BMCR 2005.09.56

Greek Vase Painting. Form, Figure, and Narrative. Treasures of the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid

, , Greek vase painting : form, figure, and narrative : treasures of the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid. Dallas, TX: Meadows Museum, SMU Press, 2004. 168 pages : illustrations (chiefly color) ; 24 cm. ISBN 0870744895 $35.00.

The present volume, edited by Gregory Warden (henceforth W.), acquaints us with forty-four ancient vases from the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid that the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University had the opportunity to exhibit in 2004. The vases cover the time span from the mid-ninth century to the late fourth century BC, i.e., from the Geometric period to late classical times, and include examples from various regions, ranging from Etruria in the west to Asia Minor in the east.

In his preface W. stresses the importance of ancient works of art as a precursor to later Western art, a fact widely overlooked by many visitors to museums who prefer the Old Masters or the paintings of “the late 19th century and their offspring”. Consequently, another exhibition of Greek vases in a region already rich in major collections of ancient art is justified in his view. Another aim of this exhibition was to illustrate to a local audience the development of Greek art by a judicious choice of objects. But it was not only the local community that profited from this show, but also the academic world because this exhibition presented a number of both aesthetically beautiful and interesting vases that had been published either long ago1 or in a volume with a rather limited distribution.2

The catalogue includes many vases of high quality painted by the leading masters of their time. Of the Attic black-figure painters only some of the late ones are represented: the Centaur Painter (12), with his consistent but entertaining topics; the Antimenes Painter (14), whose Dionysiac mask fills both sides of a neck amphora; and the Painter of the Madrid Fountain (16), with his lively narrative of women fetching water from a fountain house. Particularly precious is the white-ground lekythos from the workshop of the Bowdoin Painter. It has a red-figure shoulder and black-figure Apollo, thereby exhibiting a combination of three techniques available at that time. Red-figure artists are more prominent. Andokides and Psiax worked together making one amphora (20). Epiktetos (21) decorated a cup with a symposiast in the tondo who faces his alter ego once the drinker has emptied the vessel. The Berlin Painter shows two heroes, Ajax and Odysseus, opposing each other on the two sides of the same vase; only by turning the vase is the action understandable.

Attic black- and red-figure vases comprise the core of this show, but vases of other fabrics are included as well. From the Greek mainland come three Attic Geometric vases, one of which is an amphora depicting a prothesis (3); five Corinthian vessels, all devoted to animal scenes; and one Laconian cup. A Fikellura amphora was made in Miletus (9); an artist in South Italy, probably Rhegion, made the Chalcidian cup, while craftsmen in Etruria were responsible for the olla (41), the Pontic oinochoe (42) the Etruscan black figure amphora (43) and the Faliscan red-figure column krater (44). The latest vases in the exhibition are nine red-figure vessels from South Italy (32-40); six of them are from Apulia (two of these are by the Baltimore Painter and another is a rhyton showing the death of Actaeon), one from Campania, and two from Paestum.

This beautifully illustrated book — all the photographs of the vases are in colour — consists of two parts. The first gives an introduction to the main aspects of ancient vase-painting and is written by leading American scholars, most of them specialists in the field of ancient vase-painting. The second focuses on the history of the collection and the objects themselves and is the work of equally well-known colleagues from Spain.

The first half of the book comprises five essays that circle around the key-words of the exhibition’s title. Concepts based on pairs of contrasting terms as e.g. ‘decorative vs. narrative’, ‘genre vs. myth’ or ‘fantastic vs. real’ are focal points for the authors, who often prefer new approaches — ones that are borrowed and adapted from other fields — to the established ones. Greek imagery in their view offers not first and foremost vital information for the reconstruction of ancient material culture, but — and this is more important — detailed insights into the mentality and thinking of its producers and recipients.

W.’s preface introduces the reader to the history of the field of vase painting, its old debates and the new approaches that will be applied by some of the contributors of the volume. His contribution bridges the gap between the type of research done at universities and the more material-based work done at museums. Karl Kilinski II gives a comprehensive introduction to the world of Attic vases (“Painters, Pots, and Pictures: an Introduction to Greek Vases”) by discussing topics that range from the artists (provenance of the potters and the painters, their names, their status in society, their hereditary lines, workshop cooperation) to the objects themselves (shapes and their use, common find spots, original value, painting techniques, characteristics of regional schools, function3) and their imagery.

Jenifer Neils’ “Vases on vases” focuses on seven of the Madrid vases that range in date between the late sixth and the late fourth centuries. The context in which the vases are shown being used vary from the realm of males (the symposium of humans as well as gods) to that of women (who carry water from the fountain house or are about to conclude their toilette in the presence of Eros), and from everyday life to myth. She points out that the several water containers shown on a hydria or the abundance of symposium vessels on a cup refer also to the potter’s craftsmanship and thus can be understood as one means of “self-advertisement” by the artists.

Ann Steiner’s “New Approaches to Greek Vases: Repetition, Esthetics, and Meaning” deals with “the role that repetition serves to convey meaning, and the role of repetition as a communicative strategy”. By applying theories from the fields of linguistic and narratology to ancient art, she reveals that repetition (or redundancy as is the term in the academic world) is one of the key elements in “cracking the code”, to understanding the “paradigmatic level” that dominates ancient imagery. Several paintings in the exhibition exemplify her approach and the results.

Sarah Pierce (“Myth and Reality on Greek Vases”) focuses at length on the competing concepts of perceptualism and the imaginaire social. Perceptualism defines ancient imagery as the representation of the real world of the painter and consequently refers to single objects or iconographies as parts or indicators of ancient reality and of the experiences of the painter himself. The imaginaire social, however, a new approach adopted from the field of linguistics, allows us to read images as a language of sorts, a system of signs that introduces us to the collective intellectual system of Greek culture. The imaginary of fountain scenes (16) with its allusions to contemporary political history or gender are a perfect example to weigh the advantages of both approaches and to demonstrate the more intriguing results of the latter, without, of course, neglecting the more basic conclusions of the former.

Last of all W. concentrates on the characteristics of Etruscan art (“Men, Beasts, and Monsters: Pattern and Narrative in Etruscan Art”). His analysis of the Impasto olla (41) and the Pontic oinochoe (42) demonstrates the principles and characteristics of Etruscan imagery at different times as well as in different regions. He shows that influences from all over the ancient world are unified into ‘typical’ Etruscan images that are both decorative and narrative. His emphasis on the combination of ‘fantastic’ creatures and ‘realistic’ elements, popular with Etruscan Archaic painters allows us an insight into Etruscan perceptions of the world again as an ‘imaginaire social’.

The references cited in the articles and the extensive bibliography provide the reader with an interesting overview of the many ways to read and understand ancient imagery in the context of its communal, social and historic framework. Objects, such as the cup by Epiktetos (21), discussed by Neils and Steiner respectively, reveal different levels of interpretation and, thus, the ways that ‘Bildersprache’ works. Not only are the pieces in the show included in the authors’ presentation, but numerous other objects not on show are added. Vivid descriptions in the texts convey an idea for those readers without access to specialized libraries. All in all, this is an ambitious, well structured and well-written introduction that is directed at both an academic and a lay audience.

The second part of the book is devoted to the objects themselves. Paloma Cabrera presents the history of the collection, which is almost exclusively a history of collectors who donated objects to the museum. In the context of the exhibition, her emphasis is aimed at the provenience of those pieces on show. Most of them the museum owes to D. José Luis Várez Fisa (acquired in 1999); a few others had already been given by the Marquis of Salamanca (1874) or had been purchased during the Oriental Expedition (1871). A small group of Spanish specialists (Paloma Cabrera, Margarita Moreno, Ricardo Olmos and Cármen Sánchez) prepared the catalogue entries. Texts presenting those vases that the authors had already dealt with in the comprehensive Spanish publication have been reused. They not only contain technical features, inventory numbers, dimensions, provenience, and a detailed description, but also comment on the region of origin, the cultural context in which the vases were used, iconography and dating.

In respect to the catalogue, only rarely are there incorrect references.4 In general, the references are restricted to basic literature, with a few comparisons. Whenever possible, the Beazley Archive number has been added as reference. This, of course, applies only to attributed Attic vases. Regrettably, recent finds and research have not always been taken into account. This affects the understanding of a particularly beautiful and interesting piece, the Fikellura amphora (9), for an amphora painted by the same painter has recently appeared on the art market.5 The band of lotus buds and flowers on it, with a delicately shaped rhombus inserted between the two solid lotus flower leaves, recalls the form used on a ‘bilingual’ cup from the Zeytintepe at Miletus, one that combines both elements of the traditional Wild Goat Style and the new Fikellura.6 Its existence indicates that the date of the Madrid vase should be slightly raised.

As regards content, I do not agree with some of the interpretations of the imagery; for example, the metaphorical reading of the serpent on the Middle Protocorinthian aryballos (4) is over-interpreted, in my opinion. Some of the attributions I also find difficult to accept: for example the Laconian cup (11) that has been ascribed to the Hunt Painter I would assign to one of his students. The tondo frame, its overall composition as well as the detail of the rendering of the knee find their counterparts on the work of the Hunt Painter’s closest pupil, the Allard Pierson Painter, especially on his cup in Richmond.7

One last comment concerns the illustrations. Some vases, for example the late Geometric amphora (3), the Corinthian aryballos (4) and the Fikellura amphora (9) are not only reproduced in large pictures, but the details of their ornamental or figural decoration are also given. At other times, as is the case with the most prominent piece, the bilingual amphora by Psiax (20), there are no details at all. In my opinion a drawing of the friezes on the Etruscan olla (41) would have at once clarified the decoration and allowed easier access to this piece than any description, no matter how vivid. We all are grateful for the color photographs, nevertheless bigger ones and more details would be of more use to the scholar interested in style and iconography.

All in all this book is beautifully made and of modest size so that it was easy to use when viewing the exhibition — a major advantage in these days of heavy volumes. It can be recommended to specialists, who will enjoy the less well-known vases, and to the non-specialist, particularly ancient art historians or colleagues in other fields with a strong interest in new information for the reconstruction of ancient material culture.


1. CVA Madrid (1) which was published in 1930; it fortunately contains full views of the vases as well as occasionally details, such as those of the bilingual amphora by Psiax (20).

2. P. Cabrera Bonet (ed.), La Colección Várez Fisa en el Museo Arqueológico Nacional. Madrid: Ministerio De Educación, Cultura y Deporte, 2003. ISBN 84-369-3720-1 (181 pieces: Egyptian, Iberian, Celtiberian, Greek and Roman objects including sculpture in stone and bronze, an Egyptian stone relief, Iberian and Celtiberian armour, jewellery, covering the time span between the fifth millenium BC and the fifth century AD).

3. The interpretation of the volute krater by Kleitias and Ergotimos in Florence as a commission for a wedding, as mentioned on p. 15, is at least debatable, if not highly unlikely considering the fact that we by now know two more vases of the same shape and decoration, although not as large; see J. Gaunt, The Attic Volute-Krater, PhD 2002, 435 ff. no. 5. 6. 11 and B. Kreuzer, Zurück in die Zukunft? ‘Homerische’ Werte und ‘solonische’ Programmatik auf dem Klitiaskrater in Florenz’ , forthcoming in ÖJh 2005.

4. Randomly collected: footnote 33 on p. 24: read Simon 1981 b, pl. 113; on p. 37: read 16 instead of 17. Typographical errors are rare: p. 71, a perfect visual play of (instead of on) colors; p. 112 fn. 4, centaurom(a)chia; p. 122 fn. 2, comp(l)ex.

5. Kunst der Antike 16. Galerie Guenter Puhze, Freiburg i. Br. 2002, no. 167.

6. U. Schlotzhauer in: U. Höckmann — D. Kreikenbom (ed.), Naukratis. Die Beziehungen zu Ostgriechenland, Ägypten und Zypern in archaischer Zeit. Akten der Table Ronde in Mainz 1999, Paderborn 2001, p. 121; pl. 16, 2-3.

7. 82.1: C. M. Stibbe, Lakonische Vasenmaler des sechsten Jahrhunderts v. Chr. Supplement, Amsterdam 2004, 243 no. 27 [339] pl. 88 A.