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Early Classical Period (480-450 Bc)

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October 6, 2014

Daniel Abramson

Art History

In the Early Classical period (480-450 BC), the Greeks established ideals based upon naturalistic and humanistic aspects of life.  These ideals were conveyed mostly through their art and architecture.  The Greeks highly valued the idea of nature, believing that nature brought harmony and rhythm to the world.  Humanism was also another virtue that became central to Greek art during this time. A lot of information can be obtained about Early Classical Greece by analyzing a relevant portrait or sculpture.  In this case, the mixing bowl, or calyx krater, of the Killing of Agamemnon (~460 BC) is being examined.  By taking a closer look at the piece, the viewer can extrapolate some important virtues from Early Classical Greece such as the humanistic embrace and the idealization of nature.

As said by the famous Greek philosopher Protagoras, “Man is the measure of all things.”  This quote reflects the beauty that the Greeks saw in being human. Greek artists and sculptors showed appreciation for these values by vividly incorporating them into their artwork. For example, Greek gods were sculpted into idealized human beings, creating a worldly and meaningful relationship between the viewer and the sculpture.  Similarly so, the artist of this mixing bowl, known as the Dokimasia Painter, sought to use many humanistic themes in the painting.  The Dokimasia Painter used the red figure painting technique, an art form that became

widely used over the course of the 5th century BC, accelerating past black figure painting, the original painting technique for ceramics. In conjunction with the Greek shift towards humanism, the red figure painting technique allowed for greater artistic detail and flexibility when painting human figures, especially on ceramic pieces.  The human figures on the vase are all in naturalized stances with their arms being positioned in reference to the scene as well as certain individuals being muscularly defined. Clothing is also naturalized with folds being thoroughly defined and cloth conforming to the shape of the figure wearing it.  

In the scenes themselves, Agamemnon is being slain by his wife’s lover, Aegisthos on one side of the vase, with Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, taking vengeance on Aegisthos and slaying him on the other side of the vase. In both scenes, the viewer’s attention is directed towards the middle of the vase by surrounding figures that extend their hands in the direction of the murders.  Some amount of emotion can also been seen on the figures’ faces, specifically Aegisthos’s.  As he is being killed by Orestos, his mouth is open and his eyes are agape, showing his pain and surprise at being stabbed when he was seated playing the lyre for his guests only moments prior.  The entire scene is meant to evoke emotion from the viewer, portraying a story of power, lust, and vengeance that can be felt when examining the piece. By appealing to human emotions, the artist is able to successfully create a connection that the viewer can understand and appreciate.

        Nature and harmony are also very prevalent themes in the piece.  Just by looking at the shape of the vase, it can be determined that it is a calyx krater which

is designed after the calyx of a flower.  The borders on top and below the painting on the vase create a vertical perspective, with the top border being a thick floral frieze and the bottom border being a meander pattern, one of the most frequently used motifs in Greek art.  These two patterns bring the viewer’s attention to the two pictures.  Ionic columns, identified by volutes, can also be seen above the handles. They bring symmetry and balance to the vase, allowing for the pictures to take up an even amount of space between each other.  The scenes themselves represent a harmonious balance between the usurping of power and the natural order being restored.  Agamemnon is killed by Aegisthos, only for Orestes to defend his family’s honor by slaying his father’s killer.  If the viewer walks around the vase, this constant cycle can be seen repeating itself.  While Aegisthos succeeded in the short term, his seizing of power created discord.  It was only a matter of time before the situation came to balance and Orestes took vengeance upon him.  Through the artist’s use of spacing and storytelling, the viewer can examine how important the ideals of harmony and nature were to Greek artists.

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