A look inside Greek mythology through the vessels that defined the golden age of Attic pottery

Dr. Manfred Zimmermann’s collection is an epic tour of Athenian black- and red-figure pottery and the most comprehensive selection to appear at auction in decades.

‘Potters, if you will give me a reward, I will sing for you,’ begins one of the Epigrams of Homer. Legend has it the famed Greek bard was travelling through the eastern Mediterranean in the 6th–5th century BC when he landed on Samos, where the island’s potters offered their wares in exchange for a performance. In the song, he instructs the goddess Athena to hold her hand over their kilns to ensure their success.

While Greek pottery vessels originate in the 3rd millennium BC, vases of the 6th and 5th century were made in the distinctive black- and red- figured style and were the finest pottery produced in Greece at the time. It was this era of Greek pottery that Dr. Manfred Zimmermann (1935–2011) sought out when he began his collection of ancient Greek vases in the 1970s. Over nearly 40 years, he acquired some of the most pristine and storied vessels from the ancient world, and in 2005 opened the Antikenmuseum im Schnoor in his home city of Bremen, bringing his collection to a wide audience.

Christie’s is proud to present the Ancient Greek Vases from the Zimmermann Collection on 9 April in New York, marking the finest and most comprehensive selection of Athenian black- and red-figure pottery to appear at auction in decades.

‘This is a unique opportunity to own Attic pottery from its golden age,’ says Hannah Solomon, Senior Specialist and Head of Antiquities at Christie’s New York. ‘With remarkably preserved examples of black- and red-figure vases featuring scenes of mythological and cultural importance, it’s a great chance for new and seasoned collectors to participate at a variety of price points.’

Attica, the central region of Ancient Greece comprising Athens, its port Piraeus, and the land further inward, was home to a strong pottery culture. Its clay, rich in iron, produced a deep red colour when fired. These wares came in many shapes created for a variety of ceremonial and social purposes, each able to tell its own side of what Greek life looked like in antiquity.

The kylix, an ancient wine glass

The kylix, a staple of the banquet table at Greek symposia, is the most common type of cup from this period. The circular image, or tondo, at the bottom of the wide-bowled vessel was designed to be revealed as the wine was gradually drunk. The tondo of this elegant kylix attributed to The Triptolemos Painter depicts a youth in the process of arming himself, with a boy holding his shield and spear.

Kylikes were used at the symposia, with their flat shape aiding in the participants’ ability to imbibe while seated in a reclining position.

A stamnos, where wine is mixed

The kylix was paired with a krater, the vessel from which the wine was poured and mixed. The stamnos was also used for this task in anticipation of revelry. Stamnoi were associated with the worship of Dionysos, the god of wine and pleasure. This vessel portrays his followers, maenads, carrying torches while one is pursued by a drunken satyr.

‘This shape is extremely rare,’ says Solomon, ‘and the Dionysian imagery on the stamnos from the collection really reinforces the purpose of the vessel.’

Amphorae, long term storage vessels

Pottery also served an important role in storage. Vessels such as the amphora contained commodities like olive oil, grapes and other perishable goods. Its flat, narrow base allowed it to be stored in sand standing up, while its handles were often threaded with rope to hold groups of amphorae together as they travelled across the sea by ship. Many have been discovered at the sites of ancient shipwrecks.

One of the highlights of the Zimmermann sale, is an amphora once held in the esteemed collection of Castle Ashby in Northampton, England, and was first published in the 1840s. Attributed to the Nausicaa Painter, it displays the Greek hero Herakles between Iolaos and the goddess Athena, wearing her characteristic crested helmet and scaly aegis.

The trophy of an amphora

Athena is the deity who most often appears on these Attic ceramics, both because she is the patron saint of the region and because her qualities of wisdom and warfare were prized in 5th-century Greek society. Every four years, the Panathenaic games were held in her honour, for which the winners received amphorae filled with over ten gallons of olive oil from the goddess’ sacred grove.

Dating from the early 5th century BC, this amphora likely served an alternate purpose in the festival, being slightly smaller than the typical amphorae awarded to the winners. Perhaps a souvenir for a competitor, it depicts Athena on one side, and a pair of boxers on the other.

‘You can see the boxer on the left is about to tap out,’ says Solomon. ‘He's falling backwards and the referee holds the branches that signify the winner above the fighter on the right. Behind them there is another competitor wrapping his wrist. Is he ready to jump in against the winner? Does he have next?’

A water jug, the hydria

A large jar with two handles for carrying and another for pouring, the hydria was primarily used for storing and pouring water. These vessels often depict mythological scenes, like this one portraying Herakles and his half-brother Apollo battling over the Delphic tripod.

Herakles had been outraged when he didn’t receive a prophecy from the Delphic Oracle and sought to steal the tripod to set up his own oracle. With stunningly detailed linework and construction, the jug shows the main figures flanked by Athena — Herakles’ supporter — and Apollo’s sister, Artemis.

Lekythos, the funerary vessel

The lekythos, with its slender body and loop-shaped handle, held oil used in marriage and funerary rites.

The present example depicts the winged goddess of victory, Nike, with a tripod in her outstretched hands. This graceful flask is attributed to the Manner of the Berlin Painter, who was fascinated with the Panathenaic festival, and many of his works feature Nike, who was a popular symbol at these games.

The Zimmermann collection traverses nearly every known type of vessel from the golden age of Attic pottery. Exhibited throughout Europe and included in numerous scholarly publications, these works, much like Homer’s famous verses, form a lively portrait of the cultural and social life of Ancient Greece.

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Part of Christie’s Ancient Art sales series in April 2024, Ancient Greek Vases from the Zimmermann Collection takes place in the morning of 9 April, followed by Antiquities in the afternoon.

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