Red or Black?

One of the major pieces of art we have left from ancient Greece is their pottery. It was even featured in the Disney movie, Hercules. What’s even cooler than that, is that the pottery in the movie mimicked what the pottery did in real ancient life.

The Greeks had a lot of different names for a lot of different pottery vessels. The style and what it was meant to hold meant a different name than the one similar next to it. Pottery was used not just in a practical way, but also to spread stories. A lot of pottery has visual depictions of myths, and even just random fun things. My favorite is called Pelike, meaning wine jar. It is not my favorite because of wine, I want to make that clear, but because there is a depiction of Ajax and Achilles playing a board game on one, assumedly taking place during the Trojan War. There is more than one pottery piece with this on it, and sometimes you can tell who is winning. Its Achilles who’s winning by the way, because of course he is, he’s Achilles! Greatest of the Greeks! We can ignore the part in the Iliad where he becomes irrationally murderous, we still love him. Poor Hector though.

I’m giving this one the spotlight since it’s similar to the Ajax and Achilles one. This one is a depiction of two musicians taking a break to play a game. There are many different pottery pieces that follow the same general theme but change characters. What I have above is what is called Black-Figure pottery, which originated form the Corinthians until Athens got their hands on it. If one city state did something well, Athens had to find a way to make theirs better. This is why we have red-figure pottery as well, thanks to the Athenians.

What I have shown so far is black-figure pottery, if you weren’t sure. Sometimes the reversal gets me all backwards, so I thought I should clarify. Black-figure pottery, introduced around 635 B.C., was hand shaped, and to create the art, they incised a slip, a liquid version of clay, that would turn black when fired, or added other pigments like purple or white. This kept the background the same color as the clay, while the design came out black. Above is a depiction of one of Herakle’s 12 labors. To again reference the Disney movie, one of his labors was also to kill the hydra as he did in the movie. On this pottery though, he is actually fighting Triton, Poseidon’s son.

Dionysus, God Of Wine on a chariot with three Maenads, female worshippers of Dionysus

Above is the top rim of the same piece of pottery, as most pottery has more than one, sometimes more than 3 things being depicted on it at once. Now of course after perfecting black-figure potter, the Athenians have created red-figure pottery around 530 B.C. This new style eventually completely replaced black-figure pottery, as there was more that you can do with it. This pottery style was still made coInstead of delineating the pottery, they are able to use drawing forms. Using a paintbrush was better suited for creating a naturalistic look.

This is an example of red-figure pottery, this one depicting the Amazonomachy, the battle between the Greeks and the Amazons. You can see the difference in detail that is more attainable with this style of pottery compared to its predecessor. When looking up close, it’s really quite impressive. The lines on the bodies and horses are so thin and carefully placed, while the designs on the shields and clothing are much more complex. I briefly described this previously however I am going to expand. The firing process for both types had 3 stages. The first was oxidizing the clay, so it had that red color. After that, a green wood would be burned, lessening the amount of oxygen. This caused the pottery to turn black in the smoke. Lastly, fresh are would be filtered back into the kiln. All the preserved areas that turned black would return to the clay color, whereas any glossed area would stay black.

When I was looking at all the pottery I could lay eyes on while at The Met, my subconscious decided it liked black-figure pottery better, as I only took a picture of one red-figure pottery piece. I did not realize this until about 40 minutes ago, but I decided to keep just one picture of the red-figure pottery. The Athenians get all the attention anyway, I’ll give it to the Corinthians this time.

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