The Olympic Games are in full swing and today on Museum Quick Bites we’re paying tribute to ancient Greece with a deep dive into an ancient prize. From shipping containers to athletic trophies, the amphora has played a key role in Greek culture. Let’s zoom in and take a brief tour of a striking example on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA).
Black-Figure Amphora (530 BCE) by Lysippides Painter, Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA)
Handcrafted from clay, this black-figure amphora (c530 BCE) features two vignettes. On side A, Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy is flanked by four “dancing” satyrs. Dressed in robes and donning his signature ivy crown, the party god offers them a sip of his magical brew. Known for their frat boy behavior, these half-goat, half-man woodland deities will no doubt imbibe. Note their horns, beards, tails and curiously, their lack of hooves. Does this mean these satyrs are a less beastly sort? Given the reputations of Dionysus and satyrs, this scene suggests the party is just getting started.
Close-Ups of Side A: Black-Figure Amphora (c530 BCE) by Lysippides Painter, Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA)
Side B features a more somber scene. With spears drawn and shields at the ready, four soldiers loom over a fallen opponent. Check out their decorative armor and dress. One shield features the unusual triskeles proper (aka triskelion), a three-legged symbol with uncertain meaning. The man on the ground, however, only has eyes for his would-be executioner. Note his clenched fist and how his body is slightly raised off the ground. This soldier has not given up the fight, but the sword stabbed into the ground near his hip may symbolize his fate.
Close-Ups of Side B: Black-Figure Amphora (c530 BCE) by Lysippides Painter, Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA)
Fun Amphora Fact: The ancient Olympics were created to honor the god, Zeus. Olympic champions were awarded crowns made of laurel leaves, as well as other “lucrative rewards”. The rival Panathenaic games honored the goddess, Athena and winners were awarded amphorae filled with approximately 42 quarts of olive oil.
Panathenaic Prize Amphora (c366-365 BCE) by Kittos Group Painter, Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Amphora’s Brief Background: The amphora was ubiquitous in ancient Greek culture. Ranging from 5 feet to less than 12 inches, amphorae were used as decanters, grave markers, shipping containers, storage jars, and trophies, to name a few. From austere to ornate, the amphora came in two main styles. The aptly named neck-amphora was introduced during the Geometric Period (c900 to 700 BCE), and is identified by its prominent neck. The one-piece amphora made its debut in 7th century BCE Greece, and has a less pronounced, more curved neck.
Left: Neck-Amphora (c675-650 BCE) Greece, New York Nessos Painter, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Right: One-Piece Red-Figure Amphora (c490 BCE) Greece, Berlin Painter, Metropolitan Museum of Art
The black-figure amphora featured today on Museum Quick Bites is attributed to Athenian, Lysippides Painter (flourished c530 to 510 BCE), who learned his trade from master potter and vase painter, Exekias (flourished c550–525 BCE). Lysippides specialized in black- and red-figure vase painting. However, on occasion he mixed it up and included both styles on one piece of pottery, a technique referred to as bilingual. According to the CMA, this particular amphora of Lysippides was “preferred by earlier generations”, and thus a bit old-fashioned for its time. It is unclear if Lysippides’ amphora was meant to be a fancy storage container, decorative wine decanter, athletic trophy, or something completely different. Regardless, in any age it is a timeless prize.
Left: “Old-Fashion” Black-Figure Amphora (530 BCE) by Lysippides Painter, CMA, photo by cjverb (2021)
Right: Black-Figure Amphora (530 BCE) by Lysippides Painter, Metropolitan Museum of Art
If you’d like to learn more about the ancient art of black- and red-figure painting, click on this Athenian Vase Painting: Black- and Red-Figure Techniques link, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If you’d like to learn more about ancient Greek pottery and see an unusual leg (yes, leg as in limb!) decanter, click on this Museum Bites: A Festive Leg to Stand On link.
That wraps up our look at ancient Greek amphorae. I’ll be back next week with another treasure from my road trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art. In the meantime, be safe, be kind, and take care 🙂
Cover photo by PDPics, courtesy of Pixabay.