Ancient Greek vase paintings are one of the oldest forms of art in the western world. The earliest decorative pottery dates from the seventh millennium BC. Making vessels from fired clay was the most widespread creative industry in ancient Greece. A variety of shapes and forms were created, many of which continue to inspire the design of our own household objects today.
The term ‘vase’ is a broad description and covers a wide range of painted vessels with an array of uses. These include domestic pieces for storage, cooking, and eating; vessels used specifically for rituals or religious offerings to gods; funerary objects and grave markers; competition prizes; and purely decorative objects.
Pottery is the most common artifact excavated by archaeologists. Even a fragment of a painted vase can tell us a lot about ancient Greek culture.
Creating Greek Vase Paintings
All Greek vase paintings began with the raw material of clay. Clay is simply rock that has been weathered into a malleable form. The first stage was to dig the clay from the ground and then remove impurities through a settlement process using water. Different areas of Greece had different types of clay, which fired to a variety of colors. For example, Athenian clay was orangey-red, whereas clay from the islands was mixed with seashells and was yellow-green in color.
The clay was then worked on a wheel by a skilled potter. This is a process that has not changed much in over 3000 years. Vases often consisted of multiple pieces, such as handles and feet supports, these were made separately and glued on with slip.
Slip is clay in liquid form which was primarily used as the paint for the designs. Depending on the slip used, after firing in the kiln, the color developed to shiny black, purple-red, or yellow-white. The design outlines were sketched onto the vase first. Brushes and sharp tools were then used to apply or scratch into the slip paint to create details.
Finally came the firing, during which vases could easily be broken. The vases were stacked in a kiln and heated in a three-step process. The first stage turned the vase red all over. The temperature was then raised in the second stage which allowed the black areas to develop. The vases were cooled in the final stage. This was when the slip paint set to the desired final color. The vases were then removed from the kiln and left for many hours to cool fully.
The Vasiliki Ware Teapot: The First Luxury Pottery In Ancient Greece
Prior to the fourth millennium BC, pottery in ancient Greece was almost entirely functional in purpose. Simple vessels were made to aid cooking, eating, and storage of food products. The introduction of so-called Vasiliki ware around 2700 BC marked a turning point. This new pottery had distinctive designs and shapes which were intended not just for use but also for display of wealth and status.
Vasiliki ware is named after the town of Vasiliki in eastern Crete where many examples have been found. But this style was not limited to this area as pieces have been found across the Greek mainland.
These early luxury vessels were made before the invention of the potter’s wheel. Coils of clay were used to build the initial form and then scraped smooth. Dishes, bowls, and goblets have all been discovered but particularly interesting are the distinctive ‘teapot’ style jugs with elongated spouts.
Vasiliki ware represents the very early stages of innovation in Greek vase paintings. The base color was normally solid red or brown with a semi-lustrous glaze. Mottled brown spots were then added to the surface during the firing process. It is likely that the effect was created through experimentation with the kiln and exposure to different levels of oxygen.
The Minoan Octopus Vase: Pinnacle Of Bronze Age Pottery Design
Cretans continued their early innovations in Greek vase paintings into the Minoan period (3000–1450 BC). The Minoans of Crete were arguably the first advanced civilization in Europe. They established sophisticated trade networks across the Mediterranean and beyond, as well as creating progressive infrastructure and artistic output.
Around 2000 BC, potters started using a rotating wheel to create pottery vessels. This allowed more control over the forming of a pot and resulted in more varied shapes. By 1500 BC, the Minoans were creating elaborate pottery with pale backgrounds and dark painted details. Design elements were becoming more defined with recognizable motifs such as geometric shapes, plant, and marine life. The most stunning examples included octopuses, as in the vase above, fish and sea plants – all inspired by the sea-faring nature of island life.
Shapes of painted vessels were also becoming more sophisticated, as can be seen with the narrow-necked jugs with elegant sweeping handles. Some even mimicked the human form with molded nipples and painted eyes.
Archaeologists believe that the Minoan vase paintings were inspired by the wall paintings in the palaces. Minoans ruled through central palaces, such as that established at Knossos. Here excavations have revealed beautifully painted frescoes of marine life as well as human figures with detailed jewelry and clothes. It was only a matter of time until these images appeared on the pottery that was produced for the wealthy elite of Minoan society.
The Geometric Vase: A Symbol Of Athenian Artistic Supremacy
By the 10th century BC, the Athenians had taken over as the artistic masters of ancient Greece. At this point, Greek vase paintings intersected with an important new era of design which influenced all elements of creative production – the Geometric Style.
The Geometric Style was characterized by motifs such as black lines, zig-zags, triangles, concentric circles, and Greek key patterns. These designs were applied in bands around the vase with any remaining areas normally filled in with black slip. Brushes and compasses had advanced to allow for more controlled application of the paint slip.
Around 850–750 BC, images of animals and human figures were introduced. Figures were painted as silhouettes with simplified, triangular torsos, as can be seen on the Hirschfeld krater above. Heads and legs were depicted in profile, with women identified by triangular-shaped breasts.
The Hirschfeld krater is over 1 meter high and is a prime example of a monumental painted vase. These huge vessels were almost always used as grave markers. The vase above depicts a large funeral procession complete with horses, chariots, and mourners.
We know that the majority of early monumental geometric vases were made by one particular workshop in Athens, the Dipylon workshop. These vases would have been very expensive to produce due to their size and the many hours it would take to paint them. We can, therefore, assume that these large Geometric Style vases belonged to wealthy aristocratic families.
The Lion Aryballos: A Celebration Of The Rise Of Corinth
In the wake of Athenian artistic success, other Greek city-states also began to produce impressive Geometric Style pottery. This competition led to an increase in innovations and new experts in Greek vase paintings emerged. By the 7th century BC, workshops in Corinth started to develop particularly high-quality pottery designs.
Corinthian pottery is easily identified by its distinctive yellow clay. Influences from the Near East are also clear due to growing trade contact with Persia. Images of animals dominate the designs and fluid motifs such as rosettes and palmettes are common, while the geometric shapes started to decline in popularity.
Corinth was particularly famous for the aryballos vase, a small vessel used to hold essential oil or perfume. One of the most exquisite examples is the so-called Macmillan aryballos. It is a miniature marvel, standing just 7 cm high and 4 cm wide. Its pouring spout takes the shape of a lion’s head while the body of the vase depicts a battle scene.
The main panel, or frieze, shows 17 tiny warriors in full battle dress. The level of detail highlights the painter’s skill. For example, the men each carry shields, decorated with a different design. Droplets of blood can even be made out on their armor. The scene is thought to celebrate a new form of infantry fighting where men attacked the enemy in tightly packed lines. This beautiful work of art was discovered in a tomb at Thebes and is thought to belong to a member of the Theban nobility.
The Dinos Of Sophilos: First Known Creator Of Greek Vase Paintings
By the 6th century BC, Corinthian pottery was being largely mass-produced. This resulted in a decline in both quality and innovation. It was at this point that Athenian pottery rose once more to the fore.
The most famous creator of Greek vase paintings in the first half of the 6th century was Sophilos. Sophilos is the earliest painter to whom vases can be specifically attributed. This is because he was the first to paint Greek lettering onto pottery, with signatures that read ‘Sophilos made me’. These additions had wider cultural implications. Use of the Greek alphabet was still only 200 years old. However, Sophilos demonstrates a solid understanding of simple grammar and syntax. This suggests that, by the 6th century BC, literacy was growing in ancient Greece beyond the ‘educated’ elite.
The dinos of Sophilos is a fantastic example of black-figure vase painting. With this technique, the painter first drew the outline of a figure onto the clay. He then filled this outline with black slip paint and incised the details into the slip with a sharp tool.
A dinos is a wine bowl and this particular piece has an accompanying stand, which together measure over 70 cm high. A dinos such as this would have been displayed proudly at a Greek dinner party, also known as a symposium.
The Sophilos dinos highlights the increasing use of mythological narratives in Greek vase paintings in its depiction of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. This origin story for the Trojan War is shown in a procession of Greek gods and goddesses arriving at the wedding in bands around the bowl and stand. Everyone from Zeus to Apollo is present and Sophilos identifies each god with clear labels.
The Panathenaic Prize Amphora: A Celebration Of Athletic Prowess
Each year the Athenians celebrated an important festival in honor of their patron goddess, Athena. A sacred robe, or peplos, was carried in a procession through the city to the Temple of Athena on the Acropolis. Every four years, a larger festival was held, called The Great Panathenaea. This involved athletic, poetic and naval contests as well as religious sacrifices.
The first Great Panathenaea was held in 566 BC. At this opening festival, it became a custom for prizes of painted amphorae vases to be presented to the winner of each event. These amphorae held a specially produced olive oil. One side would depict the event in which the winner had been victorious. On the other side was a portrayal of Athena, normally in various battle poses. The image used on Athena’s shield is often useful for identifying the particular painter of each amphora.
The Panathenaic amphorae represent some of the most accomplished examples of Greek vase paintings. The greatest painters of their day were commissioned to create these vases for the state in large numbers. The black-figure technique was always used right through to the end of the 4th century BC. The later vases also named the current archon of Athens in an honorific inscription. This enables archaeologists today to date them very accurately.
The vase above depicts the wrestling event known as the Pankration. This event, which was a combination of wrestling and boxing with very few rules, was also particularly popular at the Olympic Games. The detail on this vase shows how far black-figure painting techniques had developed by the 4th century BC. The muscular form of the athletes is realistic and very well rendered. Some figures’ faces are painted at a complicated angle and clever use of foreshortening has been employed.
The Erotic Vase: A Snapshot Of Sexuality In Ancient Greece
A significant minority of Greek vase paintings involve erotic subjects. It is most likely that these vases were part of the world of the symposium. The symposium of ancient Greece was a drinking party exclusively for educated, aristocratic men. Poetry would be read, philosophy discussed and entertainment enjoyed. This entertainment could include sex between participants and the use of prostitutes.
The vases with erotic images are those that would have found a use at a symposium. They include the krater, a vessel for mixing wine and water before drinking, and the kylix, an elaborately shaped drinking cup. Most erotic vases have actually been discovered at Etruscan sites in Italy. This suggests they were largely produced for export to people who aspired to the Greek way of life.
With the red-figure technique, the painter first drew an outline of a figure. He then added details to this figure with slip using a brush. This allowed greater control and, therefore, more sophisticated rendering of the human form. The background was then filled in with slip paint around the figure, normally in black. During firing, the figure would retain the red color of the clay.
The erotic subjects on these vases can provide evidence of sexuality in ancient Greece, including the socially accepted custom of pederasty.
The relationship between an older man, an erastes, and a pubescent boy, an eromenos, was both sexual and social. The erastes would view the eromenos as an object of desire, a desire which was not expected to be mutual. Instead, the boy would learn how to behave in social settings. He would also benefit intellectually from teaching and mentoring from the older man.
What Can We Learn From Greek Vase Paintings?
Fired clay is a highly durable material. The vessels into which it is formed may be fragile, but pottery and its fragments can survive for thousands of years. Many high-quality Greek vase paintings are discovered by archaeologists in the tombs of the deceased. Even if they are broken, the fragments can often be re-assembled and at least partially restored.
These precious pictorial artifacts can tell us much about the culture of ancient Greece. The seven vase paintings collected here provide valuable information on everything from battle techniques to ancient literacy and sexual relationships. The vessels themselves can also reveal much about the trade patterns, artistic innovations, and even the religious practices of one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world.