Category Archives: Greek

13: Ellsworth Kelly’s “Chicago Panels”

Hello again and welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. Please bear with me for a minute as I make a brief technical note. If Episode 11: The Parthenon Frieze, Part 2 was the last episode that automatically downloaded to your computer if you’re subscribing to the podcast, then that’s probably because I recently updated my podcast publishing software. Apple kindly decided to rename my podcast’s RSS feed, the link that you use to subscribe, and there’s not much I could do about it. But I did tell iTunes to redirect to the new feed, so for many listeners this may not be a problem any more. If you’re still having trouble with the subscription, though, just try unsubscribing and visit scarabsolutions.com, where you can resubscribe with the correct new link. And if all else fails, you can email me at scarabsolutions@mac.com and I’ll see what help I can offer. If none of this is making any sense, then it may not apply, so don’t worry and just keep listening as always.

So, with that, in the past three episodes we studied the Parthenon Frieze on the Athenian Acropolis in comparison to the Apadana reliefs at the Persian capital Persepolis. While we probably exhausted our interest in that topic for a while, I do want to take just another few minutes to look at the Parthenon Frieze in comparison to another great work of art far removed from Ancient Greece, “The Chicago Panels” by contemporary American artist Ellsworth Kelly. But before we jump in, I need to correct a little mistake I made in Episode 12. When I was talking about the replica of the Parthenon Frieze on the north side of the Art Institute, I mentioned that it’s a replica of sections from the east frieze of the Parthenon. Slip of the tongue, there. I meant to say that these figures come from the west frieze of the Parthenon, the formal beginning to the frieze. The east frieze of the Parthenon, in contrast, shows the conclusion, with the Olympian gods and presentation of the new peplos (that is, if you buy that interpretation).

Described as a master of color and form, Ellsworth Kelly is well known for his quintessential style of large, carefully controlled areas of color exuding a sense of purity in their simplicity. The Art Institute has a rich collection of works by Kelly, including paintings, collages, drawings, prints, and sculpture from throughout his prolific career. “The Chicago Panels” from 1989 to 1999 consist of six painted, monochromatic, curved aluminum panels hung on the walls around the upper level above the sculpture court of the American Art galleries at the Art Institute. Emphasizing pure color and shape, Ellsworth Kelly’s works associate with the architectural setting around them. In the American Art sculpture court, the Chicago Panels interact not only with the walls, on which the panels hang, but also the magnificent floor-to-ceiling Classical Greek style Doric columns along the balcony railing.

The Chicago Panels were commissioned specifically for this interior space. There’s no clear indication why they’re called the Chicago Panels, but the shape and color of Kelly’s artwork are often inspired by familiar objects and phenomena. When you stare at the panels long enough, you might just start to see the familiar shapes of Chicago’s skyline. At least, that’s some people’s take on it. Or maybe the many colors reflect a panel of Chicago’s ethnic diversity. By nature of its formless quality, Kelly’s artwork is very personal, engaging with the viewer and inviting you to participate in interpretation, and that’s what this episode is all about — a personal experience. We recently explored the similarities between the Parthenon Frieze and the Apadana in terms of the way one might have experienced the two works and their sites. Now I’d like to draw a comparison of personal experience between the Parthenon Frieze and the Chicago Panels. When I walk upstairs and around the gallery looking at the panels, glimpsing their partial forms sliced by the intermittent columns, I feel I come close to the same experience a late 5th century BC Athenian may have had when processing alongside the Parthenon glancing up at the frieze. I mentioned last time that the Parthenon Frieze is a sort of Athenian self-portrait mirroring the contemporary act of sacred procession at its feet. Sure, there’s no sacred procession going on in the Art Institute galleries, not regularly, at least, but if you see yourself or your city in the Chicago Panels, you might encounter a similar sense of personal patriotism.

Also, as you walk through the gallery, the Classically-inspired Doric columns break up your experience, providing only obstructed glances of the panels as you look out across the open-air space of the sculpture court below. This almost strobe-like effect of brief, fractured glimpses provides a sense of animation to the panels. Interestingly, there’s no one point in the gallery where you can stand and see all six panels in their entirety. Give it a shot. I’ve tried. There’s always at least just a little sliver of a panel hiding behind one of the columns. Just the same way on the Parthenon, the Doric colonnade breaks up your experience of the frieze, offering you only glimpses of the entire scene. As you process alongside the frieze looking up at the interrupted cavalcade of horses and parade of tribute, the fractured glimpses produce a similar sense of animation, spurring the galloping horses to life. And imagine how much more lively and life-like the frieze must have appeared in its original, vibrant, realistic coloration. Yes, as with most Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, the Parthenon Frieze and the rest of the Parthenon were highly painted.

Ellsworth Kelly may in no way have been inspired by the Parthenon Frieze when creating the Chicago Panels, and I’m not making any claim to that effect. This is just an opportunity for me to explore my own personal resonance with two moving works of art — conscious and subconscious experiences paralleled by ancient and contemporary human achievement.

I hope you didn’t mind our short departure from ancient art. Maybe you even enjoyed it. If you’d like to do more digging, I’ve added a few references on Ellsworth Kelly to the bibliography in the Additional Resources section of SCARABsolutions.com. Thanks for listening and see you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

12: The Parthenon Frieze, Part 3

Welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. I’m your host, Lucas Livingston, your guide on our journey across the Ancient Mediterranean World. Last time in Episode 11, The Parthenon Frieze, Part 2, we continued to inch toward our understanding of the Persian influence on the Parthenon Frieze. We discovered that Ionian Greek artisans played a significant role in the construction of the Persian imperial cities of Persepolis and Susa. We also looked at further evidence for the employment of Ionian artists in the Ancient Near east, in particular Asia Minor, like at Xanthos in Lycia. So, in this cultural melting pot of the Persian Empire, we see a significant exchange of artistic, iconographic, and social ideas, some of which shape Persian and Near Eastern art, while other ideas make their way over from Persia to Greece.

In this episode, we’ll begin with a brief history of the Ionic frieze before diving headlong into the Persian influences on the Parthenon Frieze of the Athenian Acropolis. It’s not absolutely necessary to trace the history of the Ionic frieze, but since the Parthenon Frieze participates in this history, it’s important to isolate what’s traditional and what’s new and innovative, so we can more easily identify the various influences.

The early Ionic frieze was basically just a continuous decorative band running around the perimeter of sacred structures, like temples, shrines, and sanctuaries. It’s called the Ionic frieze, because it develops in Ionia, which we learned last time means the Greek nations along the western coast of what’s now Turkey. You typically see animals and human figures on the Ionic frieze engaging in hunting, horse and chariot races, feasting, and ritual processions or parades, but there’s really no attempt at representing specific identifiable stories … not at this early stage. Also, there’s seldom a clear beginning, middle, or end to the scene and we see a strong sense of repetition among the figures, creating a sense of rhythm as one passes by. As we’ll see more closely later on, many of these subjects and themes are also found on the Parthenon Frieze, coming together under a grand artistic and civic vision.

While the early Ionic frieze had a largely decorative function, with little mythological or historical narrative context, there seems to have been a change towards the end of the Archaic Period as the Ionic frieze regularly began to depict mythological stories. One of the earliest examples of this transformation is seen on the treasury of the Siphnians at Delphi from about 530 to 525 BC.

The Siphnian Treasury was a small sacred structure, like a chapel or shrine, dedicated to the god Apollo. It was built by the island city-state of Siphnos in the Aegean among the Cycladic Islands. It’s called a treasury, because it was where many devotional offerings dedicated to Apollo were housed, mostly statuary given by the people of Siphnos. This was a common practice by Greek city-states, especially at the sanctuaries of Apollo at Delphi and Zeus at Olympia. Dedicating a treasury was a form of national marketing, so other city-states could gawk at its lavish splendor and be jealous of your wealth and power.

The east face of the frieze on the front of the treasury is divided into two panels of equal length. We see an assembly of the Olympian gods to the left of center and a battle scene from the Trojan War to the right. The organization of the figures is very balanced and thoroughly planned. Even though the left and right panels are architecturally one single unit, they are perceived of as being separate. For one, they represent different narratives. They also, quite literally, have their backs to one another. Also, notice how within each of the two panels, the figures change directions? This helps create a sense of momentum in the figures and draws the attention of the viewer to the centers of each panel where just beneath stood the Caryatid columns, which we see here in a beautiful reconstruction of the Siphnian Treasury at the Delphi Museum. Unfortunately, the original center of the Olympian panel is now lost, but in the Trojan War scene we see what’s thought to be the lifeless body of Sarpedon lying in a crumpled pile, over which the warriors are contesting. So, we see two interesting changes to the Ionic frieze taking place on the Siphnian Treasury. First, there’s the introduction of narrative or stories, no longer just a repetitive meander of galloping horses and flittering birds. Second, further abandoning the traditional repetitive ornamental meander that stretched the entire span of the architrave, we see that the frieze is broken up into different segments with different stories and even subplots as groups of three or four figures interact more closely with each other. These innovations—the introduction of narrative and breaking up the frieze into isolated segments—directly carry over to the Parthenon Frieze.

If you’re looking for more nitty-gritty details on the Siphnian Treasury, check the article “Notes on the Development of the Greek Frieze” and other publications by one of the modern pioneers of Greek art history, Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, Also check out Richard Neer’s article “Framing the Gift: The Politics of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi” in Classical Antiquity. You can find these references in the bibliography of the Additional Resources section at scarabsolutions.com.

We see another transformation to the Ionic frieze taking place in the Classical Period directly on the Parthenon Frieze itself. For the first time in the history of the Ionic frieze, an immediately contemporary ritual practice is alluded to or directly represented, what you might call the history of the now. As I briefly mentioned toward the beginning of this episode, the traditional Ionic frieze could represent ritual processions and cavalcades of horses. Here on the Parthenon Frieze, however, we see the Athenians representing not anonymous figures or mythic characters, but themselves. Sort of a civic self-portrait of the Athenians high above their heads as they parade alongside below in ritual procession.

A brief side note. Some of the images used here are modern replicas of the Parthenon Frieze. You’ll find these replicas of the original frieze decorating the front entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue and also on the north and south sides. You’ll also find them inside the Art Institute high above the grand staircase in the large day lit atrium officially known as gallery 200. These replicas look back to the early tradition and origin of the Art Institute as an art school rather than art museum. The galleries were once filled with plaster casts of great Classical and Renaissance sculpture to serve as models and teaching aids for the art students. But over the past century, the Art Institute has gotten rid of nearly all examples to make room for original works of art from throughout the world. One fun little thing I want to point out can be seen on the north side of the building. Here high above your head, you’ll see not only a replica of a portion of the east west [sorry … I meant to say “west” in the podcast] frieze of the Parthenon although the figures on the Art Institute aren’t actually in the same order as the current generally accepted reconstruction), but you’ll also see two of the three pivotal artists involved in the construction of the Parthenon. We have Pheidias, sculptor of the frieze and overall designer of the Classical Acropolis, and Ictinus, architect of the Classical Parthenon itself. Not present here is Callicrates, co-architect with Ictinus. Instead we have Praxiteles, famed Hellenistic sculptor of many well-known works, including the Aphrodite of Knidos, of which you’ll find a Roman period copy within the Art Institute. Perhaps we can take a closer look at this fabulous statue in a later episode of the podcast.

The traditional interpretation of Parthenon Frieze is that it represents the Grand Panathenaia, a parade held every four years in Athens that celebrates the birth of Athena and foundation of Athens with the offering of a new peplos or robe to Athena along with a hefty offering of tribute from all the different city-states within the Athenian Empire—technically still called the Delian League. The Delian League was a union of Greek city-states that came together as allies under the threat of Persian invasion and subjugation. It was formed after the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC, an early monumental victory for the Greeks over the Persians. The Delian League gets its name from the little island of Delos in the southern Aegean Sea where the treasury was kept for the money contributed by each city-state. Later on in 454 BC, Athens moved the treasury from Delos to Athens supposedly to keep it better protected, but that solidified Athens’s control of the finances and political dominance of the Delian League. With this turn of events historians often begin referring to the Delian League as the Athenian Empire, and Athens really starts to behave in a manner befitting an empire, which we start to see reflected in the arts. One of the many new purposes Athens assigned to the finances of the league was construction of the Parthenon on the Acropolis, and with that the Parthenon Frieze. It makes sense, then, that we see the Parthenon Frieze depicting the offering of tribute at the Grand Panathenaia—a portrait of the very civil practice by which the frieze was conceived. Thereby the Parthenon Frieze could also be seen as a form of propaganda—a justification or legitimization of the offering of tribute to Athens by cloaking the tribute in the context of a traditionally mythic, sacred, and even heroic context. As a side note, there are a few other interpretations of what the Parthenon Frieze might depict. If you’re interested in exploring some alternate theories, like the representation of the sacrifice of the daughter of Erechtheus, check out for starters Joan Connelly’s 1996 article “Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze,” in the American Journal of Archaeology, volume 100, pages 53-79.

So, why the big change? What caused this shift from an anonymous, almost generic representation of procession on the traditional Ionic frieze to a very specific Athenian parade on the Parthenon Frieze during this new Athenian imperial age? And I kinda just gave away the answer there. This is where we come to the Persian influence. Persepolis and the Athenian Acropolis show a pretty similar function when you look a little more closely. Both sites were ritual centers for their civic festival processions, both sites functioned as bureaucratic and administrative capitals of empires, and both sites served as treasuries to house the tribute given by subject nations of their empires.

These functional similarities could have led Athens to emulate the architectural model of Persepolis and the programmatic vision of Persia, her imperial forebearer, whose government Athens oddly enough came to parallel more and more in the wake of the Persian War. Similarly, it’s probable that Athens chose to model the Parthenon frieze in part after the Apadana reliefs at Persepolis to demonstrate a similar sort of civic pride and to pay respect to their national and now imperial godhead, Athena.

For over a century before beginning the new Classical Period Acropolis in 447 BC, Athens built little major, monumental statuary or sacred architecture. Pheidias was the artistic director of the building program on the Acropolis under the auspice of the great Athenian democrat Pericles. Pheidias gets credit for the general design and layout of the Parthenon’s frieze and sculptures and most likely for the initial models of the sculptures, but numerous artists and craftsmen from Athens and the many subject nations of the Athenian Empire were employed to execute most of the actual carving on the Parthenon.

By employing Ionian craftsmen, Athens sought to create an artistic style immediately relevant to and representative of this age of Athens as the new cosmopolitan center of the Mediterranean and leader of a panhellenic empire. Under the administration of Pericles and artistic genius of Pheidias, Athens carefully designed a new monumental architectural tradition, incorporating the local Doric order and the now more so than ever relevant Ionic order. Thus, the Ionian artists brought with themselves to Athens their traditional frieze design, and along with that their recently acquired ideas of Persian imperial propaganda.

We already mentioned some of the functional similarities between Persepolis and the Acropolis. Let’s look at some of the artistic similarities and perhaps some similarities in the way one might experience the two architectural wonders. The Audience Hall at Persepolis, called the Apadana, was the building used at the capital of the Persian Empire to received the tribute-bearing ambassadors of the subject nations. Emphasizing this function, the Apadana prominently displays extensive reliefs depicting the dignitaries with Persian and Median escorts lined up in a huge ritual procession paying honor to their ruler, patron, and protector, the Persian King. Similarly, the Parthenon frieze depicts a great assemblage of Athenians in festive, ritual procession to honor their protector and patron goddess, Athena. There’s no sense of domination or malevolent subjugation in the Apadana reliefs by some tyrannical, oppressive super-power. The ambassadors are peacefully guided by Persian and Median escorts holding hands with each other and with the lead dignitaries of each foreign party. Similarly, on the Parthenon Frieze the Athenians leading sacrificial victims and bearing gifts for their goddess are, themselves, being led by Athenian marshals. With Athenians guiding themselves in a ritual procession to the deities of the east façade, the implication here seems to be that Athens is divinely sanctioned to rule themselves, which is befitting of the placement of mortal Athenians at the culmination of the ritual procession on the east side of the frieze, the holiest external location of the Greek temple. The Olympian gods are actually pushed from the center of the Parthenon Frieze and mortal Athenians, engaging in an offering to Athena, take their place. With this, Athens effectively elevates herself to a sort of divine status, or the closest there is among Greek peoples. Similarly, at the center of the Apadana reliefs was the king—the closest human being to the divine, if not himself a living god—and around him the king’s court, where dignitaries present tribute to their patron. The event is so ritualized, so emblematic, as to become, in effect, the offering of sacrifice to their deity.

And then we come to the similarities between the Apadana reliefs and Parthenon Frieze that may function more so on a subconscious level—the common experience one might have had when participating in a ritual procession at Persepolis and on the Acropolis. What we’re looking at here on the Parthenon Frieze are different scenes of a long parade from beginning to end marching through Athens. Riders at the west end mount their horses and strap on their sandals, getting ready to take off. Horses, riders, and chariots speed along the north and south sides of the temple with the parade in full swing. Participants carry gifts and present sacrificial victims to the divine assembly at the east, with the ultimate culmination of the festival and parade being the presentation of Athena’s new peplos. Athenian and allied participants walking alongside the Parthenon in the Panathenaic procession would look up at the frieze through the intermittent breaks of the colonnade and see a familiar representation—the same thing that you’re doing right there—participating in a religious procession. And to help you engage with the frieze further, the occasional figure even looks out to the participants below. So the real life participants in a ritual procession are invited to associate themselves with the event of the Parthenon Frieze, the Parthenon itself, and the whole Acropolis.

And at Persepolis on the Apadana reliefs, the same technique is used to encourage onlookers to identify with the figures represented in the artwork, and also with Persepolis itself. The Apadana reliefs are thought to represent the annual festival of Nauroz, the Persian New Year’s celebration, when dignitaries of the subject nations were obliged to present their annual tribute, not entirely unlike the Panathenaic festival during the Athenian Empire. So, just as the figures in the Apadana reliefs are shown lined up marching to their king in a ritual parade, so too would the real-life dignitaries and soldiers be parading during the festival of Nauroz. And those aren’t just any figures in the Apadana reliefs. Their different styles of dress and the items they carry help us identify them as emissaries of the various nations subject to the Persian Empire, those very same tribute-bearing dignitaries and those very same Persian and Median soldiers, who themselves once long ago walked along these quote-unquote portraits in relief as they brought tribute to the king. The Apadana reliefs even help to channel the tribute bearers in procession as they climb the staircases to the Apadana terrace proceeding inward towards the king. And when seen in its entirety, all the hundreds of figures on the Apadana reliefs directly face the figure of the king, where he’s already receiving a Median marshal and spear-bearers, as seen here in this reconstruction drawing of the northern terrace of the Apadana from Margaret Cool Root’s 1985 article in the American Journal of Archaeology “The Parthenon Frieze and the Apadana Reliefs at Persepolis: Reassessing a Programmatic Relationship.”

So we’ve seen how the Acropolis of the new Athenian Imperial Age and the audience hall at Persepolis share a functional similarity as imperial treasuries and centers for tribute from subject nations. They were also both festival grounds for annual parades when the tribute was received. And they both served to unite a diverse group of cultures under a singular figurehead, in one case, the divine maiden and protector of democracy, Athena, and in the other, the Persian King, a living god.

We also explored a similarity in the experience of these sites by their respective festival participants in that the Apadana reliefs and the Parthenon frieze both demonstrate the same effect of connecting with the viewer, having him or her identify with the religious and imperial function of the site. We don’t see a lot of formal or stylistic similarities between the two sites, and that makes sense when you think that Athens wouldn’t directly and literally want to mimic the Persian government. Instead, by metaphorically associating themselves with their most immediate imperial forebearers, the Athenians justify their ascent to the role of emperor over the Eastern Mediterranean. By employing similar themes of tribute and the patriotic festival parade, Athens further manages to justify its claim in the eyes of the Ionian Greeks, who had long been familiar with these themes under Persian rule. And to bring it all home, Athens does all of this in the distinctly Ionian sacred artistic tradition of the Ionic frieze. How could the Ionians have possibly rebuffed their obsequious Athenian compatriots building bridges towards a new, allied, democratic Greece? Yeah, right.

Well, that concludes our long haul from Persia to Athens. I hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to visit SCARABsolutions.com where you’ll find the image library from the podcast and the ever-expanding bibliography in the Additional Resources section. And as always you can also read the transcripts for each episode plus search them, in case there’s something you know we covered previously, but don’t want to go back and listen to each episode until you find it. Plus the transcript helps to figure out how to spell all these strange ancient names I’m spouting. Also found among the transcripts is a list of links to more great Parthenon and Persepolis resources online. If you’d like to email me, you can do so at scarabsolutions@mac.com. And if you’d like to help me out, please consider offering your review of the podcast on iTunes. You’ll find a link at SCARABsolutions.com to visit the podcast in iTunes. Thanks for listening and see you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

11: The Parthenon Frieze, Part 2

Welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast, your guidebook to the Ancient Mediterranean World, picking up where Pausanias left off.

First a brief technical note. After publishing episode 10, I discovered that the video quality was a little messed up on some computers. So, I fixed that and republished episode 10, The Parthenon Frieze, Part 1. So if you weren’t happy with the way episode 10 was looking on your computer, head on back over to scarabsolutions.com and watch it again or re-download it with whatever podcast client you’re using, like iTunes. To redownload it with iTunes you’ll need to visit the podcast’s homepage in the iTunes Store. The easiest way to do this is to go to scarabsolutions.com and click the “Visit in iTunes” link. Wait for iTunes to load and then click the “Get Episode” button next to episode 10. Hey, and while you’re there, why don’t you post a review. You’re review will help others decide whether or not to bother listening and it’ll help to let me know that the podcast isn’t going unappreciated.

In episode 10 we learned about the Elgin Marbles, the Parthenon frieze, and what’s the same and what’s different between the two. In a nutshell, there’s some crossover between the two, but each term refers to its own collective body of artwork. The Parthenon frieze is a work of art conceived and executed in the 5th century BC, whereas the Elgin Marbles is a hodgepodge collection of sculpture from the Acropolis now in the British Museum. We also began to explore how Athens came to adopt the role of Empire over the eastern Mediterranean after the defeat of Persia, who had previously ruled the Ionian Greek city states of Asian Minor. And with no previous imperial model for Athens to emulate other than her enemy, Persia, ironically Athens came to model herself after that very Persia. We can see this direction manifesting in Athenian artwork of the time, namely the Parthenon frieze, when closely compared to the Apadana reliefs at the Persian capital of Persepolis. But how can we begin to make a comparison between the Persian Apadana reliefs and the Athenian Parthenon frieze? First we need to establish some evidence for a vehicle that carried this influence from Persia to Athens and we find this vehicle in the roots of the Ionic frieze and its Ionian artists.

Let’s start by exploring the role of the Ionian Greeks at Persepolis. Ionia, if you’re not completely familiar with this term, was the region comprising of culturally Greek nations along what’s now the western coast of Turkey. So, the role of Ionian Greeks at Persepolis. To put things in perspective, we need to understand that the employment of eastern Greek, specifically Ionian, craftsmen in the Near East was far from an isolated event at Persepolis. When Ionia was part of the Persian Empire, they enjoyed good relations and strong trade with the many surrounding Near Eastern nations. There’s significant evidence that Ionian artistry was a big influence throughout much of the Near East, particularly in Asia Minor. Asia Minor: that’s the name we use for the Turkish peninsula specifically in ancient times. One such example of Ionian influence in Near Eastern art can be found at Xanthos in Lycia, where we find the so-called Harpy Tomb from about 480 BC, about 30 years before construction began on the Athenian Parthenon. The artists at Xanthos were clearly representing Near Eastern themes in a distinctly Greek design. To culturally define Lycia at this time may be a slippery slope. While there’s a tremendous Ionian Greek cultural influence, Lycia was undoubtedly perceived of as being somewhat alien to mainland Greek culture. There was also a tremendous Near Eastern cultural presence here, not only from the Persian occupation since about 540 BC, but from millennia of close relations and proximity to the Ancient Near East. So, while the funerary offering or tribute scene that we see on the Harpy Tomb may seem foreign to an Attic or Athenian audience, Ionians were pretty familiar with this sort of thing on account of their long-standing occupation under Persia. The Harpy Tomb exemplifies the hybridization of Ionian and Near Eastern culture and artistry. While many details of the subject matter and the composition of the scene as a whole definitely are not Ionian or any kind of Greek, the figural style could easily be lifted straight out of contemporary Ionian relief art. Considering the subject matter, though, the audience that commissioned this work was probably leaning culturally a little more towards the Near East or Persia rather than Greece. The tomb’s occupant, in fact, is thought to have been the Lycian warrior king Kybernis, who Herodotus tells us was the leader of the Lycian contingent in the Persian army of Xerxes against Greece. At Xanthos and sites further east, Ionian trade artists worked with their own familiar technique, yet under a Near Eastern iconographic program, and you can imagine that the Ionian style could, in turn, have been influenced by the multicultural association, if not formally then perhaps thematically. Xanthos and the Harpy Tomb reliefs offer us a sensible medium between the two wide-spread Ionian projects that we’re focusing on here: the Persepolis Apadana reliefs, with their extremely Persian formal quality, despite whatever apparent Ionic influences, and the Parthenon frieze, the defining work of the High Classical Greek style, despite whatever apparent Ionic influences.

Perhaps the most relevant precedent for the association of Greek and Near Eastern art and architecture, if we’re going to establish a connection between the Apadana reliefs and the Parthenon frieze, is the employment of Ionian Greek artists at Persepolis, itself. Construction at Persepolis, the new capital city of the Persian Empire, spanned the reigns of three Achaemenid rulers and lasted over fifty years. The Achaemenid Dynasty, which ruled Persia from 559 to 330 BC, gets its name from Achaemenes, the possibly legendary chieftain of the Persians from around 700 BC. Construction began at Persepolis in 518 during the reign of Darius I, continued through the reign of his son Xerxes, and finished under Artaxerxes I around 460 BC. Traditional scholarship on Persian art maintains the theory that the Persians, having been of nomadic cultural origin and having had no style of monumental art of their own, saw the solution of importing foreign craftsmen from throughout their empire and amalgamating their styles under the direction of Persian aesthetic and iconographic desires essentially to invent a new Persian style of monumental art. As the noted Near Eastern scholar Henri Frankfort translates in The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient, the very words of Darius I on his building inscription at Susa provide convincing evidence for Ionian craftsmen being employed by the Persian imperial regime:

A great god Ahuramazda, who created this earth … who made Darius king. … I am Darius. … This is the palace which at Susa I erected. From afar its ornamentation was brought. The cedar timber … from [Lebanon] was brought; … from Babylon the Carians and Ionians brought it to Susa. … The stone-cutters who wrought the stone, those were Ionians and Sardians. The men who wrought the baked brick, those were Babylonians.

These excerpts from the building inscription demonstrate that Darius divided up the labor of constructing his palace at Susa among the vassals of the Persian Empire. And if Darisus’s admission isn’t evidence enough for Ionian Greek artisans being employed at Susa and contemporary Achaemenid sites, we also have unmistakably Greek-style graffiti etchings upon the base of a figure of Darius. These heads of bearded men are stylistically identical to contemporary Greek vase painting of around 510-500 BC. If you’ll permit me to get a little speculative, one might imagine an Ionian artisan, weary of adhering to the stiff, repetitive, rigid Near Eastern style of representation he’s been confined to by his Persian taskmasters, as having taken leave of his conscription for a few minutes to play with the more realistic, experimental, organic style near and dear to his subjugated homeland.

We could go on for quite a bit here about the minor Ionian Greek influences on the Persian artistic style, which can be see in the Apadana reliefs at Persepolis, but that’s not the point of our discussion here, and for the sake of brevity, let’s cut out that part. If you’re interested in learning more about that, remember to plug in over at SCARABsolutions.com and check out the bibliography in the Additional Resources section. In addition to the section on the Athenian Acropolis, I also added a section specifically on Persia and her relationship with Greece. But if I were to take the time to explain how the Apadana reliefs employ a sophisticated, fluid, distinctly Greek “Severe” style of rendering drapery in the quintessential archaic zigzag pattern, this would provide strong evidence for effective interaction and on-going intellectual exchange between Greek and Persian artisans, but I’m not going to go into that. And altogether, the Greek influence at Persian sites was quite limited, perhaps so as not to misdirect the propagandistic mission of Persian imperial art. Interestingly, only the drapery of figures representing Persians were rendered in the foreign Greek style-not the Medes or the Lydians or other foreign tribute bearers-hmm… It’s thought that the Apadana reliefs represent the celebration of Nauroz, the Persian New Year’s festival. During Nauroz the nations of the empire brought their tribute to the Persian king. Here we see tributaries from the subject nations bearing gifts in a ritual procession to the Persian court.

Persian policy towards her vassals wasn’t limited to conscripting their craftsmen and demanding an annual tribute. After conquering the Lydian Empire, Persia is thought to have invaded various island states and seized members of the Ionian citizenry to serve the king at home. All in all, Persia was a pretty tolerant ruler, but she tended to interfere with Ionian politics, as could only be expected of any occupying nation. Ionian cities seemed to enjoy prosperity and trade with the many neighboring nations, which were also or soon to be subject to the Persian Empire.

So, we’ve taken a look at a few examples of Ionian artisans being employed throughout Asia Minor and the Near East-on the Harpy Tomb at Xanthos and at Persian sites like Susa and Persepolis. We’ve also briefly explored how the Ionian Greek artistic style-with its increased attention at representing a dynamic and naturalistic quality to the human form and drapery in comparison to the traditional style encountered in Near Eastern art-how that’s crept into the new art of the Near East during this new era of a sort of globalization in the Persian Empire. We see this to a minor extent at Persepolis and even more so on the Harpy Tomb at Xanthos, where imperial aims don’t trump artistic innovation. In this new global climate, as artisans and other international citizenry are flung far into foreign lands, the cultural and intellectual exchange between Ionia, Persia, Lydia, and other neighboring nations could have been nothing short of profound. And as we turn our eyes westward, we’ll find these same Ionian artists later bringing their diverse experiences and influences with them to the new Empire of the Mediterranean: Athens.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

More Parthenon and Persepolis Resources

 

As mentioned in episode 10, I have a number of good resources to share on the Parthenon, her frieze, and Persepolis. Check these out…

THE PARTHENON

The British Museum

• Galleries of the Parthenon Frieze

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/galleries/ancient_greece_and_rome/rooms_18,_18a,_18b_parthenon.aspx

• Cleaning of the Parthenon Sculptures in 1938http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/article_index/c/the_cleaning_of_the_parthenon.aspx

• What are the ‘Elgin Marbles’?http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/article_index/w/what_are_the_elgin_marbles.aspx

UNESCO World Heritage Centre — Acropolis, Athens

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/404/gallery/

Lots of great images of the Parthenon Frieze and sculptures at Ancient-Greece.org

http://www.ancient-greece.org/images/museums/parthenon-sculpt/index.htm

The Parthenon Frieze from the National Documentation Centre, Ministry of Culture, Greece.

Great introduction and history of the frieze, a stone-by-stone description with images, and a bibliography.

http://www.ekt.gr/parthenonfrieze/index.jsp?lang=en&w=1024

The Parthenon Frieze virtual tour with flashy graphics, Columbia University Visual Media Center

http://www.mcah.columbia.edu/parthenon/flash/main.htm

The Nashville Parthenon

http://www.nashville.gov/parthenon/

Reconstruction drawing of the interior of the Parthenon showing the statue of Athena Parthenos

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/image?lookup=1993.01.0584

PERSEPOLIS

UNESCO World Heritage Centre — Persepolis

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/114/gallery/

Oriental Institute Photographic Archives

• Persepolis and Ancient Iran — Catalog of Expedition Photographs©http://oi.uchicago.edu/museum/collections/pa/persepolis/

• Persepolis Terrace: Architecture, Reliefs, and Findshttp://oi.uchicago.edu/museum/collections/pa/persepolis/persepolis.html

THE HARPY TOMB, XANTHOS, LYCIA

Relief panel from the Harpy Tomb, The British Museum

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/r/relief_panel_from_the_harpy_to.aspx

10: The Parthenon Frieze, Part 1

Hello and welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast, your guidebook to the art and culture of the Ancient Mediterranean World. I’m your host on our far-flung journey, Lucas Livingston. Okay, now we’re going to get serious. For the next few episodes—I don’t know how many just yet, but we’ll find out—we’re going to explore one of the most iconic, monumental, pivotal, and contentious works of art from Ancient Greece: the Parthenon frieze. Huh!? You were probably expecting something a little more familiar, like the Venus de Milo or the Parthenon itself. Well, while the Parthenon frieze may not ring a bell for some listeners, you’re probably more familiar with it than you realize. Perhaps it’s a little more recognizable by the name the Elgin Marbles. You sometimes also hear it pronounced the Elgin Marbles. Tomatoe, tomatoe.

The Elgin Marbles contain actually only a portion of the Parthenon frieze. Granted, a significantly large portion; a portion systematically removed from the Athenian Acropolis and residing in the British Museum since 1816. To convolute things further, the Elgin Marbles are actually more than just roughly half of the Parthenon frieze. They also include pedimental and metope sculpture, fragmented statues from the Parthenon’s interior, parts of columns and walls of the Parthenon, a caryatid from the Erechtheum, and various other antiquities from Greece.

The Parthenon frieze remains one of the more contentious works of art from Ancient Greece—that is, now that resolutions have been reached for quite a few Greek and Roman antiquities with, ahem, questionable provenance. Check out the article “A Tangled Journey Home” in the September/October 2007 issue of Archaeology magazine for a great little synopsis of repatriated looted art that surreptitiously found its way from the Ancient Mediterranean to the galleries of great American museums. From 1802 to 1812, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, secured permission from the Ottoman Empire to remove the Ancient Greek fragments that now encompass the Elgin Marbles. At the time Greece was under the Ottoman Empire. In his own defense, Lord Elgin claimed to be ensuring the survival of these poorly neglected treasures in the face of Ottoman indifference. From the time of their export through today, the Elgin Marbles have incited outcry and debate. The Greek government continues to demand their return, while Britain maintains that they rightfully deserve the Marbles for having spared them from certain deterioration. Never mind the fact that some of the Marbles received significant albeit accidental damage during a rather brutal cleaning at the hands of the British Museum. At least the British Museum has honed up to this and even has a short article on the cleaning damage on its website. Check that out and a whole host of other interesting Parthenon links in the Additional Resources section at SCARABsolutions.com.

The Parthenon frieze is … well, was a continuously running decorative band inside the Parthenon of the Athenian Acropolis. Not exactly in the interior, nor the exterior. It was located in a space high above your head between the peristyle, which are the outer columns, and the cella, the interior building. I was so excited when back in July of 2006 I had the opportunity to go visit Nashville, Tennessee as a guest speaker for a tour on Ancient Egypt. Why? Well, Nashville’s a cool place and all, but I was especially excited about visiting the scale replica of the Parthenon complete with the monumental statue of Athena Parthenos and plaster casts of the pedimental sculpture inside. But I was pretty disappointed to discover that they don’t include the frieze. But hey, this is better than nothing. This is phenomenal. For more photos of the Nashville Parthenon, check out SCARABsolutions.com.

The Parthenon, crowning glory of the Athenian Acropolis, constructed during the mid 5th century BC, the height of the Classical Period. It gets its name from Athena Parthenos, the maiden and patron goddess of Athens, whose glorious chryselephantine statue, designed by visionary sculptor Phidias, emblazoned within. Phidias supervised construction of the Parthenon and its sculpture from 447 to 432, including the design and execution of the Parthenon frieze.

This painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema from 1868 at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery beautifully captures an imaginary gala reception at the unveiling of the Parthenon frieze some time in the 430’s BC. Here we see Phidias standing proudly among his fellow Athenians high on the scaffolding at the level of the frieze. Notice, of course, the vivid colors. As with much of Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture and architecture, the Parthenon frieze was originally highly painted; gaudily, some might say. But today all the pigment, save miniscule traces, has weathered away.

It would take hours to cover the complete history of the Parthenon and her frieze, every nuance of the artistry and various interpretations. At this point, I want to skip over most of that and focus on one particular thesis. We come across a number of different interpretations surrounding the vision behind the design of the Acropolis. I want us to explore one specific interpretation of the Acropolis. Here we’ll take a look at how the Acropolis and more specifically the Parthenon frieze reflect the strongly rising imperial aspirations of Athens in the wake of the Persian War. This is a time when Athens was beginning to see herself as the successor to her former enemy, the Persian Empire, that foreign megapower so demonically depicted in the recent blockbuster film the 300. Athens and Persia are traditionally seen as complete opposites in political and cultural ideologies: the absolute democracy vs. the domineering empire. What’s ironic is that after the Persian War, after Persia’s military might was completely obliterated, Athens began to resemble Persia in her political practices. Athens has taken over as the dominating imperial power in the Mediterranean and this is something completely new for Athens. There’s really no political model for empire known to Athens other than Persia. It actually makes a lot of sense, then, to look to Persia for an imperial model, who only some forty years earlier was governing the very same eastern Greek nations, which Athens now controls. And to take it even one step further, Athens might also very well seek to model her new political art and iconography after Persian themes and iconographic motifs—especially in the Parthenon, the grandest monumental construction on the new Periclean Acropolis. The Parthenon, emblem of Athenian pride, greatness, and victory over foreign invaders, soon came to parallel pretty similarly the Apadana, the great Audience Hall at the Persian capital city of Persepolis. And to stretch us to the final limit and the ultimate purpose of the next few episodes of the podcast, even the Parthenon frieze itself bears remarkable iconographic and thematic similarities to the monumental terrace reliefs of the Apadana at Persepolis. Come on now as we check out the similarities between the Parthenon frieze and the Apadana reliefs at Persepolis—similarities that we’ll see come about as a result of Athens intentionally emulating the Persian imperial programmatic vision for her own Parthenon and Acropolis.

Of course, we can’t just jump right into trying to make the argument for the transmission of Persian imperial artistic themes to Athens unless we first demonstrate the vehicle for transmission. So that’s what we’ll need to concentrate on first. The Parthenon frieze participates in the strong tradition of the Ionic frieze. The Ionic frieze is a continuous band of decorative relief carving running along towards the top of the inside or outside walls of a temple. That’s a very brief explanation. We’ll take a closer look at the development and influences of the Ionic frieze later on. It’s interesting and important to note that, when Athens’s predecessor, the Persian Empire, was dominating the eastern Mediterranean, there’s a bit of a crossover and co-development between the Ionian and Persian artistic styles. And it makes a lot of sense that you’d see this co-development, as we’ll explore next time. So, we’ve actually got two influences shaping the Parthenon frieze: one, the Ionic frieze and two, the Apadana reliefs at Persepolis. And the Persian influence on the Parthenon Frieze is also two-fold: both indirectly via the Ionic frieze and directly straight from the Apadana reliefs. But what makes Persia so readily accessible to Greek artists? What’s this vehicle for transmission that I was talking about earlier?

We’ll answer that in the next episode. Simply to ensure that I don’t lose your attention, I want to break up this lengthy topic into episodes of somewhat reasonable length. So, be sure to tune in next time as we take a closer look at the Greeks in Persia and the significance this has on the development of the Ionic frieze. But if you want to jump the gun and get a head start, check out the bibliography in the Additional Resources section at SCARABsolutions.com. I just added a whole section exclusively on the Athenian Acropolis. Thanks for listening and see you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

7: Gandharan Bodhisattva

Hello and welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. Or rather, you could be welcoming me back after this couple month hiatus from cyberspace. But we’re back online and good to go.

So, if ya ever bothered listening all the way through one of the earlier podcast episodes, you’d know that I often have little bits of news or other info at the tail end. Right about at the point when you tune out or switch over to NPR Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. But ha HA! Now I have tricked you and I’m putting the news at the beginning this time!

A little while back in Episode 4 I poked a little fun at the Art Institute of Chicago for not having a searchable freely-accessible online database of its collection. Well, if you’ve been to the Art Institute’s website recently, you may have noticed the subtle addition of a little search box on the Collection page. Yes, the Art Institute leaps headlong into the 21st century with the addition of this search box. It’s a work in progress, for sure. They claim to have a small but growing portion of the collection in the online database and the search functionality could use a little help, but it’s a definitely a very welcome addition for the scholarly community since they offer decent images, publication history, exhibition history, and provenance. These online collection databases with imagery and research details are a vital component to the mission of a modern museum. A big distinction between an art museum and a private collection is the accessibility of the collection to the general public. Keeping some 99% of one’s collection hidden away from public eyes doesn’t do anybody any good. Now, while the Art Institute’s definitely moving in the right direction by making its collection available online, is still pretty stingy with its images, though. They explicitly state that the images are for identification only and are not to be used for publication or presentation purposes. You need to drill down deeper into the terms and conditions to find a statement about fair use, but that still reads a little intimidating.

Images are one thing, but if you’re looking for audio … well, you’ve got this podcast, but you can also head on over to the Art Institute’s website again. Click on Exhibitions then Past Exhibitions where you’ll find a link to the recent exhibition The Silk Road and Beyond: Travel, Trade, and Transformation. Delve into the Silk Road exhibition website and you’ll find snippets from the audio guide on selected works from the exhibition. Sounds hard to find, huh? I’ll make it easy for you. Just head on over to scarabsolutions.com and click on the Silk Road link in the Additional Resources section. Some of the highlighted Silk Road objects even have relevance to the Ancient art context of this podcast, like this incredible Gandharan statue of a bodhisattva.

This statue is quite a departure from previous podcast topics. This is actually a Buddhist statue and technically it’s not even from the Ancient Mediterranean World. Gandhara is the name of the ancient kingdom from where we get this incredible statue. The name may not mean much to us nowadays, but we may be a little more familiar with its modern derivation, a city whose name had been all too frequent in the news of recent years, until we started liberating other nations … Kandahar. The ancient Gandharan kingdom encompassed approximately the region that’s now Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gandharan art, which dates to around the 2nd century of the Common Era, is actually among the earliest Buddhist art, even though Buddhism originated around in early 5th century BC.

The art of ancient Gandhara is a unique bridge between East and West. Look closely at the details of this figure. The musculature is so highly modeled and naturalistic, if not unrealistically idealized. The facial features are chiseled and well defined. We see incredible detail in his beautifully coifed hair with gently drilled, soft curls. As we move lower down his form we explore the dynamic quality to the drapery. We can really feel a sense of gravity, friction, tension, and movement in the folds of cloth. There’s a deliberate attempt by the artist to express the realism of soft fabric in this hard stone. Compare this to other Buddhist statuary even from significantly later periods, like this 10th century Indian stele depicting different pivotal scenes from the life of Buddha. Notice how here the artist chooses to represent the folds of the drapery in a very stylized, unrealistic manner of regular, parallel, almost concentric curves — a fairly common stylistic quality of South and Southeast Asian Buddhist art. But the Gandharan figure is quite different. Many of us buffs of Ancient Mediterranean art might see a certain similarity between the Gandharan Bodhisattva and Classical Greek statuary and there’s a good reason for that.

Y’all know this fella. Alexander the Great, born in 356 BC, came to succeed his father Philip II, King of Macedon, who united the entirety of Greece under the single Macedonian military authority. Alexander capitalized and expanded on that legacy by spreading his influence much further eastward. He conquered Persia, or some say Persia conquered him, with its sexy oriental exotique, and he even pushed his Greek army as far as the Indus River in northwest India before his disgruntled soldiers eventually compelled him to start pulling back. And at the age of 33 in June of 323 BC, Alexander the Great dies … but then, why should I tell you when yet another “great,” the legendary heavy metal icon Iron Maiden can tell you.

After the death of Alexander, this gargantuan swath of the world that he conquered was soon divided among his generals. Mesopotamia and Persia went to Seleucis, who in turn gave rise to the Seleucid Empire. Over time various territories of the Seleucid Empire rebelled and seceded. Around 305 BC, Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan Empire, managed to wrestle Gandhara back from Seleucis, reuniting it with much of the Indian subcontinent. For a while Gandhara fell to the so-called Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, which was still under heavy Hellenistic Greek influence for a long time. It’s in the 2nd century of the Common Era, after changing hands more than a good pair of vintage jeans, when Gandhara experiences what’s considered its “golden period” with strong rulers engaging in expansive trade and a flourishing of the arts. This is the time period of our favorite Gandharan Bodhisattva. So even a good four/four and a half centuries after the death of Alexander, the seeds sewn by his campaign have a profound lingering artistic effect.

And just what is a bodhisattva? Well, very briefly, not doing the concept any justice, a bodhisattva is an individual who, through right living and meditation, has reached a state of being where he could achieve enlightenment and transcend beyond the physical world of suffering. But instead of making this leap, as the ultimate expression of compassion and charity, the bodhisattva chooses to sacrifice enlightenment and remain behind in the physical world to serve as a teacher and guide to help others reach this goal. We see bodhisattvas in Buddhism throughout the world from ancient Gandhara and India to modern Korea, China, and Japan. If you want to learn more about bodhisattvas, Buddha, and Buddhism … well, you’ll just have to stay tuned to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. Thanks, take care, and see ya next time.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

6: A Classical Lekythos

Hello and welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. In our last episode on the Art Institute of Chicago’s Corinthian pyxis, we saw how the early Archaic Greeks of the Orientalizing Period incorporate stylistic elements and ideas from their Near Eastern neighbors and also from their own Bronze Age ancestors. We looked at the emergence of monumental Greek temple architecture with its unprecedented massively impressive pedimental sculpture. And ultimately we came to understand how the Greeks paid homage to their Mycenaean Bronze Age ancestors by employing scenes of ferocious beasts and fiendish monsters on these early temple pediments. They did this as a means of confronting the viewer, engaging with them and conditioning their psyche for approaching the divine, just as the Mycenaeans did half a millennium earlier at the entrance to the great city of Mycenae. And on a far more diminutive, personal scale, we see this same confrontational conditioning effect employed on the funerary vessels of this early Archaic period in Ancient Greece as a sort of memento mori, a reminder of our ultimate fate.

In this episode, I want us to take a look at a significantly later example of Greek pottery and vase painting, also at the Art Institute of Chicago. This is an Attic white-ground ware lekythos from around 450-440 BC attributed to the Achilles Painter. OK … what does all that mean? Well, you’ll often come across the term “Attic” on gallery labels. That’s got nothing to do with where you keep your Christmas lights. Attic means it’s from Attica, which is the region of Greece that surrounds Athens. Aha! … Moving along now. “White-ground ware!?” See, you got yer black figure vase painting and yer red figure vase painting … and then you got your white-ground ware, because the figures are on a white background and “ware” is just the fancy word for ceramics … you know, like dinner ware. And finally a lekythos is a specific type of Ancient Greek pottery vessel usually in a tall slender vase-like shape with a tight spout and a handle, but you come across small more squat versions too. The lekythos was specifically use as a decanter for oil, mostly olive oil for Ancient Greek athletes. Now, the Greeks lived in a time before the invention of soap. Filthy buggers!? Not really. See, olive oil is an exceptionally good cleaning agent (not to mention a common ingredient in some exotic old-fashioned soaps). After a long day of rolling around with your classmates naked in the sand at the gymnasium, Greek athletes would rub olive oil on their lean, tight flesh. They’d then take a small curved metal tool called a strigil and scrape it along their skin, removing the oil and all the grime, sweat, and guck. Don’t believe me? Next time you take off a day-old BAND-AID® and it leaves behind that yucky glue residue, rub a little olive oil over it for a few seconds and presto! — ancient goo-begone. [This does not necessarily constitute an endorsement, neither expressed nor implied, of the aforementioned products BAND-AID® brand bandages and Goo Begone or any similar or related products on the part of the author or his affiliates; use at your own risk; do not attempt this at home; yadda yadda, etc etc.]

Before we dive headlong into the subject matter of this lekythos, I want to explain why the painted surface is not nearly in as good condition as most of the black and red figure vases you’ll spot at the Art Institute. You see, in the white-ground technique, the white background was painted onto the surface of the vessel after it had been fired and then the figures were painted on top of that. All the decoration of black or red figure vases was applied before the firing process as slip (not actually paint) and then fired, so baking the decoration onto the surface so it ain’t goin’ nowhere. Paint applied to the surface after firing, however, isn’t as durable and it’s prone to flaking over the eons.

The scene decorating this lekythos depicts a gray-haired elderly man with a long red cloak leaning on a cane. He looks forward into the eyes of a youthful mostly-nude male figure with a shield strapped to his back and holding a spear. The fact that the youth is nude indicates his function as a warrior. (And the shield and spear kinda help us draw that conclusion too.) Warriors in Ancient Greece, of course, didn’t march out onto the battlefield in the nude, not unless they had a few too many at the feast the night before. No, they were fully armored with a sturdy breastplate, greaves on the legs, and a helmet. Excavations in the latter part of the 20th century at Midea near Mycenae actually unearthed a magnificent Bronze Age Mycenaean cuirass or a breastplate from the 15th century BC, the time of the great heroic warriors whose legacy inspired the later epics, now in the Archaeological Museum of Nauplion in Greece. Check out the website — scarabsolutions.com — for a link to an image and description of the armor and the excavations at Midea. There’s also an interesting article in the March/April 2007 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review called “Historic Homer: Did It Happen?” which talks about this breastplate and other Mycenaean-period historical accuracies in the Iliad and Odyssey.

Despite the obvious use of armor, however, Greek artists imagined their mythological heroes were in fact nude. Throughout Ancient Greek vase painting we encounter the nude warrior, be it Hercules, Achilles, Hector, or any other heroic mythic warrior. Many a Greek male was fond of casting himself in the light of the mythic warrior, particularly upon death through the use of the nude male kouros statue as a headstone. The kouros is the earliest form of freestanding monumental Greek sculpture in the round, which finds its origin around the time of the Orientalizing Period, which we covered last time when looked at the pyxis. Perhaps a similar sort of desired effect is being attempted here — to cast the deceased in the light of the heroic warriors of yore. Remember, just about all the Ancient Greek vases you encounter in museum collections were actually grave goods. One might be inclined to interpret this scene depicted here as a father figure bidding farewell to the youth; their final goodbye before the youth marches off to battle. Perhaps the last time they will ever see each other … alive, at least. Neither figure has an expression of overwhelming emotion. They both bear a sober countenance, not betraying their torn spirits within.

Think about the difference in the way I’m describing the subject matter of this vase painting compared to the Corinthian pyxis from a century earlier. We’re trying to get inside the heads of the figures represented on the lekythos; we’re looking at a scene from some dreamt-up story. There’s definitely some sort of context here, in contrast to the decoration on the pyxis, where the creatures are outside of any context, any narrative or story. This is a big change taking place in late 6th, early 5th century Greek vase painting – a movement away from representations of ferocious confrontational beasts towards narrative scenes. Sure, representations of the Homeric epics go way back, but the narrative becomes firmly entrenched only in the mid to late Archaic Period, pushing aside the decorative flower patterns and the prominence of confrontational beasts common to the Orientalizing Period.

Beyond the heroic mythologized warrior, the nude in Ancient Greece also fires another neuron. I’m talking about the Greek athlete. Unlike the imaginary mythical nude hero, Greek athletes did in fact compete in the nude. Easy there tiger. The representation of this youth in the nude might draw us in two different directions. While all geared up, the youth is clearly preparing to head off for battle, but this solemn goodbye reminds us of the other activity of Greek youths — athletics, which perhaps the old man wishes the youth would sooner be doing before heading off to battle. And don’t forget the vessel on which this scene is depicted — a lekythos — a jar for an athlete’s oil bath. So what’s going on here? Why is the artist conjuring up a scene that might tug us in two directions? Well, just as with the Corinthian pyxis that we looked at before, this lekythos is also a funerary vessel, a grave good. So, to take our train of imaginative thought one step further, perhaps we have a scene here reflecting an actual occurrence or some imagined, mythologized, heroicized occurrence of a youth slain in battle, the loss of innocence, no more will he enjoy sport at the gymnasium with his fellow companions. So, he’s buried with a lekythos to recapture the activities of youth and he’s portrayed here as a heroic warrior worthy of all honor. Just as with the pyxis, here too we have a memento mori.

We see a big change taking place in the Archaic period as Athens emerges as the new cultural superpower, soon eclipsing Corinth. Perhaps the most significant stamp that Athenians place on the Greek world is their interest in the human condition, in morality, justice, pride, and suffering. And this shows up in their vase painting not so much in the stories that they tell, but more so in the way that they tell their stories. The artist could have chose to memorialize the deceased as a fallen warrior among other glorious dead or in the moment of a heroic death on the battle field. Or he could have represented some other mythical hero like Hercules, Achilles, or Perseus, casting the deceased in a brighter light. Instead we see a different sort of narrative aesthetic evolving in Attic vase painting. Well, by this Late Classical period it’s pretty much well evolved. Instead of showing the height of physical action, instead we’re presented with a subdued anticlimactic moment of pause, the quiet before the storm. It’s up to the mind of the viewer, up to us, to complete the narrative in our minds. Granted, this narrative technique relies on a sort of familiarity with the story. In this case, we may not necessarily be familiar with the story, but different clues like the nude form of the youth, his armament, and his classical contaposto (that’s the stance he’s taking, like a statue of some hero) — these clues lead us to the conclusion that he’s a warrior and the old man seems to be engaging with him. The rest is our own speculation, but it’s an educated and informed speculation.

We encounter a lot of similar examples in Archaic and Classical Attic vase painting where a moment just before the height of the climax is represented, rather that showing all the gory details, and the artist relies on the viewer’s familiarity with the narrative to connect the dots and lead up to the climax in his or her mind. Here’s a fairly early and exemplary illustration, The Suicide of Ajax, an Attic black-figure amphora from around 540 BC by the very well known artist Exekias, now in the Château-Musée de Boulogne-sur-Mer (er … pardon my French). Ajax fought alongside Achilles in the Trojan War. In later myths and tragedies, he’s often elevated practically to the same status as Achilles. Alas, he’s probably most familiar to our contemporary audience as the big goober with the war hammer in the 2004 Hollywood production Troy, where Achilles is played by Brad Pitt. The Iliad just tells a fraction of the story of the siege of Troy. A lot happens between the Iliad and the Odyssey, where the latter recounts Odysseus’s journey back home from the 10 year-long siege. Apparently there were also other epics that told the stories of other warriors involved in the Trojan War beyond Achilles and Odysseus, sadly now lost – well … till somebody discovers a Greco-Roman mummy stuffed with papyrus fragments of some lost epic. … It’s not impossible.

But somewhere between the events of the Iliad and Odyssey, the unthinkable happens – Achilles is killed by Orlando Bloom … I mean, Paris. The armament of Achilles is to be rewarded to the most feared Greek soldier. It comes down to Odysseus and Ajax. They get into a big debate and the arms are finally awarded to Odysseus. There’re different accounts of what happens next, but one popular version says Ajax is completely distraught and goes into a mad rage, killing his Greek comrades left and right … or so he thought. Athena intervened and disguised the flocks as his fellow Greeks, so Ajax ended up only slaying the flocks. Completely embarrassed and distraught a second time for the harm he could have done, Ajax takes the sword of Hector (awarded to him after a stalemate battle against Hector), wanders off from the camp, and kills himself by burying the sword tip-up in the sand and impaling himself on it. So, here we see Ajax planting the sword, neatly packing down the earth around it. His shield leans lazily at the edge of the frame, his helmet and spears carefully placed atop. Incidentally, the spear was his weapon of choice, not the war hammer. And now we know what’s coming next. … Bleeehh! See, Exekias is relying on our familiarity with the story to bring us to the height the climax and all the gory bits without having to show the gory bits. It’s more engaging, less off-putting, and invites us to consider the Ajax’s state of mind. To ponder his pathos, the powerful Greek term for suffering and the human condition. And as if that’s not enough, Exekias also sneaks in a foreboding omen. Decorating the shield of Ajax is the fiendish Gorgon Medusa with snakes for hair, said to have been so hideously ugly that her gaze would turn you to stone. And above that is a glaring feline, similar devices to the ones we saw on the Corinthian pyxis. While it’s perfectly legitimate to have these devices decorating your shield (wouldn’t be a pretty sight to have that racing towards you on the battlefield), they also function in the context of the painting as ill omens of the impending tragic conclusion.

My goodness … how about that.

Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to hop on over to the website scarabsoltions.com for better quality images, links to external resources, and the extensive bibliography on Ancient art. I’m also adding transcripts for each episode, in case you’d prefer to read rather than listen to the podcast. That’ll also make it a lot easier if you want to revisit something you heard on the podcast, but can’t remember exactly where it was mentioned. Simply enter some keywords in the search box at scarabsolutions.com. And in case you haven’t noticed, you can leave your feedback for each individual episode at the website, if you have something nice to say or a particular axe to grind. You can also email me at scarabsolutions@mac.com. And while you’re at it, if you like the podcast, I invite you to go on over to iTunes and post a review. It’s gettin’ a little lonely out here. Take care and see ya soon on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

5: A Corinthian Pyxis

Welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. This episode is coming out a little later than I had wanted on account of a cold that I’ve been getting over. But I’m pretty much decongested now and more or less back to normal.

In this episode, I want us to take a look at a cute little pyxis from Corinth. A pyxis is a specific type of Greek vessel used to store cosmetics, jewelry, or other trinkets. They come in a variety of different shapes—squat basket-like, cylindrical jars, box-like, and spherical, as we have here, along with a separate lid and handles. This pyxis at the Art Institute of Chicago is dated to about 580-570 BC, towards the end of the Greek Orientalizing Period, late 8th to mid 6th centuries BC. The Orientalizing Period is a time when the Greeks renew contact and trade with the different civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East after a long period of isolation during the Greek Dark Age and Geometric Period. This is a fascinating time of rediscovery, invention, and assimilation.

Albeit not the most politically correct term, the “Orientalizing Period” has nonetheless stuck. The term refers to the tremendous cultural and artistic impact that the renewed contact with Ancient Near Eastern cultures had on the blossoming civilization of Greece. One particularly successful center for the flourishing of culture and commerce during the Orientalizing Period was the city of Corinth located on the narrow isthmus connecting the Peloponnesus with mainland Greece. Due to its strategic location with ports accessing both the Aegean and Adriatic, Corinth became a rather lucrative port of trade for Syrian, Phoenician, and other Near Eastern merchants. Corinthians saw the influx of exotic metal ware and ivory trinkets, pottery designs, and elaborate textile patterns. Some scholars even think that Near Eastern artisans and craftsmen may have made their way over to Greece to ply their skills. The Greeks themselves began to travel more extensively to foreign lands, including great forays up and down the Nile of Egypt beginning in the mid 7th century. And all this exposure to foreign artistic motifs and conventions, long-standing monumental architecture of ancient civilizations, new stories, cultures, myths, and legends had a tremendous impact on the visual arts of Ancient Greece.

The artisans and consumers of Corinth had a particular appeal for the Near Eastern aesthetic, or at least their spin on what was seen as quote-unquote “Oriental.” While Athens continues to linger in the traditional Geometric vase painting design of the previous century, Corinth quickly pushes this aside in favor of new Oriental designs, like exotic chimeras and sphinxes, ferocious wild beasts and prey, and flowering rosettes and palmettes. The stark contrast of the darkly silhouetted Geometric figure against a background of meandering patterns, gives way to gentler curves and elaborate outlines of the figure’s contour with a smoother, flowing brush. Color also begins to make an appearance in Corinthian Orientalizing vase painting. You can clearly see the use of red, black, and white on the Art Institute pyxis. This pyxis also seems to display a sense of horror vaccui of the earlier Geometric Period. Every possible blank space on the background is strategically filled with some sort of rosette or linear pattern so as not to leave any large portion of undecorated surface.

What’s immediately most striking about this pyxis is, of course, the central decorative scene. In the very center we have a composite monster with the torso and legs of a lion, wings of an eagle, and head of a human female, known in Greeks mythology as the sphinx. This pyxis is attributed to the so-called “Ampersand Painter” because the shape of the sphinx’s tail is that of an ampersand (you know, the “and” symbol). This ampersand-shaped tail is the signature mark of this particular painter or workshop and it can be seen on other works in other museum also attributed to the Ampersand Painted. The earliest account of the sphinx in Greek myth comes from Hesiod’s Theogony, one of the earliest works of Greek literature, composed sometime in the late 8th to early 7th century BC. Hesiod briefly mentions the sphinx among his litany of the origins of all the myriads of hybrid monsters and creatures conjured up in Greek minds or imported by the Greeks from neighboring cultures and myths. Now, it’s hard to argue that the sphinx is a purely Greek invention when you’re faced with all the similar composite creatures of Near Eastern tradition that first started to make their way over to Greece around the time when Hesiod puts pen to paper, creatures like the lammasu, shedu, manticore, griffin, and chimera. But certainly the oriental influence contributes to the new forms of expression and experimentation, with both a profound interest in the ancient civilizations of the Near East and a new interest among the Greeks in their own ancient ancestry.

It’s around this time when the Greeks begin to look more closely at the remains of their own Bronze Age Mycenaean ancestors. At the same time when the great Homeric Epics of the Iliad and Odyssey were being recited, as the Greeks were weaving tales of the heroic warriors Achilles, Menelaus, and Agamemnon, so too were they looking out over the standing ruins of ancient Mycenae, the palace of King Agamemnon. There’s even evidence that the Dark Age and Archaic Greeks excavated Mycenaean tholos tombs, digging down to their entrances with their monumental Cyclopean masonry to establish shrines and offer votives at the tombs of these heroic warriors.

So where are we going with all of this? Well, the central sphinx is conventionally seen as some sort of Near Eastern or Oriental influence. Ok, I’ll buy that. Flanking the sphinx you’ve got a couple feline creatures usually interpreted as lions or leopards. Felines, particularly lions, are very prevalent throughout Ancient Near Eastern art in architectural relief from the walls of ancient Babylon and Persepolis to the smaller decorative arts. But I argue a very different and distinctly indigenous influence taking place here. See how the two lions have their bodies turned inward toward the central sphinx, but their faces gaze outward with giant, blank, piercing eyes fixed upon you, ferocious beasts of prey staring you down. I mentioned how the Greeks of this day and age were interested in exploring and rediscovering their own heroic and mythic past of the Bronze Age Mycenaean Civilization and that the ruins of Ancient Mycenae, the so-called palace of King Agamemnon were readily visible and available to the early Archaic Greeks. The most visually powerful and notable architectural remains at Mycenae is the well-known Lion’s Gate. Here we are confronted by two colossal lions, their muscular bodies rearing up on a central platform. Their faces are now lost and the dowel holes suggest that they were carved separately. The way the dowel holes are positioned and the form of what’s remaining lead most scholars to believe that the faces were likely turned to gaze outward, staring down at the lowly people passing underneath the monumental gateway. Throughout Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures and even well beyond into the Middle Ages of Europe, lions are a common emblem of kingship. The effect of this in-your-face confrontation by these gargantuan beasts conditions the viewers approaching the gate. The Lion’s Gate conveys this message of “Beware! Know that the king within is as mighty as a lion.”

The Lion’s Gate was in plain sight of the Greeks. In the day when monumental art, sculpture, and architecture reemerge from a long period of dormancy, it’s not surprising that they’d look back to their country’s former glory while also incorporating ideas and motifs from exotic civilizations abroad. In the mid 7th century BC the Greeks began creating their first monumental temples in stone. Perhaps the earliest known stone temple in Greece is that of Apollo at Corinth with a date somewhere between 670 and 630 BC. And in a couple generations, the Greeks settled on the sort of temples we think of when we think of Greek temples, with the surrounding columns called a peristyle, the pitched roof, and triangular pediment, all that sculpture above the east and west sides. The earliest known Greek temple of this style is the one to Artemis on the island of Corfu, just off the western coast of Greece. Built around 580 BC, right around the time when the Art Institute’s pyxis was created, the temple of Artemis displayed a magnificent pediment with a sculptural motif that should be pretty familiar to us by now. Seen from their sides, two great cats poise with their muscular bodies ready to pounce. Their faces are turned outward, just as in the Lion’s Gate, gazing at the tiny worshippers below as they make their approach to the house of the maiden huntress Artemis. In the center of the pediment between the lions stands the Gorgon Medusa, a fiendish creature with snakes for hair, said to be so ugly that her gaze would transform you to stone. This presentation of otherworldly ferocity and might is certainly something to give you goose-bumps, if you were an Ancient Greek not used to seeing such incredible displays nor desensitized by modern horror flicks.

And moving along to our darling little pyxis, the Ampersand Painter seems to have jumped on the bandwagon of Orientalism and Mycenaean revivalism (and that’s not a real term. As far as I know, I just made it up.) But why use this confrontational lion motif that might otherwise be more appropriate for temples and royal palaces? I don’t think the message here is “Beware the cosmetics housed within!” No, more likely it’s just meant to give us a little moment to pause … a jarring experience (ugh … pardon the pun). Remember, what we’re looking at here, as with most Ancient Greek ceramics throughout museum collections, is a grave good, something buried with the recently departed. This vessel exists because someone has died. While a pyxis for the living might be plain or decorated with little flowers and prancing deer, this vessel for the dead has a confrontational gaze inducing a moment to pause and reflect. A memento mori. A reminder of our own mortality.

On that cheerful note …

Thanks for listening. And don’t forget to swing by the website, scarabsolutions.com for additional resources, an extensive bibliography on ancient art and civilization, photos, and links to great external resources. And most recently, I’ve added a link that’ll let you subscribe to the podcast in MP4 format, so you can play it with images on just about any digital media player. Check out the website for more details. Take care, stay warm, and see you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

3: A Donkey-headed Rhyton

Hello and welcome back to the SCARABSolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

In the previous two episodes, we’ve been having a lot of fun in Ancient Egypt. In this episode, we’re going to jump forward a little bit and hop the pond on over to Greece. I want us to look at what’s probably my favorite piece in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection of Ancient Greek ceramics. The Art Institute has a few very beautiful and entertaining objects in its Ancient Greek collection, but this one really takes the cake.

Nestled in a vitrine among all the grandiose High Classical red-figure amphoras, kraters, kylixes, and stamnoi, we find a cute little rhyton, a drinking cup. OK, here … let’s do it right. *Ahem* This is a mid 5th Century BC Attic red-figure rhyton in the shape of a donkey’s head attributed to the very prolific late Archaic, early Classical Athenian vase painter named Douris.

To start things off here in our examination of this rhyton, let’s first check out its interesting manufacturing technique. It exemplifies three primary methods for crafting ceramics in Classical Greece. The neck and rim of the cup was thrown on a potters wheel, the body of the vessel (which corresponds to the head and snout of the donkey) … this part was fashioned in a mold, and the ears and handle were shaped by hand. It’s certainly not unique in this way, but it’s nonetheless pretty interesting to see all three techniques used on one vessel.

We could of course go into much further detail on its manufacture, specifically the firing process of black and red-figure Greek ceramics, but let’s save that whole spiel for a later podcast.

The rhyton is a common type of drinking cup in the shape of an animal’s head. This vessel shape stretches far back to the Bronze Age Civilizations of Ancient Greece, the Minoans and Mycenaeans, the time of the heroic mythic warriors of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and even to earlier periods in the civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Rhyta (that’s the plural) from different regions come in a variety of shapes and sizes and aren’t necessarily restricted to being in the shape of just the heads of an animals. They could be the whole front of the animal, the entire animal itself, or even just parts like a horn.

Rhyta were also commonly used in rituals for libation offerings. Now, these rhyta regularly have a small hole in the mouth of the animal’s head through which the libation offering pours out on to the offering table or whatever it was meant to pour out over.

This style of rhyton that we have here is fairly common to Archaic and Classical Greece — just the head and neck — and in this case here, there’s no hole in the mouth, so its function is clearly meant to hold a beverage instead of letting it pour through. And by “beverage,” of course, I mean wine.

Wine in Ancient Greece, however, was a little different from wine nowadays. The Greeks, believe it or not, actually watered down their wine. Not to do so was considered barbaric, literally, as in how the barbarians drank their wine (mostly Northern Europeans). And interestingly enough, the word barbarian derives from how the Greeks perceived certain foreign languages to sound. When foreign people spoke, all the Greeks heard was “bar-bar-bar-bar-bar.” Sounds pretty silly and made up, but it’s the truth.

Now, back to the rhyton. The one we have here is made out of ceramic. Earthenware, specifically terra cotta. It was most likely crafted with the intent of being buried in someone’s grave, where it’s said to have been found — similar to all the other ceramics in the Art Institute’s Ancient Greek collection (not all from the same grave, of course). Rhyta were used in daily life, but by and large the rhyta crafted for use by the living were made of precious metals, like bronze, silver, and gold. The rhyton was not the drinking cup of your average bloke. These vessels were reserved pretty much for the aristocracy of Greek society, be it Classical or earlier. These are the goblets used in the heroic feasts by great warriors on the eve of battle. The dinnerware of Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaeus, and Odysseus at the siege of Troy.

Of course, that story was late Bronze Age, early Iron Age. Fifth century BC Athenian aristocracy didn’t regularly engage much in heroic warrior feasts. Instead, wealthy Athenian good-ole-boys would get together at dinner parties and drinking engagements to socialize, talk politics and money, and on special occasions maybe say something intelligent.

The types of animals rendered in the shape of the rhyton are also significant. You frequently comes across a rhyton in the shape of a goat, ram, bull, deer, or horse, and in this example here, a donkey. It’s not coincidence that these are the same kinds of animals used as sacrificial victims in Greek religion. See, while engaging in their modern drinking parties, the Classical Athenian aristocracy was symbolically participating in those heroic warrior feasts of yore. On the eve of battle with the great warriors gathered around, a priest offers up a sacrifice to Zeus and whatever other gods were listening, slicing the throat and spilling the warm blood of the goat, ram, etc. Whereas here, the Athenian, leisurely sprawled on his couch, pours the bright red liquid from the throat of the animal and down the hatch. And the thanks is offered up to a different god. Dionysus, the god of wine.

Decorating the neck of the vessel (cute, huh … the pottery term “neck” actually corresponds here with the literal neck of the donkey) … decorating the neck of the vessel, we see a couple figures — the half-goat half-man satyr (followers of Dionysus) with his bushy beard, pointy ears, long bristly tail, and penchant for not wearing pants (because pants would just get in the way of the satyr’s other penchant), in hot pursuit of a maenad, female followers of Dionysus that would run off into the woods at night in wild Dionysiac reveries, and in packs chase down live deer and with their bare hands, rip them apart limb from limb, and consume the hot raw flesh and blood. The Greeks actually had a word for that. It’s called sparagmos.

The Classical Greek drinking party was nothing nearly as violent, or religious for that matter, but they had a word for that too. The symposium. Now, when we think of a symposium, we picture a bunch of professors getting together, reading some less-than-exhilarating papers, and then having a little wine and cheese. The Greeks skipped the papers … went straight to the wine … and cheese was optional. The Greek word symposion with an “ON” (from which we get the Latin symposium with a “UM”) literally means “drinking together.

You’re probably thinking I’m off my rocker, at least those of you who’ve heard of Plato’s Symposium where Socrates and a bunch of his friends get together one evening and each in turn makes a grand speech on “what is love” and extolling its virtues. But if you look back towards the beginning of the text, you’ll see a very different side to their refined symposium.

And I quote, section 176A&B from a translation by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Hackett Publishing Company, etc etc):

When dinner was over, they poured a libation to the god, sang a hymn, and—in short—followed the whole ritual. Then they turned their attention to drinking. At that point Pausanias addressed the group:

“Well, gentlemen, how can we arrange to drink less tonight? To be honest, I still have a terrible hangover from yesterday, and I could really use a break. I daresay most of you could, too, since you were also part of the celebration. So let’s try not to overdo it.”

Aristophanes replied: “Good idea, Pausanias. We’ve got to make a plan for going easy on the drink tonight. I was over my head last night myself, like the others.”

So, we see, even Socrates’s philosophical brood was not impervious to the temptation of drink.

Getting back to the shape of the donkey-headed rhyton, just how do you set it down? Many other rhyta, especially the ritual libation rhyta and the ones from Near Eastern and Eastern European civilizations, have a flat bottom, so they could be set down right-side up, but the only way to set down this example is on its side or upside-down! So, if you want to set it down, you have to polish off your drink first! The shape of this rhyton, therefore, actually encourages drinking! What a perfect cup for a symposium. And just how does one drink from it? If you drink from it the same way you normally drink from a mug, with the handle to the side, the donkey’s ear would get in the way and you might just dribble on yourself. You’re best bet is probably to hold the handle underneath so the donkey face is right-side-up. And then as you’re kicking back your head, tipping the rhyton up to polish off your wine, suddenly you’ve got the face of an ass!

This idea of transformation through drink was not lost on the Ancient Greeks. Wine was regularly attributed with various therapeutic, medicinal, or even malignant properties. And in some examples, we even come across wine being equated with a sort of magic potion capable of transforming the drinker in various ways. The characters in Plato’s Laws briefly discuss the qualities in wine that transform one to be braver, bolder, more conceited, and looser with the tongue. Another relatively common expression of transformation through wine in Greek art can be seen on a large number of kylixes, another kind of drinking vessel more so in the shape of a bowl rather than a cup.

A brief side-track first. The kylix was also frequently used in Greek symposia, and not just for drinking. The Greeks actually had drinking games. One particular favorite was called kottabos and here’s a kylix that even came with instructions. This mid 5th century Attic red-figure kylix at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts shows a reclining youth in the act of playing kottabos. As I mentioned earlier, Greek wine was a little different from the wine that we have today. Not only was it watered down, but it also had far more sediment, so you’d likely have some dregs leftover in the bottom of your cup. The idea in kottabos was to twirl your kylix around, flinging out the sediment, to see who could come closest to the target in the middle of the room, whether the target be a jug or some poor flute girl.

Now back to the idea of how the kylix was commonly used to express the idea of transformation through drink. The typical kylix is decorated on both the inside, with a lovely picture for the drinker, and on the outside with pictures to be seen by all of his friends as he holds the bowl high to his lips. On the outside decoration of the kylix, you often come across two large glaring eyes penetrating the onlooker, as we see here in another example from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The drinker grasps the kylix by the two handles and holds it up to his face as he takes a drink, thereupon donning a monstrous mask, a face like the Gorgon Medusa, who’s said to have been so fiendishly ugly with snakes for hair, that her gaze would turn you to stone.

We might also remember that interesting chapter from Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus’s comrades are transformed into pigs by the witch Circe through a magic potion and a touch of a wand.

As Richmond Lattimore translates …

And at once she opened the shining doors and came out and invited them in, and all in their innocence entered. Only Eurylochos waited outside, for he suspected theachery. She brought them inside and seated them on chairs and benches, and mixed them a potion with barley and cheese and pale honey added to Pramnian wine, but put into the mixture malignant drugs to make them forgetful of their own country. When she had given them this and they had drunk it down, next thing she struck them with her wand and drove them into her pig pens and they took on the look of pigs with the heads and voices and bristles of pigs, but the minds within them stayed as had been before.

And here’s another great kylix from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts showing Circe in the act of drugging Odysseus’s friends and transforming them into pigs. The shape of the vessel that Circe uses for her potion helps the message along in that it resembles the kylix on which this scene is painted. With each casual glance, then, as the wine gradually disappears, the drinker from this kylix constantly reminds himself that he too may share the fate of Odysseus’s men, becoming, well, … a sloppy drunken animal if he doesn’t watch his liquor!

Alright, thanks for listening. Be sure to check out the website scarabsolutions.com for slightly better resolution images used in the podcast. I’ve also updated the bibliography to include some resources on Ancient Greece.

And as always, feel free to leave you comments on the website or at the iTunes Store. Just launch iTunes, click on the iTunes Store, and in the search box type however much you care to of “SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.”

Take care and see ya next time!

©2006 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org