Greek Pottery
History, Characteristics: Geometric, Orientalist, Black Figure, Red Figure Ceramic Art.

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Greek Geometric Style Pottery.
See also Sculpture of Ancient Greece

Greek Pottery (c.7,000 BCE onwards)

Stone Age Greek Pottery
Early Bronze Age
Middle Bronze Age
Late Bronze Age
Greek Pottery During the Dark Ages
Geometric Style
Oriental Style
Early Black-Figure
Black-Figure Style
Red-Figure Style
Greek Pottery During the Classical Period
Greek Pottery During the Hellenistic Period
Greek Pottery Production
Types of Greek Pottery Containers

Greek Black-Figure Style Pottery.

Greek Red-Figure Style Pottery.


In the absence of any significant body of orginal sculpture or painting from ancient Greece, ceramic earthenware is the primary surviving source of information about the evolution of Greek art. Potters produced a wide range of ancient pottery in all shapes and sizes, and decorated it with abstract, historical and mythological designs, in a variety of styles which developed throughout the period 3,000 - 300 BCE. (See: Ceramic Art History & Types.)

The most important styles included: geometric, black-figure, red-figure and white ground. But despite the aesthetic achievements of many outstanding Greek ceramicists, the plastic art of pottery in Classical Antiquity was never as widely respected as fine art. Monumental painting was most esteemed, followed by architecture, Greek sculpture and craftwork involving gold, ivory and precious stones.

For details of the history, styles
and famous sculptors involved
in Greek statues, reliefs etc, see:
Archaic Style
Daedalic Style
Early Classical Period
High Classical Period
Late Classical Period
Hellenistic Period
Hellenistic Statues/Reliefs

For information about its
history, styles and famous
artists, see:
Painting: Archaic
Painting: Classical
Painting: Hellenistic
Mural/Panel Painting Legacy

For important dates in the
development of fine art and
other artforms, see:
History of Art Timeline.
For details of art movements
styles and genres, see:
History of Art.

For a short introduction to the
art and practice of metal working
in Ancient Greece, see:
Greek Metalwork

Stone Age Greek Pottery (c.7,000 - 3,000 BCE)

Ceramic craftwork first appeared in the Aegean during the era of Neolithic art (c.7,000 - 3,500 BCE). It appeared in Sumer at the same time, but Sumerian society advanced more quickly than that of Aegean countries: as a result, Mesopotamian art became the leading producer of fine pottery.

NOTE: For the world's oldest known ceramic pots, it is necessary to turn to East Asia. See: Xianrendong Cave Pottery (c.18,000 BCE). See also, Vela Spila pottery (c.15,500 BCE) from Croatia.

These early forms were all handmade and undecorated although Greek potters gradually introduced various decorative effects using black and red pigments to create what is sometimes called Rainbow ware. There was no general style or convergence between local schools. The principal centres of pottery production were Thessaly and Crete. The former preferred a simple red monochrome with occasional rectilinear patterns based on vertical or diagonal lines, while Cretan (early Minoan) potters specialized in highly polished ware: any decoration was typically incised. For more about early abstract motifs used in European art, see: Prehistoric Abstract Signs 40,000-10,000 BCE.

1250 Trojan War.
1200-1100 Doric Invasions.
1100-700 Dark Age of Greece.
950 Invention of Greek alphabet.
776 First Olympic Games.
750 Greek colonies founded in Italy.
750-700 Homeric poems written.
730-710 First Messenian War.
640-630 Second Messenian War.
569 Pythagoras born in Samos.
510 Democracy begins in Athens.
497-479 Persian Wars.
490 Persians beaten at Marathon.
480 Battle of Thermopylae.
468-456 Temple of Zeus built, Olympia.
461-445 First Peloponnesian War.
550-404 Construction of the Acropolis.
449-432 Parthenon built.
420-410 Temple of Athena Nike built.
399 Trial and execution of Socrates.
380 Plato establishes Athens Academy.
336 Alexander the Great takes over.
335 Aristotle founds Lyceum in Athens.
333 Alexander beats Persians at Issus.
332 City of Alexandria founded in Egypt.
323 Death of Alexander the Great.
168 Romans crush Greeks at Pydna.
146 Greece ruled by Rome.
86 Romans sack Athens.
30 End of era of "Ancient Greece".


Early Bronze Age Greek Pottery (c.3,000 - 2,000 BCE)

From around 3,000 BCE, Aegean art in the Peloponnese and eastern Mediterranean took over from Thessaly as the leading centre of pottery, as shapes and styles began to be strongly influenced by the parallel art of metalworking.

Meanwhile, in the Cyclades (southern Greek islands) new forms of pottery included Sesklo ware, which incorporated geometric decoration with incised spirals and maritime motifs. Cretan pottery also had geometric designs: first, in dark paint over a light clay background; then in white over dark paint. Early Minoan shapes included high-spouted jugs and long-spouted drinking vessels, not unlike tea-pots.

Middle Bronze Age Greek Pottery (c.2,000 - 1600 BCE)

Following the conquest of the Greek mainland by Indo-European Greeks around 2100 BC, a new form of pottery was introduced there, called Minyan Ware. Typically a uniform grey colour, Minyan ware was the first type of Greek pottery made on a potter's wheel, and was therefore quicker and cheaper to produce. In the islands, the handmade pottery tradition continued with rectilinear designs in lilac or black on a white surface. But the finest ceramics were produced in Crete during the flowering of the Minoan Protopalatial period (2000-1800 BCE), when the great palaces of Knossos and Phaistos were built. An example is Kamares ware, a style from Phaistos, which was made on a wheel and decorated with red and white floral and geometric designs on a black background. Minoan pottery had much more sophisticated ornamentation, greater artistry in its designs and use of colour, and was exported widely around the eastern Mediterranean.

Late Bronze Age Greek Pottery (c.1600-1100 BCE)

Minoan ceramic art continued to dominate during Crete's Neopalatial period (c.1650-1425 BCE) which marked the zenith of Minoan civilization.

It was during this time that the 'light-on-dark' style was replaced by the 'dark-on-light' style. It had a huge impact on the work of other Greek potters both on the mainland and the islands, until 1425 BCE when Crete was conquered by the Myceneans. Although the Myceneans tried to copy the free-flowing imagery of the Minoans, their efforts were more stilted and less life-like than the originals, although they were mass-produced in large quantities and exported to many neighbouring countries.

Greek Pottery During the Dark Ages (c.1100-900 BCE)

During the 12th century BCE, Greece and the islands were overrun by a number of primitive tribes from Northern Greece (the Dorians) whose uncultured rule over the next two centuries led to a general collapse of the arts and crafts industry. During this time, the more secure setting of Athens caused it to become the new Greek centre for ceramic ideas and development, which consisted mostly of recycled Mycenean pottery, known as Submycenean ware, followed by a more orderly style known as protogeometric, characterized by designs using precise concentric circles. Protogeometrical vases are one of the earliest types of Greek visual art to survive, since the sculpture, architecture and mural paintings of this period have disappeared. Although initiated in Athens, protogeometric styles had a significant influence on potters throughout the area.

Geometric Style Greek Pottery (c.900-725 BCE)

Geometrical ceramic art flourished in the 9th and 8th centuries BCE. Going far beyond the circular designs of the earlier protogeometric period, geometric pottery includes some of the finest surviving works of Greek visual art. Vases were often made according to a strict system of proportions. In some examples (eg. the amphora [c.750 BCE] in the the Athens National Museum), the height is exactly twice the width, and the neck is exactly half the height. In addition, the choice of which decorative patterns go where was also carefully conceived, as partical designs help emphasise specific portions of the vessel and articulate its shape. Geometric ceramic art has been likened to the formulaic epic poetry of Homer (Iliad), which was composed during the same era.

To begin with, during the Early Geometric era (c.900-850 BCE), designs continued to be purely abstract and formed part of what was known as the "Black Dipylon" style: a method of production characterized by the use of black varnish. However, during the Middle Geometric period (c.850-770 BCE), figures emerged, as vases and other pots began to be decorated with bands of animals (eg. goats, geese, horses). These figural motifs were applied to reflect the status and wealth of pot-owners. At the same time, the patterns became more complex and extended to all areas of the vessel. Then human figures were included in the ornamentation, with images of chariot processions, battles, funerals and other scenes.


During the Late Geometric period (770-725 BCE), some historical references appear, with representations of events from Greek mythology. This use of figurative design spread to all areas of ancient Greece except Crete, where abstract motifs continued to prevail. And although other centres of pottery production sprang up, (notably in Corinth), the Athenian-led Attic school remained dominant.

Oriental Style of Greek Pottery (c.725-600 BCE)

The renewal of contacts and trade links between Greece and the Middle East (especially the city-states of Asian Minor, modern day Turkey) had a great influence on ceramic design, and it was now Corinth who led the way. The new idiom, which initially appeared on miniature vessels for which Corinth was famous, was known as Proto-Corinthian. It featured a wider repertory of motifs, including curvilinear designs, as well as a range of fantastic composite creatures - sphinxes, griffins, sirens, and chimeras - typically arranged in friezes across the width of the pottery vessel or vase, with lotus flowers and palmettes acting as subsidiary ornament. Human figures were less common, and typically portrayed in silhouette. Corinthian pottery had a marked influence on Athens, although the latter's version of the oriental idiom (known as proto-Attic) retained the typical scenes of the Geometrical Period and favoured line-drawings rather than silhouettes.


Early Black-Figure Style Greek Pottery

It was on proto-Corinthian vases that the technique known as black-figure was first applied: figures were first drawn in black silhouette and then marked with incised detail. Further touches were added in purple or white.

The black-figure style was achieved by applying a clay slip (a mixture of water and clay) to an area on the outside of the pot. The vessel is then fired in a kiln with oxygen which turns the pot and the slip red. However, by shutting off the air supply the fire is forced to suck oxygen out of the clay, turning it black. By careful timing, potters can ensure that only the slip turns black (because it's thinner), leaving the rest of the pot red. To depict the details of (eg.) the figures, incised lines were made or coloured in with white or purple. Favourite themes for black-figure pictorial imagery included: the Labours of Hercules, and the revels of Dionysus.

Black-Figure Style Greek Pottery (c.600-480 BCE)

Although this method of ceramic design was invented in Corinth, it achieved maturity in the hands of Athenian potters during the first 70 years of the Archaic period (c.600-480 BCE). This was partly because Athens ousted its Corinthian rival from overseas markets, and also because the traditionally larger Attic vessels were a superior medium for the new style. In addition, improved manufacturing techniques - such as the perfection of a more lustrous black pigment and a new orange-red pigment - gave Athens a clear edge. From 550 BCE onwards, Corinthian pottery underwent a significant decline, just as black-figure reached its apogee (550-520 BCE). This was the generation of Exekias, the greatest master of the technique. Other famous black-figure potters included Kleitias (painter of the famous Francois Vase), Ergotimos, Nearchos, Lydos, the Amasis Painter, Andokides, Euthymides, and Sophilos.

Red-Figure Style Greek Pottery (c.530-480 BCE)

By 530 BCE, Athenian ceramicists began experimenting with a new red-figure style. In contrast to black-figure, where only the clay slip (which contains the images) is allowed to turn black while the background remains red, the new style involved painting the background with the slip (which duly turned black) and leaving the picture-design red. This method - in effect, the reverse of the black-style - permitted much greater freedom of expression in the realization of pictures. With a lighter surface to work on, Greek potters could now show greater anatomical detail in their figures and faces, often using three-quarter profiles, and begin using linear perspective. Early red style potters (c.530-500 BCE) used both red and black-figure methods, but from 500 BCE onwards red style dominated. As it did so, pictures became increasingly more naturalistic and ceramic artists began to specialize in certain types of pot, due to the demands of the new idiom. Foreshortening was mastered and, as well as the old heroic and Dionysiac themes, scenes from daily life became increasingly popular. Famous red style potters included: Douris, Brygos and Onesimos. To see how Greek Red figure Pottery fits into the evolution of ceramics, see: Pottery Timeline (26,000 BCE - 1900).

Greek Pottery During the Classical Period (c.480-330 BCE)

This period witnessed a progressive decline in vase-painting for reasons which remain unclear, although the increasing triviality and sentimentality of the designs indicates that the medium was becoming worn out with fewer opportunities for innovation. An important exception to this decline was the White Ground Technique, which had been developed around 500 BCE. In contrast to both the black-figure and red-figure techniques, which used clay slips to create pictures, the White Ground method utilized paints and gilding on a white clay background. Although this permitted a wider range of colours to be used, the overall effect was less striking. This new type of ceramic was exemplified by the funerary lekythoi of the late 5th century whose statuesque figures echoed the serenity of the Parthenon sculpture. However, in general, with the end of red-figure, Greek ceramic art fell away in both quality and artistic merit, although vase production continued into the 3rd century in the Crimea and in the Greek colonies of southern Italy, where a group of regional red-figure styles emerged: Kerch, Apulian, Campanian, Lucanian, Paestan and Sicilian.


Greek Pottery During the Hellenistic Period (c.330-30 BCE)

Amid the continuing decline of Greek ceramics during this period, only three styles stand out. First, a series of hemispherical bowls, known as Megarian, were produced using molds and bears relief ornamentation, in imitation of metal bowls. Second, a class of terracotta sculpture (figurines), as exemplified by the draped female figures from Tanagra in Boeotia. Third, West-Slope pottery - named after the excavations on the west slope of the Acropolis - characterized by a tan coloured slip and white paint on a black glaze background. Detail was applied in the form of incised lines, and featured simple non-figurative motifs such as festoons of ivy, laurel and vine, as well as marine imagery such as dolphins.

Note: a modern museum devoted to Greek pottery, is the Getty Museum Los Angeles, founded by J Paul Getty (1892-1976).

Greek Pottery Production

Ancient Greece possessed ample clay deposits, in particular large quantities of high quality secondary clay. The clay deposits in Athens were distinguished by their content of iron oxide and calcium oxide, which produced the reddish-orange colour of the fired clay, while Corinthian clay typically had a creamy-white appearance. Smaller amounts of specialist clays like kaolin (kaolinite) were also available, being reserved for decorative purposes. For example, the Greeks' characteristic black metallic glaze was produced using a clay low in calcium oxide but high in iron oxides and hydroxides. After the Minoan era, Greek vases were generally made using a potter's wheel, although handmade decorative elements (like handles) were added to thrown pots. Greek potters applied a variety of different inscriptions to their pots, usually classified into two types: incised (graffito) inscriptions, and the later painted (dipinto) inscriptions. Both were used on painted vases until about 330 BCE when the practice declined.

Types of Greek Pottery Containers

These included vases, jugs, and bowls in all sizes including miniature perfume containers, as well as a range of other vessels with formal functions, such as the small lekythoi used as grave markers.

A small storage container for perfume, it had a wide mouth and a short narrow neck.

A tall jug with two handles and a narrow neck. Amphorae were used to store wine or oil.

A small container used to store oil, it had a spherical body a short neck and a wide mouth.

A water jar with two horizontal carrying handles. Most hydriai also had a third attached at the back for pouring.

Krater (crater)
Commonly used for diluting wine with water, a krater was a large vessel with a broad body and base and usually a wide mouth. Handles were attached either near the base or on its shoulders. Differing types included: the column krater, the bell krater, the volute crater, and the calyx krater.

Commonly used to store unguents or oils. Lekythoi were often used as funerary vessels.

A tall jar for weddings and funerals, with a long slender neck and flaring mouth. Loutrophoroi in the black-figure style were usually funerary vessels.

A wine pitcher.

A jug used to carry water or wine.

Similar to the amphora, Pelikai were containers for liquids like wine and oil and were made during the Red-figure period.

Used as a wine cooler with a broad body, a cylindrical stem, and a short neck. Later psykters had handles attached to their shoulders.

A container with a lid commonly used to hold jewellery or cosmetics.

A red-figure storage jar with a short neck, a flat rim, and a straight body tapering to a base. Most stamnoi had handles fitted to their widest part.

Note: For information about ceramic art in China, including Celadon ware, Blanc de Chine porcelain, and other types and styles from the Han, Song, Ming and other dynasties, see: Chinese Pottery.

• For more information about pottery and ceramic art, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.
• For monumental art, see: Greek Architecture (900-27 BCE).

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