This red-figure Bell Krater by the Pan Painter, from c. 470, was a vase used to mix wine and water. It has two scenes painted on it, one on each side. These scenes are painted in red over a black painted background. Unlike the traditional use of a light background, this artist has chosen to use black as the negative space color.
The black background gives the vase a feeling of fullness, whereas a white background would make the vase appear empty to the viewer. By using the red paint over the black, it creates a contrast that the viewer is immediately drawn to. By only using red over the black paint, there is fluidity to the vase that would not be present if there were many colors used on it. The impression of space is created by the use of foreshortening the subject’s limbs, to create an illusion of dimension. Another noticeable aspect to these two sides is that the drapery on the subjects is very delicate, with an elegant form to them. The drapery is detailed, but yet still simple.
The depiction on the front of the vase is of the Death of Aktaion. It is said that Aktaion was killed by the goddess of hunting, who turned him in to a stag, and he was then ripped apart by his own dogs.* The vase displays this scene to the viewer, with four dogs attacking the painted figure of Aktaion. Artimis is drawing her bow towards Aktaion while the dogs are attacking him. This depiction was said to represent the hubris, which is the impious pride* that Aktaion had, making this vase more about the representation of the punishment for this act, rather than just a decoration.
This piece served the purpose of telling the story of Aktaion, and was not simply just another “pretty” vase. The lines of the subjects contributed to the vase’s appearance. The curvature of the two subjects bodies both accent the curvature of the vase itself, highlighting its shape. Each line that the Pan Painter painted on the vase had a purpose; each line was designed to follow the shape of the vase.
On the back on the vase there is a depiction of Pan Pursuing a Shepard. The immediately noticeable aspect of this piece is the use of the Phallus on the subjects in the painting. There is a Herm depicted on this side of the vase, which is a wooden or stone shaft with the head of the god Hermes, rudimentary arms, and a large phallus.* This picture is important to the harmony of the piece because it represents how the death of Aktaion for his pride, took place on the same mountain, Mt. Kithairon, where Athens defeated Persia.* This side of the vase is representative of the pride that Persia had, like Aktaion, and why they were punished by the Athenians. This thematic element to the vase gives it a purposeful meaning, instead of being another piece of art for the Greeks. It represents this event between the Persians and the Athenians and serves as a testament to this period.
While the vase is somewhat simple, having only two colors of tempera paint on it, it is rich to the viewer’s eyes due to the use of black as a negative space color. The red offers a deep contrast that the view can focus on. The figures on the vase mimic the shape of the piece itself. The boarders on the top and bottom of the vase also compliment the horizontal lines that are depicted in the subjects. By using a powerful contrast of color, the Pan Painter is able to tell the story of the fall of Aktaion and use that as a metaphor for the fall of Persia. Instead of just being another piece of art work, this vase is also a representative piece, which is not only beautiful, but also tells a story with a moral behind it: that impious pride is a crime worthy of death in the eyes of Greek society.
* Information from the MFA Museum Label