Calyx Krater

Calyx Krater
Pottery and slip paint 
14 ⅛ x 12 ½ inches
Attica, Greece 
4th Century BCE 
Unknown artist 
Red-figure terracotta mixing bowl
Calyx Krater
Pottery and slip paint
14 ⅛ x 12 ½ inches
Attica, Greece
4th Century BCE
Unknown artist
Red-figure, terracotta mixing bowl

The body of the Krater, starting at the base of the low handles, is all taken with a narrative of Dionysos in a procession with his followers. The low handles is a characteristic of this type of vessel and accounts for its name, ‘Kalyx’, which refers to the calyx of a flower. Dionysos, the most significant figure depicted, was the Greek god of the grape harvest, wine, and fertility. He was frequently used to represent liberation, and the free, rapturous feeling wine produces in those who drink it. He often has exotic animals with him, in this case, a panther, to further emphasize his wild, carefree nature. The Greeks painted Dionysos as one of their own, like he was a wise philosopher; they revealed in the human form, and gave the bodies of the gods just as much attention.

Greek god, Dionysos painted by Psiax. He was usually shown as young man with long hair. Unlike the other male gods of Mount Olympus, Dionysus wasn’t athletic looking. He often wore a crown made of ivy, animal skins or a purple robe, and carried a staff called the thyrsus which had a pine-cone on the end. He had a magical wine cup that was always filled with wine.

As befits red-figure convention, men are depicted as red figures and women as white figures. The choice to paint the panther white brings compositional balance. On one side, Dionysos is present along with satyrs, maenads, and Eros. On the other side three draped youths are present and all are participating in the thiasos, a term denoting a Dionysian procession involving collective drinking of wine, dancing, and taking on the persona of Dionysos himself. Dionysos wears a long chiton, sweeping to his ankles, and a himation draped diagonally across his body. The garments, though appearing heavy and dense, have a distinct sense of lightness and movement.

Three draped youths portrayed with red figure technique

In myth, the processors of Dionysus are satyrs and nymphs, as well as his female followers known as maenads. The maenads are the ones who raised the young Dionysos, and are nymph-like beings who are angry and protective. In addition to vines and ivy, Dionysos and his followers are seen with a staff called a thyrsus. This staff was not only seen in vase paintings, but also physically used in Dionysian festivals. It is also suspected that the staffs were thrown and tossed in the air as a part of the ritual itself.

Semele seeing Zeus in his godly form leading to her death

Dionysus is unique among the Olympic gods in that one of his parents, his mother Semele, was a mortal. When Semele became pregnant by Zeus, Hera became very jealous. Out of jealousy, she tricked Semele into looking at Zeus in his godly form. Semele was immediately destroyed, but Zeus was able to save the child (Dionysus) by sewing Dionysus into his thigh until his birth. On the right, Semele is shown viewing Zeus in his true form leading to her ultimate and untimely death.

Maenads are pictured with the thyrsus clutched in their hands mid-dance, and are shown in processions. The shaft of the thyrsus was made of ferula, a Mediterranean plant with a hollow stem, and was wrapped with vines of ivy, and on the apex of the thyrsus stood a pinecone. This is thought to be a representation of a phallus: the pinecone acting as the seed, and the long staff producing it. From the thyrsus’ role in the dancing, it can be hypothesized that the act of tossing and throwing was symbolic of fertilizing the land with a healthy crop, spreading the seed.

Maenad depicted with thyrsus

The thyrsus is also welded by Dionysos and maenads alike as a weapon. The thyrsus guarded these maddened worshippers and the vine as a symbol of Dionysos alone, unable to be controlled by any other. Within the narrative, it appears the artist chose to emphasize the role of Dionysos as opposed to that of the of the satyrs, maenads, and even Eros. This is evident through the composition and positioning of the god as the central figure. Additionally, all the figures appear to be looking in the direction of the god while he himself is looking directly forward.

Portrayal of a typical symposia with wine, music, and conversation
Painting of a symposia depicting male participants reclining on klinai

The Calyx Krater was specifically used in what became popular as the symposion. This was an event in the private home which only men attended. During this event, the men drank wine which was mixed with water in the krater and served a cultural significance, as a person who drank unmixed wine was considered a barbarian. Conversation, music, and entertainment were also aspects of the symposion. The male participants also reclined on couches called klinai and many kraters depict this specific scene of the event.

Interactive Strategy

The interactive strategy includes smaller versions of the object available for the viewers to pour a portion of “wine” into it. This direct interaction with this specific version of the Krater provides a sense of what the symposia would have been like. This simulation will not only assist the viewer in connecting with the object and understanding what the experience would have been like, but also provides insight into daily life in ancient Greece.

The Calyx Krater was specifically used in what became popular as the symposion. This was an event in the private home in which only men attended. During this time the men drank wine which was mixed in the krater with water and served a cultural significance as a person who drank unmixed wine was considered a barbarian. Conversation, music, and entertainment were also aspects of the symposion. The male participants also reclined on couches called klinai and many kraters depict this specific scene of the event.

Kraters depicting symposion scenes often include not only the men reclining on the couches, but also the women who would provide entertainment and the young boys who would serve the men. This Calyx Krater however, does not depict the symposion as it would have occurred in the andron, the room in the house specifically designated for this event. The scene on this krater depicts the procession of Dionysus, who was the god of wine and life force, instead of the men reclining on the couches. Dionysus is the figure who watches over and leads the symposion and he is often included in the scenes.

This krater depicts a more metaphorical versus literal connection to the symposion as the krater exhibits the spirit of the symposion instead of what would be considered a genre scene, a realistic representation of what would occur. The decoration on this vase is significant because it shows what the people at the time valued as an important representation of their cultural values. This krater held the place of honor in the andron exhibiting the value and importance the krater held to the people and the event. Each man also had his own kylix to drink the wine from. This vessel clearly held a sacred place when this event took place.

The mixing of wine and water in this krater as well as the decoration of the human figures processing for Dionysus show the cultural and utilitarian significance the krater held in the symposion and society.

The viewer, equipped with the background information, will physically perform the act connected with the beliefs, ritual, and daily life of the ancient Greeks. They will learn how to perform the act, will gain a deeper understanding, and hopefully be able to connect it to their own lives. This activity is important to really assist the viewer in not only understanding, but connecting the information to the object. It is also important because the activity could provide an opportunity for conversation of this object and help interact viewers with each other.

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