UA1-WA:P1-p1-Ex Annotation of a Greek vase painting

My chosen vase is in the Alexander The Great: 2000 years of treasures exhibition currently on at the Australian Museum in Sydney. I posted about my first visit to the exhibition on 8-Feb-2013.

The catalogue entry:
Red-figure volute-krater: warrior with a horse in a heroon
Southern Italy, Apulia, 330-320 BC
Master of the Seated Woman Group
Clay; h 72.2, 0 rim 37.8, 0 base 11.4 cm

The photos in the post are my sketches. I can’t find an image on the web, but for something similar click here to go to a page on the British Museum website showing The Hamilton Vase. (Edited to add: a copy of the image is available in a password restricted area here).

Reason for choice
sketch20130208bOn the left of this photo is the sketch I did of the chosen vase back in February, when I was still working through the final assignment for Textiles 1: A Creative Approach. I found it refreshing to look at a woman, resplendent in jewels and leaning languidly on a pillar, after all the heroic, idealized male statues busy doing something important.

I chose this vase for the annotation because I already had a connection to it, could do my initial work based on the photograph in the exhibition catalogue, and would have the opportunity to see the vase itself again before the exhibition closed. The OCA course notes include a reminder that looking at an image – a reproduction – can give you a sense for the original, but is not the same as experiencing the item directly. Choosing this vase would allow me to experience the impact of the original when my work from the image was still fresh in my mind.

After working on this for some time I realised (a) the vase is from Italy and a Greek item was specified for the exercise, and (b) the date of the vase put it slightly later than covered in the course textbook section for this project, which stops with the death of Philip of Macedon, Alexander’s father, in 336 BC. I continued with the vase because the catalogue notes associate it with Greek colonies in Italy, the timing issue is marginal, and as detailed above I had solid reasons for the selection.
The vase is large – over 72 cm high. Handles on each side connect the rim to the shoulders. The tops of the handles form a coil or medallion shape above the main part of the vase. In my eyes the base seems almost disproportionally small making the vase appear top-heavy and possibly unstable.
Arrangement of painting
The vase has patterned bands – waves, tongues, geometric shapes – contained between plain lines at the areas of greatest shaping (the rim shaping to the neck, the shoulders, and towards the base of the vase). This leaves two relatively large and unshaped areas for more complex painting, around the neck and the belly of the vase. There is a centered scene painted on the belly of the vase. To either side, underneath the handles, areas of large curved and fanned shapes can be seen.
In addition to the background painted in black slip and the red figures there is yellow and white painting.
The painting
Each of the medallion or volute shapes of the handles has a head painted in white with yellow hair.
In the centre of the neck of the vase is a painted bust (head and shoulders). It is surrounded by a symmetrical design which includes birds, ribbon-like swirls, foliage, what could be ears of wheat, and bell-shaped flowers.
The main painted panel shows a structure with ionic columns – a heroon. Within it is a warrior wearing armour (a cuirass), and what could be a chalmys draped around his shoulders. He holds a spear in his left hand and what is possibly a whip in his right hand. Behind the warrior is his horse.
On the left hand side is a woman holding a fan and carrying a basket. She wears a chiton and a cloak (a himation?). Her hair is dressed up and tied with a band, she wears earrings, bracelets and a necklace. The draping of her clothing is fluid and graceful.
On the right hand side a woman leans her elbow on a waist-high column, one leg crossed in front on the other with just the toes on the ground. She holds a mirror, her hair is dressed up, she seems to have a beaded headdress and is wearing earrings, bracelets and a necklace.
There are three inverted hook shapes which I think might be ribbons, a lozenge shape on the left which suggests a shield and a triangular shape suspended from the ceiling of the heroon.
Second viewing
Last week I visited the exhibition again to see the vase.
I was surprised by its size – I had forgotten how big it is.
Working from the catalogue photograph I hadn’t realised the depth of the handles. What looks like just a flat medallion at the top is actually the front face of a deeper grip, shaped like a cotton reel. The head of the medallion is in relief – a molded three dimensional element not just flat painting. The loop shapes at the base of the handle are in the form of swan heads.
It was during this visit that I was able to see the detail of the fallen shield and what looks like tassels on the whip. Working from the photo I thought the white columns at the front had yellow sides, but in life the yellow areas seem to be the columns at the back of the structure.
Additional information
The catalogue states “The vase was intended for a warrior’s burial” and I wondered what indicated that. A krater was used for mixing water and wine (2) and the size would seem to be unwieldy (unless one ladled rather than poured the liquid). This could suggest a more ceremonial than functional purpose.
It was customary to visit the graves of the dead and wind ribbons or sashes around the stele (commemorative slabs) (3), and that would fit with the three shapes that I think are ribbons.
The wife of Pluto, ruler of the underworld, was Persephone. Her mother Ceres, the corn goddess, searched for Persephone after her abduction by Pluto. (4) The ears of wheat might reference this myth.
For a long time I thought the triangular hanging shape was a bell, and after much searching a found a mention of bells used in the temples of Persephone (5) which seemed an exciting fit. However I’ve since seen a photograph on the British Museum website with a very similar object identified as a pilos (a helmet) (6). This would work with the shield and other accoutrements of the warrior.
I thought the “fallen shield” might be imagery referring to a fallen warrior, but have not found any information to support this.

Other remarks
I have completely mismanaged my time on this annotation and put far too much work into it. I got more and more interested, and every time I sat at the computer to type it up would find myself exploring the internet for more relevant information. I will need to be more disciplined in future.

(1) Australian Museum (2012) Alexander the Great: 2000 years of treasures.. Sydney: Australian Museum. Page 96.
(2) Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King. Page 143.
(3) Wilson, N. (ed.) (2006) Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge. Page 207.
(4) Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (Second Edition). Boulder: Westview Press.
(5) Pylyaev, M.I. [n.d.] Historial Bells [online] The Link of Times Foundation. Available from: [Accessed 17 April 2013]
(6) The Trustees of the British Museum [n.d.] Volute Krater (Registration number: 1836,0224.164) [online] The Trustees of the British Museum. Available from: [Accessed 17 April 2013]

Additional Information
Heuer, K. [n.d.] Funerary Vases in Southern Italy and Sicily [online] The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Available from: [Accessed 17 April 2013]

UA1-WA:P1-p1-Ex Annotation of a Greek vase painting
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project one: Ancient Greece.
Exercise: Annotation of a Greek vase painting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


No Instagram images were found.

Calendar of Posts

April 2013

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.



%d bloggers like this: