Parrhasios, admitting candidly that he had deceived the birds, while Parrhasios had deluded himself, a
painter. (Pliny’s Chapters on the History of Art, 109, 111)
Primary sources like this provide precious evidence that exceptionally skilled painters were at work in ancient
Greece, but almost nothing survives. Instead we can infer the development of Greek painting through decorations
on ceramic vases, which are much more durable than other types of painting.
We will see that the style of Greek vase painting changes through time, and so does the technique; in fact the
technique--how the vase is made and decorated--encouraged vase painters to try new ways of showing figures.
However, the actual shape of the vases becomes standardized because the vases served various ritual functions.
Finally, we will see that the subject matter of the scenes can vary. In the earliest Greek vases the subject matter is
related to the funerary function of the vases; later mythological scenes would be common but scenes from daily life
(like banquets or artists working) or athletic events might be shown.
Vases from the 8th and 7th centuries BCE demonstrate how the Greeks were influence by other cultures around the
Mediterranean, while still developing their own unique style. The Geometric style, as seen on a large krater now in
the Metropolitan Museum, shows the human form in a conceptual pose, but it is even more abstract than anything
seen in Egyptian art. The upper body is a simple triangle, and the head has been reduced to a lozenge shape with a
single, enormous eye. Bands of geometric patterns give the style its name. This vase, which is over 4’ tall, was used
as a grave marker, and appropriately the scene on its body shows a funeral. The corpse lies on a funeral bier with
animals that will be sacrificed in the cremation; mourners wail with their arms above their heads.
Detail of a Geometric Krater, 8th century BCE
In the 7th century BCE, Greece was establishing colonies across the eastern Mediterranean, and influence of artistic
developments in the Near East. Animals become more common subjects, and both humans and animals have fuller,
more sinuous forms. Poses still show the body as clearly as possible, with heads and feet in profile and torsos turned
to the front. Although there is more variety in the subject matter and activities depicted on these vases, the
movement still occurs on the surface, with all figures arranged along a ground line.
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