In Focus

Black-figure tripod kothon

The following essay is from the 1996 publication Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art_._

Six nude male figures are disposed in pairs on the three leg panels of this vase. Each set of characters is intently involved in different activities relating to the favorite pastime of Greek revelers, the consumption of wine. In the scene on the tripod leg, the eager drinker on the right raises a wine pitcher directly to his lips. Sparing no time for the formalities of proper table manners, he steadies the hefty container with both hands while draining its contents. The disapproving expression on his partner's face and the anticipative air in his pose indicate his dismay, since the high-handled wine cup he extends toward the pitcher may well be empty.

Drinking, dancing, singing, and lively conversation were all part of revelry in ancient times as they are today, and no other participants were more attracted to these activities than the "komasts." These comic dancers with few cares and large appetites were bent on making mischief at every opportunity, and their boisterous gusto is unequaled in scenes depicted on Greek vases. In the next scene on the vase, another pair of "komasts" frolic in a heated dance. Each dancer has an incised line across his left bicep, creating the impression of a short-sleeved garment. This indicates that members of this tribe of revelers were once clad in padded costumes, as witnessed on earlier scenes of Athenian and Corinthian "komos" vases from which these Boeotian "komasts" derive. In this scene, the heavier "komast" gingerly raises an inviting hand to the chin of his companion in hopes of obtaining an even more intimate response. Homosexual activity is frequently depicted in scenes on Greek vases and especially among the ranks of "komasts."

The third leg panel displays not "komasts" but athletes. Here a vigorous boxing match is in progress between a paunchy, bearded figure on the left and a somewhat slimmer youth, or beardless athlete, on the right. Immediately behind the boxers stands a tripod, the contested prize and no doubt an inspiration to the contenders' enthusiasm. The tripod recalls the vessel on which this scene is actually painted; however, the type depicted has tall, slender legs and large ring handles and was meant to be constructed of bronze. According to Greek tradition, the god Apollo invented the sport of boxing. Whatever its mythical origins, boxing was an old, established sport in Greece, and visual evidence for it goes back to prehistoric Aegean art.

Animated subjects, such as revelry and athletics as seen here, were favored during the Greek Archaic period by artists drawn to action scenes in an era that in general lacked artistic allowance for displays of feelings and mood through facial expression. The artists, absorbed in the interplay of pose and form of the body, were readily inspired by the animated poses of the human figure exhibited in the daily life of Greek culture. Scenes of athletic activity in the gymnasium, as well as festival performances and street scenes of revelry, provided the vibrant content from which the artists drew inspiration.

The tubular body of the vase is decorated with three pairs of heraldically placed panthers, deer, and Sirens, real and fantastic creatures from a long-established iconographical tradition in Greek art. In contrast to the animated humans, the six creatures appear lifeless, serving merely as decorative objects, and provide us with a clear indication as to where the painter's interests lay.

The shape of the tripod "kothon" is designed for maximum stability. Its relatively small size indicates that it contained scented oils, a substance too precious to be wasted by tipping over a vase. A lid, now lost, would have curtailed evaporation. The central spike under the bowl and the struts attached to the back of the legs are ceramic, but they reflect the construction of metal prototypes.

Excerpt from

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 58-59.