Panathenaic Prize Amphora (A Very Cool Greek Vase Given To Olympic Winners)
I am obsessed with Greek art, and I have been lucky enough to take a few classes on the subject at school. I think it is incredible the amount of meaning imbued in each piece of Greek pottery, and the Panathenaic prize amphora is one of my favorites.
The Panathenaic Prize Amphora was made in 490 BCE by the Kleophrades Painter. It was filled with expensive, sacred olive oil and presented to the winner of the Panathenaic games. The games, featuring athletic and musical competitions, were held in Athens every four years in honor of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, and the olive oil contained in the amphora was from Athena’s sacred groves. Images on the amphora connote strength, pride and victory, characteristics attributed to a champion. Made of terracotta, the black amphora has two short, rounded handles attached to a narrow neck; the neck smoothly gives way to a large, bulging belly. The shape of the vessel fits into the amphora type shown in class. The amphora is decorated with black figures, with red and white paint applied to create the decorations and add details to the narrative scenes. A decorative rosette pattern encircles the neck of the amphora. The flower emblems are placed in elongated ovals and surrounded by intricate detailing. There are two discrete, yet interconnected scenes on the amphora: onefeatures the goddess Athena, and the other a chariot race.
In the scene dominated by Athena, she is standing tall and proud, a powerful force. She is in profile, so only half her face is visible. She has the shell-shaped ears and almond eyes that are typical of Greek art in the fifth century BCE. Like most women in Greek art, her skin is painted white. She is clothed in a long, patterned black peplos, cinched at the waist with a belt. The hemline of the dress is bunched together; Athena is striding forward and the motion is communicated through the rustling of her dress. Though fully clothed, Athena is barefoot. This detail represents her power and immortality because she does not need shoes to protect her feet on the field. Her hair is neatly plaited into two braids, and she is wearing an enormous headpiece attached to a headband. Curls of hair peek out from under the headband and lay naturally on her forehead. The headpiece, featuring a large plume, is similar to the helmets soldiers are wearing in other pieces of Greek art shown in class. This detail is consistent with Athena’s role as goddess of military victory. Further, Athena’s headpiece brushes the decorations on the neck of the amphora; she is rendered in large scale, completely filling the available plane of space, indicating her power and prominent role in Athenian life as patron goddess of Athens. One of her arms is pulled back,poised to hurl her weapon, a spear. In her other hand, she clutches a black circular shield illustrated with a white winged horse, Pegasus. The shield is similar to those used in the Greek hoplite battle formation, which is known as the phalanx. Two Doric columns frame the scene, each crowned with a crowing rooster. The crowing roosters symbolize the triumphant call of glory, the charioteer winning the race, and also serve to link the two scenes. There is a Greek inscription next to one of the columns: “From the Games at Athens.” The inscription directly connects the amphora to the Panathenaic games, and gives the location of the games. Athens is Athena’s city, so this inscription further identifies her as the goddess illustrated on the amphora.
The other side of the amphora shows a chariot scene. Similar to Athena’s scene, the entirety of this scene is in profile. The charioteer is a male, and has dark skin, characteristic of men depicted in Greek art. He is clothed in a full-length, white linen tunic. The charioteer has a white beard, representing his age and maturity. His arms have lines etched on them to indicate muscle tone. He is hunched over the chariot, grasping the reigns in one hand. The fact that he is leaning forward denotes that the race is about to start, and he is focused on getting to the finish line. The charioteer is smaller in stature than the goddess Athena. The disparity in the height of the figures parallels the disparity between god and man, immortal and mortal. Though only two horse heads are visible, there are eight rear legs total, meaning there are four horses pulling the chariot.The horses’ tails, represented by straight diagonal lines, with few denotations of individual hairs, are not lifelike but they do connote action. The horses are rearing; the race is about to begin.
The consistent design elements of the amphora unify the decorative aspects and the two scenes into a cohesive whole. Both sides of the amphora are etched in the same style, using black figures. The images are snapshots from a scene, and there is an implied history and future for the characters shown: Athena will continue to do battle; the charioteer will win the race. Like a photograph, although only one moment in the narrative is displayed, more information is implied. The two scenes are related to each other. Chariot races are an iconic competition in ancient Greece, and the victors are praised and rewarded. The amphora was given as the prize to the victor of the chariot race. Athena, in the pose of smiting an opponent, symbolizes victory. The choice of Athena as the goddess on the amphora is purposeful: the games were in her honor. Moreover, the Pegasus motif on the shield connects Athena’s scene to the charioteer scene. Pegasus is a fast, flying horse; the charioteer’s horses must essentially fly to outpace the other chariots in the race.
Pottery is a social object, and the Panathenaic Prize amphora is a social artifact with historical societal significance. Every day, individuals use household objects, and are visually exposed to the images on them. If these images and scenes evoke emotion and communicate cultural values and stories, they can create enduring impact. The Panathenaic Prize amphora was meant to be viewedfrom all sides, so the observer can behold both scenes. Thus, it is not meant to be a showpiece: it is meant to fulfill its functional role in a Greek household to hold and pour liquids such as oil. The scenes are reminiscent of other scenes in Greek antiquity shown in class, such as those on the Eleusis amphora, except men are usually portrayed in the nude. This deviation, having the charioteer clothed in the garb traditionally worn in a chariot race, provides a more realistic, factual representation of the chariot races. Additionally, men with horses or performing athletic feats are common in Greek art, and here, the charioteer plays a central role. Greek art also heavily emphasizes mythological scenes and characters, and the amphora features Athena and includes Pegasus. Accordingly, both scenes utilize categories of images typical of Greek art. Furthermore, art is used to commemorate individuals, honor gods and glorify victories. This amphora integrates all three -- commemorating the winner of the Panathenaic games, honoring Athena and glorifying winning -- and preserves an authentic facet of Greek culture for modern viewers.