Introduction | Architecture | Sculpture | Pottery | Conclusion | Bibliography


Minoan pottery showing an octopusThough many cultures would not consider pottery to be art, the Greeks certainly did. Not only used for storage, pottery was decorated beautifully as well. This was done by applying a black slip in different ways to create images. There were many styles and periods of pottery, as explored below.
The oldest of these was the Minoan and Mycenaean pottery, some surviving from the second millennium BC. This pottery was highly decorated, with design crammed into every available area of the work, suggesting horror vacui. Designs included animals and patterns. Patterns became more prevalent as the Geometric period developed. Animals, people and objects are less portrayed. Geometric designInstead, patterns, shapes, and other geometric features are depicted.
As Asian culture began to influence the Greeks, a new period came about called the orientalizing period. Orientalized pottery containing mythical beastsPlants and animals begin again to feature on pottery, including mythological creatures such as griffins. People are not frequently shown on pottery from this period. As this period continues, the black figure technique begins to be used but is not dominant at this point.
The Archaic period is the next period to come about. black-figure potteryIt further expands on the earlier trends of showing mythology on pottery, but more importantly, artists began to sign their art. The black figure technique became more prominent at this point. These vessels would be made of red clay, with black slips applied to create black figures which were later etched and painted to add detail.
The next natural step after the black figure technique is to reverse it, and this led to the red figure technique, as shown in Medea & Son below. Though not as easy to do, it made for extremely striking designs.
As pottery became more popular, the artists who painted them seemed to lean towards making them more and more like paintings. During this classical period, often almost the entire pot would be painted white to allow for an artist to easily paint a scene. These pots were less striking, and by the 400s BC, pottery as art seems to fall out of vogue as art. In the next few hundred years, painting pottery before firing completely disappear.

Classical white-ground pottery

Medea & Son

Ixion (painter)
Campanian clay
48.50cm x 18.20cm
Classical period
red-figure period, 330 BC
Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Department of Greek, Etruscanand Roman Antiquities, Sully, first floor, room 44, case 25

Subject: This neck-amphora depicts Medea killing her son. In Greek mythology, Medea was a granddaughter of Helios. Jason, leader of the argonauts, is on a mission to find the Golden Fleece of the winged ram, and Medea's father, King Aeëtes, agrees to help him. To earn this help, Jason goes through many tasks: he plows a field with fire-breathing oxen, sows the field with dragon's teeth, and defeat the army of soldiers which rose from the field. Finally, he has to fight and kill a dragon which never sleeps. Medea, who is in love with Jason due to a plot instigated by Hera and carried out by Aphrodite, puts the dragon to sleep using narcotic herbs of some kind. Of course, she does this in exchange for his agreement to marry her. He does, and they sail off together with their treasure; but not before killing Medea's brother to provide a diversion. They continue on a great journey, leaving a bloody trail in their wake which includes tricking women into chopping up their fathers and boiling them in hopes of producing a younger man. Once they finally settle down in Corinth and have several children, the King of Corinth offers Jason his daughter. He accepts and leaves Medea in a rage. She kills the King and the Princess. Still unsatisfied, she murders the children she and Jason had together, as shown here.

The Artist's Work: This pot is made from Campanian clay from the south of Italy, which fires into the salmon colour of the main subjects. After being formed, a black slip would have been applied to the background, leaving the figures red. this is very striking, and they stand out well. This also gives the piece itself more presence. Once fired, black and white detail would be added with paint and etching, followed by a glaze. Like a painting, this picture is 'framed' by borders on the top and bottom which have basic, repeating patterns. The waves on the bottom likely represent an island or oceanside setting.


Reaction: This amphora greatly intrigued me. The thought of a mother killing her child is always disturbing, but something seemed extra unsettling about this one. Medea looks blank-faced, determined, uncaring. She holds his hair, the most indirect way of touching. She stabs him with a sword, a very personal way of killing. She did not poison him, or have someone else kill him, she did it herself. This shows very clearly that she is motivated by rage, not any other motive. I also enjoy the flow of the fabric and the waves along the bottom. As most red-figure pottery is, the subjects are striking and stand out a great deal. Once I looked into the background, however, I noticed Ionic columns as well as a figure, perhaps some kind of God. The pot also looks extremely well preserved for how long ago it would have been made. No chips are visible and it still appears glossy. Aside from that, there is an extreme lack of realism in the blood of the child and his pose is overly dramatic.