Fish, Fights and Gallivanting Gods

Minoan and Greek pottery has a vibrant past; heroes abound with personal depictions of fish and flowers, and the gods constantly intervene with their heady mix of magic and man-like traits.

From the early innovations of the Minoans with a unique look at the natural world and such oddities as Vassiliki ware, in which spouts audaciously grew longer and longer, to the meticulous creations of the Greeks, sensuality and symbolism abound.

Some pots had a tough time. The Francois vase, for instance, found in fragments by Alexandre Francois in 1845 in central Italy, was restored by the Florence museum. But when it was exhibited, an angry visitor to the museum in 1900, smashed it into more than 600 fragments and it had to be restored again. Later, when the river Arno flooded, it was almost destroyed yet again. But its frieze of heroes, from Perseus and Achilles to Theseus, and striking depictions of ancient myth, remain as meaningful as when first painted by Kleitias. The vase, made around 570 BC and bought by a rich Etruscan, was used at drinking parties for mixing wine and water. And a special hymn was sung, asking for good pots and much money, when the kiln was lit for the first time in spring.

Warriors take a break on a  6th century BC amphora, decorated by  Exekias. Ajax and Achilles enjoy a quick game of chess during a lull in the fighting at Troy. Their garments are exquisite, incised with a needle point.

And individual characteristics emerge in the story of Pelius, a mortal and the sea nereid Thetis with whom he fell in love. Thetis’s friends are depicted with different postures, clothes, even hairstyles, while skilfully comprising a synchronised composition.

Elsewhere there is Dionysus being helped by the miniature depiction of a panther as he battles with giants. Herakles looks suitably dubious as he skims the sea in a golden bowl conjured by Helios, the sun god, while Theseus stabs a youthful Minotaur with the ease of a seasoned assassin.

The same care was applied to simple kitchen ware at drinking parties. Big pots, including the amphora, were used for transportation, and for the vain, there were perfume bottles and containers for perfumed ointments.

The potter’s wheel, invented in Mesopotamia, came to Greece around 2,200 BC, so output was greater and the potter could achieve symmetry and a wide range of shapes.

In this workshop we concentrate on the surface decoration of pots. A painter would hold the vase on his knees to sketch the outline of either an original idea or a copy. He used charcoal or lightly scratched the surface of the clay with a sharp-pointed graver. He coated the black part of the pot with runny clay mixed with ash – probably from burnt seaweed. In the older technique, the figures were painted black, later the background was painted black and the figures left in the red of the baked clay. In black figure painting detail was added with a graver. In red figure painting, details were painted with fine brushstrokes – even a single hair for very fine lines.

There were 1,400 vase painters in Attica in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Some are known by their signatures, often accompanied by competitive inscriptions, such as “painted by Euthymides, son of Pollias – better than anything Euphronios has ever done.”

But it was feared evil spirits would mar the process of firing, so a hideous mask or sprigs of certain trees were hung near the kiln. And there was a potters’ hymn sung at the opening of a new workshop or when the kiln was lit for the fist time each spring. It asked Athena to watch over the kiln, so the pots turned out well and fetched a good price. The potters were asked to pay for the song, a default bringing the curse of the kiln’s bad spirits and the pots would be ruined.

Completed pots were exported or sold in the workshop or other town shops. Wholesale produce merchants bought large pots for such goods as olive oil, honey, nuts, etc. These pots were often stamped with the name or emblem of a city.

Some pottery had strange uses. Ostraka were sherds used to write on. In Athens the citizens were summoned to a meeting once a year and given a sherd on which to scratch the name of anyone they thought dangerous to liberty and democracy. If anyone received more than 6,000 votes against him, he was banished from the city for ten years.

Then there were two cups used as a water clock. At the assembly, a speaker had to sit down when all the water had trickled out of the upper cup into the one below.

The vase paintings give us an insight into how people lived lives inexorably linked to the gods who were given attributes of humanity.

And occupations are painted, from agriculture, crafts and acting to the cobbler’s trade. There is also eroticism between men and women, even an acknowledgement of homosexuality, which was socially acceptable.

This workshop includes a visit to the pottery of the Apostolakis family in Maleme to see how a Greek potter works today and to inspire you for designs on ready drawn pots.