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The Vase That Speaks
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A so-called “bilingual” Attic vase speaks two visual languages. One side is painted in the older "black-figure" style, the other side with the newer—and for us, more familiar—"red-figure" style.

Tetraktys mentions such a vase in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It depicts the Homeric heroes Achilles and Ajax taking a break from slaughtering Trojans to play a board game.

Bilingual vase--black-figure sideBilingual vase--black-figure side (Lysippides) Bilingual vase--red-figure side (Andokides)Bilingual vase--red-figure side (Andokides)

Ambrose sees this vase as an emblem of the Greek awakening to philosophical and anatomical self-awareness. The Black Figure warriors are clumsy—half-iconic, half-representational. In Red Figure, these same two warriors become fluid, animate—a still frame from a story we feel as though we’re on the cusp of grasping or remembering. (Compare the eyes especially. In Black Figure, they’re hieroglyphics. In Red Figure, they’re windows on the soul.)

blackfigureeye redfigureeye

Why the difference? The main reason is technical. The Black Figure technique required that details be etched. The Red Figure technique allowed them instead to be painted, with vastly more delicate results.

The red-figure technique evolved around the year 530 B.C.—also the time of Pythagoras’ emigration to Kroton, where he would found his cult. It was just several years after Thespis invented tragedy as a dramatic form. This was the period in which the Greeks found the languages of self-expression and self-awareness—intellectual, visual, dramatic—that established them not just as progenitors of Western thought, but intelligible as teachers and masters even today.