Diving into History:the Olpe Pitcher

Today I’d like to dive into a little history about a piece of pottery I find quite interesting. References to the beautiful style, painting, and decorations can still be found in contemporary works today. For example, artists continue to use contrasting colors to dramatize patterns. The technique of sgraffito, carving into the surface of color to reveal the clay underneath, is also still popular.

Created in ancient Greece, the Olpe represents a style of shape and decoration used by the Greeks in Corinth around the 600’s B.C.E. According to the Colors of Classical Art’s article “Corinthian Olpe” the style of decoration references the former Geometric style where horizontal bands were used to separate sharp, geometric shapes and patterns.

In “Olpe”, a wide-mouthed pitcher, dating around 650-625 BCE, lions, panthers, swans, goats, deer, bulls boars, and rosettes are depicted on horizontal bands around the teardrop shaped pitcher. The artist uses rich, contrasting colors of red, black, and cream to draw the eye to the animals as well as bold uniform, horizontal lines on this round pitcher. These images work together in order to create a movement of the eye around the work as a whole.

Colored in deep blacks and heavily saturated reds, the animals stand out, silhouetted against the pale cream background upon which they are set. Instantly the eye draws to the bodies of the creatures, moves up towards their red manes or wings, and then to their small black faces in which features are depicted through extremely thin, cream colored lines. Upon the cream background float small black silhouettes of tiny rosettes. The top third of the pitcher, from its short neck to its lip, is black with small cream rosettes evenly spaced in a horizontal line encircling the thinnest portion of the neck. The handle of the pitcher, solid black, parallels the solidity of the black at the top of the pitcher as to not distract the eye from the colors in the body . The richness and heavy saturation of the red on the animals’ most important features displays the regality and importance they have to the artist or viewers.

Lines of black outlined in red, run horizontally across the pitcher, evenly spaced, to create four planes upon which the animals stand. The lines are horizontal in order to move the eye with it, back and forth around the pitcher, following the animals around the plane they stand on. Sgraffito lines and details of the eyes, noses, and mouths create fierce expressions in the faces of the animals. The same thin lines in the bodies of the creatures depict curvatures and muscles of the legs and bodies. These tiny yet purposeful details show either the aggressiveness or tranquility of the animal, yet they only pose as simple outlines, their purpose only to give the impression of how these animals appear to act in life. These lines give life to the animals as well as distinguish one from the next. Two small curved lines in the middle of the backs on some animals emphasize the tensing of muscle as they stand erect, head up high, while other lines curving around the black form of a tail express flowing fur or hair.

Similar to a tear drop, the base of the pitcher is wide, while its top is small until the mouth opens in order to pour easily the liquid it may have held. The rounded shape carries the eye back and forth across the body of the pitcher to emphasize movement as if the animals are walking around the contour of the body. The repetition of only certain animals shows which creatures were most attractive and regal to the Corinthian people. The fact that this art was done on a pitcher shows that this was not only a useful household item, but could be a decorative piece of art as well.

The most important aspects of “Olpe” are color, line and shape. Movement becomes important as one looks into the shape of the pitcher and stance of each animal. The artist uses these lines and shapes to create this movement along with simple colors for definition to render the gestures in the animals and create identities for each one. Finally,”Ople” is an example of how tools evolved into pots that can be both practical and a beautiful work of art.

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