BMCR 2022.11.29

Composition in Athenian black-figure vase-painting: the ‘Chariot in profile’ type scene

, Composition in Athenian black-figure vase-painting: the 'Chariot in profile' type scene. Babesch Supplement, 41. Leuven: Peeters, 2021. Pp. xii, 316. ISBN 9789042945555. €73,00.

Athenian figured vases have long been used as cultural informants for the Athenian society that manufactured them. By studying the iconography of about 1,275 chariot scenes on Athenian black-figured painted vases from the period between 580 to 500 BCE, Jurriaans-Helle argues that a consistent pictorial language was used. Painters respected the rules of this pictorial language even on carelessly painted vases, so that ‘contemporary viewers brought up with this language immediately recognised the resulting images associated them with specific mythological episodes or daily life events.’ Moreover, by examining the imagery of a specific type scene ’Chariot in profile with people standing in and next to it‘ (a frequently depicted composition in 6th-century BCE Athenian black-figure vase painting, which makes it possible to follow it over a long period of time) the knowledge of this pictorial language provides a better comprehension of the meaning of the representations or an underlying idea in order to make it instantly recognisable for the public. As Jurriaans-Helle indicates, we can only assume that 6th century BCE Athenians could  somehow understand vase-paintings because of a few elements that were sufficient for them to identify the whole composition.

This well-produced and researched study focuses on mass-produced vases, because large numbers provide vital statistical evidence for understanding the meaning of gestures, attributes, and other details. It makes it also possible to deduce the rules of Athenian pictorial language and to recognize what is usual and normal, or unusual and exceptional. The author concludes that Athenian vase-painters composed their paintings according to a commonly understood system of pictorial language; that they were free to make variations, additions, and omissions, but stayed within the boundaries of the system and did not randomly add or omit figures; that innovative compositions were based upon existing compositions with a related meaning, since new images had to be easily and quickly understandable by the public; and that typical elements could have different meanings depending on their context. Since the painters composed the paintings according to a commonly understood system of pictorial language, knowledge of this system would help the modern viewer to understand the deeper meanings of the iconography of the paintings that at first sight are hard to grasp. The author also assumes that most Athenians understood the meaning of the pictures, although better-educated people may have more easily recognized variants and references to obscure stories or contemporary allusions. Also, she does not find any indication that Athenian vase-painters used another pictorial language on vases made for export than on those made for the market at home. Therefore, she has left the ‘Etruscan question’ outside this book.

The introduction of the book is highly informative as it gives some basic information on the pictorial language. Jurriaans-Helle points out that pictorial language changes over the course of time like spoken language. Viewers acquainted with the city’s common pictorial language could therefore associate details or compositions with a specific action or story, and mentally fill in what happened both before and after a depicted episode, understanding the picture as part of a narrative.

Jurriaans-Helle also describes her method of analysis: to chart the typical elements of the chariot in profile type scene, its subtypes and variants (hoplite and other men leaving, wedding procession, apotheosis of Heracles and divine departures) in order to ascertain the typical composition and the meaning of individual elements and their combinations. Her list of about 1,275 chariot scenes on Athenian painted vases is not complete, as not all publications were available to consult. She has left out vases when photographs were not provided but does not provide information on how many vases have been left out of her study. Of course, this is a not an easy question to answer as often vases (especially ones of lower quality) have not been published at all. Besides, as the author indicates, the painted vases we study today are a relatively random selection of objects that were preserved in the ground and not the product of centuries of selection based on quality and copying, as in the case with most ancient literary works that survive.

Arranged thematically, the book consists of six chapters. The first chapter is a brief but valuable assessment of the methodologies for the interpretation of paintings on Athenian vases. We learn about the limitations in identifying the scenes, which is not always an easy task for the scholar, as in many cases it is not possible to understand who the figures are, why they are depicted the way they are, or whether we are looking at scenes from myth or daily life. Discussing her methodology, the author notes that instead of starting from the representations that have a clear and indisputable meaning, she takes the opposite approach, arguing that the mass-produced vases are indispensable for understanding the meaning of the scenes.

To demonstrate her methodology, the second chapter presents a case study of 69 representations of two men fighting each other while another person intervenes (the type scene ‘fighting men separated’). Depending on which typical elements are depicted, she argues that two subtypes can be distinguished: an organised fight of two warriors armed with spears and a quarrel between two men fighting with swords. The third chapter examines the iconographic subtype ‘hoplites and other men leaving’ based on about 460 vase-paintings that show a hoplite or man leaving in a chariot, with many variants. Among this group, which generally has a heroic atmosphere, the only image that certainly represents a mythological event, because it is identified by name inscriptions or a unique typical element, is the Departure of Amphiaraos.

The fourth chapter explores depictions based on the type scene ‘Chariot in profile with people standing in and next to it’, in which a woman is shown standing in a chariot as a passenger while a man is holding the reins. This group is called the subtype ‘wedding procession’ since the names of married couples are sometimes inscribed. In the fifth chapter about 350 depictions of the type scene in which gods and goddesses are mounting, driving or accompanying a chariot are discussed. This subtype is named ‘Apotheosis of Herakles and divine departures’ because about one third of the paintings represent Herakles and Athena, both identifiable by at least one attribute. (Since the subject of the book is the type scene ‘Chariot in profile’ this subtype refers only to those depictions in which a chariot is present.) It is interesting that, although these images seem to represent a mythological story, they may also have been chosen to represent an equivalent event in real life. The final chapter is a short epilogue with a few concluding remarks on the meaning of the type scene ‘Chariot in profile’ as well as on the historical context, where Jurriaans-Helle makes a brief attempt to connect the trends in vase-painting to important historical events during the course of the 6th century BCE.

Throughout the last ninety pages of the book, information is given on the whereabouts of the vases (inventory number, shape, painter, date, provenance, etc.) as well as the record number in the Internet Beazley Archive Pottery Database. For vases not in the Beazley Archive, a reference to the publication is provided. Significant iconographical details in the depictions are also given, including a short characterization of the depiction(s) on other sections of the vase. The list of museums and collections—more than 250—with references to vases mentioned in the text is impressive given the restrictions of a single publication.

In general, the volume is beautifully illustrated, well written and produced. Jurriaans-Helle has managed to put a lot of information into about two hundred pages of text. It is encouraging to see that several eye-catching colour images are included, although it would be much better if at least one photo of the variants of the subtypes had been included because there are many instances where a vase—or a scene—is discussed but not illustrated. It would allow the reader to better understand unfamiliar material and to observe details that are crucial to some of the author’s arguments. Nonetheless, there is an abundance of material that will be exceptionally useful for modern scholars and students alike. In addition to being an excellent tool for understanding and appreciating the distinctive beauty of Greek vases as well as an important addition to the scholarship on Athenian vase painting, painted decoration can be studied in more detail to answer questions about society, religion, and daily-life. We learn, for instance, that Athenian vase-paintings were composed according to a commonly understood system of pictorial language. In the end, however, readers are left with many important remarks and some dangling threads that might be taken up by other scholars in the future. How often did Athenian vase-painters cross the boundaries of that system by adding or omitting figures? To what extent should the conventions of Athenian pictorial language be understood as a system of visual communication and art historical knowledge? Can we truly understand the deeper meaning of these representations (beyond the subject matter of a chariot) that on first sight was—and still is—hard to grasp? Readers finally come away with a sense that Athenian black-figured painted vases from the period between 580 to 500 BCE do merit such detailed treatment and should continue to find their place in the history of Greek art and archaeology.