It is no doubt fortunate that I did not go into art history, where the jobs are scarcer than cheap tickets to Hamlet. But I’ve always loved Greek vase painting. In its time, this was not high art. With the goal of selling their wares, the painters depicted popular mythological scenes, images from daily life, and plenty of porn. Here are a few I snapped on a visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Most belong to the red-figured style of the 400s (the Golden Age of Classical Athens).
Let’s start with a famous story: the murder of Agamemnon by his wife’s lover, Aegisthus. This is how Homer tells it, although in the tragedy by Aeschylus, Agamemnon’s own wife Clytemnestra does the killing, and boasts afterwards of how much she enjoyed it.
And here’s a scene related to the Iliad: Achilles steps into his chariot, which has the corpse of Hektor attached by the heels. Hektor’s parents Priam and Hekabe lament on the left, while the vengeful little winged spirit of Patroklos rejoices on the right. Nobody knows who the female figure is. Perhaps Iris the messenger of the gods, or a figure representing Achilles’ fury.
Gory enough for you? Here’s a different type of heroic myth, the story of how the baby Perseus was persecuted by (yes) his wicked usurping uncle. In Greek myth, usurping uncles and wicked stepmothers are thick on the ground, always trying to do away with the young hero. Here evil Akrisios forces baby Perseus and his mother Danae into a wooden box, which he plans to cast into the sea.
This scene was a favorite with vase painters. Here’s a closeup of a different vase with baby and mother in the box together.
Most people know Aeneas as a Roman hero, but the story of him dutifully rescuing his disabled father from the flames of burning Troy was Greek in origin.
Now it’s on to another of the painters’ favorite topics: the wacky antics of those wine-bibbing satyrs, companions of the god Dionysos!
Like the painters of the vases, the satyrs are extremely phallocentric. Some of these paintings remind me of drawings adolescent boys might make. But then, that’s exactly what some of them probably are, vase painting being a family business.
Drinking was a favorite leisure time occupation for Greek men (though discouraged in respectable women), and many of these vases were made for symposium sets. It was actually the less affluent people who bought these. Rich people used silver.
Many of the wine cups have eyes on the outside. The prevailing theory is that they warded off the evil eye while the drinkers were enjoying themselves. The eyes make the vase itself come alive and join in the party.
Not all the vases were highly decorated. I love the elegant restraint of this dinos, a large cauldron-shaped vase made for mixing wine and water. The bottom was rounded, so it needed a stand.
Greek vase painters loved their visual jokes.
And finally, some sprightly images that must have rocked the worlds of the prudish Christians who dug them up. There’s a reason why the Devil is so often made to resemble the god Pan.
Less often seen in museums is the vast repertoire of simple pornographic subjects. It just goes to show that the more things change, the more they stay the same.