Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Joan R. Mertens, How to Read Greek Vases. New York/New Haven/London: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Yale University Press, 2010. Pp. 175. ISBN 9780300155235. $25.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Jenifer Neils, Case Western Reserve University (

Version at BMCR home site

Nearly forty years ago the then curator of Greek and Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Dietrich von Bothmer, published a booklet highlighting twenty-nine Greek vases in the museum's vast holdings.1 On the covers and in the centerfold was what Bothmer called ""the keystone of the Museum's collection of Greek vases;" he modestly stated: "it may without exaggeration be considered the finest Greek vase there is." While this keystone (the calyx krater signed by Euphronios with the death of Sarpedon) has since been repatriated to Italy and is now showcased in the Villa Giulia Museum in Rome, the Met's collection manages to hold up as evidenced by this new booklet which presents thirty-five of its more interesting specimens. Surprisingly only three vases are repeats: a black-figure neck-amphora with a chariot wedding scene by Exekias; the early bilingual panel amphora by the Andokides Painter; and the red-figure volute-krater with an Amazonomachy and Centauromachy by the Painter of the Woolly Satyrs.

This new introduction to the Met's Greek vases by long-time curator Joan Mertens surpasses its predecessor in many significant ways. First all the vases are illustrated in color and often with multiple details; there are five details just of the geometric ornament on the Hirschfeld Painter's funerary krater. Images of helpful comparanda are also liberally included, such as a silver ewer from Mycenae that bears the same spiral and arcade designs as the Met's Late Minoan three-handled jar, or a Cypriot terracotta model of a warship to accompany the Attic Late Geometric krater with a sea battle, or a bronze strainer, ladle and lamp stand as depicted in a symposium scene by Makron. In several instances the bronze counterpart of a ceramic shape (oinochoe, hydria) is illustrated. Second the vases have been chosen to demonstrate the broad range of Greek ceramics, chronologically from the third millennium (Cycladic kernos) to the third century B.C. (Centuripe lekanis), and geographically from East Greece to Sicily. Almost a third of the vases are non-Attic (in contrast with the earlier text which included only four non-Attic vases). And while Bothmer presented mostly common shapes, the repertoire in Mertens' text is more eclectic, including as it does such unusual shapes as a Geometric pomegranate, a footless amphora, a janiform alabastron, and the so-called 'baguette' stands based on Etruscan bucchero forms.

In terms of subject matter this new introduction is more adventurous with, for example, its detailed image of the masturbating satyrs on an aryballos by Nearchos, or the unique scene of Herakles sacrificing while Nyx, Eos and Helios hover nearby on a white-ground lekythos found in a grave in Athens. The problem of pairs of eyes painted on Greek vases is tackled head on in entries on a column krater with the mask of Dionysos and a Chalcidian kylix which has a nose and equine ears in addition to the eyes. In addition to some riveting mythological scenes, like the dignified ascent of Persephone from the Underworld (name-vase of the Persephone Painter) and a monumental Herakles slaying Geryon across two sides of a black-figure amphora, Mertens has included several depictions of daily life. These include women at the fountain house, men weighing goods, and the progress of the symposium from a hetaira preparing to join her lover to the vomiting symposiast representing the end of the evening.

In subtle but telling ways Mertens' text suggests the new directions that might be taken by the next generation of vase painting scholars. She pays serious attention to Attic fourth-century ceramics, which are too often neglected in favor of those of the sixth and fifth centuries. She notes the anthropomorphizing of vases, like the black-glaze kalpis which is adorned with a gilded floral necklace. She investigates the relationship of one side of a vase to the other, as in the fourth-century Attic krater that depicts Herakles' apotheosis on the obverse and Amymone surprised by satyrs on the reverse; both scenes involve rescue, water, and hydriai. Unlike earlier scholarship, which seemed obsessed with connoisseurship, there is less emphasis here on individual painters, workshops, and attributions.

Alas there is also almost no mention or discussion of these vases' proveniences. At least three (the ex-Schimmel cup with Poseidon's stable by the Amasis Painter, the Kleophrades Painter's Panathenaic prize amphora, and a kylix with nude hetairai signed by Hieron) are said to be from Vulci. The Nearchos aryballos and the white-ground lekythos with Herakles and Helios are from Attica, and a white-ground funerary lekythos attributed to the Achilles Painter is from Eretria. In an age of increasing transparency concerning acquisitions, it would behoove museums to include this valuable information in their publications and on their labels (just as they regularly do with most of later western art). This omission is all the more surprising as Mertens discusses the Etruscan origins of many Greek vases in her introduction, and the text includes four detailed maps (one devoted to the distribution of pendant-semicircle skyphoi).

The Introduction provides a basic overview of the historiography of Greek vase painting, the types of inscriptions on vases, and the technical and stylistic changes over time. A one-page bibliography at the end identifies some of the more recent literature on the topic. It is refreshing to encounter a catalogue of museum vases that is not entirely masterpieces, but rather an erudite selection that informs the reader about the vast range and ingenuity of Greek ceramics. How to read Greek vases will serve not only visitors to the Met but anyone keen to learn about this important aspect of Greek art and culture.


1.   Dietrich von Bothmer, Greek Vase Painting: An Introduction Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin XXXI, Fall 1972.

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