Black-figure Neck Amphora, Greek, circa 510 B.C.

Published July 17, 2005

Many museum visitors charge past displays of antiquities, thinking they're all the same.

Spend time with a passionate advocate such as Aaron Paul and you'll understand their uniqueness. "Each one tells a story," says Paul, the Richard E. Perry Curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Tampa Museum of Art. He oversees perhaps the finest collection of such objects in the southeastern United States.

This amphora is among his favorites.

- LENNIE BENNETT, Times art critic

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The artwork: Black-figure Neck Amphora, Greek, circa 510 B.C. Amphoras were used to hold water or wine. They were often decorated with stock characters and easily identified visual clues.

The background: Greek pottery was made by anonymous craftsmen. Even though this vessel was found in a grave site in southern Italy, it was definitely made in Greece, probably in Athens, because its figures make specific references to that city-state. Greek pottery was superior to that made in Italy, where Greeks had migrated, so large quantities of it were imported. An affluent landowner probably purchased it.

The materials: The amphora was thrown on a pottery wheel and dried. The artisan painted on a glaze and details were incised into it. It was fired in a wood kiln, which turned the glaze black, hence the name "black-figure." Later, artisans reversed the process, covering vessels in glaze, then erasing parts of it, which created finer details. This method was called red-figure painting.

The story: The vessel's narrative is about Herakles, now know as Hercules, a revered figure in Greek mythology, considered the greatest mortal warrior. He was a favorite subject, and his story was embellished and changed over time. At the moment pictured here, Herakles has completed Twelve Labors in which he had to vanquish or outwit famous mythological antagonists. As a reward, he is about to ascend Mount Olympus, where he will live with the gods. He is greeted by his patron, the goddess Athena, and Hermes, the god of travel, who will accompany him. On the vase's other side, Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, is preparing a celebration for his arrival.


Herakles always carries his famous weapon, a club. Usually, he wears a lion skin, referring to the beast he killed in one of his labors. Here, in deference to this special occasion, he wears a fine cloak instead.

Athena, a warrior goddess and patron of Athens, has her trademark shield. Like most ancient shields, this one has a blazon, the graphic symbol that easily identifies a soldier on a crowded battlefield. Athena's is typically a chariot but here, unusually, it's the prow of an Athenian battleship, probably a political statement about Athens' pride in its navy which will, in a few years, defeat the Persians, who have been threatening Athens. Also note the snakes peering over her shield. They are part of the aegis Athena always wears, hidden here by her shield, a protective garment with the head of Medusa who had snakes for hair.

Hermes wears his traveler's hat and winged boots. As the patron god of flocks, he's often pictured with a goat.

Like those of Hermes and Herakles, Dionysus' beard is painted red, a detail often used to identify important male characters. It was created with a wash of red clay, called a slip. As the god of wine, he holds grape vines. The women, called Maenads, are his followers. They're getting the party started with music from their castanets. Like Athena, and unlike the males, they have pale skin, made from the finest, most expensive clay, an early version of porcelain. It denotes their privileged lives indoors, away from the sun.

The rest of the amphora bears standard decorations, painted on symmetrically, almost like stencils. They include exotic plants such as lotus blossoms, which were first seen by Greeks on imported Persian textiles, and palms. The rays at the amphora's base were inspired by similar decorations common in Corinth, a rival city state.

Putting it in context

Around the time this amphora was created, the temples on the Acropolis, Athens' most sacred space, were sacked and destroyed by the Persians, who were trying to conquer the Greek city-states, especially Athens. Even after the Persian threat was eliminated, the Athenians left the Acropolis in ruins for decades, an emotional commitment never to forget the barbarian carnage. Eventually a new temple, the Parthenon, would rise on the site in the mid 400s B.C. Aaron Paul sees similarities in our own feelings about the destruction and rebuilding of ground zero in New York. "That was their 9/11," he says.

- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com