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Black Figure Neck Amphora:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Archaic Period (late 7th century to 480 B.C.) saw the revival of Greece as a commercial and industrial center, as it had been previously during its Bronze Age (2800-1000 B.C.). The expansion of Greek colonies throughout the Mediterranean and Black Seas (750-600 B.C.) established a marketplace for Greek wares; metal utensils, weapons, textiles, and pottery were in great demand.

This increase in economic prosperity resulted in improved educational opportunities for the citizenry. Knowledge of reading, writing, mathematics, poetry, music, and gymnastics soon spread among the people. The expanding city-states became centers of culture.

Concurrent with these developments came a new sense of the dignity of humanity as represented by the average Greek citizen. In literature and the arts, representations of the human figure became more natural and those of the gods became more anthropomorphized, assuring the populace that there was nothing more divine than the human form. Greek vases, distinguished by their elegant shapes and scenes painted from mythology and daily life, were testimony to this new humanistic spirit.

Attic vases:
  • Reached their peak in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.
  • Were exported to many foreign countries.
  • Illustrate lives and beliefs of ancient Greeks:
    • Portray
    • gods and goddesses
    • battles
    • athletic games
    • everyday activities
    • funerary rites
  • Had many uses, both ceremonial and utilitarian:
    • Ceremonial
    • Used at feasts and other important events.
    • Awarded as prizes or trophies at athletic events.
    • Used in religious ceremonies.
    • Served as receptacles for offerings outside the tomb and as containers for the ashes of the dead within the tomb.


    • Taken to and from fountains.
    • Filled and refilled at banquets.
    • Carried about by athletes.
    • Used by women during their toilet.
    • Brought as gifts to brides. (Gisela)
  • Came in many shapes; the form corresponded to the purpose. This Amphora, for example, was used to store wine or oil. (In Greek, amphora means "to bear on both sides." Note the placement of the two handles.)
The pots were thrown and turned on the wheel, except for the relatively few molded and hand-built ones. Smaller vases were thrown in one piece; the larger ones were thrown in sections. The sections were usually made at the structural points, for instance, between neck and body or body and foot. To conceal them, thin coils of clay were added on the outside. The joints are often visible on the inside, however, because coils were not added there. The handles were made separately by hand, not molded, and were added last. Decorations were applied while the clay was leather-hard. The figures were painted with engobe, a slip of finely sifted clay mixed with water. After the decoration was completed and the vases became bone-dry, they were placed in the kiln and fired. During this single firing, three successive stages occurred-oxidation, reduction, and reoxidation. In the first, the body of the vase and the engobe turned red; in the second, the oxygen supply to the kiln was cut off, causing both the vase and the engobe to become black (or gray); in the third, oxygen was returned to the kiln, and the clay of the vase turned red again as it absorbed the oxygen. (Gisela) The engobe, however, because of its different consistency, did not reabsorb the oxygen so those parts of the vessel painted with engobe remained black.

At the time this vase was made, artists rendered the figures and designs as dark forms against the red clay background, so these vessels are called black-figure ware. Details were incised into the silhouettes with a sharp, pointed instrument, which exposed the red underneath.

Exekias was a Greek potter and vase painter of the 6th century B.C. whose works influenced many younger potters and painters. He was the major black-figure painter at the critical time when black-figure ware painting was giving way to red-figure ware, in which the forms appear red against a black background. He was well-known for his superior design and for painting scenes with a wealth of detail in an elegant, yet forceful, style. In addition, he was famous because he was both a potter and a painter, which was unusual. (Pots have been found signed, "Exekias painted me and made me.") Using the black-figure style, Exekias was one of the best of the Athenian potters, and his wares dominated Mediterranean trade. Nine existing vessels carry his signatures; his depictions of heroes and gods convey a sense of controlled energy and inner structural harmony.
This is a neck-amphora, so called because the neck is set off sharply from the body rather than connecting with the body in a gentle curve.

The Amphora is attributed to the workshop of Exekias because its shape resembles those made by the famous Attic potter. The vessel, if not by his hand, is by an artist working under him and thoroughly familiar with his manner.

Typical of Greek storage vessels, its form is a large, full-bodied one, with footed base, two handles, and a tapered-lipped neck. The Amphora's decoration is elaborate, for the shoulder, as well as the body of the pot, are ornamented with figures.

Both the front and back shoulder sections show two warriors in combat near the main axis of the vase. A cast of onlookers, including men on horseback and women, fill the spaces behind them. On the front right shoulder, there is an additional figure holding a caduceus, Hermes' symbolic staff. We are not sure whether this figure is Hermes or a mortal, an example of how similarly the Greeks portrayed men and gods.

The central scene on the front of the vase depicts a four-horse chariot standing still, with two persons, one male and one female, in the car. The male holds a trident and is Poseidon, god of the seas; his companion is logically his wife, the goddess Amphitrite. They are accompanied by Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods, and another goddess.

On the back panel of the vase, a striding warrior turns toward a woman who stands behind him while beyond them is a robed youth. The warrior is fully armed but does not carry a spear as he ought to. A sword is suspended from a baldric over his right shoulder. (A baldric is a belt worn over one shoulder to support a sword or bugle.) His shield is shown in profile, and we can still see part of the tripod, a symbol of victory, which decorated it. (The tripod, painted in white over the glaze, has partially worn away.) He appears to be departing while the woman bids him farewell. The informal dress of the man on the right indicates that he is a spectator. The figure on the left is also an onlooker.

The decorations emphasize and complement the parts of the vessel where they are placed. For example, the largest figures are on the main body of the vessel while smaller figures decorate the tinier area of the shoulder. Motifs also decorate many areas of the Amphora, emphasizing each segment:

  • A double lotus-palmette chain complements the neck.
  • A tongue pattern highlights the shoulder at the junction of the neck.
  • Four palmettes and three lotuses are placed below each handle to emphasize the sides which divide the front and back portions.
  • Below the figures in the main body, a meander pattern to the left acts like a base-line for these figures.
  • Below the meander, a frieze of upright lotus buds with dots in the interstices highlights the narrowing of this portion of the vessel.
  • Above the foot, a zone of rays emphasizes the widening of the body from the foot to draw our attention to the scene on the main body of the vessel.
Use on many tours, including the following:
  1. Ancient
    Using an Art Reflects the Culture theme, emphasize how much we can learn about the Greek's technology from what is portrayed here (i.e., they had spears, horses, chariots, and wheels). Also emphasize the Greek view of humankind: notice how much of the vessel is taken up with the portrayal of humans and remind the viewer that the human figure is the principal motif of Greek art because "man" is central to Greek thought and interest.
  2. Gods and Heroes
  3. How Was It Made?
    See technique section.
  4. Decorative Arts
    How does this container compare to the Shang vessels? To the De Lamerie wine cooler?
  5. Spirituality and Art
    How do Poseidon and Hermes compare to Osiris? To Buddha? To Christ?
See The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin article, Vol. 47, July-December 1958, p. 40.
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Source: Docent Manual entry for <i>Black Figure Neck Amphora,</i> The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009