How do we read Greek vases?


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Examine closely the vase in the image to the right.

Here are some preliminary questions to consider.

Questions like these will help you learn how to interpret Greek vases.

In order to take your interpretation and analysis to the next level, the following considerations will help.

There are two main ways of thinking about the vase: (1) in terms of its composition (formal analysis); and (2) in terms of the meaning of its images (iconography/iconology).

(1) In the formalist (i.e. relating to ‘form’) approach a vase is studied in terms of its design elements, which include composition (arrangement of parts of or in the work), color, line, texture, scale, proportion, balance, contrast, and rhythm. A typical approach might run like this:

What is the overall design of the vase? [Answer]

A standard two-handled amphora with a narrow base set on a supporting foot, which swells to the handles, running from the upper belly to the neck, and ends with a slightly flared lip.

How does the painting conform to the shape of the vase? [Answer]

If you look closely, you will see that the painter has decorated not only the belly of the vase, but also its handles, and its base. There are three horizontal bands that divide the main visual space of the vase into three distinct parts. Two of the bands help to frame the main image. The upper band consists of a floral frieze.  The lower band consists of an intertwining leaf pattern that reiterates the leaf pattern of the lowest frieze. These two bands create a vertical perspective, drawing the viewer’s attention to the main picture. The vertical element is aided by two vertical bands that frame the left and right borders of the central image. The leaf pattern of these bands reiterates the patterns on the handles that continue the vertical perspective.

How are the central characters positioned a) individually; b) with regard to one another; c) with regard to the vase? [Answer]

The picture consists of three partially-clad figures rendered in three-quarter perspective. The two to left and right face inwards, their backs curving to conform to the shape of the vase. Their left and right legs respectively are raised. The figure on the right has his left hand by his side, his right hand gestures forward and down, mimicking his down turned head position. The figure on the left raises his left hand in salute to the central figure whom he looks at directly. The central figure twists toward his left and looks downward as the figure to his right. In his right hand he holds a staff raised above his head that is angled to match his head position. The positioning and posture of the figures emphasizes the imaginary diagonal lines that run through the handles of the pot to the belly of the vase.

How does the painter render the human body? [Answer]

This pot is famous for its linear delineation of the human anatomy. If you look closely (click on the image) you will see that the artist has taken particular care to emphasize the anatomical elements of the male figures. Notice his use of light lines on the belly and thighs and darker lines to mark off the chest, shoulders, groin, and thighs.

How does the painter render the clothing? [Answer]

The left and right figures have cloaks draped over their arms, leaving their torsos and legs bare. The middle figure’s cloak drapes over his left shoulder. In all three cases the artists has taken special care to delineate the separate folds of the garments which fall in undulating v-patterns.

Based on an analysis of the formal elements, how effective is the painting? [Answer]

Consider issues such as the consistency of design, attention to detail, posture, and the overall rendering of the human figures.

Similar questions can be asked of every part of a painting from facial expressions to the clothing of characters to the way in which objects are depicted. Responses may include adjectives that are as emotive as they are descriptive.

(2) In the iconographical/iconological approach the scholar tries to interpret the meaning of the image in its historical context.

The following questions might be asked:

What does the picture depict? How do various elements of the design aid our analysis? [Answer]

A group of three adult males in a dancing pose, as indicated by their raised feet. The kantharos in the left figure’s hand indicates this is a scene of drinking and frivolity. The arm of the right figure reaches toward the groin of the central figure and may indicate a homoerotic undertone.

What does this painting tell us about everyday life in ancient Athens? [Answer]

This vase painting can tell us about social interactions, gender relations, pastimes, clothing, and hairstyles.

For whom is the vase intended? [Answer]

This is a difficult question. This vase with its scenes of revelry and its use for wine storage suggests that it was bought to use for entertaining purposes. The high style of art implies that the person who purchased the vase was of higher socio-economic status. Men typically were the primary purchasers of Greek vases, and the male-only images on this vase would have appealed to a male rather than female audience.

Are there other examples of vases of this type? [Answer]

Yes. Use Reed’s Classics database to find other vases of this type [try typing in ‘red figure’, ‘revelry’, ‘symposium’, ‘drinking’, ‘amphora’]

How is this vase similar/different from other vases of this type? [Answer]

Use the methods of analysis on this page to compare and contrast other vases of this type in Reed’s Classics database.

Who is the artist? [Answer]

Euthymides (fl. 515-500 BCE) of Athens.

How does knowing the painter and his dates help to understand the historical context of the vase? [Answer]

This is another very difficult question. The date of the vase’s production (c. 515-500) coincided with the expulsion of Athens’ only tyrants (the Peisistratids) and the development of Athens’ direct democracy under Cleisthenes.  One could read this vase in different ways. The painting may, for example, have appealed to the aristocratic families at Athens who had lost power under the Peisistratids; or the vase may represent a new spirit of freedom in the now democratic Athens. To answer the question fully we would need to look at the vase in the context of other archaeological artifacts and the sources for this period in Athenian history.

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