McAfee SECURE sites help keep you safe from identity theft, credit card fraud, spyware, spam, viruses and online scams

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.

Related Links
To Top