between men and women, however, the erections are small, reflecting the Greek ideal, opposite to our own, that smaller is better.  




The Greek Vase will serve as an attractive coffee-table book full of illustrations that would be fun just to leaf through. The text, however, and the useful categorization of the types of pictures allow readers to appreciate the artwork anew. It is always good to be reminded how strange were the ways of people in different times and different places, and also how much like ourselves they were.



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