Ancient Greek Pottery Perhaps of all the arts that flourished in antiquity, ceramic art has the longest continuous history. And this may well be accounted for by the fact that it was utilitarian, for even in those periods when other arts had declined, people still needed pottery to collect and store their oil, grain, water, and wine. Thus, whereas certain forms of art disappear for periods at a time to reappear in an other form or style, the ceramic art appears in all periods from the time it made its first appearance in Greek lands in the 6th Millennium B.
C. Moreover, clay, the material which was used in the manufacture of pottery, from the moment it was kilned became almost indestructible, even when the pot was shattered, something which could not happen with other materials such as wood, textiles, and so on. As a result, whereas there are gaps in our knowledge of other arts, and we must turn to related sources to fill these gaps, this is not the case with pottery, the evolution of which can be traced without interruption from the Neolithic age to the end of the ancient Greek world.
In this long period of development of Greek ceramics, the shapes of the vases may have altered, or may have become more finished and may have been better adapted to the end of which they were made, but they never ceased to be utilitarian for their purpose was, with few exceptions, to serve the daily needs of man. Most pottery was decorated and each period had its individual style of decorations. One always notes a continuous effort to adjust the ornamentation to the shape of the pot.Order now
The themes or subjects used also changed from period to period, and in these changes there are certain preferences for the one or other subject by which means we can not only differentiate the esthetic criteria but even the historical changes in the manner of thought itself. It is not fortuitous, for example, that in the period when one of the most characteristic of maxims ‘Man is the measure of all things’ was in vogue, the Greek vases almost exclusively used the human figure for decorative purposes. The appearance of pure Greek ceramic art is chronoogically placed in the 11th century, somewhere round about 1050 BC.
The 12th C. was a period of great upheavals and readjustment in all Greek lands, but also in the entire Eastern Mediterranean basin. In Greece itself, along with the destruction of Mycenaean civilization , there perished many of the arts that had reached their peak. The only artifacts, or almost the only remnants to survive of this great civilization were the pottery and potsherds. In examining the ceramic artifacts of the period which followed the destruction of Mycenaean civilization one can see that this destruction, although of major proportions, was not total.
In the 11th Century there begins to appear a new type of decoration which initially retained many features of late Mycenaean art, the main characteristic being geometric designs. It is on this account that the pottery which is decorated in this manner is known as Geometric. Since most finds of this period consisted of pottery, the comparatively long range of time up to about 700 BC has been named the Geometric period. Geometric art, as all arts, went through various stages of development until attainting its peak in the 8th Century.
That which distinguishes it most is the remarkable blend and harmony of shape and decoration. Whereas in the Mycenaean period pottery was decorated as a whole and a single motif covered the entire area, either in the form of flowers or sea life, octopi, and so on, now the surface of the pot was separated into parallel bands of geometric patterns. In the early geometric period, the vase was painted with dark veneer, black or brown and only one or two bands remaining uncolored, over which the decoration extends.
Gradually, these light-coloured bands began to expand into wider bands covering a broader area of the pot thus giving it a lighter tone. The bands contained a great variety of geometric motifs, triangles, lozenges, semicircles and, beginning in the 9th Century, the most characteristic, the meander or Greek key which with several variations repeated rhythmically encircled the vase, with the tendency not to leave any part of the surface unornamented. The bands are shrunken in the narrow parts of the pot, and become broader round the belly with larger patterns, and then to diminish again in width as they get closer to the neck.
In this way, the curves of the pot are emphasized by the bands with the geometric figures which ornament and encircle them. The first figures of humans and animals begin to appear in the middle of the 9th Century, but always stylized. Some of the bands which formerly contained geometrical patterns were in some cases replaced by a series of animals, deer and other motifs. These were also stylized and convey the feeling of movement along the length of the band. The geometric pot was often used as a funerary marker. Thus we find that from the age in which human figures appear we also find funeral scenes.
Gradually the subjects are enriched with various scenes involving a number of persons, battles, naval engagements, hunting scenes, and so on, which become more important in time. And so we find already in the Geometric period those elements which would eventually become the characteristic features of Greek art and the whole of Greek civilization, that is, anthropomorphism. During the Geometric period, pottery was made in all parts of Greece and we observe more or less a similar style of decoration and the same evolution with understandably slight variations in the various areas.
In the entire course of this period, Attica was one of the most important centres for pottery manufacture and we can safely say that Geometric ceramic art was basically of Attican origin. Although the Geometric period is no longer considered an obscure age, or the ‘Greek Dark Ages’, as it was formerly known, it was nevertheless a period in which, although Greece was not completely isolated from the civilized world, there was less intercourse with the countries of the East and Egypt than had previously existed in the Mycenaean and even earlier yet in the Minoan period.
But beginning in the 8th Century, with the growth and expansion of shipping, there began a very vigorous trade activity and closer communication with the Orient which naturally would influence Greek art drastically. This influence was very apparent in pottery decoration, especially beginning in the early 7th Century BC. Even if we had no evidence except pottery, we could detect the strong orientalizing influence on the potters and painters of Greece. Thus the style of this period which followed the Geometric is known as the ‘orientalizing’ period.
The Greek city that played a dominant role in commerce from the close of the 8th Century was Corinth. Her geographical position between two seas was destined to make the city a great maritime and trade centre. And understandably therefore Corinth was among the first cities to receive the influence of orientalizing art. We thus observe that the art of pottery changes completely. The geometric motifs are replaced by an ‘animal style’ with a repertory of lions, griffins, sphinxes, oriental beasts both imaginary and real.
The two original colours of the geometric pots were replaced by many colours. And with this change one also sees a tendency for miniature decorations. In the early stages, the arrangements of decorations on the vases had not altered, the motifs only changing. The pot continued to be divided into horizontal bands as in the Geometric period, but rather than containing geometric patterns, these bands were adorned with a series of various animals, lions, griffons, and so on. The area between the bands was decorated with various depictions.
At the same time, the technique of heavy engraved lines for the outlines and the details was used in such a way that often Corinthian pottery conveyed the impression that the artisans who painted the figures used as a model embroideries and the metal techniques of the East, two arts which appear to have deeply influenced Corinthian pottery painters. Then follows a period where the bands become broader and less numerous until finally the entire pot is covered by a single representation.
Parallel to this style of decoration there coexisted yet another with the human figure as the central theme and the narrative scenes produced with the technique of the miniature. One of the most beautiful Corinthian vases of this type is the ‘Ghigi’ oinochoe of the villa Giulia in Rome. Until the middle of the 6th Century B. C. , Corinth was the principle centre both in the production and the export of pottery, pots that were mainly manufactured for the exportation of the famous Corinthian perfumes.
In the same period, of course, there were workshops in many other cities, but they more or less retained their local features. But already by the beginning of the 6th Century, Corinth’s supremacy in this sector was seriously challenged by Athens which gradually overshadowed Corinth. Soon the workshops of the latter city ceased operating to be replaced by the workshops of Athens. In Attica the evolution of the ceramic industry was significantly different from that of Corinth. Although Attica too had undergone the influences of Eastern techniques, in the sector of ceramics there was a longer continuation of the geometric tradition.
The monumental nature of the funerary vases of the Geometric metric period was not abandoned unlike the Corinthian potters who made pots basically of smaller size. But perhaps the main feature of the Attic potters was that they used as principal decorative themes for their pots the human figure, thus continuing a tradition which had its roots in the Geometric period . These two features of Proto-Attic pottery, the monumental nature and the tendency for narrative composition, led the vase painters to a technique quite different from that used by the Corinthians in the decorative program of their small-size pots.
The Athenians had to find other solutions to cover the extensive areas of their pots and thus began outline techniques. Later they were to borrow from the Corinthians the techniques of incision for the emphasis of details, white colour to cover the flesh parts of the human body and finally to begin gradually to use the black figure technique which would eventually dominate in Attican pottery of the Archaic period. One of the most characteristic Attican works of the early 7th Century is the hydria of Analatus.
The 7th Century for Attic ceramic art is an age of trial and experimentation. In the latter thirty years of that century, all these elements and the influences had been absorbed and the black figure style which had been invented by the Corinthian pottery painters for the decorative program of the small pots soon dominated Attic ceramic art from 625 to 525 BC. One of the most characteristic works of this period is an amphora uncovered in a grave in the heart of Athens.
It is decorated with the black figure technique and portrays Heracles slaying the centaur Nessus *, a work of early black figure pottery which when compared to the hydria of Analatus shows the course of the entire path which the pottery painters of Attica had traversed to reach the masterpieces of the succeeding period. At the end of the 7th Century, Athens suffered a serious economic and political crisis. which resulted in the ceramic industry, in a disappearance of monumental or large pottery.
But with the beneficial legislation of Solon, the economic and political situation was restored and there is observed in the ceramic arts a new flowering. The Attic workshops began to become a serious rival to the Corinthian industry, and gradually the export trade in pottery, which had been more or less the exclusive monopoly of Corinth for about one and half centuries, passed into Athenian hands. For a few more years Athens continued to imitate the Corinthian style of pottery to be able to compete with Corinthian export trade.
But by the middle of the 6th Century, the roles had been reversed. Round about 580 BC, a new period begins in Attic pottery painting which ceases to be a decorative art and becomes a narrative and representative art. Two basic cycles of themes dominated until the middle of the 4th Century which were expressed first in the black figure vases until 530-525 after which there came the red figure vases. The one drew its subject matter from mythology, the deeds of gods and eroes, and the latter from the everyday life of man. This second cycle is for us the most valuable source of information for all aspects of the daily life of the ancient Greeks. From the pottery we learn their eating habits, how they drank, and how they entertained themselves, how the women worked the loom or gathered water from the fountain and what kinds of vases they used for this, what musical instruments they possessed, and even how they produced the pottery itself and what they used it for.
Thus, in addition to their fine artistic value, the vases provide us with a unique source of knowledge, in the fact that they preserved for us in a lively and expressive manner, nearly all aspects of life in ancient Greece. One of the earliest examples of this art is a fragment of a ‘leges’ made by the first painter whose name has been preserved, one Sophilos, who signs his work very proudly with the legend ‘Sophilos painted me’ making the pot speak during the same period that the sculptors began to carve their names on statues.
On this fragment is depicted for the first time in Attica a mythical scene involving many figures, the ‘feats of Patroclus’ as the inscription informs us, which represents a chariot race and the spectators who watch from a stand as they gesticulate in a lively manner. The work of Sophilos, so full of movement, although not technically perfect, was followed by that of another great painter by name Klitias. His work, the famous ‘Vase FranUois’ which is today in Florence, is one of the masterpieces of the technique of this period .
It was signed by both the potter and the artist, ‘Ergotinos made me, Klitias painted me’. Klitias, like Sophilos, takes his themes from the Homeric epics. His work, however, is stamped by both technical perfection and remarkable narrative power and movement. Klitias is perhaps the greatest of vase painters of mythological scenes involving numerous figures, combining as he does an inspired narrative composition with an exquisite style of miniature drawing.
Klitias was followed by a generation of talented pottery painters of whom Nearchos stands out for his fine technique in portraying minute details, but specially for his majestic and restrained dramatic scenes which distinguish his work, combined, one could say, with a ‘classical’ simplicity. From the middle of the 6th Century until 530-525 BC two artists stand out who represent the two tendencies of pottery painting in this period, the ‘painter of Amasis’ and Exekias. Exekias who signs his work both as the potter and painter continues the tradition of Nearchos.
His pottery is distinguished by grand and restrained dramatic action, a striking balance and harmony, and a naturalness of movement. The works of the ‘painter of Amasis’ do not possess the dramatic tension and the simplicity of the works of Exekias, nevertheless, they are full of life and movement with pleasant scenes often inspired by everyday events. With Exekias, the black figure style attains a perfection which almost surpasses the possible limits of expression in this technique.
The possibilities for expression in the black figure style were however limited. But round about 530-525 BC the Athenian pottery makers found an answer by inventing a new technique which, however revolutionary it may have been in its period, was nothing more nor less than the reversal of the black figure style. In other words, they ceased painting their figures in black in an attempt to convey the details and expressions by a process of incision, and now painted the entire vase, leaving the vegetal colour of the pot uncovered in those areas which would receive the composition.
This was the so-called red figure vase. The black figure style continued to be produced for a brief period after the invention of the red figure technique, until about 480 BC. But it was to continue appearing until the end of the 4th Century, especially in a certain type of pottery, the so-called Panathenaic amphora which was filled with oil from the sacred olive trees, the so-called ‘moriae’, and presented to the winners of the Panathenian games. They were decorated on one side with a portrait of Athena and on the other with a composition depicting the contest in which the victor participated. p. 217] The introduction of the red figure style which in all probability was made by the ‘painter of Andocides’, an artist of the Kerameikos, that is, the quarter of Athens where the potters lived, opened new possibilities in the ceramic arts. The artist now had the means by using the brush to convey movement with greater freedom and naturalness, as well as a more detailed anatomy of the human figure, the folds of the garments, and particularly the expressions of the face.
The conventions, however, of Archaic pottery making which existed in the black figure style would endure until the end of the Archaic period round about 480 BC. In this span of fifty years from 530/525 to 480 BC pottery making combined the new technique which allowed for greater freedom of movement with many of the traditional conventions. This period was known as that of the austere style. The faces are still portrayed in profile with the eye always en face. But the portrayal of the eye was to undergo an important change.
This was gradually depicted in the shape of roughly a triangle towards the temples with a curve in the direction of the nose, whereas the pupil begins to move about, thus conveying expression. Until about 500 BC, incision was used often for high-lighting the outlines of the hair. The inscriptions continue to be numerous as in the black figure style, but the names of the figures represented become very rare, except in certain types of pot which portrayed handsome young men of the aristocracy of Athens usually with the name inscribed together with the descriptive ‘beautiful’.
This period of the austere style, the most beautiful of Attic ceramic art, has such a large number of distinguished painters that it is difficult to single out any particular one. Soon after the innovation of the red figure technique, there appeared a galaxy of outstanding painters who often, such as the ‘artist of Andocides’, used the black figure technique simultaneously with the red figure style. Psiax is outstanding, and he portrays the details of the folds with much grace.
Then there is Oltos and Epiktetos who signs his name to his works both as the potter and the painter, and who succeeds in conveying a remarkable liveliness to his subject using a pure and simple plan. He draws his themes chiefly from everyday life, scenes from the palaestra and symposia. But by far the most outstanding artist of the red figure style in the latter years of the 6th Century was undoubtedly the well-known painter Euphronios round whose name such a stir was caused recently when the Metropolitan Museum of New York acquired one of his works, the remarkable calyx crater depicting the death of Sarpedon, king of Lycia.
Euphronios had signed vases both as the potter and the painter, and worked mainly on large vases. In contrast with Epiktetos, Euphronios drew his themes mainly from mythology. The presentation of the human anatomy was so advanced that often we have the impression that we are regarding anatomical charts, as for example, in the case of the figure of Heracles and Antaeus on the face of the calyx crater of the Louvre. This striving for the perfect portrayal of the human proportions is also encountered at this time n the sculptures. Figures fill the area of the vase and are portrayed with great expressiveness and power. The mythological scenes are conveyed with power and majesty, but the portrayals of handsome youth are made with particular grace. Another contemporary of Euphronios was Euthymides, who also gives a monumental character to his heroes. The well exercised male torsos have fewer anatomical details than those of the compositions of Euphronios, but he seeks new ways to portray the human figure and to fill in the space.
The ‘Kleophrades’ painter, besides possessing a powerful planning and conveyance of movement and vigorous elasticity to the human body which characterize his work, adds also a new element, expression of the inner world. In addition to these pottery painters there is a series of other great artists each of whom in his own particular style animated the vases with their portrayals, such as the ‘Berlin master’, the ‘Brygos painter’, Myson, Panaitios, Makron who was the painter of the potter Hieron, Daris, Onesimos, and others. After the Persian wars, in 480 BC, certain significant changes in the potter’s art occurred.
Movement was now much freer, the features were conveyed with greater realism, and so on, the eye ceased to be portrayed in its entirety en face with the face in profile, the figure moved in the space available with greater ease and naturalness. The subject matter also changes considerably, for the world of the woman assumes a more prominent part of the repertory. Certain painters would retain some of the traditional elements of the austere style without the later conventions of Archaic art which disappear completely after 480 BC.
But their lines and planning no longer possessed the power and purity of the artists of the previous period. The ‘Pan master’ is the most endowed of the artists of this period and technique. His works are airy and possess elegance and great sensitivity. But besides those painters who somehow retained the tradition of the artists of the austere period, there was another group of pottery painters deeply influenced by the great painters of the time, particularly Polygnotos of Thasos whose works we know from various ancient written sources and from the reflections of his style in pottery painting. A typical example of this influence is the calyx crater of the ‘Niobid master’ in the Louvre which depicts Apollo and Artemis on the one side slaying the Niobids and on the other an assembly of heroes with Athena. The figures now move in space on different levels, and the bodies have different postures with expressive faces full of passion. Another artist, one of the most important of the period of the early Classical style is the ‘Penthesileia master’.
In his works one also detects the influence of Polygnotan painting, but not to the extent as that observed in the ‘Niobid master’. After 450 and until 425 BC base painting passes into a new phase in the period of mature Classicism when Athens was governed by Pericles, when the Parthenon was built, and the influence of Phidian sculptures deeply affected vase painting. The painting of this period is characterized by an ease of style, grace and elegance of pattern.
In this period in which sculpture and monumental painting attracted the artists, there are encountered less of the brilliant vase painters of the austere red figure style. Rarely does the vase painter sign his work, and this accounts for the totally conventional names used for their products. Nevertheless, some highly distinguished pot painters stand out, among whom are the ‘Achilles master’ who appears to have been deeply influenced by the classical tranquillity of the Phidian works, and possibly his pupil, the ‘Phiale master’, who is distinguished for the fineness, the grace, and animation of his works.
The ‘white Lekythos’ . The white Lekythos was a small one-handled jug with a narrow neck and deep mouth for unguents which was placed on the graves of the dead . This custom was basically Athenian, since there exist only a very few examples of Lekythoi in the export trade. But in Athens its use was very wide especially in the second half of the 5th Century. The white lekythoi are a unique type of vase, rather scarce, and were a luxury item which survived after 450.
The technique was entirely different from that used in other pottery and resembles more the technique of monumental painting. The entire main body of the vase was covered with a white coating on which were painted the scenes in rich varied colours. The repertory included scenes from the life of the dead, or a visit to a dear friend in his country, or the dead person before the graves with his kin, or is even given as a votive offering to the dead. Such representations of offerings are often found on the white lekythoi votaries.
The restrained sorrow of the faces expresses the attitude towards death which the ancient Greeks of the Classical period had and which is also encountered in the funerary reliefs of the same period. The white lekythoi with the softness of line and harmony of colours are among the most beautiful examples of Attic vase painting of the second half of the 5th Century, and are an exception to the decline of Attic vase painting which becomes progressively more obvious. This decline was due to two basic causes, one of which was purely economic.
For nearly two centuries Athens had supplied the populous centres of the West, but began losing the markets wherever local workshops sprang up. The second cause was the ruinous results of the uncontrolled influence on vase painting by monumental painting. For the first time perhaps the vase was not decorated as an object with a given form and shape determining the decoration and which in previous periods was completely adapted to the shape of the vase, but was treated only as another surface which ‘happened’ to be curved.
If in this brief summary of ancient Greek ceramic art more emphasis was given to the decoration of the vase rather than to its shape and uses, it is because our knowledge of ancient painting which rivals that of Greek sculpture is drawn principally from the various descriptions found in written sources. And thus, with few exceptions, it is only from the pottery itself we can see to which heights ancient Greek painting reached and this but as a reflection of the monumental painting of the Greeks.
Nevertheless, with the exception of the white Lekythoi in which as in monumental painting the colouring plays a major role in the representations along with the design, in Attic pottery both in the black figure and red figure styles the principal role is played by the designs and the plan. Also the contrast between the two colours, the red an the shiny black, plays its part. The vase painters succeeded in obtaining these two colours by a process of oxidation of the clay when firing the pots and not by adding an extra coating to the surface. The manufacturing of the pots was done in the following manner.
First of all the potter centred a lump of clay, which had been properly kneaded, on the potter’s wheel where it was spun and moulded into the desired shape. When the pot was too large to be formed in one operation, it was made in sections and joined later by a wet clay slip. Handles and sometimes the mouth or lip were made separately. When the pot was shaped it was left to dry, and then polished, after which the painter was ready for its decoration. He painted the design by incision, drawing the outlines and details in the period when incision was commonly used.
Thereafter, the entire area to which they wished to give the black shiny tone, was covered with a mixture of clay containing some kind of alkali, or perhaps potash. Then began the most difficult process involving firing of the pot in three stages. The temperature was never greater than 950 degrees C. The appropriate oxidation during the firing gave the red colour to the areas of the pot not covered by the varnish due to the large concentration of iron in Attic clay, and resulted in the black shiny colour in the ‘painted’ areas from the mixture of clay with the alkaline earth.
It was by such a simple process of experimentation in firing that the Greek vases were moulded, those vases and works of art which Pindar so aptly described to be ‘of great variety and beautiful’. Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication. NOTE: illustrations in the original text are not included in this computer document. [Ancient Greek Pottery by Helena Yatra [Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece