If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Exekias, Dionysos Kylix

Exekias, Dionysos Kylix, c. 530 B.C.E. (Antikensammlungen, Munich) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(piano music playing) Man: We're in the antique collection in Munich, and we're looking at a small drinking cup by an artist whose name is Exekias from ancient Greece. Woman: It's funny that you called it a small drinking cup because I imagine if you drank all the wine that you could put into this bowl, you would be quite drunk. Man: It's true. Actually, in terms of our wine glasses now, it's pretty big. The shape is a kylix. You'll notice that it's quite shallow. It's got a little bit of a base, a little bit of a pedestal, and it's got two handles that you're meant to hook your thumb around. Woman: It seems to me as you drank down your wine, the decoration at the bottom of the bowl would be revealed. Man: Well, that's right. It's a little bit unusual, but the bowl itself is a canvas for this cup, and we have this marvelous scene that shows an ancient Greek boat occupied by the god Dionysus, the god of wine. When you just look at it, you can see a few unusual things. First of all, you've got all of these playful dolphins that seem to be swimming around the boat. We can imagine the fields that would be the water and the sky. It's all red. There's no differentiation, but I've always liked to think that the dolphins on either side of the boat are jumping out of the water. Woman: There's a sense of joyousness, and this is a cup by the great Greek vase painter, Exekias, who we have about 35 vases from by this artist, so this is a really special object. Man: He both painted and potted, and he often signed his work, and that's the case here. If you look closely, you can see another unusual element, which is that there's a grapevine that's growing right beside the mast, and there's all these wonderful bunches of grapes and grape leaves that almost function as a kind of arbor over the boat. Woman: And the story was that Dionysus was fleeing pirates, and in order to hide from them, he made a grapevine grow from the boat itself. Man: And turned the pirates into the dolphins. Woman: That's right. I see how Exekias is trying to fill that circular space of the kylix by making the vines grow out horizontally, and the dolphins jumping all around, so he's using that whole space. It's not an easy space as an artist to fill. Man: No, that's right, and actually, there's a gentle curve to almost every element in this composition that seems to be responding to the curvature of the cup itself. There's the arc of the vine, there's the elegant and beautiful arc that's created by the wind-filled sail, and you can just see it billowing, pushing the boat forward, and, of course, the arcs of the dolphins, and of the hull of the ship. Woman: And then those circular forms of the grapes that mirror the circular shape of the bowl. Man: I love Dionysus. He's lying back as if he's at a dinner party. Perhaps he's speaking, but there's a wonderful sense of relaxation. Woman: And I like the stars on the cloak that he wears and the leaf shapes on the crown. Man: This is attic black-figure painting. It's a style of painting from the Archaic period. The artist would paint with slipware and then would scratch into it with a kind of needle to incise the lines and create those very delicate patterns that we can see in the woodwork of the ship, for example. Woman: Or in the grapes above Dionysus. Man: You can see in the ship, there's quite a bit of ornamentation. Not only does the prow of the ship have a face carved into it, but you can see a sort of swan's head by its stern. Really, my favorite part, you had mentioned before, is that if your thumb was hooked over the upper handle and this was filled with red wine, it would obscure the boat until you raised it and began to drink, and at one point, at least, the boat would seem as if it was floating on a sea of red wine. Woman: And you might feel as relaxed as Dionysus. (piano music playing)