Greek Vases

By: Dr. Eleanor E. Rambo

Originally Published in 1920

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The first distinctly Hellenic pottery fabric is the geometric. It is generally considered to be not a decided break from the ware of the earlier Ægean civilization, not a ware made by the invaders, but rather a continuation of the peasant pottery, which had been submerged under the finer Ægean fabrics. According to this theory, that age of the Ægean civilization showed in the Mediterranean two strata of culture—that of the Ægeans themselves, with their advanced and naturalistic art, and that of the peasants, Pelasgians, as they are sometimes called, who served the Ægean overlords, and were of a different stock. When the power of the Ægeans was broken, and their art destroyed by the invaders from the North, the peasant pottery with its linear and geometric ornament was the sole remnant of art to manifest itself through the dark ages before the dawn of history. This geometric pottery is in some of its best phases decorated with motives crudely reminiscent of the Mycenaean, as if some vague tradition of superior decoration were still handed down among a people who had not the skill nor the training to realize their dreams. The complicated wave and checkerboard pattern on the Cretan geometric pot (case I, No. 194) is a direct survival of Ægean motives; and it is possible to trace the postures of certain birds and animals, as well as of human figures, on Attic and Boeotian Geometric ware back to the Mycenaean. Geometric pottery is widespread through the Mediterranean area—Crete and Italy as well as Greece. It is a mistake to think of it as a local fabric, made here and there at different periods. It is rather a general manifestation of art, appearing at a certain stage of cultural development in many regions of the Mediterranean from the ninth century through the seventh century B.C.

In the seventh century, we begin to note a phenomenon which is to remain marked and important in connection with all Hellenic pottery—namely, the differentiation of local fabrics and the temporary ascendancy of one of these fabrics over another. In the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., the great center of pottery making is Corinth. Its products are supreme until about the middle of the sixth century. Then rival fabrics come into competition with the Corinthian, among them one which has close stylistic relations with the Corinthian—namely, the Chalcidian (case VIII, No. 39), a ware made in Chalcis in Euboea. At this time Ionia, in Asia Minor, becomes prominent as a center of the manufacture of pottery (case VIII, No. 42). Probably the so-called Caeretan hydriae, which have been found at Caere (the modern Cervetri) in Etruria, as well as “Tyrrhenian” amphorae (case VIII, No. 41), were made in Ionia or the Ægean Islands. Ionian products very strongly influenced Athens, where a school of pottery was established, which by the end of the sixth century had outstripped all competitors. Athens maintained her supremacy as the chief center of the potter’s trade through the fifth century into the early fourth century. But there is a decided decadence about the late vases, and early in the fourth century, vases cease to be made in Athens; the industry is shifted to South Italy, where in Lucania and in Campania, painted ware is produced in great quantities soon after the Peloponesian War. From the beginning of the fourth century on through the third, pottery tends to imitate metal technique. Fashion demanded bowls stamped with decorative patterns and figure designs. One of the most famous of the varieties of molded pottery is Arretine red ware, made in Arretium (the modern Arezzo) in Tuscany in the first century B.C., and later (case IX, No. 56). Roman pottery in turn yields to Gaulish molded ware.

This shifting of the center of industry was very important to others than potters. It was due less to local outbursts of artistic genius than to the stress of business conditions. The economic history of the ancient Mediterranean world was never written. A skeleton plan for such a history can be worked out from the study of pottery, less from a comparison of the technique of various fabrics than from a study of the centers of manufacture and of the scattered places where given vases are found. This sort of study will show that after the Ægean sea power was destroyed, the Phoenicians were the trade carriers, but the first organized monopoly of trade was worked out by the Corinthians. It will show how Greek colonies established in Asia Minor, which had been the refuge of the last of the harried Ægeans, absorbed ideas from their new land, came into brief competition with the mother land, but succumbed to inertia, induced by the climate to which they had been transplanted, an inertia which rendered them powerless against the threatened danger from Persian domination; how their brief day of activity, as much as the increasing Eastern Peril, aroused Athens to commercial enterprise, which she made secure through her successful military undertakings, subjugating all rivals; how in her mad endeavor to establish an empire in the west, Athens overreached herself, and her business went to the traders of the north and to the Greeks in the West ; how Rome absorbed all, and in turn, as she settled in the sleek comfort of her established supremacy, let her trade slip away to the hands of the enterprising Gauls. Cheap fabrics tell much of price cutting and market flooding, of merciless competition.

Even a brief sketch of the Hellenic fabrics represented in the Mediterranean Section must convince one that classical archaeology far from being concerned only with a dead past is the science of a life which, although vanished, can be resurrected and found to be not wholly different from the life of today.

Corinthian Wares

Case VI and XI

Cases VI and XI are devoted to Corinthian vases and to Italian imitations thereof. In case XI are exhibited some proto-Corinthian vases. Proto-Corinthian ware is distinguished by its small shapes. The decoration of the specimens here is mostly linear, but some crude animal figures are found. Three classes of the ware have been distinguished:

  1. Vases with linear ornament.
  2. Vases with geometric, incised ornament.
  3. Vases with miniature figures, incised.

This third class is so different from the others that some archaeologists refuse to consider it as at all connected with Corinth.

What we call Corinthian ware proper is a product mostly of the seventh century B.C., when Corinth was the great center of Mediterranean trade. The city on the isthmus controlled the trade from East and West alike, and was a great center of industry and art. Her potters were famous. They had an ever ready market for their wares, not only at home but in the “booming” West. Their inspiration they drew from the art of the East, which the commerce of the city opened up to them. From this rich source they borrowed the lions, sphinxes, long horned goats and exotic decoration in which their pottery abounds, and which gained for it the caption “Orientalizing.” To Morin-Jean’s study of the design of animals on Greek vases we owe the most comprehensive appreciation of the work of the Corinthian potters. As he points out, they were not artistic; they were chiefly concerned with turning out quantities of products; but despite all this, they were the first designers in the history of art. the first to adapt subject to space, the first to appreciate the decorative effect that can be attained by altering the real proportions of any given object in order better to fill a given space—e. g., by making animals in a frieze short legged and long bodied, and those in a panel short bodied and long legged. Their decorators evolved certain patternlike treatment of animal figures—a stereotyped manner that is peculiarly and unmistakably Corinthian. The clay is yellowish; the decoration laid in friezes of animals, birds and fantastic figures, with the background filled in with rosettes, which also were borrowed from the East. The painting is done in silhouette, helped out by ample incision. The treatment of wings of birds, sphinxes and sirens is peculiar to this fabric, and may be detailed by way of indicating one of the many earmarks of the ware. The upper part of the wing is divided into two parallel bands, curving to follow the angle of the wing, the upper always filled in with purple paint, the lower with black. Then come two parallel lines, incised, from which are drawn perpendicular incised lines which represent feathers. The spaces between these perpendiculars are frequently colored alternately black and purple.

The Italian imitations of Corinthian ware are generally to be distinguished by a crudeness of drawing and a heavy lifelessness of figure.

Attic Wares

Attic ware in the Museum is represented by four varieties of technique—Dipylon, black-figured, red-figured and white ground vases.

Dipylon Ware

The earliest is the Dipylon ware (in west room) (case XXVI No. 126), which is a variety of the geometric, taking its shape from the long necked late Mycenaean jars and its decoration from scenes connected with the burial of the dead. The ware gets its name from the fact that it is found near the Dipylon Gate in Athens, in the necropolis, where the jars were used as a sort of grave memorial set up over the tombs. Indeed, some of the stone stelae which in historical times supplanted these jars are cut to give the profile of similar jars. The decoration on the Dipylon ware is in bands or friezes, frequently of chariots, for chariot races were an essential part of the celebration of funeral rites at that time. These jars sometimes have wound about them snakes, typifying the genius that dwells in the earth and is connected with the dead that lie in the earth.

Three Attic Fabrics

After the establishment of a definite Attic school of pottery, Attic ware is differentiated into three chief fabrics, according to technique—black-figured, red-figured and white ground ware. The black-figured is the first of these techniques. In it the painting is done in silhouette, helped out by incision, and the addition of purple paint for details. The decoration stands out black against the reddish background of the clay (case XII). The subjects of the decoration are generally mythological—scenes from the epic cycle, the exploits of Theseus* or Herakles, and the like. The dominant shapes are the amphora, a jar of variant size, with two upright handles, the hydria, a water jar with two lifting handles on the shoulder and an upright handle at the back, used in steadying the jar. The amphora has decoration on both obverse and reverse, either in a panel (case XII, No. 116) or in a frieze (case VIII, No. 127), the hydria only on the front, with panels on the body and shoulder (case XII, No. 106). Other shapes are the deep cup or skyphos (case XII, No. 136), the wine pitcher or oenochoe (case XII, No. 70), and the drinking cup or kylix (case XV, No. 64). This latter shape is especially developed in the succeeding or red-figured technique, as will be seen by the examples in case XV. The covered bowls in case XIII, Nos. 73-76, are of rare shape.

The second sort of Attic vases is in the red-figured technique. In this the figures stand out in the natural red of the clay, and all about their profiles the ground is painted black. Details are no longer indicated by incision but by fine black lines. This class of vases is stylistically the most interesting, since the technique offers an opportunity for real drawing and draftsmanship. Among the vases of this sort it is possible to pick out certain ones that betray common characteristics of style, and thus to differentiate the style of individual painters. Some vases are “signed” by both potter and painter, some by one or the other. That is to say, they bear inscriptions like this, “Hieron made me” or “Douris painted me.” The first sort is called the potter’s “signature” or trademark, the second the painter’s. The study of styles, of course, starts with vases which bear such “signatures” or trademarks; but even unsigned vases can pretty surely be attributed on grounds of style to definite “masters.” Mr. Beazley, the English vase specialist, has done very valuable work in this line.

There are in the red-figured technique four periods of development:

  1. The “severe” style, which shows stiff conventional figures, and is concerned with the problem of filling space (case XXXV, No. 120).
  2. The “strong” style, which attains real decorative effects and beauty of composition, a style best represented by the work of the cup painters, Duris, Hieron, Brygos painter, etc. (case XV, Nos. 102, 105).
  3. The “fine” style, which exhibits perfection of drawing and technique, which has pictorial scenes, a dim reflection perhaps of the work of the great painter Polygnotos (case XIII, No. 123, and case XV, No. 98).
  4. The “late fine” style, which is decadent, over refined and careless, which shows crowded figures and polychrome colors. It is fairly represented by the pyxis or toilet box (case IX, No. 131).

The finest red-figured vase in the Mediterranean Section is an amphora with twisted handles, showing on one side Apollo and Artemis and on the other Dionysos and a maenad (case VIII, No. 129); and the most unusual specimen is the large amphora (case XXXV, No. 120), bearing the unique potter’s mark, Μένων έποίησεν “Menon made me.” As a rule, mythological scenes are less frequent on vases of this technique. Commonly the scenes are those of every day life, and frequently when gods are represented they are in insignificant pose.

Many of the vases on exhibition are not whole, but are put together from many pieces, and have much of their surface restored with clay of a different color. Some fortunate few vases are found intact, but many are unearthed in fragments into which they have been shattered whether by purpose or by accident. Sometimes by a careful comparison of the thickness and texture of the clay, and by study of the design, by painstaking fitting together of pieces, a large vase can be built up into something approximating its original condition. Case IX is filled with many fragments of pottery, chiefly Attic black-figured ware, some of them partially fitted together. Examination of this case will reveal much about the difficulties which beset the path of the vase mender.

In this case will be found also fragmentary specimens of a very interesting sort of black-figured ware—namely, the work of the Kleinmeister or masters of the miniature as they should be called. They worked on kylikes, or drinking cups, decorating them with minute figures of animals and men and satyrs, done with precision and considerable charm.

The third technique, that of white ground vases, shows line drawing on the ground of a white slip with which the vase is covered. This technique is seen on three vases in case XIII (Nos. 79, 84, 128). These vases of tall slender shape were used exclusively as offerings to the dead, and are called lekythoi. As befits their purposed use, they are decorated with scenes connected with the cult of the dead—scenes of offerings at tombs, the preparation of such offerings or the laying out of the dead.

* Case XII, No. 112, is a vase of especial interest, as showing how the Atheneans of the sixth century B.C., who knew less of Crete than we do, regarded the Minotaur, the bull of Minos, as a bull headed man, a monster, not as the sacred animal shown on the Cretian fresco of the bull grapplers in the west room, No. 2.

Cite This Article

Rambo, Dr. Eleanor E.. "Greek Vases." The Museum Journal XI, no. 2 (June, 1920): 14-20. Accessed February 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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