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Artscolumbia / Applied arts  / Ceramics  / Vase painters were only interested in glorifying war

Vase painters were only interested in glorifying war

Although it is true that the Greeks perceived war as a glorious display of heroism and a just way to settle disputes and face the enemy, the extent to which vase painters glorified the subject matter is debateable. As well as displaying the valour of many heroic figures in battle, many vase paintings display the horror and suffering associated with war; of the effect it has on wives, children, mothers and fathers, and friends.

The Sophilos Dinos depicts ‘The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis’ (580 BC); a joyous wedding procession, yet with an air of foreboding of war – it is here where Hera, Athena and Aphrodite will argue as to who is the most beautiful, setting up the judgement of Paris and the Trojan War. Sophilos arranges these goddesses as far away from each other as possible at the centres of three of the four main viewpoints of the dinos. Perhaps Sophilos was highlighting how a war can be triggered by the slightest and seemingly harmless decision, and how so many people can be killed due to three bickering goddesses. Eileithuia, goddess of childbirth and Kheiron the wise centaur remind viewers of Achilles’ birth; also leading to Trojan War, yet the three separated goddesses also remind us of Achilles’ fate, and the presumably exultant Priam shows a pathetic contrast to Priam at the end of the Iliad, disparaging the tragic effect of war. However the procession is illustrated as a particularly grand one; many gods and goddesses are lined up (labelled by Sophilos to enforce their prominence) ready to be received by Priam, all for the wedding and inevitable birth of the great hero Achilles, who, despite reminding us of the tragedies of war, will epitomise the glory of war.

Kleitias’ ‘Francois Vase’ (570 BC) depicts the Calydonian Boar Hunt; when a huge boar was sent by Artemis to ravage Calydon, because Calydon had not made appropriate sacrifices to her. Important people involved in this were Peleus (who later married Thetis and had Achilles), Meleager and Atalanta; not a story of war but of divine vengeance – although it elevates the heroism of Peleus who will be the father of the hero of the battle of Troy. On the next f+rieze he depicts the chariot race which was part of the funeral games in honour of Patroklos, displaying the terrible effects of war and the death and suffering associated with it, namely the suffering of Achilles, but also everyone taking part in Patroklus’ honour. The horses are majestically large and evenly spread across the frieze to display the magnificence of his funeral and in turn the grief and suffering that must have been associated with it. However, there is also foreboding of the inevitable fact that Achilles will avenge his death and kill Hektor, glorifying the bravery and loyalty of going to battle to avenge the death of a friend.

On the other side of the Francois Vase, there is a fight between the Lapiths and Centaurs. At the wedding of King Peirithous (a Lapith), to Hippodamia, the centaurs became drunk and either one (Eurytion) or more of them attempted to rape the Lapith women. The Centaurs were viewed as particularly barbaric by the Greeks, and in the ensuing battle the Centaurs were routed; extolling the way in which war can be the heroic solution to a problem. The next frieze is Achilles’ pursuit of Troilus; when Achilles learned the prophecy that Troy could not fall if Pram’s son were to reach the age of 20, he resolved to kill the boy and ultimately slayed him on Apollo’s sanctuary, thus the sanctity of his shrine was violated and Apollo wanted revenge. There is a pathetic contrast to the horrors of war to the left of the scene where a girl is shown drawing water from the fountain; the mundane scene is juxtaposed to the death and destruction that will come to Troilus and eventually Troy. Although what is left of the painting of Achilles shows his heroic leap to overtake Troilus and his mother, Hermes and Athene are there behind to support him, Troilus’ tense facial expression and arched back show the immense fear he is feeling despite going at such a fast speed (shown by his hair blowing back in the wind). A hydria is dropped by his sister Polyxena, again reminding the viewer of a time of peace when there was no trouble collecting water. Priam is also shown to be crushed by sorrow as he prepares to mourn for his son, and extremely pathetic image that does not seem to glorify war.

On the handle of the same vase, Ajax is depicted as struggling to carry the dead Achilles, the huge body of Achilles nearly touching the ground on either side to represent the greatness of the fallen hero, and how poignant it is that his life had to be shortened at its prime. His lifeless and detailed hair is paralleled by his dangling lifeless fingers; particularly pathetic seeing as these hands were the ‘man-slaying hands of Achilleus’ in the Iliad. Ajax’s compositional stability indicated by his limbs being extended or bent at right angles gives his figure an air of solemnity, and his serious wide eye is contrasted to the unseeing eye of Achilles, all contributing to the shock and tragedy of the great hero’s death. Although the size of his body and the fact that he did die a glorious death may glorify war in some aspects, the horror of seeing his body lifeless does not seem to praise war so much as it reduces its glory.

Exekias’ black figure vase ‘Ajax and Achilles playing a Game’ (540 – 530 BC) illustrates a scene presumably made up by Exekias. It is from the Trojan War, and again we see two of the most famous figures from this story, Achilles and Ajax; the slightly greater Achilles on the left, and Ajax on the right. Both Achilles and Ajax were confident enough to station their ships at extreme ends of the Greek Line, and they are symmetrically facing each other across the gaming board like the Greek camp, displaying their courage and heroism. Both have rested their shields and spears, and Ajax has removed his helmet. Exekias has skilfully drawn the spears to create a triangular line which leads the eye to the game board, symbolically the war, seeing as both warriors are treating the game as if it is a battle, both deep in thought for their next move. The line is completed by the shapes of the shields, bringing our eyes back into the composition. In addition, the rest of the vase is painted black, leaving only the frieze of Achilles of Ajax for our eyes to be drawn to. These two warriors are shown taking a respite from their battles. Rather than focusing on the battles to come, Exekias here captures the more human moment of two warriors at rest, trying to take their minds off their worries of what is soon to come; either glorifying the intelligence and skill needed to be successful in battle (Achilles has the higher roll of ‘four’ displaying his superiority), or possibly emphasising how war was in fact just a game and should not be glorified.

However, many vase painters chose not to depict war in their work. The Gorgon Painter’s ‘Gorgons Pursuing Perseus’ (600-590 BC) is a representation of a mythological chase of Perseus by Medusa’s immortal sisters as he beheaded Medusa. The Amasis Painter created the neck amphora ‘Dionysus and Two Maenads’ (550 – 530 BC) – The body of the vase is adorned with repetitive patterns; the rays at the foot, the intricate lotus bud chains, ivy branches the maenads hold as well as the maenads themselves who are almost identical and parallel to each other. Exekias’ ‘Dionysus Sailing’ (540-530 BC) is a skilful illustration of the myth Dionysus and the dim pirates who tried to kidnap him who got turned into dolphins. Repetition is again apparent in the dolphins which also appear to be a very similar shape to the boat Dionysus is on. The Lysippides painter’s ‘Herakles Feasting in the presence of Athena’ (530 – 515 BC) is another decorative vase depicting a peaceful mythological scene; Herakles reclines on a kline, wearing an elaborate mantle, a wreath of grapevine on his head. He leans on a cushion with his left arm, in which he holds a kantharos, and rests his left arm on his knee. It is a bilingual vase, meaning it is black-figure on one side and on the other, red-figure. It was a display of the artist’s competence at both techniques of vase painting, and his impressive ability to create intricate details such as the vine on the black-figure side, and three dimensional effects such as the folds of Herakles’ robe on the red-figure side. These vases are simply decorative; their repeated patterns a pleasure to see without glorifying war or depreciating it.

‘Herakles Fighting Amazons’ (510 – 500 BC) by Euphronios glorifies war on the part of the Greeks. Shortly after Hektor’s body had been returned to Priam, the Amazons (a group of legendary warrior women) arrived to fight on the side of the Trojans. Herakles had been forced to meet the Amazons on their home territory at the time when Laomedon was king in Troy, and had been ordered to fetch the belt of the reigning Amazon queen. When suspicions were aroused among some of the Amazons about what Herakles was doing in private conclave with their leader, a battle developed. Euphronios drew a lively picture of Herakles’ fight with the Amazons, and his glorious battle appears impressive and admirable. Herakles is shown to attack bravely from the left in a full lunge towards two Amazons who march in step and one who marches more stealthily. The stealthy Amazon’s costume is identical to the fallen Amazon to the far left about to be struck by Telamon, and this woman is in fact mirroring a second fallen Amazon just below Herakles. The busy yet balanced composition displays the glory of Herakles and Telamon in a battle of uneven numbers, and the rounded red-figure technique illustrates their defined muscles and strength to glorify their heroism. This frieze juxtaposed to the one on top which depicts a group of men cheerfully drinking, dancing and making music somehow parallels war to these joys, exalting the beauty and gratification of a successful battle.

‘Achilles fighting Hektor’ (490 – 480 BC) depicts Hektor already wounded by Achilles who lunges towards him. The arrow Apollo (to the right of Hektor) holds will eventually kill Achilles, and is parallel to Hektor’s spear, portraying the honour of war and the heroism of having a god by your side. Achilles clearly the winner, strides forward, weight on his front foot, arm pulled back ready to thrust his spear, the advantage of red-figure painting giving Achilles a more realistically three-dimensional body to show his heroism. Hector steps back, off balance, spear pointing downwards, blood streams from his side. Although portraying the glory of Achilles in his dominance over Hektor as he avenges Patroklos with Athena by his side raising her arm in a gesture of support, it also portrays the suffering of Hektor who cannot escape his fate. He is exposed and vulnerable, his shield no longer protecting him as he falls and his arms are stretched out at either sides in a pathetic embrace of his doom. Apollo is also shown to reluctantly turn away from Hektor, pathetically abandoning him so not to watch his favourite die. All the action is depicted on the lip as a field for a virtuoso display of red-figure ornament to display the intense drama of the scene, the rest of the vase being painted black to draw our eyes to the intense action; although the frieze does not dominate the vase, our eyes our naturally drawn to it, enhancing the magnificence of the scene.

The Kleophrades Painter’s ‘The Fall of Troy’ (5 BC) presents cruelty (sacrilege, murder, rape and despair), courage (Trojan women fighting fully armed soldiers), liberation (Aithra being rescued by her grandsons) and hope (Aeneas’ escape with his father and to found a new Troy). This is a not a tale of triumph for the Greeks rather one of despair for the Trojans. This vase may be seen as a picture of the horrors of war – a savage act of victory and vengeance of which the Greeks were ashamed. The two fully armed and bearded warriors are beautifully contrasted to the defenceless old woman cowering on the ground. The focus of this section is the blood-stained figure of King Priam who sits on the altar cradling the limp, gore-smeared body of his grandson, Astyanax the son of Hector. Priam is depicted as an old man with a bald head and a stubby beard. He covers his head with his heads in a futile gesture to ward off the fatal blow about to be dealt to him by Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. A Trojan woman crouches beneath a battered palm tree (bent to emphasise the destruction of Troy), tearing her hair out in a gesture of mourning. A second Trojan woman sits next to her covering her head in terror, behind a statue of Athena. The focus of this section is a scene of extreme violence which involves Cassandra, the daughter of Priam. She is being ripped away from the statue, her attacker the Greek hero, Ajax, grabs her by the hair while she implores him with her outstretched palm. The sheer horror of the scene does not glorify war at all; the sacrilegious killings on the altar of Athene are both impious and cruel.

In conclusion, it is true that many Greek vase painters did explore the glories of war and depicted the heroism of figures such as Achilles and Ajax. However, many also explored the opposite end of the spectrum; the horror, suffering, despair and sacrilege associated with war and the destruction it can bring about. Vase painters were interested in portraying the reality of war more so than glorifying it, and some did not even consider the subject at all. It is therefore untrue to say that vase painters were only interested in glorifying war, seeing as many of the vases mentioned do not do so, but convey the inglorious aspects associated with it.