Within the dizzying spectrum of modern and contemporary artworks featured in the Nasher Museum’s current exhibitions, which sample everything from Ansel Adams’s distilled landscapes to Wangechi Mutu’s supernatural mediations on human form, a 5th-century BCE calyx krater may seem something of an outlier. How, you wonder, could the ancient Athenians have created anything even remotely comparable to the serene Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico or other-worldly Funkalicious fruit field? Pause to decipher the narrative nuances and stylistic intricacies of this ceramic wine container and you soon realize that the Athenians were eager to share an entire canon of stories, many of which were astonishingly scandalous and unabashedly self-aggrandizing.
Superficially, the scenes herein are tame. The krater’s obverse side is devoted to several fabled characters (from left: Hekate, Triptolemus, Persephone and Demeter), all of whom are preparing for the god’s impending journey, while its reverse side depicts an assembly of three young figures, none of whom has yet been positively identified. These scenes constitute the majority of the krater’s exterior surface but are, in keeping with the 5th century BCE red-figure tradition, framed by bands of floral accents and geometric patterns.
The principal side abounds with prospects of innovation and fertility. Demeter, goddess of the hearth, has bestowed her knowledge of agriculture upon Triptolemus and charged him with communicating this information to the rest of Greece’s population. The young male deity is seated in a winged chariot that will assist him in his quest, which is appropriately suspended in midair. In his right hand, he extends a shallow, stemless vase (a phiale) toward Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, who in turn pours a libation from a wine carafe (an oinochos). This sacred tribute will protect him as he executes his task. Behind the chariot stands Hekate, a multifarious divinity associated with crossroads and the transmission of ideas.
This scene derives from the myth of Demeter’s impassioned search for Persephone, whom Hades had abducted. For nine days and nights, the despondent deity wandered the earth with a flaming torch in hand in a vain pursuit of her captured daughter. Disguised as an old woman named Doso, she was welcomed into the home of Celeus, the mythological king of Eleusis in Attica. In a display of her gratitude, Demeter nursed Celeus’s two sons, Demophon and Triptolemus. When she was thwarted in her attempt to make Demophon immortal (his mother, Metanira, interrupted the divine proceedings), Demeter resolved to instead use Triptolemus to spread the art of agriculture to Greece. Upon Persephone’s return from the underworld, Triptolemus took to the skies in the winged chariot that has been so unmistakably rendered on the vase’s front.
The reverse side presents three anonymous and, consequently, less intelligible figures: two young men flank a veiled woman, who occupies the center of composition. The beardless youth standing to her left bears a small, curved, metal instrument used to scrape grime and perspiration off the body (strigil). His counterpart brandishes a stringed, contoured instrument (a lyre). Both men face the young lady and extend their articles toward her in what might be interpreted as marketing gestures. If this analysis were certifiable, it would appear that the lyre vendor has conquered this customer, whose face and body are quite conclusively angled toward him.
The red-figure style of vase painting that characterizes this calyx krater is often accredited to the Andokides painter, who was active in Athens from ca. 530 BCE until 510 BCE. The technique he developed set red figures against a contrasting black background and marked a significant deviation from its predecessor, the black-figure style. The Andokides painter and his successors manipulated painted black internal lines to yield palpable figural dimensions. This krater, produced in ca. 450 BCE, is a visual indication of the remarkable evolution that the red-figure style underwent in the 80 years between the time of its inception and the zenith of its popularity.
Image: Red-figure calyx krater, attributed to the painter Polygnotos by Sir John Beazley, Attica (ca. 450 BCE). Ceramic. 18 ½ x 18 ½ inches. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. James H. Semans. Photo by Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion