BMCR 2005.03.14

Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art fasc. 5, USA fasc. 37: Greek Geometric and Protoattic Pottery

, , , , , , Corpus vasorum antiquorum. [United States of America]. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.. Corpus vasorum antiquorum. United States of America ; fasc. 9, 11, 12, 16, 37. New York: Harvard University Press, 1943-2004. volumes 1-5 : illustrations, plates ; 33 cm.. ISBN 0870991345 €118.00.

In this fifth fascicule of the Greek vases in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the essential purpose of the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum (CVA) to publish entire museum collections of ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan ceramics, is fully realized. It is a model publication, as we would expect from Mary Moore, the co-author, with Dietrich von Bothmer, of the fourth Metropolitan CVA (USA fasc. 16; 1976), and the heroic cataloguer of the Attic black-figure and red-figure vases from the Athenian Agora. In this new volume, Moore publishes all of the 106 Geometric and five Protoattic vases in the Metropolitan. The format is clear and rational, with a Table of Contents, Introduction, Abbreviations, Catalogue, Index of Accession Numbers, Index of Attributions to Painters, Groups, and Workshops, and an Illustrated Glossary of Linear Motifs, the last an invaluable tool that should become a standard reference. In the catalogue, the Protoattic pots come after the Attic Geometric, followed by nine Euboean Geometric vases — including the famous Cesnola Krater — and one Boeotian Geometric cup. The last section deals with eight Geometric vessels of uncertain fabric. The vases described range in date from the tenth century (Protogeometric) to the mid-seventh (Middle Protoattic). Most were purchased before World War II, and none was acquired later than 1967. A group of eight vases bought in 1910 probably derive from the same tomb group (pls. 28-38). Another group of small vessels, nearly all cups, came from Carl Blegen’s excavation of a sanctuary of Zeus on Mt. Hymettus in Athens, a gift of the Greek government in 1930 (pls. 24-27).

The photographs are of excellent quality, and multiple views are provided of all but minor works. The wealth of detailed images is especially welcome; whenever one feels the need for a closer look at a particular figural scene or frieze, it nearly always is provided, a rarity in older CVAs and a persistent omission in some more recent fascicules. The author seems to have asked herself for what reason students and scholars most frequently turn to the CVA. In most cases, the purpose is either to quickly find an image of a particular vase, or to flip through the plates looking for a particular shape, subject, or motif. In either case, one naturally begins with the plates and then moves to the text. The transition is simplified in this fascicule by making the plate numbers the bold heading of each entry in the text, which is so much better than assigning a superfluous catalogue number to each vase. Just below each bold heading is the museum accession number, which is repeated with the images in the plates. Nothing could be simpler or easier. The descriptions are admirably detailed and are augmented with a plenitude of comparanda and analysis: sometimes too much, as when, in her discussion of a Protoattic neck-amphora by the Passas Painter (pls. 39-41), she gives us quotes from Xenophon and goes rather too deeply into the early history of domestic chickens in Greece (pp. 68-69).

The Metropolitan’s collection of Geometric and Protoattic vases cannot compare in number and variety with those in Athens or London — it is surprising to learn, for instance, that it does not include a horse pyxis — but in terms of quality and interest, it is among the finest anywhere. The brightest stars are three magnificent Attic pedestaled kraters (pls. 1-18). Discussed and debated for nearly a century — their bibliographies average nearly four text columns apiece — these impressive products of the potter’s art, which range in height from 0.99 to 1.31m., are among the best-known of all Geometric vases. They originally were placed on the graves of Athenian male aristocrats, whose wealth, power, and masculine aretê are symbolized by the ships, horses, and chariots that complement the central imagery of prothesis, the ceremonial laying out of the dead on a bier surrounded by mourners. On the earliest of the three (pls. 1-7), dating to Middle Geometric II (“probably late first quarter of the eighth century B.C.” [p.3]), the two fragmentary scenes of prothesis are confined to small metopes on either side, with more attention given to a lower frieze featuring a pair of long war ships with pointed rams, and two files of warriors carrying Dipylon shields and equipped with swords, spears, and plumed helmets. On a later krater, assigned to LG Ia (ca. 750-735 B.C.), the imagery is dominated by a single and more elaborate prothesis, with multiple mourners, among whom greater effort is made to distinguish children and other grieving family members (pls. 8-13). As on the earlier krater, the figures are executed in the familiar Geometric style, with triangular torsos, attenuated limbs, and round heads, but now the heads are reserved, and the eye is represented by a single dot in the center. In the frieze below the prothesis is a continuous procession of heavily armed foot soldiers and three-horse chariots, the latter with wheels not properly foreshortened but shown side by side in the same spatial plane, a naïve yet sophisticated attempt at foreshortening that recurs in the treatment of the four legs of the funerary bier. On the third pedestaled krater (pls. 14-18), assigned to LG IIa, ca. 725 B.C., there are two friezes of chariots. Most of the chariots in the lower frieze are drawn by a single horse, while all those in the band above have two horses, perhaps indicating a distinction in wealth, age, or social status. The third and principal frieze, between the handles, is again a prothesis, and this time the deceased is clearly represented as a helmeted warrior. There are six seated mourners and two groups standing on either side of the bier; those on the left are all women, while those on the right are all warriors. At the end of the file of male mourners is one of curious form: two heads, four arms, and four legs emerge from a single torso. A similar set of “twins” appears on the reverse, where they stand facing a normal warrior across a tripod, a trophy of victory. Two more sets of twins are found in the lowermost frieze, where they alone drive chariots drawn by two horses rather than one. Twin warriors of this type, which appear on a few other Attic Late Geometric vases, often have been identified with the Molione (aka Aktorione), twin brothers who are mentioned by Homer and later authors in such a way as to suggest that they may have been Siamese twins. Moore tends to agree with those who, instead, believe the figures are simply two overlapping warriors, noting that they appear four times on this one vase, including twice in the same scene. There may be more to it than this, but a mythological interpretation does seem unlikely for what otherwise are best explained as depictions of elaborate funerary rituals and processions.

Other notable Attic Geometric pieces include a bail-handled jug with a strainer top (pl. 20.7-9; 21.1); an elegant kantharos featuring two horse-tamers in surroundings devoid of the usual clutter of geometric motifs (pl. 21.8-9); an ovoid “basket,” perhaps imitating leather (pl. 22.4-5, 7); a pomegranate (pl. 22.6); a unique semicircular stand that Richter thought might have been used as a footstool but that seems more likely a model of a larger structure, albeit of unknown purpose (pl. 23.1-4); and a conical lekythos-oinochoe in Argive Monochrome (pl. 23.5-8), a rare but widespread type of small, unglazed, handmade pottery with incised and rouletted decoration.

The Cesnola Krater (pls. 46-49) was found by the Metropolitan’s first director, Luigi Palma di Cesnola, at Kourion, Cyprus, in what he described as a temple’s “treasure chamber,” a structure now recognized as a monumental tomb (p. 83). Among the distinctive elements of this famous vase are its curious domed lid, surmounted by a second, smaller vase, a hydria; the crisply executed rosettes, checkers, and running spirals; the continuous frieze of grazing horses (an innovation of the Cesnola Painter); and the two central panels with confronted goats rearing up to nibble the Tree of Life, a Geometric adaptation of the old Near Eastern motif. Long considered Naxian in origin, it was assigned by Coldstream, for excellent reasons, to Euboea instead.1 This conclusion is apparently supported by analysis of the krater’s clay and that of one of the two oinochoai said to have been found with it, also attributed to the Cesnola Painter (pl. 50). Moore succinctly but thoroughly covers every aspect of the krater’s shape, decoration, and iconography, as well as its nebulous excavation and the extended debate over its place of manufacture: her synthesis will be the point of departure for any future discussion.

Among the Protoattic works, the star is the name-vase of the New York Nessos Painter, ca. 675-650 B.C., a large amphora, probably used as a grave marker, that is one of the masterpieces of the Black and White style (pls. 42-44). Moore (p. 75) joins the majority of scholars in rejecting Sarah Morris’s theory that much Protoattic pottery in this style actually was made in Aigina.2 The vase features one of the earliest certain depictions of Herakles killing the centaur Nessos. In an unusual composition, the hero dismounts from a chariot to attack Nessos while Deianeira looks on, seated backward in the car. According to most ancient authors,3 Herakles dispatched Nessos with an arrow poisoned with the blood of the Hydra. The dying centaur tricked Deianeira into believing that his tainted blood and semen someday would act as a potion to restore her husband’s love for her; when, instead, the potion killed Herakles, Nessos had his revenge. The poisoned arrow therefore would seem an indispensable element, but most Archaic depictions of the fight show Herakles attacking Nessos with a club or sword, as he does here. Instead, the bow became a signature motif of the hero’s encounter with the centaurs of Mt. Pholoë, whom he repelled from the cave of Pholos in a shower of arrows.4

Among the vases of uncertain fabric is a ring-shaped oinochoe with a trefoil mouth, twisted handle, and flaring foot, that Moore believes is probably late eighth-century (pl. 55, pp. 92-93). This vase is almost certainly Etruscan, as suggested not only by its close similarity in shape to a ring-oinochoe in Stockholm, dating to the first half of the seventh century,5 but also by the bands of zigzagging triangles (“single, with apices filled”, as they are called in the Glossary of Linear Motifs, fig. 16), which are found on other Etruscan vases of that ilk.6 Since the tall, reversed Ss on the neck and foot of the New York ring-vase are identical to those on the preceding oinochoe (pl. 54.3-4), whose shape and striped ornament are abundantly paralleled at Cumae, it, too, is likely of Italian origin.

The continued relevance and utility of the CVA are demonstrated by this excellent new fascicule, and students of Greek pottery are indebted to its author.


1. J. N. Coldstream, “The Cesnola Painter: A Change of Address,” BICS 18 (1971) 1-15.

2. S. P. Morris, The Black and White Style. Athens and Aigina in the Orientalizing Period (New Haven 1984).

3. Soph. Trach. 555-81; Apollod. Bibl. 2.7.6-7; Diod. Sic. 4.36.

4. For the iconography of these Heraclean centauromachies, see J. M. Padgett ed., The Centaur’s Smile: The Human Animal in Early Greek Art, exhib. cat. Princeton University Art Museum (Princeton 2003) 22-25.

5. M. Martelli, ed., La Ceramica degli Etruschi (Novara 1987) 82, no. 27.

6. E.g., Martelli, p. 85, no. 31.