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The Expression of Movement in Athenian Vase Painting

Attic painted vases are unique sources of information about various aspects of life in ancient Greece. Mass production of ceramics, as well as the very properties of burnt clay, resistant to the destructive effects of time, allowed the next generations access to extensive material, consistently illustrating the development of pottery and vase painting in ancient Athens. Narrative images on vases complement existing knowledge on the life and religious traditions of their creators and the dominant ideas in society at the time. In addition, copies of monumental painting plots in ceramics make it possible to form an understanding of the lost originals (Petrakova, 2012). Despite the extensive range of works, essays and articles devoted to ancient Greek painted ceramics, the volume of material continues to provide opportunities for research. Some questions are just starting to arise. One of these questions is the relevance of studying compositional schemes in vase painting using the same methodology as with examples of fine art. There is no evidence that ancient Greek vase painters were guided by any theoretical foundations for constructing a composition, but, nevertheless, they developed an intuitively defined system, harmonising images as much as possible in accordance not only with the tastes of the time, but also with the difficulties dictated by the shapes of the vases which were transforming parts of the images on uneven surface. Therefore, the modern approach to stylistic analysis of vase painting, which, in fact, can be compared with graphics, does not seem out of place.


Problems with painting on the non-flat surface of a vessel, figures with background space, narrative motifs and ornamental design, and all issues related to ensuring that the pattern applied to the surface of the vase looked as harmonious as possible, arose along with the advent of painted ceramics and were being solved with traceable success. Expression of running and movement in general is one of key problems for ancient Greek artists during the transition from the archaic to the classical era (Post, 1909), and in different types of art archaic static figures were replaced by more dynamic art through the efforts of ancient Greek artists.

Figure 1. Kylikes from the Leafless Group at the Louvre, ca. 490 BCE. [Pottery]

The quantity of painted vases that were produced by the middle of 6th century BCE became a natural reason for the development of a certain schematic vision of composition. These schemes were often preserved for their specific subjects (running, competition, abduction, etc.) for centuries and moved from black-figure to red-figure painting techniques. Judging by the number of surviving kylikes (round shaped shallow cups) and the fact that they were used for probably one of the most popular table gameskottabos (Sparkes, 1960)this form was one of the most widespread among contemporaries (Perseus Encyclopedia, 2023). Vase painters, in turn, got the opportunity to practice, experiment and develop their skills in working with such a difficult form. In kylikes, as a rule, the bottom was decorated, and the need to place a painting in a plane enclosed within a circle did not provide many compositional possibilities for the artists. However, the paintings in kylikes evolved significantly with time.


Such early examples as the painting on a black-figure kylix from the collection of the Louvre, attributed to the so-called Leafless Group (Beazley, 1956, p. 635) exhibit a number of schematic features that remain generally characteristic of the interpretation of a running figure in ancient Greek vase painting throughout its existence. The fact that the character is running is indicated by especially sharply bent legs at the knees and one of the elbows being positioned to the side as well as widely spaced legs, close to the frame of the background space. The runner moves from left to right, his head is turned in the opposite direction. The body is depicted simultaneously from several angles: the head and legs in profile, the torsofacing the viewer. Generally, the silhouette is very close in nature to ornamental decoration. Laconic engravings inside the silhouette indicate the features of the face, the right leg, as well as the folds of a cloak hanging on the left arm. In the almost imperceptible motion of these folds, one can trace an attempt at an expressive depiction of the motif. However, this minimal shift of the lower corner of the cloak to the left could as well be due to the artist's desire to position the figure more successfully inside the circle. The decoration of this kylix demonstrates one of the prominent compositional solutions at the time of its creation. Having developed from images where much less attention is paid to the plot than to the task of filling background space symmetrically, it still retains this schematic approach, but is already filled with the air of a freer understanding of figurative painting. In early examples, the running figure often seemed to be almost sitting, resting against the edges of the circle, and interpreted almost exclusively ornamentally (Beazley, 1951; Boardman, 1974).

Figure 2. Brigos Painter (attrib.), Woman running with axe (Clytemnestra), ca. 500-450 BCE. [Pottery]

By the end of the 6ththe beginning of the 5th centuries BCE, with the invention of the red-figure technique (Petrakova, 2012), the process of honing skills in vase painting accelerated. The desire to get rid of the obstacles of form is demonstrated by the figure of a woman with an ax (presumably Clytemnestra) on a now lost kylix from the Antiquities Collection Berlin (BAPD, no. 204027). The woman runs towards a door, looking in the direction of her movement. The parallel lines of the door and the shaft of the ax on the sides visually limit freedom of movement. Border lines frame the figure in a rectangular space, and the widely spaced legs and arms seem to rest on these boundaries. Nevertheless, the airy, vibrating pattern fills the silhouette itself. The folds of the rich transparent chiton (a loose tunic) expose the legs and chest, drawn in precise lines, devoid of any angularity. The well-balanced ratio of the painting creates tension around the right hand, slightly inclined body and the moving folds of clothing. All this gives the plot a temporal dimension. The following actions of the character seem to be absolutely natural: step, turn of the body, swing with a hand.


One of later solutions of composition in a circular frame is the painting in the tondo of a kylix from the International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza (BAPD, no. 271065). It demonstrates a trend which started in the begging of the 4th century BCE – a rather superficial replication of plots and schemes developed by vase painters of the previous periods. As a result, Attic painted pottery of that period does not offer any new compositional solutions (Boardman, 2001).

Figure 3. Reg-figure kylix with a woman running with basket, 4th century BCE. [Pottery]

In terms of interpretation of the figures themselves and the evolution of drawing technique, the patterns described above were in general preserved for Attic vase painting. However, inscribing the plot in a circle and its isolation from the rest of the decorated parts of the kylix made it possible for painters to ignore the shape of the vessel as a whole, which is unattainable when working on vases of other shapes. One of the most common methods in black-figure vases was to allocate a kind of “screen” for the image, a rectangular space in the middle and upper parts of the vase body, not covered with varnish. In such cases, when a single figure was depicted, the desire of the painters to fill most of the background often led to a widening of the silhouette across the allocated space. This deprived the heavy figures of any visual movement (Beazley, 1951; Boardman, 1974).


The use of the red-figure technique made it possible to create more concise compositions in a variety of vase shapes. An excellent example is a skyphos (a deep wine cup), decorated on both sides with running figures of a boy and a girl, from the collection of the British Museum (BAPD, no. 11925). The vessel is devoid of any additional decoration, only the volume of the body is emphasized by a minimalistic line along the entire diameter. The figures seem to take off above this line. Both children are covered in fabric, and it is the clothes that act here as the method of the most accurate expression of the plot. Under the clothing, the traditional scheme of running is traced, but the nature of the interpretation of the folds in each case gives individual features to the movement of the silhouettes. The rhythmically adjusted lines of the folds of the boy's clothes give a feeling of less expressive movement than in the case of the sharp, impetuous diagonals formed by the girl's dress. When the vessel rotates, it seems as if she is trying to catch up with the boy, and this effect is enhanced by the turn of the boy’s head. Such skilled work with line, volumes, background, and the confident interpretation of the plot characterise the vase painter as a master of his art.

Figure 4. Red-figure skyphos with a boy and a girl running, ca. 500-450 BCE. [Pottery]

A separate group of vessels that traditionally used the motif of movement in their decoration are the Panathenaic amphorae. Filled with olive oil, they were awarded to the winners of the Panathenaic Games. These games were held every four years in Attica, included athletic and poetic competitions, and were of major importance for the Hellenic world. The custom continued in Athens from the 560s BCE until the end of the 4th century (Neils, 1992). The forms of Panathenaic amphorae undergo changes throughout the history of their production, acquiring more elongated proportions by the 4th century BCE. The paintings of Panathenaic amphoras evolved along with the form, despite the invariability of the plots: the image of Athena on the front side and the participants in competitions on the back (Valavanis, 2009).


The earliest Panathenaic amphorae do not particularly stand out among other types of vases of their period. Despite the formal depiction of running, the groups of figures of athletes form something close to characteristic archaic ornamentation. Their proportions are completely subordinated to the outlines of the vessels. So, the already massive hips are located on the most convex part of the vase, giving the silhouettes the character of a compressed spring. Rather than the image of moving runners, the shape of the vase itself, with a contrastingly small rim and neck, as well as the rhythmic pattern that duplicates it, seem to convey the potency of movement. This effect in relation to the running motif is enhanced by the traditional "swirled" depiction of a human body with the head in profile, torso – facing the viewer, and legs again in profile. Images of individual parts of the body are almost stencil schematic. A connection with vessels of the 7th century geometric style vase painting (Weinberg, 1943) might be traced in the drawing of the torsos, which are still as close as possible in their shape to inverted triangles.

Figure 5. Kleophrades Painter (attrib.), Panathenaic amphora with runners, ca. 500-450. [Pottery]

Skills in working with several techniques helped painters acquire a more accurate understanding of form, which is demonstrated by the Panathenaic amphorae of the late 6th early 5th centuries BCE. In the amphora from the Louvre collection, stylistic approaches dictated by traditional iconography still make it possible to distinguish the work of the proficient Kleophrades Painter (BAPD, no. 303056). The painter places figures closely, confident that he will not make them look like a single blot. The use of lines skilfully organises the silhouettes. The outlines of the athletes' figures organise the background, harmoniously dividing it into proportional sections of space and conveying the movement of the entire composition.


Further development of the Panathenaic amphorae paintings corresponded to general trends in the Attic vase painting tradition. The period of rise and demonstration of the highest skill, the search for the most expressive means of depiction, which made it possible to single out individual artists and workshops by manner of work, is replaced by a period of stamped production and loss of individuality. Signs of fading interest in the development of vase painting and gradual transition to an increasingly casual and replicated approach to its production are illustrated by numerous examples from the late 5th – early 4th centuries (Boardman, 2001). Study of these processes within the framework of the general history of ancient Greek art, social and historical changes in ancient Athens, makes it possible to supplement existing knowledge and to form a more complete picture of the nature of the time period under consideration.

Bibliographical References

Beazley Archive Pottery Database (BAPD). www.beazley.ox.ac.uk


Beazley, J. D. (1944). Potter and painter in ancient Athens. Oxford: G.Cumberledge.


Beazley, J. D. (1951). The development of Attic black-figure. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.


Beazley, J. D. (1956). Attic black-figure vase-painters. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Boardman, J. (1974). Athenian black figure vases. London: Thames & Hudson.


Boardman, J. (2001). The history of Greek vases. London: Thames and Hudson.


Neils, J. (Ed.). (1992). Goddes and polis: The Panathenaic festival in ancient Athens. Hanover: Hood Museum of Art.


Perseus Encyclopedia (2023). K: Kylix. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0004:id=kylix


Petrakova. A. E. (2012). Metologija kompleksnogo iskusstvovedcheskogo issledovanija afinskoj vazoposi: teorija i praktika (na primere kollektsii Gosudarstvennogo Ermitazha) [Methodology of the complex art analysis of the Athenian vase painting: theory and practice (on the example of the State Hermitage Museum’s collection)]. [Doctoral dissertation, Saint-Petersburg State Institute of Culture and Arts]. DisserCat https://www.dissercat.com/content/metodologiya-kompleksnogo-iskusstvovedcheskogo-issledovaniya-afinskoi-vazopisi-teoriya-i-pra


Post, C. R. (1909). The Development of Motion in Archaic Greek Sculpture. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 20, 95–164. https://doi.org/10.2307/310350


Richter, G. M. A. (1923). The craft of Athenian pottery. New Heaven:, CT Yale University Press.


Sparkes, B. A. (1960). Kottabos: An Athenian after-dinner game. Archaeology, 13(3), pp. 202–207. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41663787


Valavanis, P. (2009). Mortals Facing the Goddess: Thoughts on the Panathenaic Amphora of Lydos in Florence and some Pseudo-Panathenaic Vases. APP, II, pp. 297-305.


Weinberg, S. S. (1943). The Geometric and Orientalizing Pottery. Corinth, 7(1), i–104. https://doi.org/10.2307/25351324

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Eugenia Ivanova

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