top of page

Greek Pottery

Randy H. Sooknanan

ASAG Journal

May 5, 2022

Ancient Greek pottery is significant both historically and artistically for a number of reasons. Historically, Greek pottery provides an important window into the social and cultural practices of the ancient Greeks. Pottery was used for a variety of purposes, including storage, transport, and serving food and drink. Different types of pottery were produced for different occasions, from everyday use to special events like religious ceremonies and funerals. The decoration of the pottery was also significant, as it often featured scenes from mythology, history, or daily life, providing a visual representation of the beliefs, values, and practices of the ancient Greeks. Through the study of Greek pottery, we can gain insight into the social, economic, and religious practices of the ancient Greeks, as well as their artistic and aesthetic values.

Artistically, ancient Greek pottery is significant for its technical innovation and stylistic development. Greek potters were known for their skill in producing a wide range of shapes and sizes, from small drinking cups to large storage jars. They also developed new techniques for decorating pottery, such as black-figure and red-figure painting, which allowed for more detailed and nuanced representations of figures and scenes. Greek pottery also played an important role in the development of Greek sculpture, as many of the techniques and styles used in pottery were later adapted to create three-dimensional works of art. The decoration of Greek pottery often featured mythological or historical scenes, which were depicted with a high level of skill and attention to detail, making them some of the most sophisticated and visually striking works of art produced in the ancient world. Overall, the significance of ancient Greek pottery lies in its historical and artistic value, providing insight into the cultural practices of the ancient Greeks and their technical and stylistic innovations in the field of pottery and beyond.

Let's take a quick look at some examples...

The Dionysus Cup

The Dionysus Cup (Fig 1-4) is a truly masterful blend of function and design in the black-figure technique, in which figures were painted in black on a red clay background. The vessel is a kylix—a shallow wine-cup—and would have been mainly used at symposia (drinking parties), where the guests reclined on couches. As they drank, the image at the bottom of the cup was revealed. Exekias has chosen as his subject an episode from a Homeric hymn about Dionysus, the wine-god, who was captured by pirates in his youth. To escape, he turned the mast into a vine, complete with clusters of grapes. Terrified, the pirates jumped overboard, where they were transformed into dolphins. Dionysus reclines like one at a symposium, enjoying the scene that he has created. The narrative is condensed into a single, harmonious image, with the seven dolphins balanced by the seven bunches of grapes.

Artist: Exekias 
(active Athens, Greece, c.550–520 BCE)
Exekias was the greatest of the Greek vase painters working in the black-figure technique. A potter and a painter, he was highly inventive in both fields. Sixteen signed pieces have survived and, in all, around 40 paintings are attributed to him. He combined great precision and naturalism with imaginative flair, choosing unusual subjects and often endowing them with genuine psychological depth. He also excelled at adapting his designs to the awkward surfaces of different kinds of vessels.


The Dionysus Cup

Greek/Ethiopian Aryballos

Here we see an Aryballos featuring the faces of two women, one Greek and one Ethiopian (Fig 5), with an inscription reading “ΚΑΛΟΣ” (meaning beauty). An Aryballos was a small spherical or globular flask with a narrow neck used in Ancient Greece. It was used to contain perfume or oil, and is often depicted in vase paintings being used by athletes during bathing. This pictured artifact dates back to 520-510 BC and it is now held at the Louvre Museum. In league with the subject matter of this artifact, we find that in some of the earliest forms of recorded Greek literature there are 'Tales of Ethiopia' which tell of mythical lands at the farthest edges of the earth. This literature began as far back as the 8th century B.C., and we also find that Ethiopia is mentioned in the epic poems of Homer as well. In stories such as these, Greek gods and heroes, like Menelaos, were believed to have visited this place on the fringes of the known world.


Fig 5. The red figured janiform aryballos has an Ethiopian and Greek female head and bears a kalos-inscription (Kalos (καλός) means "beautiful"). It probably belongs to the painter Skythes; ca. 520-510 BC. Currently kept in the Louvre museum, and demonstrates Ancient Greece’s Relationship with Africa. Credit: Public Domain

bottom of page