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Learning To Look Lesson: Ancient Greek Pottery

Earthenware, Attributed to Panathenaic Amphora

Attributed to the Berlin Painter, Panathenaic Amphora, about 480–470 BCE, terracotta, black-figure. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ray Winfield Smith, Class of 1918; C.959.53.

This resource will allow you to lead your students through careful observation and analysis of this piece. It is based on the Learning to Look method created by the Hood Museum of Art. This discussion-based approach will introduce you and your students to the five steps involved in exploring a work of art: careful observation, analysis, research, interpretation, and critique.

How to use this resource:

  • Print out this document for yourself.
  • Read through it carefully as you look at the image of the work of art.
  • When you are ready to engage your class, project the image of the work of art on a screen in your classroom.  Use the questions provided below to lead the discussion.

There is no substitute for seeing the real thing! While the museum is closed for expansion, we are still offering free tours of public art on campus, including Orozco's Epic of American Civilization.

Step 1. Close Observation

Ask students to look carefully and describe everything they see. Start with broad, open-ended questions like:

* What do you notice when you look at this pot?

* What else do you see?

Become more and more specific as you guide your students’ eyes around the work, with questions such as:

* Describe the pot’s shape.

* Where are its handles?

* Where is the pot wide? Where is it narrow?

* Is it symmetrical or asymmetrical?

* How is the pot decorated?

* What colors do you see? What patterns?

Panathenaic Amphora, Attributed to the Berlin Painter

* What do you notice about this figure?

* Its pose? Dress? The objects it is holding and the objects surrounding it?

Panathenaic Amphora, Attributed to the Berlin Painter

Now, look carefully at the back (reverse) of the pot.

* What do you notice about the figures on this side of the pot?

* Their poses? Dress? The object one of them is holding in his hand?

* How do they compare to the figure on the front? In what ways are they the same? In what ways are they different?

Step 2. Preliminary Analysis

Once you have listed everything you can see about the object, begin asking simple analytic questions that will deepen your students’ understanding of the work.

For instance:

* What might the figures on the back of the pot be doing? What is the role of the man standing beside the two grappling figures?

* How are the figures represented? Why might the grappling figures be nude? How has the artist delineated the muscles on their bodies? What do you notice about their faces?

* Who might the figure on the front (obverse) of the vase be? Is it a male or a female? How is this figure different from the figures on the other side? What does the information the artist provided suggest about the identity of this figure?

* What might this pot have been used for? What clues can you get from its shape? What clues can you get from its decoration?

 

After each response, always ask, “How do you know?” or “How can you tell?” so that students will look to the work of art for visual evidence to support their theories.

Step 3. Research

At the end of this document, you will find some background information on this object. Read it or paraphrase it for your students.

Step 4. Interpretation

Interpretation involves bringing your close observation, preliminary analyses, and any additional information you have gathered about an art object together to try to understand what a work of art means. There are often no absolute right or wrong answers when interpreting a work of art. There are simply more thoughtful and better informed ones. Challenging your students to defend their interpretations based upon their visual analysis and their research is most important.

Some basic interpretation questions for this object might be:

* This vase is over two feet tall and would be extremely heavy when filled with olive oil. What does the size, weight, and skill required to make this vase, tell us about the ways in which the ancient Greeks valued athletics?

* What else does this Greek amphora tell us about life in ancient Greece? (Consider clothing, the arts, and the relationship between ancient Greeks and their gods.)

 

Step 5. Critical Assessment and Response

Critical assessment and response involves a judgment about the success of a work of art. This step is optional but should always follow the first four steps of the Learning to Look method. Art critics often engage in this further analysis and support their opinions based on careful study of and research about the work of art.

Critical assessment involves questions of value. For instance:

* Do you think this amphora is successful and well done? Why or why not?

This fifth stage can also encompass one’s response to a work of art. One’s response can be much more personal and subjective than one’s assessment.

* Do you like this work of art? How does it relate to your life and your culture?

Background Information

Attributed to the Berlin Painter
Panathenaic amphora
Earthenware, height 24.5 inches
About 480–470 B.C.E.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ray Winfield Smith, Dartmouth Class of 1918

This black-figure amphora,1 which is over two feet tall, served as a prize at the Panathenaic games in Athens and is decorated with a representation of Athena, warrior goddess and patron of Athens. Beginning in 566 B.C.E., games were held every four years as part of the great festival, or Panathenaia,2 in her honor. Vessels such as this usually contained oil from the olive trees sacred to the goddess.

As on most of these vessels, Athena stands between two Doric columns surmounted by roosters, which may refer to her father, Zeus. As mythology recounts, she was born fully armed from the forehead of Zeus and, on becoming his favorite child, was entrusted with both his aegis (protective cloak) and thunderbolt. Her shield is adorned with the Gorgon’s head, given to her by Perseus, which has the power to turn all who look at it to stone.

Panathenaic amphoras traditionally represent Athena on one side, and on the reverse, the event for which the vase was awarded. It is uncertain if the figures on the reverse of this piece depict wrestlers or pankratists, contenders in a more brutal event that combined both boxing and wrestling. The draped figure to the left is either a trainer or a judge of the games. This amphora is the work of the Berlin Painter, one of the most accomplished vase painters of the period and so named for his magnificent red-figure amphora in the collection of the Berlin Museum.

1. Amphora: a two-handled jar with a narrow neck used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to carry wine or oil.

2. Panathenaia: an all-Athenian festival

Panathenaic Amphora, Attributed to the Berlin Painter
Panathenaic Amphora, Attributed to the Berlin Painter
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