Terracotta Krater

This pot stood above a grave, and the female mourners depicted on it tear out their hair in grief.

Terracotta Krater, attributed to the Hirschfeld Workshop, Geometric, c. 750-735 B.C.E., Ancient Greece, terracotta, 108.3 x 72.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a gigantic clay pot.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:10] This is from ancient Greece.

Dr. Zucker: [0:13] Long before the Classical Period. Now, the shape of this vase makes it a krater, and it was found at the Dipylon cemetery in Athens.

Dr. Harris: [0:20] Normally when we think about ancient Greek vases, we think about containers for wine or liquids, but this ceramic pot had a very different purpose. This was made to mark a grave site.

Dr. Zucker: [0:32] We often think of headstones to mark a grave site, but the Greeks used ceramic vessels. Somebody was buried underneath it.

Dr. Harris: [0:39] In fact, the bottom of this vase is open and it’s possible that liquid was poured in the top as an offering for the deceased, or it’s possible it was just used to drain off rainwater.

Dr. Zucker: [0:49] But what makes this vase so important, so extraordinary, is its decoration.

Dr. Harris: [0:53] It is covered, every inch of this, with decoration. That decoration is divided into bands, or registers.

Dr. Zucker: [1:01] This particular vase comes from an early period in Greek history. The style that it’s associated with is Geometric, because the surface is covered with geometric motifs. You see diamonds, triangles, circles, and meanders.

Dr. Harris: [1:15] We also see broad areas of black paint and striped areas that form the base.

Dr. Zucker: [1:21] This particular pot has pictorial bands, which we call friezes, and in them — and this is a little bit unusual for the Geometric Period — we see human figures and we see animals. The pictures remind us that this is funerary.

Dr. Harris: [1:33] The large central scene along the top register shows us a figure on a bier, a dead figure who’s being mourned, and the figures on either side of him, the female figures, have raised their arms in a gesture of grief.

Dr. Zucker: [1:47] Some art historians have interpreted the decorative lines on either side of the figures as a reference to tears.

Dr. Harris: [1:53] It’s also possible that that checkerboard pattern that’s above the deceased figure represents his funerary shroud, but lifted so that we can see the body.

Dr. Zucker: [2:02] I love how the human forms are nearly as abstract as the geometric motifs that fill the rest of the vase. The torsos are nearly perfect triangles. The heads, which are shown in profile, are basically circles with eyes in the center.

Dr. Harris: [2:17] The legs are lozenge shapes, as are the legs of the table that the deceased figure is on, or the legs of the chair. When you walk up to this, you might not even notice at first that you were looking at a narrative scene, that you were looking at human figures.

Dr. Zucker: [2:31] The band below shows a procession. It’s military in nature. We see chariots. We see horsemen. We see soldiers with shields and spears and swords. In fact, the bodies are reduced to the form of ancient Greek shields.

Dr. Harris: [2:45] And the horses, we’re given three horses at a time. Appropriately, there are six legs in the front and six legs in the back. There’s no sense at all of the space the three horses would occupy.

Dr. Zucker: [2:58] Everything on the surface of this vase feels flat. There is no pictorial depth. There’s no interest in illusionism in that sense.

Dr. Harris: [3:05] Not at all. Yet, in this scene of a funeral with perhaps his wife and child beside him and mourners around him, we still get a really palpable sense of sadness, of death, here.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] The pot was decorated with material that is called slip, very fine particles of clay that are suspended in a liquid and then painted onto the surface. The Greeks at this point didn’t use kilns that were hot enough to create the glassy surface that we take for granted in modern ceramics that we call glaze. This kind of ceramic is known as slipware.

Dr. Harris: [3:41] This would have been turned on a wheel.

Dr. Zucker: [3:43] Probably in sections and then constructed from those sections. Producing a pot of this size and of this quality is a major undertaking. This is clearly representing the wealth and the power of the family for whom it was made.

Dr. Harris: [3:56] From far away in the cemetery, your eyes might be drawn to this pot, and therefore to the man that this pot commemorates.

[4:05] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Terracotta Krater," in Smarthistory, April 6, 2017, accessed February 24, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/met-krater/.