Information on Greek Vases

Updated July 19, 2017

Greek vases are one of the most important artistic and historical artefacts of the ancient world. These vases were valued throughout the ancient Mediterranean as objects of art in their own right. They illustrate Greek rituals, like weddings and funerals, and scenes from myths and contemporary Greek literature and theatre. Because these vases can be dated accurately, they are often used to date objects depicted on them.


Though painted pottery in Greece has a long history, Bronze Age pottery and later Hellenistic pottery are treated as separate from classical pottery. These vases are connected by common styles and developments, as well as social, political and economic changes. The Peloponnesian War (413 to 404 B.C.E.) prevented the export of Attic pottery, and by the end of the 4th century B.C.E., red-figure pottery was no longer produced.


Most vases were wheel-made, though there are some examples of mould-made pottery. Large pieces were made in several parts. The vase was then decorated with a slip--a diluted suspension of coloured clay--and then fired. (

Types of Greek Vases

Vases were used for a variety of purposes, including storing food and holding cosmetics. Others were made to mix and drink wine from, or to carry water. Some were made for specific rituals, like weddings, as funeral urns or as grave markers.

Decoration Styles

The Geometric style, developed around the 8th century B.C.E., is characterised by abstract angular motifs arranged in bands around the vase. According to "Gardner's Art Through the Ages," one of the earliest examples of Geometric figural painting is found on a krater (a wide, two-handled bowl) marking the grave of an Athenian man. The scenes depict the man on his bier, the mourning and the chariot procession in his honour as simplified, two-dimensional forms.

Black-figure painting was developed in Corinth in the 7th century B.C.E. and replaced the Geometric style. Solid black silhouettes were put down on the surface, and details in the figures were incised with a pointed instrument. Highlights were added in purple and white before firing. In “Greek Vase Painting: An Introduction,” Dietrich von Bothmer, former curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says, “[The] growing emphasis on human interpretations as opposed to hieratic formalism is one of the many accomplishments of the great black-figure painters.”

Red-figure painting, developed around 530 B.C.E. in Attica, was the opposite of black-figure painting. Rather than using black to create and fill the shapes, the painter outlined the figures and colored the background black. The figures and ornaments were left the reddish-brown color of the clay. Details inside the figures were drawn, or painted with a brush, giving the painter the ability to build up the glaze and create a range of shading.

In the white-ground technique, a white slip was applied as a background for the painted scene, and the figures were outlined in black. They were then painted with diluted colored slips. The polychrome decoration was too fragile to last on objects that were used every day and is found almost exclusively on vases that were left as grave offerings.


Vases were sometimes inscribed with names, phrases or trademarks. Sometimes the objects in the scene were labelled, or the names of the figures were given. Phrases, such as “I greet you,” were added to some vases, or tributes to men and women who were considered beautiful or notable. Some vases were actually signed by the artists who made them.

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About the Author

Nicole Votta is a freelancer who began writing professionally in 2008. Her work has appeared in publications such as "History Magazine" and "Family Chronicle." She graduated from Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, with a diploma in journalism.