Welcome to Staatsburgh State Historic Site's blog! Learn more about the Gilded Age home of Ruth and Ogden Mills!

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Hidden Treasures of the Collections: Greek Vases


Recently the site was delighted to receive a visit from Vassar Professor of Art History, Eve D'Ambra, who was encouraging her undergraduate students to explore and research works of art in local collections.  The essay below is drawn from a research and observation paper completed by her student, Lily Palaia, Class of 2019, who chose to research the five ancient Greek vases on view in the mansion.  The site thanks Lily for her contribution to our blog!

In Staatsburgh's drawing room, five Greek vases sit on two bureaus on the south side of the room. Ogden Mills purchased these vases in 1909 from Henri De Morgan at an auction in New York City. These five vases feature diverse subject matter, yet are from the height of the classical period, from early 6th through 4th century B.C. Three of these objects would be described as “Attic” because they come from the city of Athens or the surrounding area, one from Boeticia and one from Southern Italy.  

A page from the 1909 Henri De Morgan sale catalogue.  Ogden Mills purchased the center amphora.

The oldest of the five vessels is the Attic amphora from 520-510 B.C. (ML. 1974.197). Its decorative panel on one side depicts Ajax and Achilles throwing dice, rendered in the black-figure technique.

Black-figure decoration involves applying slip (a liquified clay) to the vessel, which turned black during the kiln-firing, while the red ground is the color of the vessel's body after the firing. Details, in the black-figure method, were made by incising lines into the applied slip, or by adding white or purple mixtures of clay and and pigment.

The iconography of Staatsburgh's amphora is interesting, because scenes of Ajax and Achilles throwing dice do not frequently include the goddess Athena, who in this scene, stands between them, observing their play.  Although the two heroes are well known from myth, this scene is not documented in any literary sources. It is significant that we don’t see the heroes fighting in battle, but rather passing time in the camp, playing a game of chance which suggests the roll of fate in the epic tale of the Trojan War.  Perhaps as the goddess of war, Athena's presence further clarifies the theme of chance or fate that reigns in both war and games. Visiting scholars have attributed the vase to the Lysippides painter and below we see another amphora from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts that has the same attribution.

Amphora, circa 540-520 BC, depicting Ajax, Achilles & Athena


Amphora, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, c. 525-520 BC


The next-oldest piece in the Staatsburgh collection is a skyphos, or drinking vessel, from 480 B.C., possibly from Boeotia, near Attica (ML.1974.196.A.B). This simple and stout vessel would likely hold wine (mixed with water, as the Greeks served it). The vase is covered with a black glaze, except for a band between the two handles, which is marked with decoration on the red terracotta background of the vase. The imagery is a scene of the hunt—a hound is seen stalking a pheasant. This bold and graphic scene would be important in the lives of young Greek males, warriors in training. They bonded in the hunt, killing small animals, and then went on to defend their city-state against their neighbors in near-constant battles of this period.

Skyphos, circa 480 BC (ML.1974.196.AB)

This Attic neck amphora shown below, from 475-450 B.C., shows a youth spilling wine before a female figure with a lyre, or a small harp, in red-figure technique (ML.1974.200).  The red-figure technique was invented around 530 B.C. possibly by the Andokides painter, and provided more artistic possibilities so that it eventually replaced black-figure style.  In red-figure technique, the figures are negative space left by painting around their outlines with black slip, and the details of the figures can then be painted in with a brush, allowing for softer, more flowing lines and more subtle detail.

The activity shown on one side of this amphora may be a symposium, or a Greek banquet, noted for its drinking and philosophical debates. The vessel itself would be used at a dinner or symposium to serve wine. The male figure’s action of tipping the dish suggests a flirtatious drinking game, or perhaps a tribute to a deity. There is some repainting which makes interpretation uncertain. The other object held by the the female figure is thought to be a fan, but may be a thyrsos, a symbol of Dionysus (the Greek God of wine and excessive pleasures), frequently carried by maenads.  If so, she is a particularly sedate version, as these female followers of Dionysus were often shown enacting the actual meaning of their name: the raving ones.

Amphora, circa 475-450 BC  (ML.1974.200)

The bell-krater, shown below, from 440 B.C., also has red-figure decoration (ML.1974.199). This vessel would function in the symposium to dilute wine, and is usually decorated in the red-figure technique. It depicts a scene drawn from Greek myth with Zeus, the highest of the gods, holding a staff.  The center figure is Iris, a messenger,, and Hera, the chief goddess. This is a very common scene, commencing the start of a celebration with wine flowing.


Bell Krater, Circa 440 BC   (ML.1974.199)

The other bell-krater in the Staatsburgh group is dated around 300 B.C. is from Apulia in Southern Italy (ML.1974.198). Greek colonists maintained their culture and religion at such outposts. Unlike the other vases, it has discreet and minimal "painted" decoration of flowers along the top, below the lip, in a frieze with muted yellow and purple glazes. The predominant decorative effect is ribbing along the body. This same type of ribbing is often seen on contemporary cookware and ceramics. 

Bell Krater, circa 300 BC.  (ML.1974.198)


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