The Athena complex; A comparative study of Greek vases 540-450BC. Illustrate your essay with specific examples.
"In the absence of significant examples of the major art of
Greek painting, pottery has assumed an importance even beyond its
own great intrinsic value". Between 540-450BC Greek culture
flourished and the arts of this period reflect the developing
creative concerns, naturalism evolved and new techniques were
employed. Vases (as today), were functional objects and their
decoration did not preclude their purpose but were auxiliary to
their various uses. The region of Attica, with its capital city
Athens, had become the centre of the civilisation and accordingly
the heart of the artistic community, due to its commercial success.
Athens is eponymously named after the Olympian Goddess Athena, and
this essay will focus on her portrayal on Greek vases, primarily
sourced from the collection housed at the British Museum, London.
The social, political and historical context during the years
540-450BC will be examined to evaluate the prevalence of the
pictorial depictions of Athena.
Athena was the "Goddess of Wisdom … and knew more than
anyone else about pottery, weaving, and all the useful arts … [She]
was also a Battle Goddess, yet never went to war unless forced …
and when she fought, always won". By the mid sixth century BC
the representation of the Gods and Heroes had an established
iconography. Vase painters depicting Athena knew what her
attributes were. She, as the other gods, was more than myth to the
ancient Greeks; she was a living and accredited part of their
history, which was especially pertinent to the Athenians as she was
their patron goddess. Comparing figure 1a and 2, vases decorated
with the Birth of Athena, respectively circa 570-560BC and circa
470-460BC, one can see that the iconography is principally the
same. Athena springs forth from Zeus's head, fully armoured, with
shield, spear and helmet, to the right is Eileithyia the goddess of
childbirth. Hephaestus, who split open the head of Zeus, is also
central to the action, but whereas in figure 1 his astonishment has
been conveyed with a static running motif (second to the left of
the birth), in figure 2 the artist has successfully captured his
surprise through an emotive look. Although both originating
from Attica there is evidently a huge demarcation in the pictorial
style and the actual ware itself.
Vase painting did not develop separately from the other arts of
the period between 540BC and 450BC. The architectural and
sculptural programme on the Acropolis "was a concrete
visualization of Athens' emergence and an expression of civic pride
and identity". The Athenians famous victory over the Persians
in 490BC and their subsequent victory in 480BC after a siege by the
Persians, contributed to the Athenians' dominance in Greek culture.
Their military prowess also provided them with the spoils to build
arguably the greatest monument in ancient Greece the Parthenon,
which was to house Pheidias chryselephantine statue of Athena
Parthenos, a amanifistation of Athena par excellence. The
Acropolis would have been a place of pilgrimage for all-Greeks;
indeed the frieze around the Parthenon depicts the very procession
that took place on the last day at the Panathenaic festival.
Furthermore the athletes who won the amphorae came from all over
Grecian empire and as discussed, with the vases "image of the
city goddess … serves to promote visually the identity, piety, and
prestige of the city all at once"
The provenance of Athenian vases found all across the
Mediterranean, Africa, Europe and Asia Minor suggests that the
vases being portable objects were popular art forms, and the extant
number of those surviving testifies to their high quality. It was a
natural predilection for the Athenians to show their devotion and
piety to their divine namesake and protector, who had given the
potters the very 'crafts' to create.