Vases were commonplace in ancient Greece. Pottery was part of everyday life, and everyone knew what they were used for and what the pictures on them meant. Ceramic vases served as containers, either for utilitarian purposes in the home or for religious rituals. Some vases were decorated with figures and patterns, others were plain and painted black all over, and unpainted coarse ware sufficed for cooking.
This discussion will focus on decorated vases made in the region of Attica—dominated by the city of Athens and its environs—during the Archaic and Classical periods, about 620–300 B.C. The chart below lists the terminology and dates of the standard subdivisions into which scholars divide Athenian and related pottery.
| Chronology |
| Protogeometric | about 1050–900 B.C. |
| Geometryczny | about 900–720 B.C. |
| Protocorinthian and Protoattic black-figure | about 720–620 B.C. |
| Corinthian | about 620–550 B.C. |
| Early Archaic black-figure | about 620–570 B.C. |
| Archaic black-figure | about 570–530 B.C. |
| Late Archaic black-figure and red-figure | about 530–480 B.C. |
| Early Classical red-figure | about 480–450 B.C. |
| Classical red-figure | about 450–425 B.C. |
| Late Classical red-figure | about 425–300 B.C. |
| Hellenistic | about 300–30 B.C. |
Long known as Attic, today the vases are frequently called Athenian, after their principal place of manufacture. From Athens, vases were exported throughout the Mediterranean region, as far afield as Italy, France, Spain, Egypt, and Libya, and across the Black Sea to the Crimea.
Vase shapes and functions
Vases were produced in a broad range of shapes and sizes, as seen in the chart below. Although each vase shape had its particular uses, vase functions were also complementary. For example, more than a dozen different shapes were employed for serving and consuming wine, as during a symposium, which was a male-only drinking party that followed dinner. The amphora and stamnos were used for storage; the dinos, krater, lebes, or stamnos for mixing wine and water; the psykter for cooling wine; the kyathos (or a metal ladle) and the oinochoe for serving the wine; and the kantharos, kylix, mastos, rhyton, or skyphos for drinking it.
The vases were decorated by painters who worked in several techniques, of which the two principal ones were black-figure and red-figure. In both of these techniques, two colors predominate: a deep orange-red and a shiny, metallic-looking black. The black-figure technique was developed by about 700 B.C. in Corinth. The black figures were painted as silhouettes that stand out against the orange-red clay surface of the vase. Details were either incised through the black to the red clay surface below, or added in colors. This technique was not adopted by vase-painters in Athens until about 620 B.C. Red-figure made its appearance about one hundred years later, invented in Athens about 530 B.C. Essentially, red-figure is the reverse of black-figure. The background is painted black, the figures are left the orange-red color of the clay, and, for the most part, details are painted in black.
The limited colors seen on vases were by no means the only ones known to the Greeks, who employed a broad range of naturalistic colors in paintings on walls and wooden panels, very few of which have survived. Of the four colors seen on vases (black, orange-red, purple-red, and white), black and orange-red proved to be especially durable. Like the fired clay itself, they were able to withstand the high heat of the kiln, the wear-and-tear of everyday use, and centuries of burial. Even breakage will not destroy vases completely. Surviving vase fragments can be both beautiful and instructive.
Looking at shape and design
Looking at a vase begins with its shape, whose structure is likened to human anatomy: mouth, neck, shoulder, body, and foot. The Greeks called the handles “ears.” Pots were not always made in one piece but were thrown in separate sections that were joined together by the potter. The separate parts are revealed by the changing contours of the shape.
Observe the sections of the neck-amphora shown in the image below, a typical example of this shape. Notice the mouth and neck (thrown as one piece), handles (made separately and attached), shoulder and body (also thrown as one), and foot. The mouth and foot are the vase’s upper and lower borders. The neck-amphora’s vertical handles are the side borders that mark the horizontal limits beyond which the painted figures in the picture do not extend. The vertical patterns on the neck and under the figures are especially important, for they visually link the picture and the body to the adjacent parts of the vase, to the mouth and neck above, and to the foot below.
Nothing is more fundamental to the aesthetic of Greek vase-painting than the interplay and balance between the contrasting dark and light areas on a vase, that is, between the black painted areas and the orange-red of the unpainted clay. Look again at the image above, but this time with the balance of light and dark in mind. The black is concentrated in the picture, and the picture dominates the vase. Observe, too, that the image is located on the widest part of the body and takes up most of the space on the vase. This location on the vase afforded the painter the largest surface on which to create the picture. Thus, the main pictorial zone occupies the widest part of most Greek vase shapes.
Stories on vases
More than any other element, the pictures are the most important decorations on vases. The Greeks delighted in images—men and women, gods and heroes, children, and all manner of animals or creatures—but their idea of realism was by no means identical to ours. They depicted human and mythological figures unceasingly, yet all but ignored representing the world in which they moved. Landscapes and buildings are rarely more than props. Generally, pictures have no substantial depth or perspective beyond the sense of foreground and background created by overlapping or by arranging figures on more than one level.
It is the storytelling aspect of vase-painting that readily captures our imagination. This is especially true when a picture is dramatic, such as the one inside this kylix (a shallow bowl for drinking), shown below, where we witness Tekmessa’s discovery of the body of the dead warrior Ajax. Although Ajax was the strongest of the Greeks who participated in the Trojan War, he did not die gloriously in battle. Tragic events beyond his control forced him to commit suicide. Ajax set his sword upright in the pebbly beach at Troy and threw himself upon it.
While the imagery on Greek vases is extremely varied, the pictures offer neither a complete nor balanced view of society. Few of the many slaves and foreigners who resided in Athens are depicted. Women and children are shown only in a very limited number of roles; pictures of family life are rare. The very active political and intellectual life of the Greeks is almost entirely absent. Images of famous persons are virtually unknown, and no contemporary events of any historical significance are depicted. These omissions are significant gaps. Nevertheless, what vase-painters chose to portray shows us so much of their world in lively, intimately detailed, and often remarkably beautiful pictures, that vase-paintings enable us to experience ancient Greece with our own eyes.
Content revised and excerpted from Understanding Greek Vases: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques by Andrew J. Clark, Maya Elston, and Mary Louise Hart. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002