BMCR 1991.02.10

The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet

, , The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet: Images of Wine and Ritual = (Un Flot d'Images). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991. 159 pages. ISBN 9780691035956.

There are a number of scholars whose writings form the history of an intellectual process rather than its end, servings from a crockpot that simmers on the mind’s stove, to which fresh ingredients are constantly added. So with Lissarrague’s 1987 study of iconography, Un Flot d’Images: une esthétique du banquet grec, now conveniently translated by Andrew Szegedy-Maszak. For aficionados of L’s work, or of the broader group including Bernard, Durand and Schapp, this portion may provide little new, but for an outsider it can be an accessible introduction to a style of iconology that is sometimes extremely illuminating.

Chapter One, “The Greek Experience of Wine”, uses a variety of texts (especially the Bacchae) to set up the ambivalence of wine, both a medicine and a poison (the evidence for the latter being Cato!), which needs to be mixed to be controlled, hence “the whole imagery of wine in ancient Greece is constellated around such mixing” (7). The imagery has two levels—human and satyr—the latter expressing “that radically Other element buried deep within every civilized man, which drinking can bring to light” (13). Chapter Two, “The Space of the Krater”, which bears a fairly close relationship to L’s essay “Around the Krater” presented in the 1984 Oxford symposium on symposia, explores the degree to which the mixing bowl organizes the visual space depicted on various vases: although the serving of wine is more often depicted than its mixing, the krater is often pictured and can even stand for the whole banquet, both among men and among satyrs. Chapter Three, “Manipulations”, describes novelty vases, most obviously so-called plastic vases but also covered cups, an amphora-psykter and head-shaped kantharoi, all of which are supposed to “manipulate the drinker”. The chapter concludes with several pages, based on L’s 1985 article “Paroles d’images: remarques sur le fonctionnement de l’écriture dans l’imagerie attique”, that describe different manifestations of “the dialogue created by the custom of writing on the vase” (59). Chapter Four, “Drinking Games”, describes the iconography of party games involving riding wineskins (askoliasmos), balancing cups or amphorae and finally kottabos, which “is more than a game of skill … it involves true aim and the disruption of equilibrium … and this symbolizes that love has been assured” (84). Chapter Five, “Reflections”, begins with paintings that include silhouetted images of vases, “never empty of meaning” (93), and silhouetted figures and ends with a survey: 41 of Douris’ 387 scenes show a komos, 42 show a symposium and 26 show Dionysiac scenes so “almost a third of the surviving examples have to do with wine” (104); 80 of Makron’s 425 complete scenes are of the komos, 39 of the symposium and 79 of Dionysiac activities—”almost half the surviving examples”. By contrast 50 of 126 complete scenes by the Kleophrades painter, who worked on large vases, deal with mythological scenes, “only one symposion, 6 instances of a komos, and 20 Dionysiac scenes” (104-5). Chapter Six, “Wine and the Wine-Dark Sea”, encapsulating articles by Slater and Davies, describes various pictorial realizations of the “symposium at sea” especially men and gods on or with dolphins. The final chapter, “Song and Image”, considers the portrayal of music and poetry in images, concentrating on inscriptions and then the graphic techniques for indicating speech and song (singing head back; holding a scroll). An epilogue glances at eye cups to show the “extraordinary flexibility of the image” (141), a phrase that could well summarize the book’s contents.

These chapters and themes are merely the skeleton; it is the commentary on the 111 illustrations (for the most part tracings) which shape the book and gives it weight. The comments are original, provocative and often perplexing as we can see from a sampling of the first two chapters:

fig. 1: the Scythian headdress of the piper is said to mark him as a “peerless drinker” (likewise the whole series of ‘Anacreontic’ vases), yet this claim is not repeated for the sakkos-covered lyre player of fig. 19 (could both be simply foreign/hired musicians?).

fig. 6: the tondo’s Gorgon face is not explained. fig. 9: “this pais is symmetrically balanced with the large krater under the other handle; server and serving vessel are both indispensable props for the symposium” (a good observation).

fig. 10: “there is no water jug; only the wine matters” (an observation repeated on fig. 25, although we’ve not been shown where water does matter).

fig. 11: “a krater appears under one of the handles [of this stamnos]—twice removed, a vase painted on a vase … [with] a reverse symmetry… The pictorial surface is cylindrical, hence centrifugal, while the couches in the room are arranged [in a circle] so they converge” (well …).

fig. 15: the krater is garlanded, “dressed up like a guest.” fig. 16: “Although the light, portable vases remain on the ground, one of the dancers hoists a huge volute-krater … as if the natural order of things were temporarily reversed.”

fig. 19: one human figure carries a rhyton (likewise fig. 23), earlier called “a specific iconographic attribute of the god.”

fig. 20: the tondo “is not a simple excerpt … it is an elliptical portrayal of all the possible forms of conviviality centered on a krater.”

fig. 21: the singer “singing in the way Pindar describes” and holding a lyre with aulos-case attached embodies “the whole scale of the poetic performances that can take place in a symposion” (or it could reflect the tension between aulos and lyre evident in so many lyric texts; one might think that the inscription circling the singer was the line from Pindar quoted in L’s text but it is in fact a kalos inscription).

fig. 22: the herm by the krater “shows how the vase for mixing wine can itself become a landmark” (!!). fig. 23: “their dance is organized around a krater placed on the ground; pictorially it is almost directly across from Dionysus and seems to be correlated to him” (yet there are four pairs of ‘satyr plus female’, the last holding a tendril, on either side of Dionysus and Hermes whereas there are three pairs on one side of the krater and four on the other, with at least three other vases on the ground; also the vase is called a dinos in the text and krater in illustration). fig. 25: “the other inscription [kalos epeleios] is fairly trite and has no direct connection to the picture (see fig. 19)” yet on fig. 19 we read “the label ‘kalos’ that appears on a large number of vases expresses verbally what the image shows visually: the aesthetic pleasure derived from looking at a body.” fig. 26: “the one [satyr] on the left is seen full-face, and his stare reaches out to the viewer” (not so—we see only his upside down beard and his arm-pits—for which see fig. 28 a, where the figure is staring out at the viewer). fig. 27: the label “komos” is taken to be the satyr’s ‘stage name’ although it is not clear which satyr it is supposed to be (hence it probably refers to neither but is a label of the whole scene). fig. 28: on both sides of the krater “the symposion and the forge are brought into correspondence through these objects [wineskin; bellows], which are typologically similar, visually analogous, and even sometimes denoted by the same Greek word, askos. Similarly the bellows tube and the flute are both called aulos” (on p.119 we find this is the term for dolphin’s breathing hole too). The illustrative texts interspersed with this commentary are much less provocative. The bibliography is fairly current but by no means exhaustive.