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Ancient Greek Ceramics
by Victor Bryant
(Part II)

The Greek Myths:
Figure Painting of Gods and Heroes

Pottery painters in Attica were the first to paint narrative scenes from popular myths about their Gods and Heroes; episodes from Homer's Epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, featuring such gods as Apollo or Dionysos and heroes such as Achilles or Herakles and his Twelve Labours or Exploits.

Unlike the strange deities of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Persians, the Greek Gods and Heroes were believed to be human in form though larger, more powerful and physically perfect etc. Images or paintings of Gods or Heroes could therefore be based on human models.

This is the key to why figure drawing, painting and sculpture in Greece improved so dramatically during the 6th and 5th centuries. The realism, life-like and three-dimensional qualities achieved were beyond that of any other civilization hitherto.

Competition between artists to achieve the most natural representation of a God or a Hero reached fever pitch by the early 5th century.

Attic Black-Figure Painting

032 Early Attic Black-figure jug, painted in black, purple and white on orange clay, ca. 600-575BC BM
Athenian painters copied this black-figure style from Corinth but, instead of the Oriental monsters, animals and birds motifs, preferred to develop further their own narrative style using Greek Gods, Heroes and monsters. The superior quality of their clay, pigment, and decoration and firing techniques quickly enabled the Athenian artists to overtake those of Corinth. This jug shows a rich black vitrified slip paint and also the matt grape red iron slip.
Click for detail032a Detail Head of Gorgon
This detail of the head of the Medusan Gorgon shows how these Greek artists endowed their figures with mood and character by means of scratched lines in black slip. Monotony was avoided by the use of different poses, gestures, and expressions to render emotion and clarify the narrative action.

033 Part of a black-figured amphora.
The scene on this prize amphora shows a victorious athlete offering wine, and his thanks, to the God Dionysos.
Click for detail033a Closer detail
This detail shows more clearly the painting of the hands and clothing of the god, illustrating the power of the scratched lines to provide so much naturalistic detail.

The Finest (Mature) Black-Figure Painting ca. 540-520BC.

From 600 BC on, Athens increasingly became the dominant center for Greek pottery, eventually exporting its ware throughout the Mediterranean world. It was during this period that the practice of signing of pots by potters and painters first became common. The overall finish and high quality of Attic pots was commonplace by the later 6th century BC. The drawing on Greek ware of this period is also usually of the highest quality. Always an inexhaustible mine of information for scholars on Greek life, literature and thought, the repertoire of subjects greatly expanded to include scenes from everyday life as well as the standard heroic and mythological themes.

034 Athenian Jar from Vulci (Etruria) ca.540-530BC ht:61cm. The heavenly Twins, the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux return home after some heroic exploit: hunting, fighting, carrying off women, and cattle rustling etc. There are many tales. The pot is signed by the Painter Exekias. Our particular interest is the quality of the slip painting.

Click for detail034a Closer detail: The dog greets one of his masters.
The Athenians retained the Corinthian use of animal friezes for decoration until c. 550 BC, when the great Attic painters, among them Exekias and the Amasis Painter, developed a Greek narrative scene decoration and perfected the classical black-figure style. Corinth and Athens were the most important studios producing black-figure pottery but there were others in Sparta and some of the Greece colonies.

034b The other side of the amphora above.
Achilles and Ajax,the two great heroes and warriors in the Trojan War, are seen playing at dice, both in full armour ready for battle.
Click for detail034c Closer detail:Achilles and Ajax
Inscribed on the picture, rather like the bubbles in a 20th century cartoon, are greek words, appearing from their mouths. They tell us that Achilles (left) has called 'four' and Ajax 'three'.
Click for detail034d Detail:Head of Achilles
The fine detail of the helmet and armour can be seen here. All of this produced by scratched lines in a black slip.
This could provide ideas for many slip decorators, couldn't it?

035 Attic black figured Kylix 6th c. BC.
This is a typical drinking cup or disk - the kylix. Decorated both inside and outside with a variety of scenes. The foot and hollow stem can be seen and painted around the outside of the bowl are two winged monsters and a charioteer. Of particular interest here is the introduction of white slip in attic black-figure painting. It was not easy to use. If thick it often peeled off. (see Potter's Notes later on.)

035a Inside bowl decoration of Attic black figured Kylix 6th c.BC.
Inside the bowl of this drinking cup is this beautiful piece of black-figure decoration showing the God Dionysos sailing the Seas. Climbing around the mast is a grape vine - suitably fully laden for the God of Wine. The water is filled with a school of dolphins playing. The disposition of each object within the circular form has been well considered and carefully balanced. We know the name of the painter, Exekias, living in the mid-sixth century BC.
035b Detail of center
Here we can see the fine detail in the figure of the God. He is shown dressed and crowned like a king. The boat, dolphins, grapevine, and sail are each superbly delineated. Technically, there is perhaps one defect; the poor fit of the matt white slip which originally covered the sail. Much has rubbed or flaked off. It appears to have been painted over the black vitreous slip. (Read potter's notes)

036 Attic Black-Figure Hydria: ca.520-500BC ht 22.5in.
A Hydria is the Greek name for a pot with three handles. Two for lifting and one for pouring. This pot was used for fetching water from the local fountain. The painting illustrates this. Under a portico, young women are filling their pots with water from these ornamental fountains. Athenian pottery of the 6th century BC often features such narrative scenes composed of black figures painted on a light red inset background panel, while the surrounding vase surface is a deep, lustrous black. As in the previous example, when white slip often tends to flake off.

Click for detail036a Closer detail: showing a few problems
This detail shows up more clearly two defects most potters are aware of: (1.)The black slip was probably too dry when the lines were scratched through - the edges cracked and the lines are rough and (2.)White slip is flaking off - probably applied too thickly (see Potter's Notes later on).

037 Tiny funeral oil flask ca.500BC ht:11.5cm
This is typical of the vast mass-produced market for small ( five inches high) lekythoi, that contained the oil used in a funeral ceremony. This one has lost the funnel mouth at the neck, but is otherwise complete. From a potter's point of view it has considerable interest. The rough basic hollow shape was thrown on a potter's wheel. Unlike a more prestigious item, where more time and care would be taken, this little pot was one of many being made and decorated at speed in a day or two. This is repetition pottery.

037a Centered hole in foot
When leather-hard, it was turned horizontally on a lathe (exactly like wood turning) to the required form. Underneath the center of the foot is a small hole made by the center spike of the lathe. Normally you can't see this in a museum. The black slip line banding was quickly brushed on whilst still on the lathe.
Click for detail037b Detail of warrior painting.
This detail shows accidental "chattering" marks and scoring grooves from a worn turning tool or too dry a pot. Many finishing problems haven't changed over millennia!
Click for detail037c Detail showing the top of pot. diam 5.2cm.
This view of the neck and top of the pot shows the squashed base of the little handle roughly joined to the shoulder with slip and bent over to be smoothed against the neck. The broken neck shows where the cup-like funnel would have been. The various motifs in the banding patterns around the shoulder show all the signs of haste and a need to simplify; evidence of mass-production.
Click for detail037d Detail of figure painting.
This group of two horses and a rider is less than 5 cm. high. A painter with some talent and probably years of repetition produced these lively images - at speed. The brush strokes and scratched outlines were made quickly with confidence.

038 Black figured amphora (jar) Made in Athens about 520-500BC. BM. Black figured amphora (jar) with Dionysos and two satyrs. Made in Athens about 520-500BC. Attributed to the painter Psiax and signed on the rim by Andokides as the potter. The body of this pot is covered with a deep black lustrous slip glaze. The only decoration is the painting on the neck.
038a Neck detail: Dionysos and two Satyrs
The god of wine holds a drinking horn in one hand and a vine branch in the other. Either side is a drunken dancing satyr.
Click for detail038b Detail: Figure of Dionysos A closer view shows more clearly the crisp scratched patterns and lines. The small amount of purple plum color for the beard, and decorative spots and bands gives extra life to the costume and figure. In this example, some edges of the black paint and also the delicately painted fingers of the satyr have slightly re-oxidized to red in the cooling kiln.

Potter's Notes (1) on ... Greek Black-figure Painting Technique

  • The Origins: A technique of using a dark brown-black slip for painting, was used by the potters of the Aegean all through the 2nd millennium BC, refined and improved over a long period by observation and trial and error. Look at the Cretan and Mycenaean examples. This Attic Geometric pot of the 8th-7th centuries BC is differently decorated but the body and the slip are little changed. But a Corinthian pot of about 600BC shows much more sophisticated black-figure ware. Building on much of this the potters of Attica carried the black-figure style to perhaps the highest state of perfection as seen on this 5th century Attic Black-Figure pot. This superb black-figure painting is the result of a combination of even more careful selection and preparation of materials, expert decorators, efficient updraft kilns (T3) and well-controlled firings.
  • The clay bodies used were mostly locally refined red earthenware clays which fired orange or brick red at about 950°Centigrade.
  • Pots were thrown on a wheel, in pieces if necessary, then joined together with slip. Handles were molded separately and fixed on last, before decorating
  • When leather-hard, many small pots were also turned horizontally on a lathe to refine the thickness and shape. A wash of yellow ochreous clay was then brushed on to produce a richer terracotta color Much can be seen in this small mass-produced funeral oil pot. The underneath of the foot is paler and has no shine. At the center is the small hole caused when turning on a lathe.
  • The Black Vitreous Slip: This was achieved using a local red (iron rich)clay, often the same clay as the body but with added soda or potash (alkali flux) in some form.
  • Characteristics of slip: Small particle size - achieved by levigation rather than grinding; sufficient alkali to cause the slip to begin to melt at about 900°Centigrade - this came from soluble soda or potash minerals, maybe from plant ash. Urine is also thought to have been used to improve the brushing quality. The slip was evaporated to concentrate the flux minerals and to produce a thick smooth slip for brush painting.
  • The firing process: This was the key to achieving a fired pot with buff to red body, smooth but somewhat porous, decorated with brush painting in a dense shiny black (vitreous)slip.
  • The Method : A red bodied pot decorated with the "red clay slip + alkali paint" is fired in a wood fired kiln. When the temperature reaches 800°C the vents are closed and probably enough different or damp fuel used to make the kiln become smoky (reduced atmosphere) and short of oxygen but allowing the temperature to still rise slowly. The red iron oxide in the body and the slip changes to the (black)iron oxide (containing less oxygen). Of course, this change cannot be seen in a red hot kiln!

    The smoky atmosphere continues until the time the temperature has gone beyond 900°C when the alkali and the black iron in the painting slip will begin to cause this clay slip to melt, producing a shiny surface.

    When about 950°C.is reached, the temperature is then allowed to drop to below 800°C. whilst the smoky (reduced) atmosphere continues. By this time the vitreous slip will have cooled sufficiently to become an impervious glassy film.

    After dropping below 800°C. the dampers are opened to allow enough air in to clear the smoky atmosphere. Although this is still at red heat and cannot be seen, the black iron oxide present throughout the porous clay body absorbs more oxygen and returns to its original stable state of RED iron oxide. However, the black iron oxide in the vitreous slip is now trapped in a glassy film. It cannot re-absorb any oxygen, so remains as BLACK iron oxide.

    When the kiln and pots are cool the body becomes the orange-red-brown of common fired earthenware clay, but the dull brown iron slip, thickly painted on, has been transformed into a lustrous black paint.

  • Practical points to bear in mind:

    1. Painting Slip. Test various red clay slips. A slow but simple way of obtaining a fine particled slip is by thinning a pourable red slip with an extra quarter or half of its volume of water. You will need to make up a small bucketful of slip to test. Allow to stand for a while when the coarser particles will have settled out, then take off a jug full of slip from the top layer and evaporate it until it becomes thick enough to be a brushable paint.

    2. Flux material. Probably the simplest alkali to add is soda ash, but you can try other soluble materials containing soda or potash. Again you will need to experiment to find the best amount to add. Try a teaspoonful of soda ash to a 1/2 pint of slip to start with. Dissolve it first in a very small amount of hot water, then add and stir the slip thoroughly.

    3. The matt purple slip:
    This dry-looking purple was produced using a slip paint made from a high iron ore mineral or clay but with no flux added. The iron ore mineral Crocus Martis is worth trying to obtain this color

    4. The matt white slip:
    Occasionally used. It could be any iron-free white clay. The problem of white slip flaking off , which is often seen, happens because natural clays which fire white are usually more refractory than common red clay so tend not to fit too well on red clay, especially if painted rather thickly.

    5. Re-oxidised black slip:
    Sometimes through thinness of slip application, lack of flux or by accidental flame-flashing the black slip re-oxidises; becoming RED instead of black when cold.
    [1] Ringed area showing re-oxidized "black" slip on the right side of shoulder. This change to red is especially obvious here on such a wide band of slip
    [2] Color lost on horses legs - probably thin slip, maybe not enough flux either.
    [3] Fingers are part oxidized - probably brush stroke became very thin. Most of the edges of the black slip clothing have oxidized, presumably thin. Notice that the scratched lines cut through the inner (thicker?) area of slip are sharp, with no re-oxidised edges.

Attic Red-Figure Painting

039 Red-figure Attic cup or Kylix by the Painter Epiktetos. The scenes include Theseus slaying the Minotaur, ca.520BC Diam 11.6in.
Red-figure pottery, invented at Athens about 530 BC, is just the reverse of the black-figure style. In the black-figure style, figures were painted in glossy black pigment as silhouettes on the orange-red surface of the vase; details were added largely by incising.

040 Andokides Painter. From a red-figure amphora:Herakles and the two-headed dog Cerberus. ht:58.6cm. ca.510BC
In the red-figure style, figures were first outlined in black, with the background outside the outline filled in solidly with black paint. This left the figure red; details could be then be painted in rather than incised. Occasionally some white or the dull purple paint was used as well as the glossy black slip.

The Zenith of Greek Pottery Painting

041 Attic red figure amphora c.500-480 BC. Fr. Nola - warrior by the Berlin painter
This painting is by a pottery painter known only as Berlin because of the superb quality of his painting style recognized first on amphora f2160 in the Berlin museum. It illustrates the apparently simple but in reality momentous change that occurred in Greek painting around 500BC. as artists continued to explore ways of representing figures more naturally; they discovered a new way of drawing. The closer detail of the feet in the next image shows the result of these experiments.

Click for detail041a Detail of painting
The painted view of each foot is different. The right foot is seen from the traditional side view. The left foot is seen from the front. In doing so Greek artists discovered "foreshortening" - a way of suggesting spatial distance in two dimensions. From the front of the toes to the leg and ankles is perhaps 5-6inches back. This way of suggesting depth on a flat surface was a new discovery. It was the beginning of a quite new a way of drawing or painting a figure, a believably naturalistic representation of the human body on a flat surface.

042 Attic red-figure Bell Krater.ht:33cm. Ganymede by the Berlin Painter. ca.490-480BC LP.
Another piece of beautiful figure painting, by the same painter, which also illustrates this great achievement of Greek painting. Around 500 BC Greek artists had abandoned the convention of using only profile views and began to use three-quarter frontal poses, as well as foreshortening. Their technique of figure drawing would become the basis of the Western European style of painting.

043 Athenian red figure cup by Brygos 500-475 BC.
The conflict depicted on the outside of this drinking cup is the Sack of Troy. Whilst retaining the form of a band or frieze, the painter tries to paint the action of this scene in depth too.

Click for detail043a Detail of the painting
This detail shows the strongly delineated figures overlapping one another in a very convincing and naturalistic manner. There is a sense of rapid, often violent, movement. This new style of movement and naturalism and space in painting is now developing fast.

044 Maenad, from an amphora painted by the Painter known as Kleophrades. ht:56cm. ca.500-490BC
This new technique allowed more flexibility in the rendering of human form, movement, and, above all, expressions. It also gave a greater scope for shading and a more satisfactory kind of foreshortening and perspective.

045 Kleophrades Painter. Detail of Dionysos on a red-figured amphora.ht:56cm. ca.500-490BC
Since most of the ornamentation on Greek pottery was narrative rather than purely decorative, such technical advantages were of utmost importance when naturalism in figure painting was becoming the prime aim.
From the late 6th to the late 4th century BC. most of the more important pieces were painted in this new style.

046 Athenian vase late red figure ware ca.460-50 BC MN Naples This painting of Achilles slaying the Amazon Pentesilea illustrates again the desire for strong dramatic movement. These images illustrate the zenith of Greek pottery design and also give us some idea of what was being achieved in large-scale mural painting at this time.

047 Attic red-figure amphora ca.450BC. ht:60cm.
This is a detail of the full figure of Achilles painted on this pot. The bold but calm naturalistic style of this painter has been admired and recognized on other pots that have been found. However, we know him only by the name "the Achilles Painter", who worked around 450BC. What would a colored mural painting in this style have been like? We know they existed, they were written about, but unfortunately none have survived.

Painting on a White Slip Ground

048 Calyx Krater - figures on white slip
This last technique shows how the pottery decorators longed to have the freedom to paint like mural painters on a plaster surface. The painting on this flower-shaped vase or krater started out as a band of red figure decoration surrounded by the shiny black slip background. But the flat center band was painted with a thin even layer of white slip. Generally this survived quite well. On this an outline drawing of the figures was painted in red or black slip and then fired. Finally a gouache type paint probably similar to that used by the mural painters produced the subtle naturalistic colored effects seen on all the following images. Sadly time, wear and tear and damp have worn away much of the brightest color

049 High stemmed Kylix - black silhouettes on white slip
On the outside of this elegant drinking cup - a group of Fighting Cocks painted in black vitreous slip. Against the white ground, they stand out dramatically.

050 Funeral lekythoi. BM
A Museum Case of Funeral Lekythoi: figure painting on a white ground. Understandably, this more naturalistic style of decoration became very popular. Many of these offerings have survived; the drawings usually include portraits, probably idealized, of the dead person.

051 Lekythos painted by the Achilles Painter, ca.450-440BC.
A painting of the dead woman in the Afterlife. It was this artist who painted the figure of Achilles seen earlier in a detail. This is a quiet, introspective style of figure painting with marvelous detail.

Click for detail051a Detail: Showing more clearly the sensitive line drawing by this Achilles Painter- ca.450-440BC.
The outline drawing and some dark detail such as the hair were painted in the black slip. Some of the lighter brown, and dull purple slip colors were also used for part of the costume and hair. After being fired, any non-ceramic color paint would then have been used. This delicately drawn image of a girl playing a lyre forms the right-hand side of the whole picture around the pot.

051b The whole painting around this lekythos
In this reconstruction, I have joined together both views of the painting on this pot; it is the complete scene. On the left, the dead woman gazes across at her own shade, now a Muse, or Goddess of Music and Poetry, in the Afterworld. Her spirit is indicated by the bird. It is difficult not to be affected by the mood of gentle sadness which the Achilles Painter created sometime around 450BC.

052 Athenian Lekythos late 5th c. BC.NAM
Athenian Lekythos late 5th c. BC. This shows a man, a dead warrior, seated outside his tomb. He stretches up his arm to grasp his spear, his shield rests nearby. Naturalism in figure painting has been achieved. The relaxed, languid, even sad, figure, is completely convincing. A mourner stands on the left. Although in poor condition, sufficient has survived to see the quality of the drawing and the remains of the post-firing color that was added. The blue color is probably the same finely ground blue frit that the Cretans used for wall painting. Look at the details next.

052a Detail:Seated man outside his tomb.
This detail shows a sensitive fluid line drawing that captures the important details and presents us with a three dimensional image in the form of a seated young man. Such drawing is the work of an accomplished artist.

052b Detail: Head of man
Detail of the man's head. We don't expect to see such dynamic line drawing until perhaps the 15th century in Europe during the Italian Renaissance. Since no easel paintings or wall murals have survived from classical Greece, contemporary ceramic decoration gives us a glimpse of what Greek wall painting must have been like in the 5th century BC. This is why Greek pottery has such a special place in the history of Art - and European painting in particular.

Potter's Notes (2) on ... The Absence of Colored Glazes

Some Thoughts: It perhaps comes as a surprise to realize that, having become so proficient in the complex process of making and firing the shiny black vitreous slip, Greek potters were never interested in using colored glazes on their pots.

No interest in Persian Glazes or Frit Paste Colors: As inveterate travelers they must have been well aware of the colorful ceramic products in contemporary Egypt and Persia. Alkaline Glazes were probably thought brash and foreign; and certainly not easy to control: The sharp refined lines of Greek drawing would probably not have been possible using any contemporary frits and "glazes" then available.

The Greek Ceramic Style: Classical Greek terracotta pottery and ceramic painting had by the fifth century BC. developed as far as it could. The spurt of invention and experiment in Greek ceramics had run its course for the time being. They had perfected a ceramic painting system using buffs, browns, dull purples and white slip plus a lustrous vitreous black slip on the terracotta or buff colored clay. Colored glazes and other developments would have to wait for later pottery innovators.

The last intriguing questions: Perhaps they simply didn't choose to develop colored glazes in ceramics. It is possible they were considered un-Greek. No wall paintings have survived so we cannot really know how softly - or richly - colored were their wall-paintings compared with their ceramics!

The Decline of Greek Pottery
- in the mid-5th century BC.

From a potter's point of view the story and interest in Greek pottery is now practically over. The decline began surprisingly early, well before the end of the 5th century BC. and there are probably many causes. The inherent limitations of the curving pot surface and the limited colors, meant that pottery painters could no longer compete with the rapid strides toward naturalism taken by painters of larger works such as wall paintings. The following images illustrate this decline. The most inventive artists no longer wanted to design or decorate terracotta pottery; they preferred the color and breadth of wall painting or other crafts.

053 A late 5th century BC. Attic Krater: preparations for a theatrical performance.
Various attempts to introduce spatial depth into their designs by the selective grouping of figures were not very successful. This 5th century attic krater shows a crowded scene; the preparations for a theatrical performance. The different levels destroy any attempt at reality. To build such scenes at different levels, you need to understand the principles of linear or geometric perspective and, as far as we can tell , the Greeks never did discover this.

054 Detail of florid style painting on a hydria made ca.410BC. After 430 BC pottery painting was increasingly trivialized in conception and sentimental in emotional tone. Drawing became over-refined and careless, and groups of figures were crowded together without meaning or interest. Basically this is a Red-Figure painting by the Meidias Painter. Painted in a florid stylized manner it is also embellished here and there with gold leaf. The scene is from a tale about Phaon, a grizzled old boatman, who the Gods transformed into a handsome youth irresistible to women... The painting is filled with nymphs frolicking hither and thither. The restraint of the earlier Classical part of the 5th century has gone, replaced by boisterous, sometimes wild, extravagances in taste. The coming 4th century BC will be a Greek Baroque Age.

055 Late Attic black-figure amphora ca.400BC ht:67cm. BM.
The ugly shape of this amphora, the fashionable, stylized manner of drawing, all illustrate the progressive decline into a manneristic style where exaggeration and distortion of the human form became commonplace.

055a Attic red-figure Pelike ca.350BC ht:42.5cm. BM.
Pelike, a jar for oil or wine. Shapes become less refined, even clumsy. The standards of pottery making and decorating fall dramatically by the end of the 5th century BC.

056 Faliscan Volute-Krater.ht:59.2cm. ca.340BC. RVG
The restrained naturalism of the late 6th and early 5th centuries was gradually replaced by exaggerated poses, sentimental scenes and excessive ornament. Athens began the 5th century wealthy and proud; by the end of the century its power had vanished. Social unrest and wider political problems led to war between the city states. Trade and commerce became badly affected. Pottery design and decoration had blossomed into flower during the course of the early fifth century BC by the beginning of the next century it had lost much of its creativity.

057 Apulian calyx-krater.ht:53cm. Mid 4th century BC Lipari.
The vases characteristic of this later period are gaudier, with details added in white and sometimes in yellow-brown, gold, and blue. The subjects and treatment are often trivial and sentimental; and attempts at naturalism and depth perspective were always at odds with the pottery shapes. By the 4th century, the figured decoration of pottery had become a degenerate art, and it had died out in Athens by 320 BC.

Greek Pottery
Classical Shapes and Sizes

Greek pottery was manufactured in a variety of different shapes and sizes according to the use to which a particular vessel would be put. Below are line drawings illustrating many common types: alabastron; amphora; hydria; krater; kylix; lekythos; oinochoe; etc. Click on a shape to see an actual example from my tutorial. Most, but not every type is illustrated by an example.

Amphora Pelike Volute Krater Loutrophorus Calyx Krater Column Krater Bell Krater Stamnos Psykter - No Image Hydria Lebes Gamikos Lebes - No Image Lekythos Squat Lekythos - No Image Oinochoe Kantharos - No Image Kylix Stemless Kylix - No Image Skyphos Aryballos Alabastron Pyxis - No Image

Terracotta Sculptures and Figurines

058 An oil or perfume flask ca.540-530BC ht:10in. AMA
in the form of a kneeling boy binding a victory ribbon around his head - originally there was a gold or silver wreath. The head and body are hollow-molded, the arms and legs solid. It is generally regarded as the finest Greek pottery figurine known; counterplay between naturalism and firm stylization, between the soft flesh and suggested bone.

059 Terracotta sculpture Zeus and Ganymede 500-475 BC. AMO This fired clay ¾ life size sculpture depicts a story about Zeus,the father of the Gods, snatching up the boy Ganymede and carrying him off to become a cupbearer to the Gods on Mount Olympus.

Click for detail059a Detail: Head of Zeus
Relatively few large Greek terracotta pieces like this have survived. Even today the various modeling, molding and joining of such large hollow pieces would be considerable. Further problems follow with such big pieces: drying, shrinkage and firing. It is probable that stone, particularly white marble, became the preferred alternative to terracotta, in Greece of the late 5th century onwards. Marble would certainly pose fewer problems to make and finish! In the next tutorial T7 you can see more examples of similar life-size terracotta sculptures made, from the 6th century BC onwards, by the Etruscans in Italy.

060 A terracotta head of the Goddess Athena ca.490BC AMO
This is all that remains of what was almost certainly an almost life-size statue of the Goddess. It would probably have been richly painted and placed in a shrine or temple. The style of sculpture and painting at the beginning of the 5th century BC. was approaching naturalism. The techniques for representing the eyes, the mouth and the facial muscles were as yet not quite resolved. The facial expression is often called "the Archaic Smile". Ten or twenty years later the Greek artists achieved a style of "ideal naturalism" which has been admired down the ages.

The Post Classical Hellenistic Age - Ceramic Masks and Figurines

061 Terracotta theatrical Mask 3rd c BC. Agora Mus Athens.
Clay masks both comic and tragic were used in the dramas performed on the stages of the outdoor theatres. Vast numbers of masks were made and usually painted with water-glue based colors which have now worn off.

062 Figurine of young woman. Tanagra. ht:24cm. End of the 4th century BC BSM AAG
This small terracotta figure still bears the traces of its original vivid watercolor paint. Its exaggerated height and sinuous and sentimental quality produce an extraordinary resemblance to mass-produced statuettes of the Virgin Mary produced two thousand years later all over Catholic Europe.

063 Tanagra type Terracotta, from Myrina 2nd c. BC. BM.
A press molded and modeled small figurine of two women chatting. Such painted terracottas of domestic or sentimental subjects were popular judging by the numbers found. Bought to be used as decorative ornaments in the comfortable homes of the wealthy. They occupy the same niches as did the later 18th century porcelain figures or the less costly slip-cast earthenware groups of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Potters and Potteries in Ancient Greece

The Smooth Shiny Finish
Classical Greek potters made the next significant advance in large scale pottery production since the invention of the wheel. They produced a wide range of purpose-made practical shapes, expertly made by throwing or molding and smoothly finished by lathe-turning to give bold, often metal-like, forms. These were then decorated with a repertoire of attractive patterns and naturalistic images. Finally they were expertly fired in carefully controlled wood-fired kilns to produce the dominant characteristic color scheme of Terracotta red and shiny black.

By the beginning of the 5th century BC. pottery-making in Greece was a mass-production business with a pottery-owner employing many workmen. Usually each clay worker had a specific and limited area of work; be it digging or refining clay. For potters there were more skilled jobs concerned with throwing, molding, decorating and firing pottery. Ancient Greek pottery factories did not have coal, gas or electricity, nor the slip-casting possibilities using plaster of Paris, but I suspect they had a lot in common with much later early industrial potteries in Europe.

Later Comparisons
Potters in 5th century BC Athens or 18th century Stoke-on-Trent, England were both producing ware for large domestic and export markets. They shared many similar requirements and would have had many similar problems though over two millennia apart. Both needed to produce a range of repeatable shapes, high standards of finish and attractive, repeatable decoration. If we compare 5th century BC Greek Pottery and 18th century AD Staffordshire Pottery, using these criteria, each appears to have a lot in common.

Factory Conditions
It's sad to realize that Greek potteries were probably as dirty and dangerous as the 18th century ones in England. The pottery quarter of a town was almost a ghetto for potters. The lives of the potters would have been hard in both places.

In Greece many potters were almost certainly slaves. The pottery shape-designers and the painter-decoraters were treated with respect,some even achieved national fame; their working conditions and status were the highest in the industry. In Greece, some large, well finished and superbly decorated pots often had the names of both potter and decorator written on the side of the pot for all to see.

A Few Books of Interest:

  • The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History: Colin McEvedy.
  • Larousse Encyclopedia of Prehistoric and Ancient Art: Edited by Rene Huyghe.
  • Larousse Encyclopedia of Ancient and Medieval History: Edited by Marcel Dunan.
  • Greek Pottery: Arthur Lane: Faber & Faber.
  • The Classical World: Donald E Strong: Landmarks of the World's Art series: Paul Hamlyn
  • The Techniques of Painted Attic Pottery: J M Noble: Faber & Faber.

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