Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Greek Hydriai (Water Jars) and their Artistic Decoration

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The hydria, primarily a pot for fetching water, derives its name from the Greek word for water. Hydriai often appear on painted Greek vases in scenes of women carrying water from a fountain (06.1021.77), one of the duties of women in classical antiquity. A hydria has two horizontal handles at the sides for lifting and a vertical handle at the back for dipping and pouring. Of all the Greek vase shapes, the hydria probably received the most artistically significant treatment in terracotta and in bronze.


The evolution of the terracotta hydria from the seventh century B.C. to the third century B.C. is well represented in the Greek collection of the Metropolitan Museum. The earliest vessels typically have a wide body and broadly rounded shoulder. Sometime before the middle of the sixth century B.C., however, the shape evolved into one with a flatter shoulder that meets the body at a sharp angle (06.1021.77). By the end of the sixth century B.C., a variant, known as a kalpis, developed (56.171.31). With a continuous curve from the lip through the body of the vessel, it became the type favored by red-figure vase painters. Terracotta black-glaze hydriai of the late Classical period were sometimes decorated with a gilt wreath that was painted or applied in shallow relief around the vase's neck. These gilt wreaths imitated actual gold funerary wreaths that were placed around bronze hydriai, examples of which have been found in Macedonian tombs. Hydriai from this later, Hellenistic, period tend to be more slender and elongated.


Bronze hydriai (06.1078; 44.11.9) consist of a body, which was hammered, and a foot and handles, which were cast and decorated with figural and floral motifs. Sometimes the moldings and other decorative elements of the foot, handles, and rim were embellished with silver inlay. The green patina evident on many Greek bronze hydriai is a result of corrosion over the centuries. Originally, these vessels had a gold, copper, or brown tint, depending on the particular bronze alloy that was used. The cast vertical handles could be particularly elaborate, taking the form of human figures and powerful animals. Images of deities and other mythological figures appear on some of the more ornate vases of the Classical period. A particularly popular type of bronze hydria features a siren at the base of the vessel's vertical handle.


Sirens—part beautiful woman and part bird—were mythological creatures that often had funerary connotations. Their legendary singing lured sailors off course to shipwreck and death. Frequently, sirens appear on Classical Greek gravestones as if lamenting or watching over the deceased. Perhaps their appearance on the handles of bronze hydriai signifies the vessels' funerary function. Or, more generally, these mythological creatures may stand for female attendants. On the handles of bronze hydriai, sirens are represented with their wings open, as if in mid flight. Perhaps they are assisting in lifting the vessel and pouring out its liquid contents.


Like its terracotta counterpart, the kalpis became the most popular form of bronze hydria in the fifth century B.C. These metal vessels were used not only for water but also as cinerary urns, ballot boxes, votive offerings, and as prizes for competitions held at Greek sanctuaries (26.50). The occasional inscription on a rim describes their use as an offering to a god or as a prize for an athletic or music competition. Many well-preserved examples of these bronze vessels have been found in tombs.


Like many Greek vases, the hydria typically had a lid that is seldom preserved. This cover could be quite tall and taper to a point. When a hydria was used as an urn, the lid might be made of another material, such as lead, that was simply flattened over the rim of the vessel. Plaster was also used to seal the cremated remains. At other times, the lid was made of the same material as the rest of the vase.


In Hellenistic times, during the third and first half of the second centuries B.C., a new regional type of hydria developed, known as the Hadra hydria (water jar used as a cinerary urn). These vessels take their name from the Hadra cemetery of Alexandria, Egypt, where many examples were first discovered in the late nineteenth century. However, scientific analysis and research have revealed that the Hadra hydriai were made in western Crete, and exported to Egypt. They were also used for burials on Crete and have been excavated in tombs at Phaistos.


Hadra hydriai are typically decorated with black paint, and many of them bear ink inscriptions that identify the deceased and the year in which they died (90.9.5). In some instances, Hadra hydriai are coated with a white slip, and then decorated with polychrome paint (90.9.67). These particular Hadra hydriai are likely the product of local Alexandrian workshops, and they provide valuable information about the customs of Greeks living in Egypt during the reign of the Ptolemies in the Hellenistic period.

Colette Hemingway
Independent Scholar

Seán Hemingway
Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art