Dionysos, the god of wine, with his son Oenopion, Attic black-figure amphora, dated ca. 540-530 BC, located in the British Museum (B 210)
|Born||Before 550 BC
|Died||About 525 BC|
|Movement||Black-figure style, Group E|
|Works||High-quality vases for export and home consumption|
Exekias (Ancient Greek: Ἐξηκίας, Exēkías) was an ancient Greek vase-painter and potter, who worked between approximately 550 BC - 525 BC at Athens. Most of his vases, however, were exported to other regions of the Mediterranean, such as Etruria, while some of his other works remained in Athens. Exekias worked mainly with a technique called black-figure. This technique involves figures and ornaments painted in black silhouette (using clay slip) with details added by linear incisions and the occasional use of red and white paint before firing. Exekias is considered the most original and most detail-orientated painter and potter using the black-figure technique. The Andokides painter is thought to be a student of his.
The works of Exekias are distinguished by their grand compositions, precise draughtsmanship and subtle characterisation, transcending the inherent limitations of the black-figure technique. As one historian of Greek art has said,
- "the hallmark of his style is a near statuesque dignity which brings vase painting for the first time close to claiming a place as a major art" (John Boardman, Athenian Black Figure Vases, 1974).
He was an innovative painter and potter, experimenting with new shapes and devising unusual techniques such as a coral-red slip to enhance colour.
Sixteen signed works by Exekias have survived, while many more have been attributed to him by stylistic comparison. His signed pieces provide important insight not only into the work of Exekias himself but also into the way ancient pottery workshops operated. Twelve of the fourteen vessels bearing his name refer to him not as their decorator but as their potter, by adding the word epoíēsen (ἐποίησεν) to his name. This translates into "Exekias made [me]", in contrast to égrapsen (ἓγραψεν), which would translate into "decorated [me]" (literally: "drew [me]"). In two cases (Berlin, Antikensammlung 1720, and Vatican, Museo Gregoriano Etrusco 16757) the iambic trimeter: Exēkías égrapse kapoíēsé me ("Exekias made and decorated me", the inscription formulated as though the vase itself were speaking to the viewer) was added, suggesting that in these two cases Exekias was responsible for both the making of the vase and its decoration. This fact, of course, leads to the question whether those vessels signed by Exekias "the potter" were decorated by someone else or whether he only chose to sign work he was particularly proud of. Seven of the vessels signed "Exēkias epoíēsen" carry too little decoration to compare. Only two vases show decoration similar in style to those two signed "... égrapse kapoíēsé me", while the others can probably attributed to the so called Group E, to which Exekias is closely related.
|The Dionysos Cup, Staatliche Antikensammlung, Munich|
|Exekias, Attic black figure amphora with Ajax and Achilles playing a game Smarthistory|
|Exekias, Dionysos Kylix, c. 530 B.C.E Smarthistory|
While Exekias' work itself offers a glimpse the culture of ancient pottery, their places of excavation also reveal information about the market in which Exekias positioned himself. For example, many of his pieces have been found in the agora of Athens, the center of the Hellenic world; this suggests that Exekias maintained a clientele in his home city. Pieces attributed to Exekias have also been excavated from the Acropolis, which underscores his prestige as a vase painter. Since the Acropolis functioned as place for religious ceremony, the fact that any of his work would be displayed there demonstrates that Exekias was revered as a painter. Just as he enjoyed a thriving market throughout Greece, Exekias also catered to Italy, namely the Etruscans. Aside from Athens, Greece, many of Exekias's other pieces have been found in Etruria, in Vulci and in Orvieto. Being admirers of Greeks and their art and letters, the Etruscans seem to have imported Greek vases. Since Exekias' work has been found in Etruria, it suggests that foreigners also admired his work, so he was able to sell his pieces overseas. In this sense, Exekias catered to markets both at home and abroad.
Group E 
The group of Athenian potters named by archaeologists "Group E" produced work that is not only considered closely related to the work of Exekias, but also represents a conscious break from the pottery traditions of the first half of the sixth century BC. The development of new, elegant vessel shapes such as the "Type A amphora" have been attributed to this group. Exekias worked as a potter in the Group E workshop and is the only member of the Group signing his products (Paris, Louvre F 35). His potter signatures suggest that Exekias may have been responsible for the development of such vessel shapes such as the Type A cup, the Type A belly amphora and the calyx krater. Apart from the specialization in certain vessel shapes, the Group E also shared a common range of subjects: the birth of Athena, Theseus fighting the Minotaur, Herakles fighting the Nemean Lion, and Herakles and the three-bodied Geryon, are among the themes most often pictured on vases by this group.
Vessel shapes 
Exekias does not seem to have been specialized in a specific vessel type. Among the vases made or decorated by him are belly amphorae, Type A cups, calyx craters, Little master cups, Siana cups, dinoi, pyxides, and at least one Panathenaic amphora. Probably his most unusual works is represented in two series of funerary plaques found in Athens (Berlin Antikensammlung 1811, 1814). The plaques, showing the funerary ritual for a deceased man, were probably attached to the walls of a funerary monument, either in- or outside.
In his vase-paintings Exekias does not only reinterpret the mythological traditions of his time but at times even sets new fashions.
One of his most famous works is the so called "Dionysus Cup", a drinking kylix now kept in Munich (Antikensammlung 2044). The cup falls into the "eye-cup" category, and is decorated on the outside with two pairs of eyes. Unlike other examples of this group, figuratice scenes are filling the space at the handles, probably an innovation by Exekias. The interior shows a depiction of the god Dionysos on top of a coral-red slip, which coats the entire picture-space. The Dionysos kylix uses the bottom of a wine bowl as a working surface for the main scenario: Dionysus was the god of inspiration, and the painting depicts the his initial journey to Athens by ship. Pirates had seized the ship and were planning, perhaps, to sell Dionysus into slavery. Instead the god caused vines to grow from the mast, frightening the pirates so much that they jumped overboard and were changed into dolphins, here seen swimming around the ship.
Another re-interpretation of the mythological past can be seen on an amphora kept in the Vatican Museums (344). It depicts Achilles and Ajax, both identified by their names added in the genitive. They are sitting across from each other, looking at a block situated between them. The board game they are playing, which might be compared to a backgammon or checkers variant, was played with a die. According to the words written next to the two players, Achilles proclaims he has thrown a four, while Ajax a three. Although the two of them are pictured playing, they are clearly depicted as being on duty, wearing their body-armour and holding their spears. The rest of their weapons are situated in close proximity, suggesting that they might head back into battle any moment. Apart from the selection of this very intimate, relaxed scene as a symbol for the Trojan War, this vase-painting also showcases the talent of Exekias as an artist: the figures of both Achilles and Ajax are decorated with fine incised details, showing almost every hair.
The only "kalós" name used on vases attributed to or signed by Exekias as a painter is "Onētorídēs" (on the Achilles and Ajax amphora described above), while the inscription "Stēsías kalós" ("Stesias [is] beautiful") appears on two amphorae he signed as a potter, but which were painted by a painter of Group E.
In addition to the main tableau, there often are subordinate ones. Where there are no tableaux, he uses rows of rosettes, spikes, spirals and plain bands. Sometimes he surrounds the main tableau with simple black, so that it appears suddenly out of the darkness, so to speak.
It is diagnostic of Exekias that he uses the shape of the vessel and its protrusions as a terrain to which the lines and forms of the painting conform. As you gaze directly at the tableau, a center of attention appears: the game board, the face of Penthesilea, the starry robe of Dionysus, the sword implanted in the earth. In the round surface of the vase, this point is closest to the eye and is seen directly on.
All the other main lines are either concentric around the thematic center or lead to it as the spokes of a wheel: the spears of the warriors, the curved backs of their hunching forms, the wind-filled sails of the ship and its curved bottom, the circle of dolphins, etc.
A second diagnostic feature of Exekias' work is that he fills the silhouettes of his figures with a large amount of carefully incised, fine lines, and is paying intensive attention to detail, especially in the clothes and armor of the characters. A very good example for this is the type A amphora in the Vatican (see above). Achilles and Ajax are both wearing richly ornamented cloaks, on which almost every ornament is clearly visible and identifiable despite the small scale.
See also 
- Distribution of the works by Exekias
- Pauly's Real-Encyclopadie 6, Stuttgart 1909, 1586
- J. D. Beazley, The Development of Attic Black-Figure, Berkeley 1986
- "Exekias, Attic black figure amphora with Ajax and Achilles playing a game". Smarthistory at Khan Academy. Retrieved December 17, 2012.
- "Exekias, Dionysos Kylix, c. 530 B.C.E". Smarthistory at Khan Academy. Retrieved February 20, 2013.
- John Boardman, Athenian Black Figure Vases, 1974
- The Beazley Archive's Vessel-shapes introduction
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