One of the primary goals I have with this blog is to introduce people to the historical artworks and objects that I study, teach, and obsess over. I love these objects, and this is a chance for me to share some reasons that you, too, might consider falling in love. I’m starting with this Greek krater because I teach it a lot in the survey course, but don’t often get a chance to dwell on my own subjective experience of the piece. Visiting it over several years in its current location in the Met Museum, it has had a chance to work on me physically, to impress me over and over again with its scale, its presence in a great and somewhat intimidating hall. As a historian, I love it for allowing an immediate encounter with the past. As an artist, I love it for showing the effectiveness of simplified forms on large-scale pots, a striking combination that feels fresh and modern even though this was made in what has been called the “dark ages” of Ancient Greece.
So let’s do a little background on the object before I dive into my own response to it. It is a funeral Krater, meaning it was made to mark the grave of someone who passed away, in this case probably a warrior. It is made in the geometric style, which was a period from about 900 BCE to about 700 BCE focused around Athens. This was around the time when the city-states were being established, and when the Greek alphabet was developing. It is often described as a pretty bleak, limited time culturally, especially when compared to the cultural contributions that are to come from Athens in only a few hundred years, such as the Parthenon. I suppose that compared to the outrageous flowering of human creation that was the Greek Classical and Hellenistic periods, the geometric period is indeed restrained. But the elegance of this object is astounding to me, and the affective quality it has in person is exactly the kind of visceral response I want my own work, today, to have for the viewer.
Why do I say that? Well, first there is the size of the piece. It is quite big, and in some ways I feel it is human-sized. The great round belly of it feels comforting and the foot is elegant but still stable. The handles, with their double arc, give it a sense of liveliness. I also know that this object was made to receive offerings from the living for the dead. From what I understand there is a hole inside it, and the bereaved could pour some wine into the belly of the vase, which would then drip down into the grave below. I think this is a very touching means of communicating between the living and the dead, and it shows that the pot is not only a marker and commemoration of a life, it is also a pathway between the living and the dead, a nexus of longing for the shared experiences that are no longer possible. In this case, knowing the function of the object makes it much more poignant and emotionally vivid. As I stand in front of it even now I know that it represents a profound link between someone who has passed and the people who loved him. That those people have been dead for thousands of years only heightens the tenderness of it.
And then there is the decoration. Mostly when historians talk about this pot, they talk about the figures. These are interesting and I will get to them in a moment, but I also think that the stripes, the bands of pattern, the circles within circles, meanders, and floral shapes are all of great interest (and yes, there are swastikas in there, too. Called a gammadion in the ancient Greek context, it was a symbol with connotations of movement and spirituality). This patterning is the reason the period has earned its name — it is indeed based on geometric shapes. I find these bands of pattern to be so vigorous in their execution. They are effortless-seeming, with small variations that indicate the hand of the artist. The overall design is masterful, with a visual rhythm established between the heavy black lines, the lighter black lines, and the bands of pattern towards the top. As an artist, I see this pot as a masterclass in the use of decoration to communicate lightness and weight, and it perfectly frames the story that is carried out in the simple figuration on two registers.
The story is a funeral procession. On the front of the pot, in the top register with figures in it, we see the deceased laying across the funeral bier. The shroud lifts up above him so that we can clearly see the figure, creating a checkerboard pattern above the body. Figures surround the body in different stages of mourning, most of them with their hands atop their heads in the official mourning pose. I love the shape of these figures. They are so vibrant in the way the reduction to the most elementary of shapes showcases the gesture. Below the register with the man funereal imagery, a procession of horses and warriors winds across the belly of the pot. The warriors are again reduced, this time to the shape of their shields, while the horses and charioteers exaggerate their own gestures for maximum story-telling effect.
I can’t wait to return to The Met when it re-opens to see this in person once more. If you are in the area, maybe you will go give this pot a visit as well. It is easy to walk past it amongst all the other wonderful work in the ancient Greek hall, but if you pause and give it your attention, I think you will find it immensely rewarding.
Thanks for reading! If you’ve got questions ask ‘em — I’m not a specialist in Greek art so I won’t be able to answer everything, but as an art lover I can do my best! And of course, you can visit the object’s page on the Met website, which has lots of good information: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/248904