Stories of Art Objects

Stories of Art Objects

Enjoy the Story of This Greek Vase from Attica

Three Line Group Neck Amphora

Black-Figure Vase, 530-520 BC
Courtesy North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC

Once there was a Master Potter

who lived in the potters' section of Athens, Greece. Each day he joined the other potters in the Potters' Quarters to make the many beautiful as well as useful vessels used by the citizens of Athens. On this particular day he arrived at the studio to find his Assistant preparing the clay that had been dug months before from the main clay beds in Amarousion, located 12 kilometers from the city. This fine, red clay had been mixed with water, the coarse particles allowed to settle to the bottom, and the fine, light clay floating to the top. The clay had been allowed to season and was ready to be worked by the potter.

The Potter had checked the inventory and decided to make a neck amphora since supplies were low and amphoras were good sellers. Many of the shop's vessels were exported throughout the Mediterranean. As he settled in his seat in front of his wheel, the Assistant placed the large chunk of clay on the wheel. The Potter positioned his hands on the cool, damp clay and began to mold the clay as the Assistant slowly pushed the wheel. As the wheel turned he felt the clay taking shape; he began by forming the stem, then molded the egg-shaped body with his hands, and then brought the sides of the pot inward to form the neck of the pot. As the clay dried he moistened it with a sponge dipped in water. Soon the pot was formed. To remove ridges and rough spots he carefully rubbed a piece of hardened leather against the sides of the pot as his Assistant slowly turned the wheel. Thus far he was pleased with his work.

He carefully lifted the vessel and placed it beside the wheel. Reaching into a nearby bin he pulled out a leather-hard clay ring, placed it on the wheel, and then positioned the vessel on the ring to form its foot. He took a small wooden stick and some very fine clay (slip) and attached the foot to the vessel. He then reached into other bins for two hardened handles that he attached to the belly and neck, and a ring that he placed on top of the neck to form the lips of the pot. He took great pride in being able to attach these and leave no signs that they had been added. The Assistant gave the wheel a final gentle push as the Potter smoothed the clay one more time. He covered the surface with a thin wash of yellow ochre. The Potter's work was done. The Assistant took the amphora and placed it in the sun to dry.

Time passed and the Painter

saw that the vessel had dried to a leather-hard stage and was ready to be decorated. Now the Painter fancied himself a story teller and had in mind a story to paint on the vessel: the story of Herakles ascending Mt. Olympus to join Zeus and the other gods. As he was thinking through the events in this particular story, he picked up a charcoal stick and began to draw outlines of figures on one side of the pot. Before long familiar shapes began to appear: Herakles holding his club and wearing his elaborate lion skin cloak with the lion's head and sharp teeth draped over his head, a chariot and two horses with Iolaos holding the reins, Athena, the goddess of Athens, with her crested helmet and spear, and Hermes, Zeus's messenger, with his funny conical hat, hightop boots and staff. Once the figures were outlined, he used a strong concentrated solution, made with the same clay used to make the pot, to paint the silhouettes. With great care he used an incising tool to incise their contours and inner markings, being careful to remove the paint along the line of the incision. This process left the outlines of the figures clear. He gave Athena almond-shaped eyes and the men saucer-shaped eyes with dabs of red clay for the pupils. He added dabs of white clay to Athena's face, hands and feet. On the other side he depicted a scene from the Trojan War, another favorite story. Before finishing the decoration of the pot, the Painter included his customary band of three lines to separate the different sections of the pot. Once the decorations of the pot was completed, the Painter vigorously polished the pot using a soft polishing cloth before handing it to the Assistant to fire in the kiln.

The Assistant carried the amphora to the dome-shaped kiln

located outside next to the studio and began to fill it with amphoras, drinking cups, hydras, kraters, and a beautifully shaped Lekythos. They were stacked helter-skelter, one pot on top of the other. He closed the door to the kiln and began to build a fire in the lower level of the kiln. He stoked the fire, adding wood until the temperature reached 800 degrees centigrade. He peeped through the smallest of holes and saw that the pots had turned red with the painted areas a deeper, shinier red than the rest of the pot. He continued to add wood to the fire until the kiln reached 945 degrees. At this temperature the pots turned black with the painted areas still a darker and shinier black than the rest of the pot. He knew the kiln had reached the proper temperature for he could see that the silver piece he had placed next to the pots had melted. He allowed the kiln to cool to 900 degrees and held it there before allowing it to gradually cool. During this stage the unpainted areas covered only with the ochre wash turned a beautiful red, while the painted areas with the concentrated solution remained black. When the kiln cooled the Assistant opened the door and carefully removed all the vessels. He polished them until they gleamed and placed them on a table in front of the studio for the passersbye to see.

A Couple, passing on the way to the cemetery late one evening,

saw the beautiful black-figure vessels in front of the Potters' Studio and stopped to admire them. The husband was particularly interested in the amphora with the story of Herakles ascending to Mt. Olympus. He explained to his wife that this part of Herakles' life wasn't often painted on vessels; most painters painted him killing the Nemean lion. After much consideration, for this pot would cost a day's wages, he decided to purchase it. Upon arriving home the children gathered around to examine the new amphora. They remarked of its beauty and how useful it would be for storing wine. However, they were most excited about the painting of Heracles and begged their father to tell the story illustrated on the pot. The family gathered around the vessel and heard again the story of Herakles becoming one of the gods on Mt. Olympus.

The couple aged, and the children grew up and left home. Time passed and the father died. The saddened family began to gather his favorite objects to use in furnishing his tomb. They wanted objects that had been special to him and would bring him consolation in the next life. They remembered how much he had enjoyed using the neck-amphora, so they filled it with special olive oil from Athena's sacred olive garden and placed it in his tomb.

The Neck-Amphora remained in the tomb

for more than a thousand years. One day someone removed it, and it began its travels, moving from collector to gallery to collector and finally to its resting place in the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was purchased by the Museum in 1990 from the collection of the Hunt brothers of Texas, Nelson Bunker Hunt and William Herbert Hunt. It is no longer functional except for providing enjoyment to museum visitors, and it is no longer referred to as a pot or vessel but as a vase. It is waiting for you to come by and observe its beauty and retell Herakles' story.

I hope you enjoyed the story of the Greek Vase! Continue if you would like more........

Trials and Tribulations of Herakles

Herakles was a hero to the Greeks. They considered him to be a model of courage in the face of mortal dangers. He was a protector of innocent people and cities and vanquished evil.

Share in his adventures!

First Labor

Hercules was the strongest man who ever lived! He was born of Zeus and Alcmena, a princess known for her beauty. The fact that Alcmena and not Hera was his mother caused him grave problems all of his life, for Hera was Zeus's wife. Hera despised Alcmena and Herakles and sought ways to make life miserable. His troubles began when he was a little baby in the crib. Hera sent two spotted snakes into his cradle. He spotted them, grabbed them in his hands, squeezed them too death, and flung them from the cradle. Now, everyone knew he wasn't an ordinary baby and watched with interest as he grew stronger every day.

He grew to be man, married, and had a family. One day Hera put a spell on him. Raving mad he killed his family. When he regained his senses he was horrified at what had occurred. Filled with remorse he traveled to the Oracle of Delphi to seek forgiveness. The Oracle told them that he must serve as a slave to his cousin Eurystheus and perform ten labors for him. Eurystheus was jealous of his cousin's strength and teamed up with Hera to make the ten labors extrodinarily difficult.

The first labor he was to perform was to kill the lion in the Nemean valley that was terrorizing the villagers. The people told him that this was no ordinary lion. This lion had a hide so tough that it couldn't be pierced by any weapons. This did not concern Herakles; he felt confident that he could overcome the lion. Upon arriving in the valley the lion sensed his presence and descended upon him. The fight began. Herakles used his club to hit the lion across the head; nothing happened. He raised his spear to pierce its skin; nothing happened. The lion kept coming at him. Nothing was stopping the lion. The lion was standing on his hind legs with his claws on Herakles head when Herakles grabbed him by the neck and with his bare hands squeezed it too death. Exhausted he sat down next to a rock and starred at the lion. Since the skin of the lion was impenetratable he decided to skin the lion and wear it as protection. From that time forward wherever he went he could be seen with the lion skin slung over his head and shoulders.

With the first labor completed he reported his success to Eurystheus.

Ascending To Olympus

Herakles completed his ten labors plus two additional labors required before he was forgiven. He had traveled over Greece performing heroic deeds. His father, Zeus, was proud of him and looked upon him with favor.

Herakles soon was off to war. The battle was fought, and he and his men were victorious. A celebration with offerings to the gods was planned. He sent his messenger home to get his best tunic from his wife, Deianira. She was aware of his victory and also knew about the beautiful maiden, Iole, he had captured. Deianira became suspicious and jealous, thinking Herakles might want the tunic to impress the captive. Before giving the tunic to the messenger she smeared it with blood she had been given by the Centaur Nessus. The Centaur upon giving her this blood had whispered in her ear that she should put it on Herakles' clothing if ever she felt she might lose his love.

The messenger returned to camp with the tunic, and Herakles anxious to start the celebration quickly put it on. Immediately he began to experience terriff pain. His skin was burning like fire! He tried to remove the tunic, but to no avail. He jerked and pulled, but it was stuck to his skin. As the pain increased he pulled with such fervor that he was pulling away pieces of his own skin. The Centaur had tricked Deianira, for the blood was a deadly poison. The pain was unbearable! Herakles wanted to die! He ordered his men to pull up the nearby trees and build a funeral pyre. He gave his bow and deadly arrows to his friend, Philoctetes, climbed up on to the pyre, spread out his lion skin, and laid down with his head resting on his club waiting for the flames to take his life. Before long the flames began to rise around him.......then suddenly there was a clap of thunder! The voice of Zeus could be heard! He ordered Herakles to join him on Olympus with the other gods. A cloud sent by Zeus descended from the heavens and lifted him up to Mt. Olympus as he laid on his lion skin. When he arrived on Mt. Olympus, the gods had gathered to welcome him!

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Created by Rhonda Wilkerson, PhD

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