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Victory for the Vase Painters!

Hydria, 470-460 BCE, from Puglia, Italy. Home museum is the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Last May, I had the pleasure of seeing an excellent exhibition at the Baths of Diocletian in Rome: The Instant and Eternity: Between Us and the Ancients. I could probably make a dozen blogposts about the things I saw there, but I thought would start off with this fabulous water jar. It's fabulous not just because it's artfully painted, but because it gives us a glimpse into an aspect of the past that is still largely a mystery, and answers a question I've had for years: were Ancient Greek and Roman painters only men?

Athena and Nike in the Workshop of the Vase-Painters

The jar only has one scene with people on it, on its shoulder; the rest of the vase is either plain black or given an abstract border decoration. I apologize for the poor quality of the photos: The vase was rather terribly displayed in a lower than chest-level case with in harsh track-lighting that managed simultaneously to create horrible glare and ill-placed shadow lines (from the case's edge), both of which obscured the image. As well, the case was placed in a corner such that one couldn't move around it to catch angles where the glare and/or shadows might be avoided.

In the photo above, you can see Athena, carrying her war-spear in one hand, and a victory garland in the other. Her standing posture and her enormous battle helmet break the border on the neck of the jar. This affirms her stature (literally) as the goddess. She is presenting the laurel garland to a busy artist, who has a brush or small chisel to incise the vase so that it can be baked to produce the red-figure-on-black designs that the jar he is on demonstrates. He has pots of black slip to make the background of the jar which will frame the red-figures he is drawing. He has more work to do in front of him, which may be why he's too busy to notice he's being honored by the goddess.

Nike Bestows a Garland

On the left-side of the scene, Nike (winged victory) is placing a garland on a worker who is in the midst of his decoration. He notices that Nike is present, and seems a bit taken aback. I like that Nike is so given to flight that her toes can barely touch the floor of the workshop. I think this worker may be of lower status than the one who is being garlanded by Athena, given that he is smaller and naked.

Close-up of Nike

In this close-up, you can appreciate the implied transparency of Nike's tunic. Both she and the workshop owner have the little pointy inscisions into the vase which give their hairstyles texture, and maybe suggest some sort of curls.

Nike on the right side of the vase, bestowing another garland

On the other side of Athena, another Nike has flown to honor another painter--this one is still smaller than the master/owner of the shop, but he has a cloak to keep him warm. He's in the process of painting an elaborate abstract decoration around the handles of this krater. Intent on his work, he seems oblivious to the garland he's receiving. This Nike is a little different from the image on the left--she wears her own headpiece, and has a pleated tunic with an elaborate wrap over her shoulders and arms. Her hair is different, too. I don't know if this was an artistic decision to make the scene more interesting, or if there's another figure who bestows wreaths on behalf of Athena.

The Woman Vase Painter!

Aha! Tucked into the corner of the scene is a woman artist, working on an enormous calyx krater. She is well-dressed, and has a serious expression on her face. I don't know what to make of the vessels hovering above her head. Is this horror vacui? Or is she thinking about the vases, or...what? I don't know. I do see that she is not being awarded a victory garland, and that she is the only worker who isn't. Is it significant that the female artisan shares a gender with the goddess and her attendants?

So, for me, this vase gives some tantalizing possibilities, and raises even more questions. This is a fanciful scene, created by an artist representing his (or her!) own craft as deserving of recognition. The recognition is the type usually reserved for heroes and athletes. What is the nature of the heroics--the skill of the painting? Working for discerning customers? Could this jar be a prize given by vase-painters to an artisan who won some competition? Athletes were often awarded jars (sometimes full of olive oil) in competitions, so perhaps a workshop or artisan community did this. And what of the woman artist, working alone in the corner, with no recognition of her skills? Is this a sly comment by a woman artist? Or, is this scene representative of a typical hierarchy of workers in a workshop? It's rare to have scenes in ancient art which show us the artists themselves at work, but this jar portrays a workshop in which magic is happening--the nature of the truths or facts in evidence here are more of perspective than documentation. Nonetheless, I'm delighted to see this glimpse into the imagination of a worker in their world of 2500 years ago.

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