Courtship Scenes in Fifth-Century Attic Pottery: A Closer Look at Classical Iconography

Figure 1. Column krater, side A

by Elizabeth Neill, Class of 2013

Athenian vases and cups of the Classical era (480–323 BCE) commonly illustrated male courting scenes and symposia, although the explicit nature of these scenes declined towards the end of the fifth century.[1] Two red-figure kraters from the fifth century BCE from the Yale University Gallery of Art, currently on loan to the Hood Museum of Art, depict such courtship behavior. These two vases — one by the Agrigento Painter and another by the Hearst Painter (accession numbers 1933.175 and 1913.324, respectively) — represent both typical and atypical characteristics of this genre. A close study of these vases and such common scenes in Classical Attic red-figure art allows a closer look at the techniques used to portray variants of courtship scenes on these vases, including as the use of gaze lines, courtship gifts, violation of painted borders, and the ivy pattern. The earlier vase (denoted as the Agrigento vase) is an Attic column krater from 475–450 BCE in the red-figure style (see Figures 1-2). The later vase (the Hearst vase) is a bell krater from 430–420 BCE in the red-figure style (see Figures 3-4). Although it is Apulian (South Italian), its iconography is clearly based on Athenian compositions. Both objects depict courtship scenes and reflect the illustration of scenes of everyday life, including idealized erotic scenes such as symposia and the interaction of draped (or half–draped) youths, on Classical vases. Both are vessel types classified as kraters, or containers in which water and wine would be mixed for drinking in Classical Greece. Both kraters also depict draped and conversing youths, a quite common theme on red–figure kraters from 475–425 BCE such as these. The Hearst krater contains a symposium scene on the obverse and two draped youths conversing on the reverse (see Figures 3, 4). The Agrigento krater contains two pairs of suitor, or lover, and potential beloved (erastes and potential eromenos) on the obverse, and two youths courting a boy on the reverse (see Figures 1, 2).

Figure 2. Column krater, side B

Patterns and lines play a great part in these depictions, especially in the use of borders (including the violation of borders) and directionality of lines. The ivy borders on the Agrigento krater are of particular significance within the context of red–figure Classical Attic kraters of the fifth century (see Figure 5). Increasingly throughout the fifth century BCE, ivy became a generic border, most especially on the handles of kraters (such as the krater attributed to the Agrigento Painter). However, before this pattern was widely repeated as a generic pattern on red–figure vases, ivy was associated with Dionysos, and therefore wine, revelry, and sex. An ivy double border on the obverse of the Agrigento krater, especially in conjunction with its two courtship scenes, calls to mind this Dionysian association and echoes the previous work of black–figure painters illustrating Dionysos and his followers. The violation of borders on the Agrigento krater also recalls the unbounded desire found in such scenes, which began to disappear in its most explicit forms over the course of the fifth century. It is the men seeking to court – not those being courted – who violate the borders of the scene (see Figures 6-8). Those being courted stand with flat feet, while their suitors move one foot up on tiptoe. Their dynamic pose illustrates their desire and initiative and creates a more interesting composition for the viewer, while also fitting into the Dionysian associations of revelry and unrestrained desire created by the krater (which itself holds wine) and its ivy borders. The violation of the borders is inversely symmetrical, lower left and upper right on the obverse and lower right and upper left on the reverse, capturing the Classical need for dynamism along with an unwillingness to sacrifice compositional unity. When seen as a whole, the painter’s work on the Agrigento krater echoes many preceding scenes of revels, courtship and desire (associations which are brought to mind by the use of ivy and the similar subject matter).

Figure 3. Bell krater, side A

In a survey of Athenian red–figure column kraters from 475–425 BCE, over 300 kraters depicted at least one side with a scene of draped youths, commonly categorized as courtship scenes. Over 90 of these scenes were paired with illustrations of Dionysos or his followers (usually also including ivy) and more than 80 were paired with symposium scenes.[2] The Agrigento krater most likely would have brought to mind these common pairings and suggested a double parallel between the revels of Dionysos and his maenads and satyrs, the symposium and courtship scenes on the krater, and the likely activities of the viewer. Kraters, used to mix water and wine, were frequently present and central at symposia in Classical Greece, where conversation and courtship were often to be found.[3]

In keeping with the emphasis on included lines and patterns, the artists of the Agrigento krater and the Hearst krater have also utilized the power of excluded, or continued, lines. The gaze of each figure, for example, tells the viewer more about the figure’s individual focus and at times can heighten the scene’s tension. The obverse of the Hearst krater provides a great study for the use of the gaze and its addition to the other tensions found within the scene (see Figure 9). The gaze of the viewer is directed along the line of the flute to a central point in the composition, which is ostensibly also the object of the older male’s desire (indicated in red in Figure 9). As Françoise Frontisi-–Ducroux wrote in Sexuality in Ancient Art, “in Attic imagery, the portrayal of gazes, underscored by the game of gestures, has a double function: first, to translate verbal exchanges graphically…and second, to represent pictorially the visual contact that the Greeks defined as the primary mode of communication. What is true in every situation is still more important in erotic scenes, where sight plays a decisive role.”[4] The gaze and the desires it represents are embellished by the physical gestures in the scene: the central figure’s hand and body are directed away from the older male on the right, whose hand is in turn readying to fling the dregs of his kylix away from the central figure in a game of kottabos (indicated in blue in Figure 9). This tension between action, gaze and desire is repeated on the reverse of the Hearst krater and also both sides of the Agrigento krater (see Figures 10, 11, 12). The gazes of figures involved illustrate the stage of courtship and communication that the figures have reached.

Figure 4. Bell krater, side B: Detail (Photo by Elizabeth Neill ‘13)

The subject matter of these vases in comparison with contemporary depictions is also an important consideration. The Dionysian associations of the Agrigento krater, discussed above, become even more apparent in light of contemporary illustrations. Out of the 304 depictions of youths on red–figure Athenian column kraters from 475 to 425 BCE, 93 of scenes with youths were paired with scenes of Dionysos, maenads, and/or satyrs. Eighty-three of the 304 scenes with youths were paired with symposia. These numbers illustrate the common nature of scenes with youths, Dionysian revels, and symposia, and the interconnectedness of these depictions within this body of work. In addition, the representations of youths and symposia on bell kraters between 450 and 400 BCE illustrate common associations between depictions of draped youths on one side and symposia on the other. Two-fifths of the bell kraters from 450 to 400 BCE contained depictions of youths, the majority of those being courtship scenes. The 29 examples of symposia on bell kraters in that period included 18 symposia scenes that were paired with depictions of youths, similar to the subject matter on the Hearst krater (see Figures 3, 4). Both the Hearst krater and the Agrigento krater contain two scenes that are commonly placed together and contain associations with other courtship scenes on surviving fifth-century red–figure kraters.

On the obverse of the Agrigento krater, the interaction between figures goes beyond the gazes and directional gestures discussed above to the actual proffering of gifts (see Figure 1). Gift-giving commonly features in Attic red–figure Classical representations of courtship. As K.J. Dover notes in his book, Greek Homosexuality, a hare like the one seen on the obverse of the Agrigento krater is often in the process of being given to the younger male or has already been given if the courtship is successful.[5] In Figure 13, the hare is active, symbolizing the passion of the gift-giver; in Figure 14, where the courtship has been successful, the hare is passive, the desire passing to the two copulating males. The other gift being proffered on the obverse of the Agrigento krater is a round object, previously identified as an apple or an aryballos.[6] Upon close examination of the vase, there is string tied around the gift-giver’s wrist, prompting the conclusion that the gift is indeed an aryballos (or at least the oil within the aryballos), which could have been tied to the man’s wrist easily (see Figure 15). Athletic equipment, such as an aryballos or the strigil seemingly floating in the background on the obverse of the Agrigento krater, is not necessarily out of place on Attic Classical red–figure depictions, including those of courtship. As H. A. Shapiro notes, there is an “interrelation of the gymnasion and the bedroom, reflected in so many courtship scenes,” especially due to the elite practice of exercising while naked.[7] The strigil and aryballos commonly appear in red–figure representations of courtship: for example, there are at least eight instances of aryballoi within courtship scenes on red–figure column and bell kraters between 475 and 425 BCE alone, and over thirty-five instances of strigils within those same constraints.[8]

The Hearst krater and the Agrigento krater are fifth-century red–figure kraters that represent the interest of Classical fifth-century painters – or perhaps their patrons – in courtship and symposia scenes. These two vases show the importance of gazes, continued lines and gestures (including gift-giving) in fifth-century red-figure krater decoration. The transition from the earlier wild, explicit erotic scenes to more subdued and yet still imaginative courtship scenes is shown through the use of ivy borders, the violation of such borders and the common pairings of symposia and courtship scenes with Dionysian revels. The inclusion of athletic equipment illustrates the popular associations of the gymnasion and courtship. Though each vase is unique, the Hearst krater and the Agrigento krater are representative of contemporary krater decoration and highlight distinctive features found within the larger body of work of Classical red-figure krater decoration.

Figure 5. Column krater, side B: Use of ivy (Photo by Elizabeth Neill ‘13)

Figure 6. Column krater, side A, lower left: Violation of borders (Photo by Elizabeth Neill ‘13)

Figure 7. Column krater, side A, upper right: Violation of borders (Photo by Elizabeth Neill ‘13)

Figure 8. Column krater, side B, lower right: Violation of borders (Photo by Elizabeth Neill ‘13)

Figure 9. Bell krater, side A: Gazes and tension

Credit: Baur, Paul Victor. Catalogue of the Rebecca Darling Stoddard Collection of Greek and Italian Vases in Yale University. New York: AMS Press, 1980. Overlay: author.

Figure 10. Bell krater, side B: Gazes and tension (Photo by Elizabeth Neill ‘13)

Figure 11. Column krater, side A: Gazes and tension (Photo by Elizabeth Neill ‘13)

Figure 12. Column krater, side B: Gazes and tension (Photo by Elizabeth Neill ‘13)

Figure 13. Column krater, side A: Hare as a courtship gift, an active symbol (Photo by Elizabeth Neill ‘13)

Figure 14. Hare as a courtship gift, a passive symbol

Credit: Dover, Greek Homosexuality. Red-figure amphora. R502 (Mykonos, ARV 362, Triptolemos Painter, no. 21).

Figure 15. Column krater, side A: Athletic equipment in courting scenes, an aryballos (Photo by Elizabeth Neill ‘13)

[1] Stewart, Andrew. Classical Greece and the Birth of Western Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pg. 169.

[2] Beazley Archive Online. Accessed 5 February 2011 <>

[3] Stewart, Andrew. Classical Greece and the Birth of Western Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 208. Pg. 168.

[4] Frontisi-–Ducroux, Francoise. “Eros, Desire and the Gaze,” chapter six in Sexuality in Ancient Art, ed. Natalie Boymel Kampen, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pg. 81-–82.

[5] Dover, Kenneth J. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1978. Pg. 92.

[6] Yale University Gallery of Art. “1933.175,” courtesy of Yale University (aryballos); Perseus Database Online. “Yale 1933.175,” (apple).

[7] Shapiro, H.A. “Courtship Scenes in Attic Vase-–Painting.” American Journal of Archaeology: Vol. 85, No. 2 (Apr., 1981), pg. 135.

[8] Beazley Archive Online, accessed 06 February 2011.



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Burke, Susan M, and J J. Pollitt. Greek Vases at Yale. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1975.

Dover, Kenneth J. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Frontisi-Ducroux, Francoise. “Eros, Desire and the Gaze,” chapter six in Sexuality in Ancient Art, ed. Natalie Boymel Kampen, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Hoppin, Joseph C. A Handbook of Attic Red-Figured Vases Signed by or Attributed to the Various Masters of the Sixth and Fifth Centuries B.C.Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1919.

Hubbard, T.K. “Popular Perceptions of Elite Homosexuality in Classical Athens.” Arion: Third Series, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring – Summer, 1998), pp. 48-78.

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Rasmussen, Tom, and Nigel J. Spivey. Looking at Greek Vases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Shapiro, H.A. “Courtship Scenes in Attic Vase-Painting.” American Journal of Archaeology: Vol. 85, No. 2 (Apr., 1981), pp. 133-143.

Stewart, Andrew. Classical Greece and the Birth of Western Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Trendall, A D. Red Figure Vases of South Italy and Sicily: A Handbook. New York, N.Y: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

Yale University Gallery of Art. “1933.175 TMS file,” courtesy of Yale University.

Yale University Gallery of Art. “1913.324 TMS file,” courtesy of Yale University.

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