How to identify figures

The first step to recognize the supject is to identify the figures. It is the most reliable when the name of the figure is written. Although the letters and spelling are differed from region to region, it is not difficult to recognize the name, if you have some knowledge of Greek alphabet. These inscriptions are, however, uncommon and the most of the examples are black figure vases of the sixth century.

If the figure does not have the name, his or her characteristic representation helps to identify it. Each Greek deities have their own role and are represented with objects or garments which symbolize the characters. For example, the attribute of Zeus is the thunderbolt and that of Poseidon is the trident.

It is clear that the subject shows mythological scene if deities are recognized, except for some figures with characteristic feature, such as Herakles, however, it is not easy to identify mortals whether he belongs to mythological scene or everyday life. The gesture of the figure, composition, setting and objects within the scene are useful to the recognization.

For example, Theseus is usually represented as a youth with a broadbrimmed hat, Petasos, short mantle, short chiton, boots and spears, But these features are also applied to travellers and hunters of everyday life and it is almost impossible to distinguish them from the appearance. However, if the hero is depicted within the context of particular subject, it is recognizable from the situation.

Theseus encountered with Skiron on the way from Troizen to Athens. He waited for travellers near a gulf and asked them to clean up his shoes by force. Then he kicked them down the gulf where a monstorous turtle was waiting. But Theseus made Skiron to wash his boots and kicked him down the gulf.

In vase-painting, a basin for washing, rocks and the turtle is depicted in the scene. On the contrary, if two people struggle within the setting, these figures are recognized as Theseus and Skiron. This is the method usually used to identify the subjects on vase-painting.

However, not all the subject can be identified well. Some lesser painters simply copied the pictures depicted by others without enough recognition of the meaning. Sometimes these painters confused two different story and make it difficult to understand the subject. To identify the confusion, it is important to find the models of his representation. Therefore the study of the development of subject matters is indispensable for the study of iconography.

The representation is more or less influenced by their predecessors. These relations is not limited between vase-painters, but beyond the media and reaches to sculpture and wall-painging. Whence the study of the development of iconography plays important role for the understanding of the development of Greek art and helps to elucidate the relationship between Greek artists and craftsmen.

  Karl Schefold, "Myth and Legend in Early Greek Art " (1967)
Warren G. Moon, "Ancient Greek Art and Iconography" (1983)
Maria Pipili , "Laconian Iconography of the Sixth Century BC" (1987)
Thomas H. Carpenter, "Art and Myth in Ancient Greece: A Handbook" (1991)
H. A. Shapiro , "Myth Into Art: Poet and Painter in Classical Greece" (1994)
Kirsty Shipton and Andrew Meadows (eds.), "Money and Its Uses in the Ancient Greek World " (2002)