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Niobid Painter, Niobid Krater

Niobid Painter, "Niobid Krater," Attic red-figure calyx-krater, c. 460-50 B.C.E., 54 x 56 cm (Musée du Louvre)
Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.
Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

Video transcript

(lively piano music) Voiceover: We're in the Louvre and we're looking at a large ancient Greek vase that dates from middle of the 5th century. It's a calyx-krater by an artist that we call the Niobid Painter. Voiceover: Now a calyx-krater is a large punchbowl basically. The Ancient Greeks used it to mix wine and water. Their wine was pretty strong. Voiceover: Now the Niobid Painter is known for this particular vase which shows on the back of it a terrible scene about a mortal woman named Niobe. Niobe had 14 children. Seven daughters and seven sons and she bragged about them as being more numerous and more beautiful than the children of the goddess Leto. Voiceover: That was a bad idea. You never want to display that kind of hubris to a god or a goddess, and in this case Leto's children happen to be the god Apollo and the goddess Artemis. Now Apollo is associated with the arts, with music especially, with the sun perhaps, and Artemis is the goddess of the hunt. Both of those children here exact revenge for their mother. The Greeks were often concerned about mortals displaying hubris, displaying pride. Here we see Apollo and Artemis killing Niobe's poor children. Voiceover: According to the myth they murdered all 14 of the children. Here we see Artemis reaching back into her quiver for yet another arrow. We see Apollo drawing his bow back and we see the children littering the field. Voiceover: These figures still have a kind of stiffness that I associate with the early classical and I think that's especially obvious in the figure of Apollo who strides forward but doesn't seem to have the sense of movement that would be entirely natural given what he's doing. Voiceover: This is red figure painting and that means that we're seeing bodies that are part of the red clay of the pot silhouette by a black background. It allows for a tremendous amount of detail. For instance in Apollo's body the tension to his abdomen, to his face. We see Artemis also with very delicate rendering of the folds of her drapery. Notice that both the goddess and the god are rendered in perfect profile whereas the dying children are more frontal or 3/4. Voiceover: There is a stiffness there. Voiceover: This is a period that we call the Severe Style and it's just this moment when the archaic is becoming the classical that we know, for instance from the sculptures of the acropolis. Voiceover: The other thing that's so obvious here is that where Greek vases before this had the figures on a single ground line. The figures occupy different levels. It seems as though the artist, the Niobid Painter was attempting to give us some sense of an illusion of space with some figures in the foreground and some in the background although they're all the same size. Voiceover: That's right, there's no diminishing sense of scale but we can get a sense of the idea that there are different ground plans when we look at the tree on the upper right of the scene. Let's go around to the other side because we have a very different image in contrast to the violence of the back. Here in the center, in the place of honor on the vase, the hero Herakles. Herakles was part mortal, part god. He's identifiable because he holds a club and because he has a lion skin. Voiceover: Now notice that he's in the middle of the vase literally. His feet don't touch the ground line. He's in the middle and figures are placed all around him. Again, that idea of the artist suggesting a sense of depth. Art historians think that this shows the influence of Greek wall painting, none of which survived. Voiceover: In fact, we think that this vase might be a kind of copying of wall painting by an artist whose name we know, Polygnotus who painted both in Athens and at the Sanctuary of Delphi, North of Athens. Voiceover: He was credited as being the first artist to paint figures in depth. Voiceover: What we may be seeing on this vase is an attempt to translate that wall painting here onto a vase. That would be an extraordinary thing since virtually no Ancient Greek wall painting has survived. Voiceover: What's going on here? What is Herakles doing? Why is he surrounded by all of these warriors some of whom are reclining, some of whom are standing and what is Athena doing over to the left of him? Voiceover: One of the more prominent theories suggest that this is not actually a representation of the god Herakles so much as a representation of a sculpture of the god Herakles. That is, this is a painting of the scultpure of the mythic figure. What's happening is that Greek soldiers are coming to honor Herakles asking him for protection before they go into battle. Voiceover: Right. At the very end of the archaic period 490 B.C.E the Greeks battled the Persians and against overwhelming odds defeated the enormous Persian army. This may show Athenian soldiers asking for Herakles' protection before the battle at Marathon. If you look very closely it's almost impossible to see there may be barely visible incised lines that suggest that Herakles is actually standing on a podium which would support the idea tat this was the sculpture of the god rather than the god amongst these men. Voiceover: The relaxation expressed by the figures is remarkable to me especially the figure reclining at the bottom who seems to be pulling himself up using the leverage of his spears. Voiceover: That relaxation is in such contrast to the violence of the murders on the other side of the vase. It's a great reminder of the way that Greeks love to contrast the active against the passive, the complex against the plain and to draw sharp contrast in both imagery and in their technique. Voiceover: Art historian conjecture that the style that the figures on different levels comes from Greek wall painting, and we know about Greek wall painting from writers who celebrated it. The subject matter that we see here is still very much a mystery and the relationship of these two stories to one another is still very uncertain. (lively piano music)