Greek Ceramics: Seeing Red
Visual arts, material cultures, art history, Greek mythology
For flat painting:
- Heavy art paper or card stock
For calyx (drinking cup):
- Large, shallow paper bowls
- Smaller paper bowls
- Pipe cleaners (optional)
For amphora (large jar):
- Strips of newspaper and glue (for papier-mâché)
- Paper bowls (one per student)
For all projects:
- Black, white, and orange/red paint
- An index card or similarly sized piece of paper
Common Core Standards
This activity directly supports the following ELA-Literacy Common Core Strands:
Create a presentation, art work, or text in response to a literary work with a commentary that identifies connections and explains divergences from the original.
Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
The 5th century BCE—the heyday of ancient Greek theater—was also an important era for ancient Athenian ceramics. Practical objects such as drinking cups (calyxes) and large jars (amphoras) were decorated with exquisite red, black, and white paintings, many of which depict scenes from Greek mythology. In this activity, students will study ancient Greek ceramics as an example of “material cultures,” considering how these ceramics were used and studying the decorations that adorn them. Finally, students will create and design their own artifact depicting scenes from the story of Medea and Jason.
NOTE TO TEACHERS: Three possible projects are suggested below, each following the same basic steps for preparation, but differing significantly in terms of process and materials needed. Read these instructions before beginning the project with your class and decide which of the projects you’ll make available to them.
STEP 1. INQUIRE
Start by inviting your students to research “red figure painting,” a style of decorating ceramics popular in Athens around the time Euripides wrote Medea. Using online resources, such as glossaries available from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, look up the following terms.
- red figure painting
- black figure painting
As they do their research, students should spend some time looking at examples of Greek ceramics and write down some observations. Below are some questions they may wish to consider, along with possible answers to which you may wish to draw their attention.
- How many different images or scenes are there on a single amphora or calyx?
- Vases typically have two scenes, one on the front, one on the back.
- Drinking cups have a central scene in the bottom of the cup, and some additional designs around the edge.
- What kinds of people are presented in these scenes? Heroes? Gods? Mortals?
- If there is more than one scene, do these different scenes relate to each other?
- For instance, you might depict Medea on one side, and Jason on the other. Or Medea on one side, and another witch from ancient Greek mythology on the other.
- How was this object used? Does the intended use relate to the images that decorate it?
- Decorations often refl ect—or take advantage of—the object’s intended use. For instance, there is a silver drinking cup in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that has a sea monster on the bottom. The cup would be served to a guest filled with wine, so the bottom was invisible. As the drinker slowly drained the cup, the monster would seem to “appear” from beneath the liquid!
STEP 2. READ
Introduce your students to the myth of Medea and Jason. Start by having them read (individually, in small groups, or as a class) the sidebar “Medea and Jason: The Backstory,” and then move on to the opera synopsis, which continues the story where the sidebar leaves off.
As students read, they should think about how the various scenes in this myth might be depicted on an amphora or calyx.
STEP 3. CREATE
Now it’s time for students to create their own red-figure painting inspired by the story of Medea and Jason. The first step is to decide what shape this ceramic artifact will have. There are three options:
- Paint it on paper.
- Use two paper bowls to make a calyx (instructions below).
- Use balloons and papier-mâché to make a full-size Greek amphora
(instructions on the following page).
Making a paper-bowl drinking vessel:
- Glue together a large, shallow paper bowl and a smaller paper bowl, with their bottoms touching. The larger bowl will be the cup, the smaller bowl will be the base.
- Paint your calyx.
- If you’d like to add handles to your calyx, attach a loop of pipe cleaner to each side.
Making a papier-mâché Greek amphora:
- Blow up a balloon.
- Hold the balloon so the knot is at the top. Place papier-mâché about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way up the balloon, starting at the non-knotted side. Make sure you have a smooth edge at the top. Wait for it to dry.
- Paint your scene on the papier-mâché; it’ll be easier if the balloon is still intact.
- Once it’s dry, pop the balloon. You’ll be left with your own version of a Greek amphora!
Hint: To make a stand for your balloon, cut the bottom out of a paper bowl. Flip the bowl upside down and balance the amphora on the new base.
STEP 4. BRING IT ALL TOGETHER
Now it’s time to decorate the ceramic. Distribute black, white, and red/orange paint to students. They should start by painting the entire “ceramic” black. Once that’s dry, they will use red/orange paint for the figures, with white paint to bring out details.
Invite students to make their art projects as detailed as they’d like. Remind them that Greek ceramics often included beautiful designs around the edges and along the sides, in addition to the central figures.
- Host an “antiquities gallery,” where students can stroll around and admire each other’s work.
- Have students write a museum label to accompany their work of art. Distribute index cards (or other small piece of paper, approximately 4 x 6-inches in size), and ask students to explain to a lay viewer what their object is and what the images depict. Assume that your viewer is unfamiliar with this project! (For an excellent series of pointers on writing museum labels, check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s guide to “Online Object Labels.”)