Art Historical Background
I love teaching this piece because the narrative is so fun! To understand the Niobides Krater there is two things to focus on: form & content. Therefore I am going to break down this post and address each separately.
There are a few major elements to break down when talking about form for this piece:
- Material – clay (terracotta)
- Shape – krater
- Color – Red-figure
To understand the material of terracotta pots I have my students watch a brief 4 minute video from the Getty Museum titled “Making Greek Vases” (LINKED HERE). Because it is the only piece of pottery in Content Area 2: Ancient Mediterranean, I think it is important to point out what makes terracotta, and pottery overall, so unique. To start off with, we have a TON of examples of terracotta pots because they were super durable and, even when tossed out, can reasonably be put back together like an ancient 3D puzzle. Surviving clay pots give us an idea what Ancient Greek wall painting may have looked like because we have none of it.
I am not going to go over the making of terra cotta pots because the video does such a great job of it. It even reviews the painting of these pots in either black-figure or red-figure. I have never seen the AP Exam ask an in depth question about how a pot is decorated but it is part of the form, so students should know it summarily at least.
The last part of form I am going to discuss, the shape, directly connects to the function. This vase is a krater, also apparently spelled crater (but I’ve never seen that spelling in my life!). A krater was a vessel used to dilute wine at parties (their wine was much more concentrated than ours!). They were usually quite large, think of a communal punch bowl, an object of beauty as well as functional.
Read more: Lesson Plan: The Classical World Unit
The content is the fun part of this piece! The Niobides Krater displays two fantastic stories from Greek Mythology, one on either side. The first side I am going to discuss is above.
The two main figures holding bows and arrows are Apollo and his twin, Artemis (Diana in the Roman pantheon). He was one of the twelve Olympians and patron of archery (among many, many other things). Apollo was said to never be without his bow and arrows, articles which he used to inflict judgment and death upon disobeying humans. In this scene the siblings were punishing Niobe because she tried to dissuade the women of Thebes from worshiping Leto, the mother of Apollo and Diana, and boasted of her own superior family connections. To humble her pride, Apollo and Diana killed all 14 of her children; they are the figures you see lying around the vase.
The arrow is not merely a weapon, but the traditionally carrier of disease, especially the plague.
The otherside is, interestingly enough, a completely different story. I find this fascinating because it makes the transition, on a cylindrical object, difficult. I have not seen this piece in person, but when I do, that is the first thing I am looking for!
This side of the krater is a bit more elusive than the other, but the main theory I have heard is that the figure in the center with the bat-looking object is Herakles (Hercules in the Roman). He is recognizable by the lion’s mane, bat & laurel crown. Scholars seem to disagree whether he is actually in the scene as a man, or if he is a statue. There is nothing in the two-toned object to indicate one way or the other. As a great mythological hero, it is possible that the men around Hercules are wounded soldiers (look at the figure on the floor and the other clutching his leg) and may be worshiping in a temple dedicated to Hercules.
More straightforward is the woman to the far-left. That is Athena (Minerva in the Roman), she is the goddess of war strategy and therefore often figures prominently in battle scenes. However, her specific role in this scene is elusive.
- Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 15th edition, pg. 141
- Greek Art and Archaeology, pg. 244-245
- Smarthistory: Attic Red-Figure: Niobid Painter, “Niobid Krater” (video)
- Getty Museum: Making Greek Vases (video)
- cincinatiartmuseum: CAM Look | Red Figure Volute Krater by The Niobid Painter (video – another vase by the same artist as the Niobides Krater with great information about pottery-making)
- Christie’s: An introduction to Greek Vases (video)
- Google Arts and Culture: Niobid Painter