Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Francois Vase

The Francois Vase, made by Ergotimos, painted by Kleitias, 570 BCE,

As you can see, this large volute krater has been reconstructed. It may perhaps have been smashed by thieves looking for gold or silver, thus leaving this exceedingly fine piece in ruins. It was discovered in the 19th century in pieces, painstakingly put back together by archaeologists, only to be smashed again by some peevish guard. As such, it could stand as a symbol for much of ancient art, which so often comes to us tattered and torn.

However, symbols like that are rarely interesting in and of themselves, and this piece is, in fact, most interesting, in and of itself, both as a whole and for the great variety of mythic material it conveys. Though the variety is outstanding - the number of scenes portrayed is, I believe, far greater than for any other piece of pottery - the skill and the craftsmanship is even more impressive. This is a truly beautiful work of art.

A krater is a pot used to mix wine with water; the Greeks rarely drank wine without diluting it at least somewhat. At their symposia (drinking parties), someone would be designated to mix the wine and a steward, presumably, would then dip bowls into the krater to retrieve the wine and water mixture for service. It is called a volute krater because the handles resemble the volutes found on Ionic capitals atop the columns of Greek temples.

It is difficult to know, or even speculate, why particular myths are shown on a krater such as this. The abundance of stories, though, must testify to something, if only the opulence of the piece itself. Also, this is one of those pieces in which most of the characters are named, so that identification is all the easier. It seems to me as if these pictures, and the stories they represent, might have led to some mighty fine conversation, as long as the wine wasn't diluted too much.

Most of the images are displayed around the belly on registers or friezes, with a pronounced horizontal frame. Some of these horizontally oriented images are delightfully ithyphallic. On the handles, by contrast, are images arranged vertically, including some of the most striking images we have from the Ancient world. One of these is a celebrated potnia theron - that is, Artemis as mistress of the beasts. Another is a truly tragic image of Ajax carrying the dead body of his companion in arms, Achilles, where the straining muscles of the one contrast vividly with the inert lifelessness of the other.

Some of the many mythological scenes depicted on this vase include the crane dance of Theseus, a slithery dance which he choreographs and performs after slaying the Minotaur; the Calydonian boar hunt, in which Greek heroes try to rid a forest of a marauding boar and are bested by a woman; the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, which is the real beginning of the Trojan War; and the return of Hephaestus to Olympus after being thrown out by his father, Zeus, and his mother, Hera, who are upset at having a lame child. He avenges himself upon them by sending Hera a golden throne from which she can not escape. All is made well again when Dionysus gets him drunk and brings him back to Olympus where, as compensation, he is given Aphrodite as wife. All is not, as we know, however, made well for long, as Aphrodite jumps into the sack with Ares.