Treasures from ‘the Attic’
Ancient Greek vessels link to the modern world
by Heather Joyner Spica
The poet Percy Shelley once asserted that “we are all Greeks,” and he had a point. “But for Greece...,” he wrote, “we might still [be] savages and idolaters.”
Although savagery of all forms certainly reared its head again following a golden Athenian age, Classical Greek ideals were forever planted in Western cultural consciousness. Their aesthetic expression remains such a constant in our lives that we often lose track of just how ancient “ancient” is.
When we enter a bank, a courthouse, a church, or a museum, columns and other architectural elements are so prevalent we generally forget their origins. And that’s only buildings. Out to lunch in more ways than one, we overlook the Greek influence on currency we hand over for a noonday meal or on words we say to one another when we sit down to eat. Seeing an exhibition of Greek vessels, then, more directly reconnects us with the past.
As is always the case at McClung Museum, the current show is dictated by space and restricted in scope. But the museum’s usual, thoughtful presentation and dramatic lighting brings approximately 30 bronze and ceramic pieces to life, however limited their number. Alongside familiar black, red, and orange amphorae (two-handled oil or wine jugs) are examples of armor, pyxides (smallish containers), and hydriai (water jugs), as well as hefty kraters (mixing vessels with mouths wider than those of amphorae ) and now-detached appliqués representing Hermes, an athlete, and two lions. Before getting caught up in terminology, however, one is simply stunned by the objects themselves, whatever their original purpose.
It’s equally stunning to realize that some objects on view were crafted hundreds of years before the Christian Era (recognized within the term “B.C.E.” as opposed to “B.C.”); the combined collections of Shelby White and Leon Levy (bronzes) and Judy and Michael Steinhardt (ceramics) date between 700 and 31 B.C.E. Many vessels and their counterparts are astonishingly well preserved, thanks to their internment in protective tombs. Nevertheless, intact ancient bronze pieces are rare, given corrosion and the fact that in hard times, melted-down bronze was valuable, albeit
Regarding their various purposes, vessels in the McClung show run the gamut from religious offerings to the gods to personal effects (like pyxides for women’s perfume and cosmetics) and property of the men’s symposium (drinking party). Whatever the medium, the artistry of displayed objects is impressive. It would be fun to take one of these babies on Antiques Roadshow and watch the expert appraisers’ jaws drop.
The primary meaning of the word “attic” refers to that which is Greek—most often Athenian—and in particular, to things pure and refined (rather than to rooms beneath our roofs). Especially refined is one oinochoe from the 4th Century B.C.E., a bronze pitcher with a sexy silhouette, an almost Art Nouveau-looking handle resembling braided vine and an unusual three-leaf-shaped opening at the top. Similar to pitchers found in elite graves in Macedonia, its marble-like surface might be due to its being wrapped as a funerary object.
A Corinthian helmet from 500 B.C.E. is the only piece of its type other than a crude greave (knee and shin armor). As armor we see in scenes on nearby amphorae , the helmet serves to pull a familiar image into spooky, three-dimensional reality. Rivets along the bottom indicate where a leather lining was presumably attached, and a projection at the crown probably held a plume. A subtle lotus pattern on the front makes us wonder who wore the helmet, what the decoration signified to them personally (perhaps even whether they died in it).
The inclusion in the show of elements from other cultures in both bronze and ceramic pieces indicates increased creation of objects for export. The Orientalizing phase of the Archaic period—the post-Homeric era in which Greek trade and colonization expanded Aegean influence—was a period that found artisans experimenting with foreign motifs as well as introducing ones from their own repertoire. “Oriental” animals, sphinxes, and griffins, examples of this branching out, populate pieces like a krater from the early 6th Century B.C.E. And even that vessel, with a flat lip connecting somewhat awkwardly to handles, possesses what the museum calls “aristocratic power.”
Images on other vessels are more integrated into the whole than those on the krater just mentioned, but that’s attributable to artistry more so than subject matter. The striking green patina on two massive bronze vessels adds to our sense of entering a time long ago and contrasts that material with ceramics. Speaking of which, an adequate explanation of various processes and techniques—including descriptions of the strength of certain alloys, the hammering of metal into contours, the soldering of feet and handles, the red color of clay fired in oxidizing kilns versus black produced without oxygen, the application of ceramic glazes, etc.—is impossible in an article of this length. But a visit to the museum might prompt further inquiry on the part of some viewers.
Incidentally, there are some exciting new venues for art in Knoxville—the Art Gallery of Knoxville at 317 N. Gay, the Fluorescent Gallery at 627 N. Central, and Three Flights Up at 120 S. Gay, for instance—and they should not be missed. As for the McClung, at the moment, we can look to the ancient past to enliven the present.
What: History Contained: Ancient Greek Bronze and Ceramic Vessels