Looking at Greek Art: Spectators Then and Now

How would a Greek viewer have appreciated a vase 2,500 years ago?

Wandering into an art museum, one is confronted with a vast array of works to view from a wide range of cultures and time periods. In the Greek sections of museums one finds cases full of vases, sometimes numbering in the hundreds.

With so many choices, the question becomes how does one begin to approach an individual vase whose technique and subject matter is strange to one’s eyes? We react to them as art, but they are also artifacts, objects that were meant to be used in the real world and that were not made for sitting in a case in a museum. How, then, do we attempt to see such vases with Greek eyes as well as our own?

Many Greek vases, such as the storage jar or amphora in Figure 1, contain crisp representations of the human figure, making them immediately accessible to our eyes. We have also inherited much of Greek mythology, so we can guess that the figure with the trident is Poseidon, god of the sea. While identification of the style and subject matter are helpful, a crucial step in approaching the vase is to consider its context. What was the purpose of the vase; who were its maker and consumer and why was it purchased; what kind of religious and social systems were the foundations for its production; how are we to view the narrative stories shown on the vase?

Curiously, Greek artists frequently provide a clue for us in the form of spectators within their images. If we look at a detail on the shoulder of the same vase (figure 2), we see two warriors fighting, flanked by their squires on horseback. Such fighting scenes are frequent in Greek art and certainly epitomize the ethos of the citizen-warrior who was expected to defend his city. Behind the right squire is Hermes, ready to bear the soul of the vanquished warrior to the Underworld.

At the far ends of the picture, however, we see pairs of figures. On the left end is a youth wearing only a cloak over his raised left arm; behind him is a woman wearing a heavy garment called a peplos and holding out her left hand. While heroic nudity was the norm in Greek art (and in the gymnasia of everyday life), nude youths and women were not found on the battlefields. On the right side of the vase we see another woman like that on the left side. Behind her is another youth, completely wrapped in his cloak and not making a gesture.

These figures must be understood as not being in the space and time of the battle and part of the fighting, but as spectators seeing it from a distance of space and time, almost as if they were watching the performance of a play. Detached spectators such as these are a rare phenomenon outside of Greek art, but they provided a cue for the ancient Greek viewer of the vase as to the norms of behavior and sentiment towards mythological stories about their past or to news about their present.

Young Greek men were expected to begin training for military service in their adolescence, and continue to train and serve after reaching their legal adult status at 30. They would be trained by older men, who would also tell them stories of their own and their ancestors’ deeds. They would be expected to emulate such deeds; the gesture of the nearly naked youth on the left is a dramatic acclamation of the heroism of the warriors. The narrative action was meant to excite and inspire the youth, and the vigorous stride leads him toward joining the action conceptually.

Young men also would train to perform as choruses at religious festivals. At such events they were expected to behave with more decorum and restraint, like the clothed youth on the left, while singing songs about ancient heroes or paeans to the dead.

While the youths would eventually join their mentors on the front line, women were relegated to the household and to a minimal public role. Nonetheless, with men frequently away, it fell upon the wife of the warrior to maintain the household economy. The young women in this picture are at the age when they first perform in religious festivals (about 15) and at which they are married. As we can see, their gesture is also one of acclaiming the heroism of the warriors, who could also be their husbands, but their gesture is much more restrained and their pose quieter.

Spectators such as these have only recently become the focus of scholarly pursuit. Their appeal is that they not only provide clues for scholars as to how to interpret these ancient vases, but they also provide the museum visitor with a model for understanding how another viewer, 2,500 years ago, would have appreciated the scenes on this vase. When using this vase to bring in wine for a gathering, one was undoubtedly expected to behave in a restrained manner, at least for that evening. In another house at another time, the cues would be different, but the vases could help to guide their viewers then as now. 

Dr. Mark Stansbury-O’Donnell is director of graduate studies in the Art History Department. He has a Ph.D. from Yale University and has taught at St. Thomas since 1990.

Support for research on this topic and the present article are made possible in part with funding from the Minnesota Humanities Commission in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Minnesota State Legislature.