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History Contained: Ancient Greek Bronze and Ceramic Vessels

Dates: September 17, 2005–January 2, 2006

In designing vessels to serve everyday needs, the Greeks created some of the most enduring forms that continue to be familiar down to the present time. To the Greeks, shape and function rather than medium were primary: a bronze vessel would be more expensive than one in clay, but all media, whether clay, bronze, silver, gold, marble, or wood attracted workmen of extraordinary talent. The Greek bronze vessels from the collection of Shelby White and Leon Levy are therefore naturally complemented by ceramic counterparts from the collection of Judy and Michael Steinhardt. Each offers a glimpse into the magnificent traditions that persisted over many centuries. The exhibition contains fourteen bronze vessels and vessel elements and fourteen painted ceramic containers; a bronze Corinthian helmet and a bronze greave (shin guard) have been added to illustrate the armor depicted in the painted scenes.

Greek vessels were often used in more than one way. Some were awarded as prizes at athletic competitions; many were dedicated at religious sanctuaries, as votive gifts to the gods or as demonstrations of political grandeur. Huge numbers were made for export and found their way by trade or gift to the corners of the Mediterranean world, and even beyond, from Sudan to Russia, from Egypt to Spain. A great many have been well preserved in rock-cut tombs, for the deceased to enjoy in the afterlife. From these tomb groups it is often clear that fine pottery or fine bronze-work was treasured in a family for a generation or two before consignment to the grave.


The technique of working bronze goes back to before 3000 BC, when craftsmen in Mesopotamia and Egypt discovered that adding tin to copper produced an alloy, bronze, whose strength was greatly increased while at the same time retaining qualities that allowed for exceptional workmanship. Greek bronze vessels were made using two techniques. The bodies were generally hammered, starting with a disc of thickened metal and raised slowly to the desired contour. This left the metal extremely thin. To these bodies were added, by means of lead solder, cast feet and handles. Decorative appliqués were sometimes added to enliven the austere appearance. In the sixth and fifth centuries BC they were cast, such as the lions; but later, in the course of the fourth century BC, it was discovered that metal could be saved by using repoussé. This technique involved hammering a design from the back of a thin sheet of metal, and then turning it over to sharpen the details from the front. The marvelous crispness possible is illustrated on the calyx-krater and hydria.

Unfortunately, we are only able to glimpse the Greeks’ remarkable achievements in bronze working. Ancient bronzes are rare because bronze commanded intrinsic value and could easily be melted down for re-use. Furthermore, the thin hammered bodies often corroded and crumbled away.

While treasured, Greek vessels were definitely intended for use, whether in the women’s quarters or the men’s. Characteristic of the former are smaller ones for perfumes and unguents, such as the geometric bronze pyxides. Another shape associated especially with the women’s world is the hydria, or water jug (our word ‘hydraulic’ comes from the same root). In antiquity, it was a woman’s task to fetch water from the well, a sight common in the Mediterranean even in modern times. The marvelous picture of this activity on a hydria by the Antimenes Painter was painted in Athens around 520 BC shortly after the ruling tyrant, Peisistratus, had overhauled the water supply and commissioned a new fountain house. Several hydriai, both in clay and in bronze, underscore the importance of water in ancient Greece, a country of long, very dry summers, and illustrate the similarity in form of the two mediums.

Most characteristic of vessels from the men’s world are those intended for the symposium, or drinking party. This social institution, from which women were excluded, took place during an evening at which discussion revolved around politics or love, poetry or philosophy. Wine was mixed with water in large containers known as kraters (from the Greek verb ‘to mix’), such as the ceramic column-krater or the bronze calyx-krater. The water was brought in hydriai; the wine in amphorae, like the huge black-figure example with Herakles departing for Olympus. The wine was then drawn off in jugs and poured into cups.

The ceramic vases here employed two decorative treatments, black- and red-figure. Both rely on an iron-rich clay that can turn red in an oxidizing kiln as well as black in reducing conditions (without oxygen). In black-figure, the scene is drawn in silhouette over the clay background; texture and detail are added by means of cherry-red or white glaze, or by incision. In red-figure, the scene is left in the color of the red clay, and the background painted in black. Details here are possible in the so-called relief-line, a wiry, crisp line in thick glaze, or in dilute, honey-colored wash.

By examining the color, texture, and mineral traces in the clay, it is possible to identify pottery from several different Greek cities, such as Corinth or Athens. By further taking account of the shape of the vessel, which changes over time, and, more especially, the style of drawing, it is possible to identify individual artists who created these vases and assign accurate dates to them (although their actual names are not usually known).

The pictures on Greek vases give us the fullest documentation we have of scenes of everyday life, cult, ritual and mythological and religious beliefs. Their fascinating images transport us directly to the societies that produced them, to the worlds of Homer, Pericles, and Alexander the Great.

From the collections of Shelby White and Leon Levy

Judy and Michael Steinhardt

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