Before the modern advents of trains and automobiles, trade between civilizations concentrated around the Mediterranean moved foremost by sea. While many bulk commodities such as timber and stone could be loaded directly aboard a ship with little preparation, other commodities such as spices, wine, and grain needed to be packed in individual containers for transport both at sea and on land and to prolong their lifespan. Pottery was first created in order to fulfill these practical needs. Over time, the art form evolved from large, unadorned commercial transport vessels to refined, specialized works in elegant shapes used to hold precious substances such as perfume or oils.
An entire retinue of terracotta vessels dedicated to the rites of the dinner table began to appear. These pieces were based on the luxurious bronze and silver vessels that could only be afforded by the wealthy elite and were decorated with fanciful natural motifs and painted scenes of everyday life and celebrated myths. These wares were of such beauty that they themselves became prized commodities and were traded throughout the Mediterranean world; perhaps even for the very substances they were created to contain. These works are individually classified by their shapes and their form was inherently linked to their function, be it preparation, dispensation, or consumption.
One of these specific types, kraters are large bowl-shaped vessels with wide mouths and two handles that stand on footed bases. Column kraters, named after their column-shaped handles, are the earliest style of kraters that were introduced into Athens from Corinth. Kraters were an integral piece of equipment used during the symposium, an ancient Greek dinner and drinking banquet immortalized by Plato. Symposia were hosted inside the private residences of the upper classes, held inside a special room complete with a floor that sloped into a central drain to facilitate cleaning the morning after. Music played by hired consorts and highbrow political and philosophical discussions were the main activities; although, as the evening transpired and the effects of the wine took over, more physical pleasure became the true focus. Wine would be diluted with water inside the krater before the mixed concoction would be dispensed to the individual revelers. Kraters were often decorated with painted scenes depicting groups of figures dining and relaxing, activities that paralleled the festivities of the symposia during which the vessels were actually used.
Before the 6th Century B.C., the island of Corinth, with their distinctive black-figure wares that first appeared in the 7th Century, dominated the lucrative pottery export trade. However, by around 525 B.C., the city of Athens, with their varied styles of vessel shapes and painted scenes, had wrested control from the Corinthians and established a firm monopoly in luxury wares. Pottery production in Athens was concentrated in the northwestern area known as the Kerameikos. Here, artists created everything from roof tiles and architectural decorations, to votive figurines and fine vessels (as well as commercial coarse-ware). The majority of the pots were thrown on a manually driven potter’s wheel and fired in a wood-burning kiln where the artist could determine the color of the vessel by controlling the oxygen flow within. While many potters threw and painted their own works, certain potters excelled in producing specific shapes, and other artists specialized in painting.
At first, the Attic painters emulated the black-figure style employed by the Corinthians. In black-figure technique, the vase surface was covered with a diluted wash of clay. A thicker solution of iron-rich clay formed the "glaze" used to paint on figures in solid silhouette. Intricate details were then incised onto the figures. Finally, painted red and white highlights were added before firing. However, by 480 B.C., the black-figure style would be effectively replaced by red-figure wares which first appeared around 530. In the red-figure technique, the process was reversed and the figures appeared in red against a black background. Liquid glaze was used to outline the figures. Contours and inner lines were then added. The painted lines could be diluted to a golden brown or left jet black. After the figures were drawn, the background was added in black and the pot fired. Although the red-figure technique lacks the sharpness of black-figure painting, the increased painterly effects, the greater sense of movement, and the heightened emotions more than make up the difference.
During the 5th Century B.C., Athens was the nexus of a veritable Golden Age of artistic creation and intellectual enlightenment. In fact, most of the statues and buildings we now associate with ancient Athens were created during this dynamic period: the temples on the Acropolis, the Theater of Dionysus, and the Athenian Agora were all erected in this era. The political developments of this period were equally remarkable: not only did Athens become the first fully developed democracy, but it was also an important imperial power guided by the skillful politician and orator Pericles. His imperial ambitions brought Athens great prestige and wealth, enhanced by the funds he embezzled from the Delian League to pay for his ambition construction projects. However, imperial ambition would ultimately doom Athens, eventually leading to the ill-fated Peloponnesian War. This long, drawn out was against Sparta ultimately ended in a costly defeat, resulting in the loss of the islands Athens had earlier wrested from the Persians and effectively bringing an end to one of the great cultural outpourings of the Classical era.
This column krater is attributed to the artist known as the Boreas Painter, column kraters being the earliest version of the krater first imported from Corinth in the 6th Century B.C.. On the front, a nude standing satyr is depicted gesticulating towards a draped woman who holds a thyrsus. On the reverse is a young man, draped, carrying a walking stick. Ancient repair on the foot of the krater which broke off in antiquity and was reattached with three iron pins, substantial traces of which are preserved. Except for the ancient repair the piece is intact and in a fine state of preservation. Similar vessels were believed to be used as cinerary urns, and surely this piece would have made a splendid memorial if that was the case. However, considering the presence of a satyr, who often symbolize the effects of inebriation, in the composition suggests that this work was intended to celebrate life, not death.