previous next


A vase; in the plural (vasa) a generic term for earthenware. In a technical sense it is also applied to the baggage of a Roman army in the field.

The shaping of baked clay into vessels was probably suggested and influenced by the use of gourds as vessels in primitive times; and the gourd-shape is that which predominates in the forms of Greek and Roman pottery. The earliest known types of Greek ceramic art are represented in the pottery exhumed by Schliemann at Hassarlik. This is rude in construction and clumsy in design, and in general falls under two classes—the first being shown in the two-handled vase represented below, and the so-called “owl-vase” exhibited in the second illustration. The first was identified by Schliemann with the Homeric δέπας ἀμφικύπελλον, and the second has an interest of its own in being a

Two-handled Vase from Hassarlik. (Schliemann.)

primitive attempt to give to a vase some of the attributes of a living model. These vases are made by hand, and have the dull, blackish colour produced by the smoke of the furnace.

Owl-vase from Hissarlik. (Schliemann.)

A more advanced type is found in the vases derived from the groves of Cyprus, especially at Alambra (Dali) and Larnaca (Kition), places colonized by the Phœnicians. These Cypriote vases are either (a) covered with a vitreous slip and baked to some shade of red, and occasionally decorated with slips of clay often in the shape of serpents; and (b) of fine clay delicately moulded, in colour gray or pale black. In shape they are either long and gourdlike or flat and broad like a shallow cup. Vases of the same general type have been found also on several of the Aegean Islands, such as Amorgos, Antiparos, Naxos, and Melos. Painted vases gave a new direction to the taste and ingenuity of the potter; and many such have been found at Thera (Santorin) whose ware is made entirely by the wheel, and are furnished with a foot so as to stand by themselves and not to be hung by a handle. In these, red, brown-black, and white are used on prepared grounds of gray, buff, and brownish red. It has been asserted by some, on the evidence of geology, that this ware dates back to the fifteenth or even to the twentieth century before Christ.

The next stage of development is represented by the “Mycenaean” ware, found, however, in many localities. It consists of vases painted either with opaque or with lustrous colours (violet-brown, red, or white) upon red or pale clay, and the ornamentation is derived largely from marine forms. A few specimens of early vases imitate in clay the Phœnician glass, painted in wavy lines of orange on red and highly polished. In both the Alambra and Mycenaean pottery are seen the beginnings of a new style of decoration known as the “geometric,” influenced by the technique of metal-work, and exhibiting the ornamental designs of concentric arches, rosettes, spirals, etc. The finest specimens of this style after it is fully established come from Athens, which is regarded as the principal seat of its manufacture. The geometric style became the most popular of all, and it gave the artist sureness of hand and eye, and a sense of form and proportion that was very valuable.

A new feature is exemplified in vases found at Phalerum which employ new animal types, designed and grouped under the influence of Oriental models. A development of this style combined with the geometric is called by Conze the “Melian.” From the production of this pottery, Oriental influence increases and adds much to the beauty and effectiveness of the painted vase.

Under the further influence of metal-work and embroidery, polychromy enters fully into the methods of the vase-painter. Light and shade, and discrimination of planes of surface, were made possible by the combination of silhouette and outline-drawing introduced by the potters of the island of Rhodes. The subjects chosen by this school are chiefly animals (goats, lions, bulls, boars, rams), and, later, the human figure. Adefinite scene (from the Epic) is first found depicted in clay on the Euphorbus Pinax, assigned by Kirchhoff to the seventh century B.C., and depicting the battle of Menelaüs and Hector over the body of Euphorbus. The polychromatic school reached its highest development at Naucratis. The Oriental style is found in its perfection in the ware of Corinth, which is crowded with ornament, so that at a little distance the separate figures cannot be distinguished, but the general effect is that of a rich Oriental brocade. Scenes from mythology and also from ordinary life now appear. (See Dodwell Vase.) This growing sense that human action is the true subject for the vase-painter's art led to the decline of Orientalism, which held to animals. After this change was thoroughly established, the great centre of fictile production was Athens (cir. 650-300 B.C.).

Oenochoë of quasi-Oriental type. (Birch.)

Athenian pottery has two epochs—the “blackfigure” and the “red-figure.” A new discovery contributed to the rapid advance of Athenian ceramics—a deep-black varnish of the highest brilliancy, with a surface like polished metal, insensible to ordinary reagents, but not interfering with that porousness of the clay which under a Greek sun is so necessary for the coolness of water or wine. Its manufacture is still a secret; nor is it known where the invention first saw the light. So popular did it immediately become that the vase-painter covered the whole surface with it, leaving as field for the actual picture only a square panel of red ground-colour.

It is with the masters of black-figure style that the point first comes adequately to express the lines of musculature and bodily form. The rendering of drapery is a mark of relative date. At first the chiton is a straight daub of colour, as in Corinthian ware, and is often purple in hue with perhaps a black girdle; then patterns are scratched in, or elaborately painted on with white; folds begin to be marked, are outlined with the point, and dress gives some hint of the underlying contour of the body. An alternate use of purple and black for the folds is occasionally carried so far as to express light and shade. A like use of purple is to be seen in the treatment of muscles in animals, especially the horse. White is throughout a flesh-tint for female figures, but is also employed, on later vases, for the long chiton of a charioteer and the gray hair of old men.

Drawing is almost entirely in profile; full-face is rendered with little more adroitness than had been shown before. The eyes of men remain large and round; of women, oval and small. In more recent vases a trick grows up of crowding the field with long, purely conventional ivy sprays: equally conventional in rendering are the landscape features sometimes introduced, and no attempt is made at pictorial perspective.

The subjects of vases become now of less importance for their general history. In black-figure ware they are mainly mythological, sometimes genre. In mythology, the Dionysiac cycle and the feats of Heracles are by far most frequent; after them, the legends of Athené and Hermes. Frequently as scenes from the Cyclic poets appear, scarcely any can be traced to the Iliad or Odyssey.

Ornament, as distinct from painted scenes, becomes stereotyped. Signed vases are now in vogue, and the cylices are especially fruitful in artists' signatures which have preserved their names. Ergotimos and Clitias, who made and painted the great François crater, were followed by Nearchus, whose sons Tleson and Ergoteles, with Ergotimos's son Euchirus, have signed many of the earlier cylices. Other names are Xenocles, Hermogenes, Archicles. In amphorae Exekias takes first place for spirited and careful drawing; Amasis carries nicety of detail almost to extravagance; Hischylos represents transition style. The most prolific and clever, as also the most popular, was Nicosthenes, who originated a new cylix, and is also known by a peculiar form of amphora introduced by him. On Nicosthenes, see Löschcke in the Archäolog. Zeitung for 1881, pp. 33 foll.

It is not known precisely where the making of red-figure ware originated; but its origin is assigned approximately to the year B.C. 500, and is said to have owed its development to high art. Hitherto, the ceramic art of the Greeks had been properly classed as “ornament”; hereafter it became a branch of painting. (See Pictura.) It shows a great advance in drawing and is free from the conventionalism of the black-figure ware. In its development the influence of Polygnotus was very great. Contemporary with the red-figure vases is the polychromatic ware with a white ground. The great majority of this class are lekythi, though these are found also in red-figure.

Three classes of lekythi may be distinguished: (a) Figures generally in red or sienna; subjects entirely funereal; polychromy sober and restrained; style, fine. (b) Figures in black or brown; subjects generally funereal, but sometimes drawn from family life, the pantheon, or even mythology; polychromy brilliant and often directly pictorial; style fine. (c) Figures in yellow; painting almost always monochrome; style decadent, often careless. Still another type of ware is represented by vases simply covered with a lustrous black varnish, ornamented after the fourth century B.C. with gilding and an occasional figure in colours. Many are of great beauty. Vases in the shape of human heads and rhyta (see Rhyton) and others of terra-cotta modelled in the form of human busts are found.

From about the time of Alexander the Great (B.C. 325), the manufacture of red-figured vases was transferred to Italy, where there have always existed native schools of pottery. With the opening of the Hellenistic as opposed to the Hellenic Age, art became provincial. Sculpture and painting passed to Pergamum, Alexandria, and Rhodes, and in like manner pottery was chiefly cultivated in the cities of Magna Graecia.

No new world-wide trade, like that of Athens, no important novelty in technique, marked the transference. Although Apulia produced amphorae and crateres of great splendour, the decadence of style, which had already begun at Athens, is painfully apparent. Men sought to add fresh life to a waning industry by inventing giant vases and richer shapes, by bringing into play all the resources of polychromy, and even summoning plastic to their aid; but profuse ornament and gaudy colouring scarcely cloak bad drawing and bad taste. Yet the artists had a pride in their work, and signatures again occur, though in no great number. Two traits are characteristic: (a) The strict relation maintained on most examples between the use of the vase for service at the tomb and its decoration (either a scene of offerings at the tomb, or an appropriate myth); and—where the subject is not funereal—(b) the frequent borrowing from the stage (farces especially), and the rendering of other than dramatic scenes with dramatic accessories (cf. Heydemann, Jahrbuch, 1886, pp. 260 foll.).

Three separate South Italian fabrics may be distinguished, Lucanian, Campanian, Apulian. The technique in all is that of red-figure ware. Each class exhibits a peculiarity in depicting the human figure, a peculiarity suggestive of difference of social type; each, too, introduces details of national costume.

Lucanian vases may be relatively somewhat older; at least their manufacture seems to have sooner come to an end. Though somewhat helpless in draughtmanship, their style is comparatively restrained; polychromy is little used, and the heavy, clumsy drapery seldom bears a trace of ornament. A favourite shape is the campaniform crater; another, a kind of amphora only found in Lucania:

Later examples show great fondness for polychromy, tints especially prominent being white and yellow—the latter, in most cases, a cheap substitute for gilding. Tendrils of vine, ivy, and other plants are often introduced, as also on Apulian ware, with a happy effect; and occasionally motifs are taken direct from nature, as, for instance, a bird singing on a spray. The most important class, and that of highest artistic merit, is the Apulian, a product probably of Tarentine activity. Characteristic are the giant amphorae, one blaze of ornament from head to foot; characteristic, too, the heavy Doric chin of the men, the slender neck and stout barrel of the horses, the zones of fishes and marine forms employed as ornament.

As regards colours in South Italian polychrome ware, the red ground-clay is often changed to brown, and white used as a flesh-tint for women, but also, with a dash of yellow, for men. Yellow is perhaps the favourite decorative colour. The South Italian (Greek) vase-making died out about B.C. 250, at which time Latin painted vases begin to appear. Their ornamentation is quite simple and rude—a spray of vine or olive with perhaps an Eros in the centre (Annali dell' Inst. 1884). These are the last painted vases, and they are immediately succeeded by the Cales ware, black, metallic, and moulded (Gamurrini, Gazette Archéol. for 1879, pp. 47 foll.). Henceforth pottery, for so much life as is left to it, became a branch of plastic. On the Calene style followed the Samian and Aretine. Greek ceramic art had given place to Roman. The pottery of Rome is in itself of less importance, and is noted under Fictilé; but it has a value of its own, as the link by which the secrets of classical ceramic art were communicated to the Northern nations, among whom the Kelts rank first. Samian and Aretine vases were freely imitated in Gaul and England, where native fabrics grew up under Roman influence.

Bibliography.—The literature of this subject is very extensive. The student may most conveniently refer to Jahn, Einleitung zur Beschreibung der Vasensammlung zu München (Munich, 1824); Dumont and Chaplain, Les Céramiques de la Grèce Propre (Paris, 1881 foll.); Genick, Griechische Keramik (Berlin, 1883); Lau, Griechische Vasen (Munich, 1877); Birch, Hist, of Ancient Pottery (new ed. London, 1873); Jacquemart, Hist. of the Ceramic Art, Eng. trans. (London, 1873); Jännicke, Grundriss der Keramik (Stuttgart, 1879); Dennis, Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria (London, 1878); Heydemann, Humoristische Vasenbilder (Berlin, 1870); and, in general, Baumeister, Denkmäler, s. v. “Vasenkunde” (Munich, 1889), and Westropp's and Murray's manuals. Arndt's Studien zur Vasenkunde (Munich, 1887) is to be used with caution. Compare also the articles Fictilé; Pictura; and Terra-cottas.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: