BMCR 2023.09.23

Bauern und Banausen Darstellungen des Handwerks und der Landwirtschaft in der griechischen Vasenmalerei

, Bauern und Banausen. Darstellungen des Handwerks und der Landwirtschaft in der griechischen Vasenmalerei. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2022. Pp. 288. ISBN 9783954903214

How did vase painters portray craftspeople and farmers? This is the main question addressed by Stefan Distler in his book on representations of people at work on ancient Greek vases. These two domains, crafts and agriculture, are singled out because both kinds of physical labor and the people involved in it received very different views in literary sources: craftswork was mostly regarded in a negative light while agricultural work was predominantly described in a positive way. Distler aims to characterize these two types of working class people by instead carefully analyzing depictions of people at work. To this end, he has compiled a corpus of 143 vases that depict people performing physical labor, the majority of which were painted between the beginning of the 6th century BCE and the middle of the 5th century BCE. Additionally, he also considers 44 of the pinakes discovered at Penteskouphia, mostly displaying potters. Distler examines the way in which workers are portrayed by the craftspeople that painted the vases (and votive plaques), with special attention to the posture, physical features, clothing and attributes of the laborers.

The book starts with an elaborate presentation of the evidence, which is divided into two main parts: (1) depictions of craftspeople and (2) depictions of farmers. A discussion of this evidence follows, offering a statistical and iconographical analysis of the images. Diagrams are included in the back of the book (four in total), as well as a catalogue (23 pages) and 46 plates with illustrations of the scenes under discussion (214 photos and 9 drawings). Nearly all 192 catalogue entries are illustrated, with the exception of 18 pinakes and two vases (the latter two went missing).

The corpus of images of working people is presented in a clear and well-organized manner. Distler writes concise and accurate descriptions of the paintings on vases and votive plaques with an eye for detail. The pinakes from Penteskouphia are discussed first as a separate class, after which the images of potters and vase-painters, metalworkers, carpenters, sculptors, and shoemakers are all considered in turn. A separate section is devoted to depictions of Hephaistos as a craftsman. The second part opens with the presentation of agricultural workers involved in arable farming and continues with an analysis of depictions of shepherds and fishermen. Laborers involved in viticulture, winemaking, olive cultivation and oil production are also considered, as well as two depictions of ‘honey thieves’: men taking honey from wild bees (beekeeping, though practiced, is not depicted in Greek vase-painting). Though one might not fully agree with the choices made for the book, for example the inclusion of fishing as an agricultural activity (while hunting is omitted) or the exclusion of depictions of textile crafts, Distler’s compilation is comprehensive (for the categories chosen) and impressive.

Several previous studies are devoted to depictions of craftspeople on ceramics, most notably by Ziomecki, Himmelmann, Vidale, Chatzidimitriou and Haug[1]. Depictions of agricultural laborers, however, have received less scholarly attention[2], and this is why Distler’s work is an important contribution to the field: it is the first synoptic study of the iconography of agricultural laborers as depicted in Greek vase-painting.

It is a difficult task to deduce from the depictions of laborers how they were viewed by the vase-painters, especially because the images do not portray them always in the same way and also because some of the subtleties in the imagery may be lost on the modern observer. Distler argues that painters took care to render themselves and their colleagues in other crafts in a positive light: occupational pride is emphasized through the addition of (divine) spectators and the foregrounding of the manufacturing process. In his opinion the use of banausic elements in the portrayal of the craftspeople serves mainly to identify them as craftspeople and is largely free of pejorative connotations: it serves the characterization of the craftspeople, in accordance with views as expressed in written sources, yet is not necessarily stigmatizing. A positive portrayal of both craftspeople and farmers is also found in tondi of drinking vessels, where painters seem more reluctant to add banausic or negative characteristics and depict them primarily as attractive youths. At first sight agricultural workers seem to resemble craftspeople — both may appear nude or wear short garments and short haircuts — yet upon closer inspection they appear nude more often than craftspeople, they wear different garments (usually a chitoniskos or an exomis) as well as furs, and are depicted with short hair even at times when long hair was common. Distler identifies three tendencies among the painters of agricultural scenes: first, the inclination to capture ploughmen with athletic bodies in heroic poses, thereby raising their status; second, a tendency to idealise life in the countryside and eroticize especially fishermen and shepherds; third, the inclusion of a humorous or burlesque element in the scenes with agricultural laborers, satyrs and human protagonists alike. A positive view on agricultural work can be discerned, as also identified in ancient literature, yet there is a tendency to emphasize the differences between city and countryside, mainly by stereotyping agricultural workers as non-urban or non-civilized. Both craftspeople and farmers were depicted as divergent from the idealized citizen, yet the painters tried to depict worldly and attractive scenes that buyers would understand.

Distler has written an appealing book about craftspeople and farmers. Especially the compilation of images of farmers at work is a significant addition to the field. It is commendable that he not only considers the imagery, but also the ceramic shape on which it appears as well as its function and findspot. In addition, he also takes into account the chronology and the various painters of scenes of working people. His organized approach to the material is clearly expressed by his use of diagrams, and though the attentive reader may note that they do not always correspond exactly to the numbers mentioned in the text (which does not affect the overall conclusions), the visualisations provide useful overviews of the depicted themes, their chronology and the array of ceramic shapes carrying images of craftspeople and farmers. Lastly, though most of the ceramic material in the corpus originates in Attica, it deserves mention that Distler includes non-Attic productions as well. That working people were painted on vases in various ceramic production centers demonstrates the broad interest among vase-painters for the subject, as does the number of individual painters that can be recognized.

This book will please scholars with an interest in craftspeople and farmers in ancient Greece, but is also of interest to those engaging with Greek vase-painting. Though familiarity with the views expressed in ancient literary sources about craftspeople and farmers is a benefit, because the book does not presuppose much prior knowledge, it might also be of interest to students. Distler’s research shows how the vase-painters created an iconography of working class people that ties in with the narratives about craftspeople and farmers, thereby making the scene understandable for the viewer, but at the same time they played with the contradictions between working class and idealized citizens and between the city and the countryside to create different stories. The book provides a rich corpus of imagery of working people in ancient Greece, and through the eyes of the vase-painters, Distler enables us to become acquainted with Greek craftspeople and farmers.



[1] J. Ziomecki, Les représentations d’artisans sur les vases attiques (Breslau 1975). N. Himmelmann, Archäologisches zum Problem der griechischen Sklaverei (Mainz/Wiesbaden 1971). N. Himmelmann, Realistische Themen in der griechischen Kunst der archaischen und klassischen Zeit (Berlin 1994). M. Vidale, L’idea di un lavoro lieve. Il lavoro artigianale nelle immagini delle ceramica greca tra VI e IV secolo a.C. (Padua 2002). A. Chatzidimitriou, Παραστάσεις εργαστηρίων και εμπορίου στην εικονογραφία των αρχαϊκών και κλασικών χρόνων (Athens 2005). A. Haug, “Handwerkerszenen auf attischen Vasen des 6. und 5. Jhs. v. Chr. Berufliches Selbstbewußtsein und socialer Status,” in: Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 126 (2011), 1–31.

[2] An exception is N. Malagardis, “Images du monde rural attique à l’époque archaïque. Travail et societé: L’outil et le geste sur les vases,” in: Archaiologike Ephemeris 127 (1988), 95–134.