Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Ancient Greek Bronze Vessels

In ancient Greece, vessels were made in great quantities and in diverse materials, including terracotta, glass, ivory, stone, wood, leather, bronze, silver, and gold. The vases of precious metals have largely vanished because they were melted down and reused, but ancient literature and inscriptions testify to their existence. Many more bronze vessels must have existed in antiquity because they were less expensive than silver and gold, and more have survived because they were buried in tombs or hidden in hoards beneath the ground.

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, sometimes combined with small amounts of other materials, such as lead. Copper was widely available in the ancient Mediterranean, most notably on the island of Cyprus. Tin was scarcer; it was available both in the East, in Anatolia, and in the distant West, in the British Isles. Herodotus, a Greek historian from the fifth century B.C., refers to the British Isles as the “tin islands” (Histories 3.115). Tin combines with copper to produce a metal alloy that is stronger and easier to shape than copper alone and also gives the otherwise reddish copper a golden hue. The ratio of copper, tin, and added materials can be manipulated to produce a range of aesthetic effects. In his Natural History (34:3), Pliny writes that bronze made in Corinth was particularly renowned for its fine coloring. Today, most surviving bronzes exhibit a green patina, but in their original form, bronze vessels would have had a golden sheen.

Bronze vases were made primarily with a combination of two metalworking techniques. The bodies of the vases usually were made in a process called “raising,” which involved repeated heating, hammering, and cooling. The handles, mouths, and feet of the vessels often were cast from a mold. First, the craftsman made a wax model and covered it in clay. The clay was fired, and at the same time, the wax melted out. Molten bronze was then poured into the cavity of the clay mold. After cooling, the clay mold was removed and the surface of the bronze was polished smooth. The wax model often could be shaped into animal or figural motifs or decorated with geometric or floral patterns before firing. The craftsman was able to refine the ornamental additions with cold-work after firing. The decorative motifs sometimes were enhanced with the addition of other materials; silver accents were especially popular. The cast parts were attached to the hammered body of the vase with rivets, solder, or a combination of the two methods. In many cases, the thin, hammered bodies of the vases have disappeared entirely or are extremely fragmentary because of the corrosive effects of the soil in which they were buried. The solid handles, mouths, and feet have fared better.

Bronze vessels were made in a wide range of shapes over a long period of time. Many of the earliest vessels, dating to the ninth and eighth centuries B.C., were tripods, which are three-legged stands that supported large cauldrons; sometimes the two parts were made together in one piece. The cauldrons were originally used as cooking pots, but the tripods also were given as prizes for winners in athletic contests. The edges of the cauldrons and stands could be decorated with protomes (foreparts) of animals or mythical creatures. Powerful animals such as lions and horses appear frequently (1997.145.1). The griffin—a fantastic beast with the body of a lion and the head of an eagle—and the sphinx—with a feline body and a human head—were favorite motifs (1972.118.54).

Water jars (hydriai) seem to have been a preferred shape in bronze. The characteristic shape of a hydria is well suited to its function, with a narrow neck for preventing spills, a rounded belly for holding water, a vertical handle for pouring, and two lateral handles for lifting. A long series of hydriai survive, spanning the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods. The vases from the late seventh and sixth centuries B.C. have heavy proportions, with a broad mouth, straight neck, and rounded belly (1995.92). They often are decorated with geometric patterns, powerful animals, mythical creatures, and human figures, especially at the points at which the handles are attached to the body of the vase. In the fifth century B.C., the proportions are more harmonious, with a narrower mouth, curved neck, and full body (26.50). The finest examples received delicate chased decoration in low relief on the body. In the fourth century B.C., the shape becomes even lighter, with an elegantly curved neck and tapered body (44.11.9). The mouth, foot, and ends of the handles usually are decorated with geometric or floral patterns rendered in low relief. Below the vertical handle, an independently worked appliqué with mythological scenes appears, which was made using a repoussé technique that involves hammering the panel from the front and back to achieve different levels of relief within the composition. Bronze hydriai of the Hellenistic period (ca. 323–31 B.C.) tend to be slender and have minimal decoration.

Several different vessels for wine were produced in bronze, which may have been reserved for sumptuous drinking parties, called symposia. Kraters, used for mixing wine and water, could be elaborately decorated. Psykters, a fairly unusual shape with a full, bulbous body above a tall, narrow foot, held wine and were floated in kraters filled with cold water to keep the wine cool (60.11.3a,b). Situlai, wine buckets, were particularly popular in the fourth century B.C. and later. Oinochoai, jugs used for pouring, were produced in a variety of shapes and sizes, many in bronze (1997.158). Drinking cups also appear in several different shapes (07.286.97). A set of Late Classical bronze drinking vessels, including a situla, oinochoe, and cups, along with bowls, a ladle, a strainer, and other utensils, was found in Tomb II of the Royal Tombs at Vergina, in Macedonia.

Vessels for washing, such as footbaths, also were made (38.11.5a,b). Amphorai, storage vessels, of various shapes were manufactured in bronze (2004.171a,b). Many amphorai preserve their lids, which protected their contents. Other shapes must have been used in religious or funerary rituals, including phialai (bowls for liquid offerings) and perirrhanteria (sprinklers). Bronze vessels for oil or perfume are rare, but occasionally do appear.

Utensils closely related to vessels, such as strainers and ladles, are common in bronze. The punched holes on the lower surface of strainers may be arranged in ornamental patterns. The upper ends of the long, tapered handles of ladles usually are fashioned into slender swan heads or other animal forms.

Bronze vessels are significant, original works of art made over an extended period of time and in a material important to the Greeks. The vases are among our best evidence for ancient Greek metalworking techniques and decorative preferences. They also inspired craftsmen in other cultures, notably the contemporary Etruscans. In addition to their primary functions, bronze vessels were used for votive offerings, expensive gifts, reserves of currency, and valuable grave goods. Many of the bronzes show first-rate craftsmanship and demonstrate mastery of symmetry and proportion. They feature intricate geometric patterns and delicate floral motifs, along with animal, figural, and mythological scenes. The close attention to detail evident in bronze vessels of all shapes continues to intrigue and delight us, just as it must have pleased their original owners.