Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Time of Day on Painted Athenian Vases

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The scenes of myth and daily life that decorate Athenian vases often have a pronounced sense of time, which is depicted in simple pictorial terms that are meant to be easily recognized. Night, for instance, can be signified with lamps, torches, and the presence of the appropriate nocturnal deities, Selene the moon goddess, and Nyx, the very personification of night. Similarly, Helios the sun god and Eos the goddess of dawn indicate daytime. The great frequency of temporal motifs on vases suggests that time was integral to the narrative construction of many vase paintings. Moreover, the deliberate references to time on Athenian vases can often be explained as an essential feature of the specific subject portrayed.


When a more deliberate reference to daylight hours is required, Helios and/or Eos will often be included.

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The degree to which a given subject requires a clear indication of time is best illustrated by the numerous depictions of the Attic wedding, in particular, vase paintings that show the procession of the married couple to their new home (56.11.1). In these scenes, the participants consistently carry torches because the nuptial procession was a nocturnal event. Torches in fact seem to be the only constant pictorial motif of this aspect of the wedding celebration. Their practical necessity to the procession, furthermore, is explained by the literary sources, which confirm the time of day of the nuptial march as it is depicted on vases. Homer, for example, in his description of the Shield of Achilles, writes that, "by the light of blazing torches they were leading the brides from their rooms throughout the city …" (Iliad 18.490–493).


Torches figure prominently in another subject treated by vase painters, the Return of Persephone (28.57.23), a myth that equates the arrival of spring with the notion of the young goddess' return to earth from the Underworld. Although the story is mythological, the torches, which place the scene at night, allude to the real-life propensity of the ancient Greeks to celebrate many of their most important seasonal festivals and religious rituals at night, a cultural practice well attested in the ancient literary sources. The ritualistic aspect of the Persephone myth lies in the fact that it is an allegory for the return of spring, which is itself a yearly (ritual) event. The torch and, by extension, the clear indication of night are therefore essential elements of the iconography of this subject in vase painting.


Lamps appear regularly in vase paintings of nocturnal events that take place indoors. Subjects include the Greek symposium (20.246) and other nighttime activities, such as a reveler calling on a hetaira (prostitute) (37.11.19). The small, controlled flame of a lamp would have made them preferable to a burning torch for interior illumination. That lamps were the favored method of lighting the home is suggested by the great numbers of them excavated from domestic contexts, and by the ancient texts, which account for their use indoors.


There are many subjects in vase painting that (merely by virtue of the activity shown) can be said to take place during the day. Harvest and hunt scenes fall into this category. When a more deliberate reference to daylight hours is required, Helios and/or Eos will often be included. Both, for instance, preside over sacrifices in vase paintings (41.162.29). Their dual appearance visually confirms the actual ancient Greek practice of making sacrifices at daybreak, as attested by Hesiod, an eighth-century B.C. Greek poet, and Plutarch, a Greek writer from the first century A.D. When the daytime gods are present in a scene of a common daily ritual, it may signify that a particular myth is portrayed. A temporal consistency was thereby retained in the iconography of specific mythological subjects in vase painting, which reflected the time of day that specific activities took place in daily life. The relationship between the temporal specificity of certain aspects of life in ancient Greece and their treatment in Greek mythology is also evident in depictions of the story of Eos, the goddess of dawn, and Tithonos, a schoolboy. In mythology, the goddess takes Tithonos away to live with her (25.189.2). This was an abduction of opportunity, given that the school day started at daybreak in antiquity. The law stating that school began at sunrise is preserved in the legal code of Solon, a sixth-century B.C. Athenian statesman, and it demonstrates once more that elements of ancient Greek myth reflect certain aspects of ancient Greek life.


The importance of time as an underlying theme in Greek life is revealed through an examination of Greek vase painting and literature. While never overtly expressed in either medium, the prevalence of temporal allusions (both written and visual) speaks to the significance of time as a structuring and ordering force in Greek society. The consistency with which particular activities such as weddings, sacrifices, and religious rituals were depicted within a specific temporal context, moreover, supports the idea that many events were bound to certain times of day, and suggests that the clear indication of time was a significant component of the iconography of many subjects treated by vase painters.

Jennifer Udell
Bothmer Fellow, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art