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How does one interpret figurative art?

A look behind the curtain

On Reddit’s AskHistorians, someone asked how one goes about interpreting the evidence from figurative art, such as vase-paintings. We figured it would be good to share our response here, too.

Written by Josho Brouwers, Joshua R. Hall, and Matthew Lloyd on

On Reddit’s AskHistorians, someone posed a question that boiled down to something like this: how do archaeologists, art historians, or other academically-trained professionals, interpret figurative art?

More specifically, the person posing the question was interested in vase-paintings, but the skills necessary to work with vase-paintings are essentially the same as for any other medium. The topic of inquiry (military history) isn’t important in this case, because the same principles apply regardless of what specific questions you want to answer (military history, gender issues, religion and mythology, or whatever).

The medium matters

The medium itself is important, of course, because it may limit what the artist can depict. For example, a vase-painting can only be of a certain size: larger pots offer more space than smaller objects, allowing for bigger, grander scenes. In sculpture, artists are more limited with what they can do in stone than with bronze. And so on. So the first thing to ask when you look at a particular object, is to determine whether the object itself may have limited or otherwise influenced what could be depicted.

As an example, let’s consider a Corinthian aryballos, a type of ancient Greek pottery. This is a small vessel used to store perfumed oil, often not more than 11 or 12 cm in height. The surface available for vase-painters is limited. Most of these vessels feature floral and animal motifs; only a relatively small number have human figures on them. Of the human figures, most depict warriors. Often, these are warriors fighting a duel; sometimes they are flanked by youths on horseback, who are interpreted as their “squires”, holding the horses that the fighters used to ride to the battlefield.

This horse-and-squire motif is quite common in Corinthian art, and we also encounter it in the art of Attica and elsewhere. Because it is found so often, this therefore most likely represents something real, as long as the subject makes sense: presumably, at least some warriors rode to the battlefield and then dismounted to fight on foot. But did they also fight duels as depicted on these aryballoi? Perhaps. Or perhaps because the surface is so small, the artist couldn’t render a large-scale battle between more warriors, and therefore chose to simplify a battle down to a duel.

So in the case of these images, single combat may represent battle in general. The only way to figure this out for sure is to engage in statistical analysis (how common is this motif), and to compare the scenes on these aryballoi with those found on larger pots: if the artist has more space to work on, do they still depict single combat or do the battles also grow in size to include larger numbers?

Examining the evidence

We wrote that something is “real” if the subject makes sense, and this is the tricky part: what makes sense to one person doesn’t necessarily make sense to another. There are, in Greek art, lots of pictures of clearly fabulous things, like Centaurs.

But in the case of other elements and figures, it is often less clear if something is based on reality or not. If chariots are depicted in battle on sixth-century-BC vases, does that mean that chariots were also used in actual combat back then? Or are these chariots “heroizing” or “archaizing” elements, meant to identify the scene as one based on myth, or set at some point in the (distant) past? The exact interpretation is often a matter of debate, where one set of academics will argue in favour of one point, and another will argue something else. Because the evidence we have available is so fragmentary, it can be very hard to reach a consensus.

There are also other issues at play that you need to consider. Diachronic developments are one: how do certain scenes, figures, motifs change across time? Why would they change? Regional variation is also an issue: do certain scenes and figures (etc.) only appear in some regions and not others? Why? Context is also key. How were these objects used? Who used them? Who made these objects and for what purpose? Were these objects used where they were made, or did they travel from one place to another? Does the decoration reflect the interests of the potter or their market - the place of manufacture or the place of consumption?

And aside from looking at figurative art alone, it will– sooner or later – become necessary to contrast and compare them with information gleaned from other sources. To stick with a military example, you can look at the weapons that are depicted in art and then compare them to those that have been found in contemporary graves or dedicated at sanctuaries. Are they the same? What other objects are found with these weapons? Who used these weapons? And so on.

Matters of culture and style

The person posing this question on Reddit’s AskHistorians also asked how scholars decide which culture’s depictions to use when analyzing how specific weapons were used (or held). There is no simple answer to this, as different academics and traditions treat this differently. For a single type of weapon (or piece of armour) used across cultures – like the aspis shield – scholars tend to look most closely at the culture that first produced both the art and the weapon.

However, in this case, there is a plethora of evidence from other parts of the Mediterranean (especially Italy) that can help us understand the object itself. Artificial disciplinary boundaries within Mediterranean (i.e. “classical”) archaeology (and classics/ancient history) have played a significant role in preventing this from happening to any significant degree, though. The academic background of the scholar is what primarily determines to which evidence they look in trying to understand a particular phenomenon, whether it be military kit or something else.

Returning to the example of the aspis, students of Greek warfare routinely ignore evidence from ancient Italy, whether it is the production of Etruscan or Italic peoples, or from the “situla culture” which existed northeast of what is today Italy. Always be careful to think about the background of an author you’re reading and to question what evidence they may be ignoring – either accidentally or wilfully – because of this.

Another answer to this question might be to look at the way that the product of one social group depicts members of another social group. A good example is the so-called Eurymedon vase. This is an Attic red-figure vase of the fifth century BC, which shows a presumably Greek man with an erection coming up behind another man in a Scythian or oriental costume, who is bent over. The inscription identifies this figure as Eurymedon, which may (or may not) be a reference to the Battle of the Eurymedon River, where the Athenians had bested the Persians. Is this figure then a source for how “Persians” dressed? The only way to decide that issue is by comparing it with evidence from the Persian Empire itself.

The Eurymedon vase, dated ca. 460 BC. One side depicts a Greek man with an erection coming up behind another man who is bent forward and dressed in a supposedly “Oriental” style. Between these figures is an inscription that features the name Eurymedon. Some believe the vase commemorates the Athenian victory over the Persians at the Battle of the Eurymedon River, in Asia Minor, in the early 460s BC.

Aside from differences in “culture”, we can also look at difference in style. For example, Late Geometric Greek art is more abstract, with human figures rendered as dark silhouettes; later Greek art styles, like black-figure and red-figure vase-paintings of the sixth and fifth centuries BC (and beyond) are more detailed, and may seem like they are more “accurate” or “realistic”. The detail is higher, yes, but the interpretive questions remain: vase-paintings are never photographs.

The Geometric vase-paintings may be more sketchy, like a vague description in a text, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are therefore less trustworthy or less accurate, or that more detailed or realistic-seeming depictions are, conversely, more accurate with regards to how things really were. But we really start to veer into deep questions on epistemology, and this is one of the reasons why becoming an archaeologist – or a(n art) historian or related professional – requires years of academic training to hone skills that cannot be easily learned from just reading a book.

Closing remarks

How one goes about interpreting figurative art is a complex question, but hopefully this article has helped to shed some light on the difficulties involved and the processes used by archaeologists, art historians, and other professionals. By way of references, we suggest that you check out the article Josho Brouwers and Roel Konijnendijk wrote about the Chigi Vase, which is thought by some to depict a Greek phalanx (we argue to the contrary).

As far as books are concerned, there are lots of works that deal with (figurative) art and how we may interpret it. Some examples include: J.J. Pollitt’s Art and Experience in Classical Greece (1972), Anthony Snodgrass’s Homer and the Artists: Text and Picture in Early Greek Art (1998), Tom Rasmussen & Nigel Spivey (eds), Looking at Greek Art (1999). More in general, you can also get an idea of the difficulty of interpreting ancient sources in general by reading Jonathan Hall’s History of the Archaic Greek World (second edition, 2013) or his seminal Artifact and Artifice (2014). For an interesting take on Corinthian aryballoi, you may also want to check out Michael Shanks’s Art and the Greek City-State: An Interpretive Archaeology (1999).

We’re planning to write more articles that deal specifically with methods and theories related to understanding the ancient world. If you have specific questions, feel free to contact us and we’ll do our best to write a response. Those who support us on Patreon get priority, of course; please become a patron if you enjoy what we do.