The Attic black-figure neck amphora, ‘Dionysus and The Maenads’, was created and signed by the Amasis Painter in 540-535 BCE. It depicts a mythological, mundane snapshot of Dionysus and two of his female followers, The Maenads, who are shown to be in the middle of offering the god a hare and a fawn. The vase now finds it home in the Bibliotheque Nationale at Paris and is deemed a paragon of Archaic vase painting with its palmette compositions, mythological depictions and use of the Black figure.
· Neck amphora: A vase shape where the neck joins with the body of the vase at a sharp angle. Its use was for storage.
· Dionysus: One of the Twelve Olympians who was the god of wine and fertility.
· The Maenads: Female worshippers of Dionysus.
· Geometric period: Time of Greek history during 900-700 BCE.
· Archaic period: Time of Greek history during 699-480 BCE.
· Black-Figure Technique: Figures were illustrated by using a black pigmented clay with intricate details incised into the clay using a sharp instrument.
· Exekias: Greek vase painter who worked between 545-530 BCE.
The Black-Figure Technique
It was in Corinth in 700 BCE that Black-Figure painting was born. The movement into naturalism and the portrayal of everyday life with the use of mythological figures also began to dominate the art scene, particularly in the Archaic era (699 – 480 BCE). Alongside the clay application and firing to the vase, the more intricate details were incised by using a sharp tool to create features such as hair, drapery designs and decoration. The fine incisions in Dionysus’ hair would have been created through the use of a needle, whereas his garments and the panther skin dresses of The Maenads, which was cleverly used by The Amasis Painter as a homage to Dionysus’ symbol, the panther, would have been delineated through the black clay pigment. The Amasis Painter also incorporated the fundaments of the Black Figure period upon his vases: the use of the black pigment contrasted to the white to show the difference between men and women (Dionysus is illustrated in Black Figure, whereas The Maenads in white); almond/oval-shaped eyes for women and profile facing figures (all three figures). The Black Figure technique would soon be replaced by the Red Figure technique in the late 6th century, but it was The Amasis Painter who was and still is revered for being a master at utilising the Black Figure technique.
The Amasis Painter attempts to show movement within his vase through the bent arm and raised feet of the Maenads to imitate the frivolous nature of Dionysus and his cult. The movement of The Maenads is contrasted by the stillness of Dionysus’ garment, which reignites Dionysus’ ascendancy as a deity through the movement convulsing onto him – not him moving towards his followers. The Maenads were believed to be possessed by Dionysus and were labelled throughout antiquity as the raving ones. They would use the wine of Dionysus to induce a frenzied state and spend their time indulging in dancing, intercourse and ecstasy. The connection between the Maenads of their arms around one another’s shoulders and their interlocking figures indicates an amicable and respectable aurora between the followers and deity: they feel as if they can behave in an eased manner in front of Dionysus. Albeit the depiction of movement is not revolutionary in style and in some cases static (Dionysus reaching out for his offering for example), it still encapsulates an essence of closeness between the god and his followers through the cordial closeness in the three figures.
There is an attempt at portraying naturalistic anatomy, but it can be seen as perplexing when trying to distinguish the figures from one another. The Maenads are registered as a conjoined figure instead of two individual women, it is puzzling to work out whose arm belongs to the correct woman at first glance, which therefore makes it seem that the two are a whole entity instead of separate. The different patterns on their dresses do help to differentiate them from one another, however, the Amasis painter lacks to create humanised space between them. Dionysus’ stature indicates his strength, however, it is the ‘lesser’ parts of his anatomy that are unnatural. For example, his fingers are exceptionally elongated which creates more of a cartoon feel than a natural one. These inconsistencies in anatomy simply can be credited towards the movement from the Geometric era of art into the Archaic, where artists, the Amasis Painter and Exekias in particular, began to experiment with naturalism over idealism in their works. Whilst it isn’t the most flawless delineation of the human body, it paved the way for the next generation of artists to work on.
Symmetry and Cohesion
Mertens observation of how “The Amasis Painter is recognizable by his preference for symmetry, precision and clarity, and expressiveness through mastery of his medium and composition” does indeed prove correct due to the examples portrayed upon the amphora. When talking about aesthetics, the vase is pleasing: the decoration is based upon symmetry and repetition and there is a ‘W’ shaped symmetrical pattern with the hare being centre to the composition. What is most cohesive about the vase is the recognition of the ornamental borders of lotuses, palmettes and tendril décor which takes its inspiration from the Geometric era. The mixture of the figures with the patterns and borders does indeed bring the vase to life: it is not a mundane vase where you lose attention quickly, it elicits a bacchanal scene which moulds itself into the tales of the myths.
Overall, the Amasis Painter’s amphora, Dionysus and The Maenads is a key example of Archaic vase artistry and does indeed allow the Amasis Painter to be credited, dutifully, for his skill and craftsmanship when creating such winsome vessels. The painter certainly snapshotted the mythological scenes upon his vase in an attempt of anthropomorphising Gods for the benefit of the mortals to make them feel closer to the Gods. The closeness and affection demonstrated between Dionysus and The Maenads helps both contemporary and modern viewers to recognise the relationship between the cult and the deity and gives a clear representation of how important it was to follow religious practices and to respect the polytheistic nature of society. Without a doubt, this amphora is truly one of the more intriguing pieces of material culture in Greek art and the work of the Amasis painter helped the next generation to elaborate and expand upon the foundations himself, and the other Archaic artists, created.
Joan R. Mertens, The Amasis Painter and His World, 168; R. M. Cook, Greek Painted Pottery, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 1997), 83.
Theoi.com, n.d. K12.28 DIONYSUS & MAENADS AMASIS PAINTER. [image] Available at: <https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K12.28.html> [Accessed 17 January 2021].
Academus Education is an online learning platform providing free Classics Education to students through summer schools, articles and digital think tanks. If you wish to support us, please buy us a coffee on our ko-fi page.