Terracotta amphora (jar)

Attributed to the Berlin Painter

Period: Late Archaic

Date: ca. 490 B.C.

Culture: Greek, Attic

Medium: Terracotta; red-figure

Dimensions: H. 16 5/16 in. (41.50 cm)

Classification: Vases

Credit Line: Fletcher Fund, 1956

Accession Number: 56.171.38


This red-figure amphora attributed to the Berlin Painter beautifully illustrates the symbiosis between the shape of a vase and its decoration. As one of the leading vase painters of the fifth century B.C., the Berlin Painter abandoned the rigid frames of panels on the amphora so that the contour of the vase itself focuses our attention on his solitary figures. On this particular vase, a musician in a long, slim garment accompanies himself on the kithara, a musical instrument used for formal performances in festivals and contests. The young musician, known as a kitharode, spreads the fingers of his left hand behind the strings and prepares to strike them with the plektron, or pick, in his right hand. The muscles in his neck stretch as he throws back his head and opens his mouth to sing. The sash below his kithara sways with the rhythm of his song. On the reverse side of the amphora, an instructor or, possibly, a judge listens intently and extends his right arm toward the young musician.
The kithara was an instrument with seven strings of equal length and a solidly built, wooden body, usually with a flat base. Strings of gut or sinew were stretched from a holder at the base of the instrument over a bridge to the crossbar that joined the two sidepieces. The kitharode, who always stood while playing, made music by stroking the plektron in his right hand across the strings, sounding all those not damped with his left fingers. During performances, the instrument rested against the musician's shoulder, and was supported by a sling that wrapped around the left wrist. The musician could regulate pitch by the tension and, perhaps, thickness of the strings.