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Art and Historical Analysis of an Ancient Bell Krater Essay

In the Ancient Gallery in the Chazen Museum of Art, there is a bell krater from Attica, Greece that was made around 460-450 BCE. It is a ceramic vase that is in excellent condition with the exception of a few chips on the red-figure decoration. The Bell Krater (figure 1, figure 2) stands under two feet tall and is just over one foot in width. Overall, the scene and design style on this krater is mostly consistent throughout the entire body of the vase, but there are a few formal elements that separate the scenes on Side A (figure 1) from Side B (figure 2).

The three main elements that will be discussed include technique, space, and line, as they all have a significant impact on how the viewer sees the artwork. While the Bell Krater is cohesive as a whole, the different use of formal elements on each side would have created individual impressions for the viewer in Ancient Greece as they surveyed both viewpoints while dining in their home.

In the Bell Krater, the technique differs so greatly between Side A and Side B, that it is reasonable to suggest that each was painted by a different artist. The personal ways in which each artist handled the red-figure decoration establishes their separate techniques and thus gives each scene completely different emotions for the viewer to pick up on. On Side A, the red-figure decoration shows Theseus pursuing Helen, and uses strong yet intricate lines, giving the scene a sense of strength and intensity.

The heavy strokes add definition and purpose to the figures’ actions, but the artist still manages to use plenty of detail, especially in the figures’ garments and faces. This detail would have allowed the scene to come to life for viewers in Ancient Greece by giving off a sense of motion from the intricate pleats of the clothing, and also emotion due to the different facial expressions of the figures. Side B, which portrays a maid bringing news to the queen, also uses strong lines, but with much less detail and fluidity.

The intensity of these motions subside the resilience of the actions of the characters and create an overall more static scene due to the stiff lines and minor use of details in the scene within the garments and the figures’ faces. On account of there being less elaboration, viewers in Ancient Greece would have seen the picture as being much more static as well as containing less emotion, but it would also seem less intense and calmer than Side A. In the Bell Krater, the artists’ treatment of space helps to depict images of a three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface.

This would have helped the viewer visualize the story that was being told in the scenes more readily by using body positioning, gestures, and stance to form space between characters and furthermore helped give different impressions to the viewers due to the differences in space on each side of the vase. On Side A, the viewer would have gotten the impression of forcefulness coming from Theseus towards Helen. This is due to the positioning of their bodies and their stance as Theseus reaches out to grab Helen, as well as how close the figures are placed together.

On the contrary, with Side B the viewer would have had an impression that the characters are calmer but also less familiar with each other. This is because of the figures’ more relaxed postures, the erect stances of the maid and queen, and the fact that they stand at a further distance to each other than Theseus and Helen on Side A. The contrasting depictions of space on each side of the Bell Krater, one with a seeming forcefulness while the other maintaining a calmer demeanor, offers separate moods for the viewer to process.

This allows the vase to have a certain depth of personality that adds to the stories the scenes are portraying that could not be accomplished with a single scene. In the Bell Krater, the artists’ treatment of line helps to create different paths of movement within each scene. The artists used smaller visible lines in the drawings to make a larger invisible line of sight which would have aided viewers in perceiving the types of motions that would have occurred in the stories being portrayed.

Although the Bell Krater is bound together by the same patterns that surround the two scenes, there are some distinct differences between the two sides. For example, Side A depicts a linear point of view and horizontal focus through all three figures’ outstretched arms and Theseus’ spear which is held horizontally in the image. Alternatively, Side B has more vertical points of focus due to the figures’ upright stature, the positioning of their arms, which are bent at the elbows, and the staff and columns shown in the scene.

The difference in types of lines on each side of the Bell Krater help create separate emotions for each scene. For someone observing this vase in Ancient Greece while dining, they would feel the sense of urgency being portrayed as well as a more rushed movement on Side A due to the horizontal lines. On Side B, the diners would notice slower movement being depicted as well as a sense of peacefulness due to the more vertical lines being used which was not present on Side A. In Ancient Greece, vase painting allowed for each artist to have different techniques and styles.

In the case of the Bell Krater, it is possible that each side was painted by a different artist since the technique varies so greatly between the two. In red-figure painting, the painter outlined the figures and then colored the background black. The red clay of the vase was reserved for the figures themselves and a soft brush was used to draw the interior details. This type of painting allowed the artist to alter the thickness of lines and detailing of figures as they saw fit. As a result, there was variance in each artist’s techniques which created individual impressions of their work for the viewer to observe.

During the Classical Artistic Period of Ancient Greece, kraters were used to mix wine and water during meals. When the artists created the Bell Krater, they would have taken the space of the object into consideration while sculpting and painting it. Space is not just when painters depict an image, but also the space that the object occupies. In this case, they knew it would be used while dining at a table setting inside a home. For this reason, the Bell Krater has a scene on each side of it so that diners can view the artwork from whichever side of the table they happen to be sitting at.

The use of space both two-dimensionally and three-dimensionally for the Bell Krater would have allowed for differing impressions for the viewer while dining. In Ancient Greece, many of the scenes on vases were of mythological stories that were well known by the majority of the population. The Bell Krater is no exception to this, and depicts two stories on Side A and Side B that viewers in Ancient Greece would have been able to recognize easily with the help of line, which helps define the artwork’s shape and form.

On Side A, the scene portrays Theseus pursuing Helen, daughter of Zeus. The story goes that Theseus, who was in search for a suitable wife, was persuaded by his friend Peirithous to marry a daughter of Zeus. Theseus decided to abduct Helen, a princess of Sparta, with the help of his friend. In order to return the favor to Peirithous, Theseus left Helen with his mother, Aethra, before he went to help capture Persephone from the Underworld for Peirithous. The two were tricked and captured by Hades though, and were unable to return to the living.

The horizontal lines that are used on Side A help create the sense of urgency that is needed in order to correctly depict the scene from the story of Theseus abducting Helen. On Side B, the scene shows a maid bringing news to the queen. The origin of this scene is less obvious than Side A, but one possibility is that the maid and queen are Aethra and Helen. This is feasible because according to the story of Theseus and Helen, after Theseus was trapped in the Underworld, Helen’s brothers came to rescue her and in turn also made Aethra into her slave.

The vertical lines and focus of Side B make this story seem even more likely because they help in giving the sense that the figures are less connected and less comfortable with each other than the figures on Side A. The scenes on the Bell Krater work together to create one cohesive vase, but the contrasting use of the formal elements on each side would have created distinctly different reactions from the viewer in Ancient Greece as they observed both sides while dining in their home.

The technique, space, and line of the Bell Krater differ on each side of the vase and would have helped give the viewer a different impression of each scene due to these contrasting uses of the formal elements. Additionally, the technique behind red-figure painting, the uses for kraters, and the stories being told on the Bell Krater would all have helped give the viewer in Ancient Greece completely different feelings towards each side of the krater.

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