Substantive Education

January 16, 2009

Greek Vases Part 2

Continuing with our discussion of Greek Vase painting…See Part 1 if you are lost.


Greek Vase Priam painter

Not all subjects used for ceramics were gods and heroes. This Hydra or water jug was painted by an artist scholars have named the Priam Painter. In this work we get a glimpse of everyday life. Most women in ancient Greece were confined to their homes and so the daily trip to the water well or fountain was a welcome event. This was a time to gather, see friends, and swap gossip. On this vase we see a group of women with storage jars very like the one they are painted onto. The women are getting water for their homes. The painting has a very geometric pattern overlying it with the Doric columns and detailed boarders. There is a fine balance of vertical, horizontal, and rounded elements. The woman and jugs provide a contrast adding energy and life to the painting. The women’s skin has been painted white, a common convention for female figures that was also used by the Egyptians and Minoans. A bit of reddish purple paint has been to create details on the architecture and clothing.

At the same time the Priam Painter and others were creating their black-figure wares, some painters turned to another process called red-figure decoration. As its name suggests, this was a reversal of the previous method. The figures were now red set against a black background. The dark slip was painted on as the background around the outlined figures which were left unpainted. Details were then drawn on the figures with a fine brush dipped in the slip. The result was greater freedom and flexibility of painting rather than engraving the details. Artists quickly adopted this new method. One of the best known red-figure painters was an Athenian named Euphronios who was particularlygreek-sarpedon-vase known for his study of human anatomy.

On this piece done in 515 BC the painting is done on a Calyx Krater. The vase is called that because it’s handles curve up like the flower, calyx. Kraters were used to mix wine and water, the favored drink of the Greeks. They could also be used to cool wine down. The wine would be placed in a smaller vase and then cool water put into the Krater and the wine was then set in the cool water. The idea is similar to our placing champagne in a bucket of ice to chill it.

On this Krater we see the death of Sarpedon. According to the Illiad, written by Homer, Sarpedon was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman. He was killed by the Greek warrior Patroclus during the war with the Trojans. In this depiction we see Hypnos (sleep) and Thanatos (death) carrying Sarpedon from the battlefield. We see Hermes, who is the messenger of the gods and is identified by his winged hat and staff, ready to guide our warrior to the netherworld…another of Hermes responsibilities.

We see once again the importance to the Athenians of balance. In this composition the vertical and horizontal lines take the shape of the vase into account. There are fine details in the clothing, musculature, and faces of each figure.


Greek Vase Pan Painter

We now enter into the Classical Period of Greek Art. Over this brief span of about 160 years the Greeks would establish the ideal of beauty that we still strive for today. The classical period is defined by two events in history, at it’s beginning, the defeat of the Persians in 479 BC, and at the end, the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. The speed at which art changed during this period is extraordinary. Here we will just be examining the vases of the classical period…in future posts we will examine the architecture of the period and the sculptures.

During the fifth century artists continued to work with red-figure painting. Among the outstanding artists of this period was the Pan Painter. He seemed to be inspired by the less heroic stories of the gods. In this bell krater we see Artemis slaying Actaeon. Artemas, the goddess of the hunt, was bathing and Actaeon happened upon the goddess. She was so outraged she caused Actaeon’s dogs to mistake him for a stag and attack him. Artemis then shoots the fallen hunter herself. We can see the slender and graceful figures have been painted in with delicate details.


Greek Vase - classic period

In the late classical period artists were using the white ground method which was far more complex and involved painting the vases with tempura after firing. Unfortunately none of the murals painted during this period remain, although we have descriptions of them written down. Most of the vases made in this manner were used for non-utilitarian purposes, for example funeral vases. Funeral vases were used for pouring liquids during religious rituals. Most convey sadness and a depiction of the dead person being honored.The paint was to fragile to put on a water jug or something that would be handles regularly. In this example we see two women, the one girl, probably a servant moving a chair.



  1. Hey! I was wondering where the vase with the women carrying water jugs was found, as in wht part of Greece.
    I would greatly appreciate your help.

    Comment by Sarah — February 22, 2010 @ 6:00 am | Reply

    • I couldn’t say for sure where it was found, but the artist has come to be known as the Priam painter and he was an Athenian, so I’m guessing it was found in Athens.

      Comment by kbagdanov — February 22, 2010 @ 6:19 am | Reply

  2. Pat yourself on the back for another first-class article.

    Comment by Amusing take on wine tasting events — April 10, 2012 @ 1:04 am | Reply

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