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Pottery
is an art form present in all cultures and civilizations in history. Excavated fragments
are found and dated as early as the Neolithic age in Mesopotamia. Also around
7000 BCE, The Chinese produced their own style of refined pottery.  The Egyptian created and utilized pottery in
the predynastic period around 3500 BCE. It was the Greek who elevated pottery
to an art form in which potters and painters signed their names with the works.
Their pottery has been found not only all over the Mediterranean world but as
far as France, Russia and Sudan. Polygnotos was one of the Athenian master painters
whose name and prolific works were recognized during his time – the golden age of
Greece’s classical period in the fifth century. Many of his works have outlasted
the ravages of history. Thanks to Meredith J. Long and Fayez Sarofim, the
Art Museum of Houston has one of Polygnotos’s highly prized works. It was a
Red-Figure Stamnos decorated with two scenes: Hercules with Satyr and Dionysus
with handmaid.

Pottery
had major roles in Greek culture. They came in all sizes and shapes with a distinctive
name for each.  The shape was created to
serve the object’s specific function. The Stamnos discussed in this paper is a
round-shaped vase with a low foot and a low neck. Stamnos usually had two
handles which were curved upward. They are produced from the fifth and sixth
centuries BCE. Some lasting examples have lids suggesting that the stamnos
might be used for storage, besides beings used to serve liquid.

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The Red-Figure
Stamnos with two scenes Hercules and Satyr and Dionysus with handmaid was
painted by Polygnotos between 440-420 BCE. The terracotta stamnos had
dimensions of 10 ¼ x 10 ½ x 9 ½ inches. Terracotta was a type of fired clay
used especially for vases, statuettes and architectural purposes. The word had
origin and means baked earth in Italian.

Polygnotos
belonged to one of the largest and most important group of vase painters who
thrived in the golden age of Athenian culture, brought by the brilliant
general, orator, politician and patron of art Pericles (495 – 429 BCE). Around
700 vases had been found created by the group. They specialized in large pots
and presented a “stylistic consistency that keeps it distinct from contemporary
vase painting workshops” (Matheson).

The stamnos
was dated between 440 – 420 BCE and belong to the Classical period of ancient
Greece. This was the age when the Greek reached an unprecedented height in political
and cultural achievements. The period started with the Persian wars at the
beginning of the fifth century BCE and ended with the death of Alexander the Great
in 323 BCE. Most pottery works in this period featured human and mythological
figures. They could be performing various activities from daily chores to
athletic competitions and heroic acts. These scenes were valuable artifacts
that enable historian to understand Greek’s distant culture and their belief
system.

Black-
and red-figure techniques flourished in Athens from the beginning of the sixth
century to the end of the fourth century. The objects were first shaped using
the potter wheel. They were usually made in parts and assembled together later.
After shaping, the clay was left to dry. After the sections of the vases hardened
like leather, they were joined together using clay in a more liquid form call
slip. In black-figure vases, the decorative details were applied with slips
that turn black during firing while the background color remained the natural
clay color. Mixtures of pigment and clay were also used to enhance the
decorations which were detailed by incision. Around 530 BCE, red-figure technique
was invented, probably by the potter Andokides and his workshop. The technique
turned the background color black and the decorations remained the clay color. Details
could be applied using brushes allowing more naturalistic rendition instead of
the laborious incisions.

The stamnos
discussed in this paper is made with the red-figure technique. It featured two
scenes including Hercules with Satyr and Dionysus with handmaid. Hercules was
the son of Zeus, kings of the God on Mount Olympus, with a mortal woman. He had
immense strength and was known to perform the twelve heroic labors to achieve
immortality. Satyrs were half human half beast deities. They were companions of
some Gods including Dionysos, Hermes, Pan and Gaia. They have been portrayed
with different appearances. The vase painted by Polygnotos showed a Satyr with a
horse tail and bald head. The Satyr was leaning backward. He had one hand down resting
on the hip and one raised touching the head. One of his legs was bent slightly.
The other leg had only the tip touching the ground as if he was lifting it up.
On the opposite side of the Satyr, Hercules was playing a flute. The context
showed that the Satyr was dancing to Hercules’s flute. On the other side of the
vase is Dionysos, the God of Wine and a woman. He was holding a drinking cup,
his usual attribute. The woman was holding a larger container at an angle
toward Dionysos. Her back was slightly bent as if to pour something into Dionysos’s
cup. In contrast with the Hercules scene in which the characters were either
nude or barely clad, Dionysos and the handmaid were portrayed in layers of full
body length ancient Greek clothes.

The
characters had their feet resting on a decorative line ran around the body of
the stamnos. Inside the lines are geometric decorations of woven rectangles and
clover-shaped flowers. Vine-like curvilinear trees rose from the lines and
flanked the two groups of characters inside. Above the characters were vertical
parallel lines, framed in horizontal parallel lines, going towards the top.
These lines complete the frames for the characters. The parallel lines also
appear on the stamnos’s opening. Two single lines of different thickness went
around the bottom of the stamnos with the thinner closer to the bottom. The
details on the opening and the bottom create an atheistic balance for the
stamnos.

Greece
was the first civilization in which artists had an esteemed status. They
created a sophisticated system to record the artists’ credits.  This practice has assisted historians in
recreating the ancient culture. The vase painted by Polygnotos was one of the
masterpieces whose craftsmanship is a tribute to Greek ancient glory. Standing in
front of this small stamnos, I was lost in the stamnos’s quiet glory. This vase
had a humble beginning compared to all the gold and precious stone artifacts, but
it stood together with those in their historical importance. Civilizations rose
and fell. Powerful kings and queens came and gone. This stamnos has witnessed
them all in the last thousands of years and probably in many more to come. 

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