The Idea:

Black and red figure pottery was a revolutionary discovery for Greek artisans that created a whole new meaning to decorations on pottery.  The method, originally pioneered in 700 BC, was created in the town of Corinth, the main hub of black-figure paintings early on after its creation.  That is until Athens eventually perfected the technique and reigned supreme starting 625 BC.

The Process:

To create these decorations and figures, images were painted onto special glossy slips (a more liquid-like clay) that turn black when being fired.  The pottery is put into the kiln after it is shaped and handled.  The overall design is be outlined and filled in with the slips.  Then the details would be carved into the pottery.  This was so that the red clay would eventually show through to provide specific details around the black figures and shapes.  The firing process behind red and black figure pottery consists of the same steps.  The key to getting the different colors was the kiln.  With a normal piece of clay, the temperature inside the kiln would reach at least 450 degrees Celsius. 

Diagram showing a typical ancient kiln

The Stages of Firing Black and Red Figure Pottery:

The first stage is the oxidizing stage. The potters let air into the kiln, allowing for the whole piece to turn into the typical orange clay color.  At this stage, the temperature reaches up to 800 degrees. 

Then, the oxygen is reduced by closing the air vents, allowing the temperature to increase to 950 degrees.  A special kind of green wood is introduced to increase the moisture in the air and to create carbon monoxide, with smoke erupting.  Both the closing of the air vents and the moisture allow for black smoky color to appear on the clay.  

The last step is the reoxidization stage. Now, the vents are opened and oxygen reenters the kiln. The temperature decreases to about 900 degrees because of this.  The reintroduction of oxygen causes the clay not covered with the slip to turn back into the typical orange color.   Checking the temperature of the kiln throughout this process was very important to achieve the desired result. 

Black-figure pottery
Athenian Black-Figure Vase on display at The Met

For the clay to turn red though, you do everything the same, just opposite!  Artisans developed and refined this technique around 530 BC.  The artisan paints slip parts as the background area instead of in the shape of silhouettes or other patterns.  Thus, the whole pot would turn black leaving the figures and design to be the red-orange of normal clay.  Red-figure pottery has advantages because artisans can add more details in black quite easily. On the other hand, the design must be carefully put together and painted with black-figure pottery in order to come out with the desired look.  Hence, red-figure designs are more life-like and refined while black-figured are harder to have such detail.

Red-figure pottery
Red-Figure Hydria on display at the British Museum

The Magna effect of Black and Red Figure Pottery

The Red-figure technique, pioneered in Athens, was quite popular and was produced even after the Archaic period.  Black-figure pottery was the most popular of the two in the beginning, but red-figure pottery dominated.  But, black-figure pottery was more commonly used for traditional ware, such as a piece depicting the Gods.  There were various different designs that were made with both techniques, some very detailed by master artisans, but some were mass-produced with more basic designs. It’s crazy to think that such methods of producing a large number of goods in a small period of time were so prevalent even back in ancient times! 

There was such high production in order to sell the pottery through trade.  At the time, items from Magna Grecia were highly sought after and coveted, especially ones from well-known artisans.  The goal of establishing multiple trade routes was to achieve dominance over nautical trade.  While traveling around and trading, they established several coastal towns, and by the 6th century, controlled much of the Aegean Sea.  One major trading port that imported quite a bit of Greek pottery was in the Nile Delta, a port town called Naukratis.

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Eras of Greek Art: Pottery Edition

The Different Eras of Greek Pottery

When you first think of ancient Greece, what do you think of?  Do you think of great mythological stories of wondrous adventures as told through intricate pottery depicting these great scenes?  Greek art is incredibly fascinating and is something that many coveted, both in ancient times (we are looking at you, Romans) and modern-day. Well, Greek pottery wasn’t always so grand and detailed.  The earliest Greek pottery derives from the Geometric period. During this period, pottery was primarily influenced by traditional Mycenean decorations. Abstract patterns and geometric shapes were the most common.

The Geometric Period

            The Geometric period displayed various patterns full of decorative lines, linear patterns, including a mixture of many different shapes.  With all the linear shapes and lines, it’s no wonder they call it the Geometric period!  This period was between roughly 1000 and 700 BC.  The designs eventually evolved into crude and abstract human and animal shapes. Again mainly linear and stiff lines and shapes with a lack of movement.  Then, in Athens, the Greek cultural center, there came the adoption of the black figure technique style of painting, calling for great depictions of heroic ventures and stories. 

Greek Krater
Terracotta Krater from the Geometric Period on display at the Met

The Archaic Period

            The Archaic period was during the 6th century BC while the artistic hub, Athens, was rising with its pottery market.  This era was the start of the rise of black-figure painters. They were mainly based in Corinth, and held a monopoly on the design until the early 6th century.  That was when Athens rose to the top.  Designs in the Archaic period became much less rigid and more natural than they were in the previous eras.  Human figures and incredible epics were often portrayed in black-figure during this time, with more attention on anatomic proportions making things more life-like. 

Archaic Amphora
The Antimenes Painter: Herakles and the Erymanthian boar amphora. On display at The British Museum

The Orientalizing Period of Greek Pottery

            The Orientalizing period and the Archaic period overlap within the 6th century, Orientalizing period occurring during the Archaic.  But the Orientalizing period was a time in which the arts were heavily influenced by Eastern trade and designs.  Hence the name, Orientalizing refers to the culture and the arts of Eastern Asia.  Geometric style designs were replaced with outlined figures. The black-figure pottery firing techniques became prevalent.  Animalistic figures were quite prominent within Near East designs, so the Greeks started incorporating that within their pottery including various floral elements. 

Orientalizing Amphora
“Proto Attic (Oriental) Analatos” Amphora on display at the Louvre

The Classical Period

            The Classical period took place around the 5th and 4th centuries BC and had a continued steady love for black-figured pottery. But, there was also the introduction of the red-figure pottery, which happened late archaic, early classical period.  The pottery of this time conveys the vitality of life. There are more realistic-looking people and animals, even some in motion.  But the people drawn on pottery had severe facial expressions, present in both the pottery and the sculptures of this period.  There was a great innovation in pottery with the use of space and having multiple groundlines, better-looking drapery for clothing, and no more reduction in the size of figures, allowing for no optical effects and creating distance.  By the end of the Classical period though, red-figure pottery decreased in popularity.

Greek pottery: Classical Krater
Terracotta volute-krater displayed at the Met

The Hellenistic Period

            The Hellenistic period took place during the 4th century BC.  Athens is still the leading pottery center and endured no disruption from the Peloponnesian War.  Mid-4th-century was the last great red-figure movement, then its popularity dissipated.  It was the time of Magna Graecia, or Great Greece, and was a time of very ornate style pottery.  Artists also incorporated color into their pottery, using various whites, blues, and golds.  After learning more about the use of space in the Classical period, Hellenistic artists did not like a lot of empty space. They used the area they had to the fullest in order to showcase their designs the way they wanted.

Greek pottery: Hellenistic Gamikos
Lebes Gamikos displayed at The British Museum

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Do you know how the Ancient Greeks dealt with death? Start by looking back to the Geometric period where there’s Hades’ Underworld, elaborate burial rituals, and detailed ancient Greek funerary vases like the terracotta krater! 

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Two forms becoming one is Hermaphrodite. With roots in ancient Greek mythology, the tale of Hermaphrodite relates to modern discussions of gender identity and, through sculptural depictions, this figure becomes a beautiful ambiguity everyone can experience.   

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What’s not interesting about a statue depicting a Greek hero triumphantly holding the severed head of a creature that turns people into stone statues!? (My how the tables have turned….)  

 Antonio Canova had the right idea when he did exactly that! Let’s look at this daring sculpture of Perseus with the Head of Medusa and see what details we can uncover!  

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“A half-blood of the eldest gods, Shall reach sixteen against all odds, And see the world in endless sleep, The hero’s soul, cursed blade shall reap, A single choice shall end his days, Olympus to preserve or raze.”

This epic prophecy guides the events of Rick Riordan’s beloved Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, fantasy adventure novels based in Greek mythology. If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll remember how important prophecies are and they are central to classic Greek mythology. If you’ll let me play oracle for a moment, here is a prophecy for you as you read this THATMuse blog post:  

A reader shall delve into the spirals of endless learning,  

From one post a thirst for knowledge you are affirming, 

Stories woven together from mouth, to paint, to text, to screen,  

Heroes of centuries and years, in museums and novels beg to be seen, 

Raise a glass to wedding guests and parents one in the same,  

A beginning to a treasure hunt we do proclaim.  

To begin your endless learning (after all, we learn something new every day, right?) I will be introducing you to the Sophilos Dinos, which illustrates a result of (yet another) prophecy about Zeus and Poseidon.

The depiction of Sophilos Dinos starts out as a wedding, and actually has a direct tie to the Percy Jackson series! Believed to have been created between the years 580BC and 570BC in the Attica region of Greece, this black-figured wine bowl was acquired by the British Museum in 1971. The dinos were painted by Sophilos, who specialized in the black-figure painting of complex, continuous narratives

The story of Sophilos Dinos is essentially a wedding between two individuals known as Peleus and Thetis, which is also a Greek myth. The sea-nymph Thetis was adored by the king of the Gods, Zeus, and his brother, Poseidon, the God of the sea. However, their love turned sour when they learned of the prophecy that Thetis’ son was destined to be more powerful than his father. In order to prevent this from happening, Thetis was betrothed to the mortal hero Peleus and promised a wedding of grandeur. 

The wine bowl, which provides a closer look at the wedding scene. On the far right, you can see Peleus, holding up a glass to welcome the wedding guests. Photo courtesy of the British Museum.
The Sophilos Dinos, pictured in full, from the front. The wedding scene is on the top register. Photo courtesy of the British Museum. 

In the top register of the dinos, Sophilos depicts the arrival of the gods at said magnificent event. The first arrivals include the God of wine Dionysos, who is followed by Hebe and the centaur Chiron. Then enter the chariot procession of the gods, led by Zeus and Hera, followed by Poseidon and Amphitrite, then Hermes and Apollo, Ares and Aphrodite, and Athena and Artemis. Between the chariots are Fates, Graces, and Muses. What a grand affair! And how nice of Sophilos to create a family portrait – as siblings, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, and in-laws make up the entirety of the wedding guests. This wedding began a string of events that triggered the Trojan War, but that is a story for another day! 

How do Thetis and Peleus’ nuptials – and their prestigious guests – relate to our favorite demi-god Percy and his five-book (or two-movie, if that is more your thing) journey? Well, many of the guests captured in Sophilos’ detailed vase painting appear in Rick Riordan’s story

The hero, Percy Jackson, is the son of Poseidon, Thetis’ at-one-time admirer and wedding guest. Annabeth, Percy’s best friend (and — spoiler alert — girlfriend!) is the daughter of another wedding guest, Athena, the Goddess of wisdom.  

Remember Camp Half-Blood (and the epic game of capture the flag?) well, the ever-eccentric director of camp, Mr. D, is the God Dionysus, who, in the Percy Jackson tales, was sentenced to one hundred years of “rehab” as camp director with an endless supply of Diet Coke replacing wine. In the Sophilos dinos, the centaur Chiron enters after Dionysus, and at Camp Half-Blood he is the beloved activities director (you might also remember him as Mr. Brunner when he posed as a teacher at Percy’s school in The Lightening Thief!).  

Many of the rest of Thetis and Peleus’ wedding guests are important pieces of the Percy Jackson stories. All of the major gods and goddesses – such as Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Ares, and Aphrodite – all make appearances in the series, and many are the parents of the demigods (half-god, half-human) attend camp Half-Blood with Percy! One notable example is Hermes, who arrived on a chariot with Apollo to the wedding, was the estranged father of Luke Castellan, sometimes friend and oftentimes foe of Percy.  

To Conclude on this epic adventure of comparison and history…

The crazy cast of characters that appears in both the Sophilos Dinos and the Percy Jackson books make for some interesting stories! If you’re interested in learning more about ancient Greek mythology, you can check out our other blog posts here or you can do a book hunt where you’ll have the opportunity to see important artifacts like the Sophilos Dinos up close! With that, your prophecy has come true! Book your THATMuse treasure hunt now as to not disobey the fates!