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Heracles immortalized.

Looking Carefully

Red and black-figure ware pottery, popular in 500 BC reveals the activities, the myths, the possessions and the skill of the ancient Greeks. These vessels served as surfaces for paintings of elaborate decorative patterns and involved narrative scenes. They also served traditional functions of storage jar, water container, wine cup or other receptacle for everyday and ceremonial use.

The featured amphora (centerspread) depicts a battle at Delphi between Heracles, the greatest of the Greek heroes (known in Roman mythology as Hercules) and the Greek god, Apollo. Heracles unwittingly commits a murder and goes to the Oracle at Delphi, which serves as a court, to learn his punishment. The priestesses of the oracle, who are female religious leaders, perform a ceremony using a tripod and ask the gods what punishment Heracles should have. Heracles, not pleased with the way he is treated by the priestesses, tries to carry away the tripod. As he attempts the theft, Heracles meets the god Apollo. On the amphora, Heracles and Apollo are depicted in a struggle over the tripod which is at a slight angle between them. The two witnesses of the combat are the goddesses Athena and Artemis. The painter has chosen to depict a strong moment of tension--the angles and overlapping of arms, legs and tripod help create a feeling of confusion. The overlapping figures of Apollo and Athena help create a depth-one technique used around 530 BC when this amphora was probably created.

The large, egg-shaped amphora was probably used as a storage jar. The heavy handles on the neck and shoulder of the pot help show how sturdy it was. The wide-mouthed opening allows for the storage of many dry or liquid provisions. Decorative patterns adorn the strong, substantial neck of the vessel. The meander pattern below the figures helps frame the bottom of the broad area reserved for the action.

Myth and Sculptural Form

Myth tells that Zeus, Lord of Olympus, fathered a mortal child whom he named Heracles to appease his wife Hera. Hera, angry at Zeus's infidelity, attempted to kill Heracles by sending two deadly serpents to his cradle. Much to everyone's surprise, Heracles strangled them both. The first century BC Greek sculpture of an infant (this page) is incomplete, but suggests Heracles as a baby with his outstretched and powerful arm. Even as a baby, this heroic figure could defend himself against the gods. Great attention has been given to the realistic rendering of anatomical features, muscular folds and intricately carved curls that surround the rotund face, presenting a realistic interpretation of this human who would become immortal. The artificial darkening of the sculpture's surface is an impressive and rare example of Egyptian black-bronze metalworking, a technique favored in ancient Alexandria. The style of the figure and the surface treatment of the bronze suggests the Hellenistic dating of this work.

The myth goes on to say that Heracles grew to be a happy man who married and had children. Hera continued in her anger and drove Heracles into a madness during which he killed his wife and children. Seeking punishment at the Oracle of Delphi, he was told to offer himself as a slave to King Eurystheus. The King gave Heracles twelve labors. If completed, Heracles would rid himself of the guilt and become immortal. His second labor is captured by Mathias Gasteiger in the sculpture Hercules and the Hydra created in 1929 (above). The grown Heracles struggles with the multiple headed snake which destroys crops and people with its poisonous breath. The twentieth century artist returned to the ancient Greek tale to create a sculpture of tension and struggle. Seen front any angle, the determined muscles of Heracles and the strong diagonal lines of the sculpture express tension. The contrast of light and dark shadowing add to the drama of the work. There is a psychological complexity to this version of the Greek hero. These three works chronicle an involved story which has been displayed in bronze, on pottery and in all aspects of art in ancient Greece. Despite the gruesome nature of the myths, Heracles has been a symbol of the trials and tribulations faced by mortals. Furthermore, his association with immortality made him a perfect symbol for funereal sculptures.

Key Concepts

* Vessel forms were traditionally decorated with narrative scenes. These scenes give us information about the myths, traditions and activities of the ancient Greeks.

* Just as we would recognize a coffee mug or skillet as a particularly shaped container, the ancient Greeks also employed a traditional set of forms for their pottery vessels. The amphora is a large, strong container used for storage of provisions.

* Red and black-figure ware was developed in the sixth century BC. The involved process uses both oxidation and reduction firing to clarify the decoration created with various clays.

* The stories of the Greek myths have been recaptured by artists since the days of ancient Greece.

Stylistic Information

Black-figure ware was developed in Corinth around 580 BC. The decoration is created by applying a finely sifted slip (liquid clay) to the vessel. Details can be incised through the slip to allow the red clay vessel to show through. Unlike most pottery today, ancient Greek pottery was fired only once. The firing, however, had different stages. In the first stage, the pottery would be fired to a high temperature with oxygen present (oxidation firing). Next, the vessel was fired in an atmosphere without oxygen (reduction firing) in which the entire surface turned black. To reduce the oxygen in the kiln they put green wood into the firing chamber and closed the air vents. At a specific time, oxygen was reintroduced into the firing, turning the clay red orange again. Those areas covered by the dense slip remained glossy black, thus creating the black figure decoration. If something went wrong with a firing, early potters blamed special demons who they named Smasher, Crusher or Shaker. Pottery varied in color depending on the origin of the clay. The clay of Corinth was much more yellow than the clay of Athens where there was mote iron in the soil. As a result, Corinthian pieces, including the earliest black figure ware examples, show black figures against a yellow or buff background.

Just as we have container forms for specific purposes like coffee mugs or skillets, the ancient Greeks also had specific forms for different functions. The three major categories of Greek vessels were: vessels designed to preserve or transport liquids, vessels designed to hold or decant substances, and vessels with special uses. The amphora is among those vessels in the first category. Two others in this same group are the krater, a wide-mouthed bowl with two vertical handles, and the hydria, a wide-mouthed jar with two horizontal handles and one vertical handle. Variations of the krater include the calyx-krater and the bell-krater.


Among those containers used for holding or decanting, are the oinochoe, or pitcher-like vessel, and the cup with two horizontal handles and a base.


In the special use category, two examples include the psykter, a vessel dipped in some refrigerated materials to keep its contents cold, and the tall-handled lekythos designed to hold oil or perfume.


Suggested Activities


* Heracles was a super-hero to the Greeks. Have students bring in various current super hero "artifacts" from home. After examining these artifacts, introduce the students to Heracles.

* Display a bulletin board of containers from throughout history. Include pictures of modern containers which could be cut from magazines by students. Label some of the containers following these examples: coffee mugs--modern America; amphora--ancient Greece.

* Gather together copies of maps from different times which show Greece. You will find that the boundaries and the territories change. Looking at the maps in chronological order, try to determine some of the history of Greece before you study what really happened.

* Have students cut silhouettes of traditional Greek pottery shapes from black poster board. After examining photos of ancient Greek pottery, students use paint or cut paper to recreate borders and decorative details on their silhouettes. In the place on the pot usually reserved for a narrative picture, paint a modern scene using only red paint with some white details. The scene might be catching the bus, the Friday night basketball game or a fire drill at school.

* Hang a sheet from the classroom ceiling like a curtain and backlight it. Have a student or two behind the curtain holding an action pose. The students out front can draw quick versions of the silhouettes in action using a black crayon on red paper.

* As a class, establish modern categories of containers such as cooking wares, serving containers and product containers. Within each category, establish the main types of vessels such as cups or bowls. Cut out pictures of lots of cups to show how the vessel can be varied. Follow up with a similar exercise using the Greek vessel categories and types.


* Study the poem "Ode to a Grecian Urn" by John Keats. Ask students to write a contemporary version such as "Ode to a CD Cover."

* Students could write a play illustrating one or more of the labors Heracles faced. Create scenery which could be used for more than one act or more than one play such as columns, view of Delphi, etc.

* Create a series of graphic symbols to represent the labors of Heracles, such as the lion with the skin which could not be penetrated by weapons, or the creature with the nine serpent heads.

* The Olympic games were first recorded on Greek pottery. Figures were shown participating in various sports such as running, wrestling and throwing the javelin. Have students create a drawing of a modern sports event using burnt sienna oil pastels on a stiff surface such as tagboard. Paint a diluted Italia ink over the drawing to create a red figure resist.

* Using red, self-hardening clay, have students create a Greek like container using the coil or pinch-pot method. The vessels can be painted with tempera or India ink while they are wet or after they dry. The students recreate designs and patterns from Greek pottery observed. If painted when the vessel is wet, the colors will get lighter as they dry. A similar project can be created with kiln fired clay.


Boardman, John. Greek Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991.

Carpenter, Thomas H. Art and Myth in Ancient Greece. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1990.

Cooper, Emmanuel. A History of World Pottery. Pennsylvania: Chilton Press, 1989.

Williams, Dyfri. Greek Vases. London: The British Museum, 1985.

Resources for Students

Gibson, Michael. Gods, Men & Monsters from the Greek Myths. New York: Schocken Books, 1987.

Powell, Anton. Cultural Atlases for Young People Series: Atlas of Ancient Greece. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1989.

Pamela Hellwege is Department Head, Teacher and Youth Programs, The Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri.

Slides of these objects are available from The Saint Louis Art Museum. Resource Center, Forest Park. St. Louis, MO 63110-1380.
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Author:Hellwege, Pamela
Publication:School Arts
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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