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Terracotta Krater

Terracotta Krater, attributed to the Hirschfeld Workshop, Geometric, c. 750-735 B.C.E., Ancient Greece, terracotta, 108.3 x 72.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at a gigantic clay pot. - [Elizabeth] This is form Ancient Greece. - [Steven] Long before the classical period. The shape of this vase makes it a crater and it was found at the Dipylon cemetery in Athens. - [Elizabeth] Normally when we think about ancient Greek vases, we think about containers for wine or liquids but this ceramic pot had a very different purpose. This was made to mark a gravesite. - [Steven] We often think of headstones to mark a gravesite but the Greeks used ceramic vessels. Somebody was buried underneath it. - [Elizabeth] And in fact the bottom of this vase is open and it's possible that liquid was poured in the top as an offering for the deceased. Or it's possible it was just used to drain off rain water. - [Steven] But what makes this vase so important, so extraordinary, is its decoration. - [Elizabeth] It is covered, every inch of this, with decoration and that decoration is divided in two bands or registers. - [Steven] This particular vase comes from an early period in Greek history and the style that is associated with is geometric because the surface is covered with geometric motifs. You see diamonds and triangles and circles and meanders. - [Elizabeth] We also see broad areas of black paint and stripped areas that form the base. - [Steven] And this particular pot has pictorial bands which we call friezes and in them, and this is a little bit unusual for the geometric period, we see human figures and we see animals and the pictures remind us that this is funerary. - [Elizabeth] The large central scene along the top register shows us a figure on a bier, a dead figure, who's being mourned and the figures on either side of him, the female figures, have raised their arms in a gesture of grief. - [Steven] And some art historians have interpreted the decorative lines on either side of the figures as a reference to tears. - [Elizabeth] And it's also possible that that checkerboard pattern that's above the deceased figure represents his funerary shroud but lifted so that we can see the body. - [Steven] I love how the human forms are nearly as abstract as the geometric motifs that fill the rest of the vase. The torsos are nearly perfect triangles, the heads which are shown in profile are basically circles with eyes in the center. - [Elizabeth] And the legs are larger shapes as are the legs of the table that the deceased figure is on or the legs of the chair. When you walk up to this you might not even notice at first that you were looking at a narrative scene, that you were looking at human figures. - [Steven] The band below shows a procession and it's military in nature. We see chariots, we see horsemen, we see soldiers with shields and spears and swords. In fact the bodies are reduced to the form of ancient Greek shields. - [Elizabeth] And the horses were given three horses at a time and appropriately there are six legs in the front and six legs in the back but there's no sense at all of the space the three horses would occupy. - [Steven] Everything on the surface of this vase fills flat. There is no pictorial depth, there is no interest in illusion in that sense. - [Elizabeth] Not at all. And yet in the scene of a funeral, with perhaps his wife and child beside him and mourners around him we still get a really palpable sense of sadness, of death here. - [Steven] The pot was decorated with a material that is called slip, very fine particles of clay that are suspended in a liquid and then painted on to the surface. The Greeks at this point didn't use kilns that were hot enough to create the glassy surface that we take for granted in modern ceramics that we call glaze and this kind of ceramic is known as slipware. - [Elizabeth] And this would have been turned on a wheel. - [Steven] Probably in sections and then constructed from those sections. Producing a pot this size and of this quality is a major undertaking. This is clearly representing the wealth and the power of the family for whom it was made. - [Elizabeth] So from far away in the cemetery your eyes might be drawn to this pot and therefore to the man that this pot commemorates. (piano music)