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Six Vases that Tell a Story

Visual Study

A double spout and bridge pottery vessel with a bird deity

Nasca, Peru, 100BC-600, 21.73 x 26.01cm


© The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license

“A fantastic bird in flight with a human face, adorned with a mouth mask and a diadem. The bird holds a human trophy head as a symbol for ritual beheading which was a common practice in the Andes”.

“Double Spout and Bridge Pottery Vessel with a Bird Deity” (accessed 20.6.2017).


“This bird-like mythical creature has been given the name ‘Harpy’ after a similar form found in ancient Greek art. The Harpy has a human head and an avian body. The head, crowned by two or three black lobes, often has hawk markings around the eyes and a protruding tongue. Black “hair hanks” cascade from either side of this head. Like the Horrible Bird, the Harpy’s wing panels often depict human trophy heads”.

Proulx, D. A. (2007), “Nasca Ceramic Iconography: An Overview”, University of Massachusetts, 8, (accessed 5.7.2017).

“In Nazca religion, which highly valued plants, animals, and fertility, birds as headhunters participates in the regeneration of life. Many of Nazca geoglyphs take the shape of birds in flight.”

Bernier, H. (2009), “Birds of the Andes”, Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, (accessed 20.7.2017).


“Among the people of the Andean region, Certain Birds such as the condor, the pelican and the heron, are manifestations of the mountain gods. To catch sight of one of these birds means that rain will fall in the mountains”.

“Double Spout and Bridge Pottery Vessel with a Bird Deity”, (accessed 20.6.2017).

“The technique and range of colors used on this large vessel mark the peak of Nasca achievements”.

“Double Spout and Bridge Pottery Vessel with a Bird Deity”, (accessed 20.6.2017).


“The wide range of polychrome slips were made from mineral-based pigments like manganese and iron oxides such as hematite, limonite and magnetite and white clays such as kaolin. These were ground to a fine powder and mixed with fine clay at varying ratios to produce different color densities (Ibid.). Deflocculates such as wood ash, sea salt and potash alum may have been added to keep the mixture suspended in water. The colored portions of the designs were first painted onto the vessel with brushes made from llama or alpaca fur, and then the black outlines added last, perhaps to prevent smearing during the burnishing process. During firing the mineral pigments were transformed into different colors depending on variations in the temperature, firing process and impurities”.

Proulx, D. A. (2007). “Nasca Ceramic Iconography: An Overview. Reprinted from The Studio Potter”, University of Massachusetts, 2, (accessed 20.6.2017).


“The number of colours used by Nasca artists islarger than that used by any other culture in the Americas before European contact”.

“Double Spout and Bridge Pottery Vessel with a Bird Deity”, (accessed 20.6.2017).

Ann Agee, “Tulip Vase”, 1994

Porcelain, 108X61X61 cm


Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gift of Stephen and Pamela Hootkin, 2016.11.1a-c


“The figure painted on the vase is in the vernacular of the today, and represent a relative of the artist who ate bulbs to avoid starvation during the worst period of the Second World War.  Seen in the full context, that bulb eater has greater pathos. Her near starvation contrasts with a period of extraordinary wealth and extravagance, which the tulip and Delft represent””.

Garth, C. (2014), “Theater of the Figure”, The Human Condition, The Stephen and Pamela Hootkin Collection, Chazen Museum of Art,17.


“The Dutch famine was the result of the lost Battle of Arnhem (1944), when allied forces failed to liberate the northern provinces of the country. The Northern provinces became isolated from the liberated parts of Europe. Food stocks ran out, as did fuel stocks. Then a harsh winter began. Thousands of Dutch citizens starved or froze to death (…) Due to the war situation, tulip growers have not planted tulip bulbs that year; great amounts of tulip bulbs were stocked on farms throughout the country. During the famine authorities decided to use these stocks as food for the starving populations. The old, dry tulip bulbs were sold in grocery stores and newspapers published recipes with tulips. The tulip bulbs were nutritious and relatively easy to cook, so that less fuel was needed”.

“Eating Tulip Bulbs”, (accessed 25.6.2017).

“A tulip vase, also referred to a pyramid vase, is a special type of vase that is designed to house and showcase tulips. Tulip vases can vary significantly in size and shape, but the manufacturers traditionally use blue as a decorative color. One of its most recognizable qualities is the appearance of floors and flower spouts in its design. While originally intended for tulips, the vases can also serve as a decorative option for displaying a variety of other flowers as well”.

“What Is a Tulip Vase?” (accessed 21.6.2017).


“Tulip vases were very popular at The English Court. This was not surprising because Queen Mary II before she and her Dutch husband William of Orange became Queen and King of England, had been living for many years in The Netherlands and was a collector of Blue Delft-ware. She took a great part of her private collection with her to England”.

“Blue Delft-ware Flower Pyramids and Tulip Vases”, (accessed 21.6.2017).

“Tulips were originally cultivated in the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey), and were imported into Holland in the sixteenth century (…) As the Dutch Golden Age grew, so did this curvaceous and colorful flower. They became popular in paintings and festivals. In the mid-seventeenth century, tulips were so popular that they created the first economic bubble, known as “Tulip Mania” (tulipo mania). As people bought up bulbs they became so expensive that they were used as money until the market in them crashed”.

“History of Tulips in Holland”, (accessed 2.7.2017).

“Vase Orazio Fontana”

Urbino, 1565-1571 (circa (vase)), Paris, 1765 (circa (mounts)), 56 X34.5 cm


© The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license

The image on the vase depicts a mythological story: “Hercules married a second wife, Deianira. He won her hand in marriage by wrestling with the river-God Acheloos, who took the form of a centaur. During the fight, Hercules broke off one of Acheloos’ horns. Once, when Deianira and Hercules were traveling, they came to the Evenus River. A centaur, Nessos, had been appointed ferryman there. As he carried Deianira across, he tried to assault her, and Hercules, hearing her screams, ran to rescue his damsel in distress. Hercules shot the centaur in the heart with one of his arrows. Just before he died, Nessos set up his revenge by telling Deianira that the blood spilling from his wound could be used as a love potion, if need be. Deianira picked up some of the centaur’s blood and saved it. Later, she put it onto a cloak she’d woven for Hercules, hoping it would renew his love for her. The blood, of course, was not a love potion, but a deadly poison instead, and its touch burned Hercules’ skin”.

“Deianira”, (accessed 2.7.2017).

The vase was made in Orazio Fontana Workshop. “Orazio Fontana came from an established family of potters in Urbino. When he moved to Urbino from his native Castel Durante, he took the Fontana family name. Along with his father, the master potter Guido Durantino, and his brothers Camillo and Nicola, Orazio helped to shift the dominant area for maiolica production and innovation from Faenza to Urbino and nearby Castel Durante by introducing istoriato decoration there.

Orazio worked with his father for most of his career; he left in 1565 to set up his own workshop nearby. From that time on, he concentrated mainly on luxury wares decorated with istoriato scenes and grotesques, leaving the plainer, and probably more profitable, white and common wares to his father. After establishing his own workshop, Orazio may have continued to paint ceramics or may have managed the shop’s production”.

“Orazio Fontana”, (accessed 15.7.2017).

“Istoriato styleis a style of pottery decoration, originating about 1500 in Faenza, Italy, and popular throughout the 16th century, in which paintings comparable in seriousness to Italian Renaissance easel paintings were applied to maiolica ware. The subjects—biblical, historical, and mythological scenes—are executed with a realism (including the use of perspective) quite unlike any previous pottery decoration. Some examples are almost exact copies, others are free interpretations of the paintings and graphic work of such contemporary artists as Raphael and Albrecht Dürer. Istoriato painting sometimes occupies only the centre of the dish, with a border of formal ornament surrounding it; but often, notably in wares from Urbino, the painting covers the entire surface”.

“Istoriato Style”, (accessed 12.8.2017).


“From the end of the fifteenth century maiolica ware was often painted with antique narratives known as “istoriato”. The depiction of these ancient myths and histories, painted in perspective, echoed the intellectual interests of the period. Indeed, the idea behind such decoration on vessels for eating and drinking may have been that guests would have been able to recognize the stories and characters, which reflected on and flattered their classical learning and erudition”.

“Vase and Cover”, (accessed 2.8.2017).

Gerardo Monterrubio, “Torito”, 2014

Porcelain, underglazes, 61x35x35 cm


Courtesy of the artist

“The piece is part of a body of work of vessels in which I was painting images related to traditions and social norms that serve as vehicles for the creation and sustainment of toxic masculine ideals. ’Torito‘ can be translated from Spanish as ’little bull‘. It refers to a pyrotechnic bull made mostly out of papier-mâché, colorfully adorned with firecrackers that explode one-by-one as a dancer (usually a young boy) carries it on top of his head during a public celebration. The dance manifests both excitement and danger when the dancer pretends to be a bull dancing menacingly among the spectators as the firecrackers explode and shoot off from the pyrotechnic bull in every direction. The dance, like many other celebratory rituals such as bull-riding, presents opportunities for young men to prove their valor and fearlessness”.

Gerardo Monterrubio, [private] email correspondence, 2017.


The meaning of bull in Spanish culture: “The Iberians, who were the first inhabitants of Spain, idolized the bull and it was an extremely important figure in their mythology. The bull itself was seen as a mythological god in the Iberian culture, with the bullfight being the religious drama where a God, the bull, is adorned and sacrificed for humanitie’s salvation”.

“Historical Significance of Bullfighting”, (accessed 10.8.2017).

“In this piece, there are also images of men sacrificing a goat for a celebration, in which young boys are supposed to help without flinching or showing remorse. If present, these emotions are usually allayed with a drink of mezcal, a strong alcoholic drink that is produced from the agave plant”.

Gerardo Monterrubio, [private] email correspondence, 2017.


“In the northern part of the state of Oaxaca, La Mixteca, goats have been herded since the Spanish arrived. A ritual that involves the slaughter of goats has continued from that time through the end of the 20th century […] One part of the ritual is the dancing of the goat. This custom, no doubt related to the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, includes choosing a goat to be spared from the slaughter, crowning it with a wreath of flowers, and selecting a boy to lead the rite by dancing with it atop his shoulders”.

“The Goat’s Dance: Photographs by Graciela Iturbide”, (accessed 15.8.2017).

Rite of passage, ceremonial event, existing in all historically known societies, that marks the passage from one social or religious status to another…Many of the most important and common rites of passage are connected with the biological crises, or milestones, of life—birth, maturity, reproduction, and death—that bring changes in social status and, therefore, in the social relations of the people concerned. Other rites of passage celebrate changes that are wholly cultural….Rites of passage are universal, and presumptive evidence from archaeology (in the form of burial finds) strongly suggests that they go back to very early times”.

Norbeck. E and, Alexander. B (2009), “Rite of passage”, (accessed 15.8.2017).

“The vessel contains textures made by strikes of a wooden stick, which are signifiers of linguistic platitudes such as ’hay que aguatar bara‘ (‘one must endure the strikes of a stick’), a phrase understood by a culture that uses physical violence to correct behavior. In this context, the platitude serves as a stoic attitude towards the challenges of life”.

Gerardo Monterrubio, [private] email correspondence, 2017.

Efrat Eyal, “Kneel Down” (From the Series “A Greek Tragedy”), 2013

Earthenware, pigments, glazes, slipcast, hand built, overglaze print, electric firing, 29X20X14 cm


Photos: Leonid Padrul, © Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

A series of ware rich in form and decoration offers a complex dialogue between cultures and social stances. The ware, similar in shape and color to classical Greek ceramics, is composed of numerous and diverse parts slip cast in molds of everyday items taken from the artist’s domestic space”.

Gatenyo, A. (2013), “Between Memory and Culture”, in Gatenyo, Imprinting of Clay: Cultural Memory in Contemporary Ceramic Creation, Tel Aviv: Eretz Israel Museum, 39.

“The images of nude women that Eyal printed on the vases are based on the experimental sequence photographs by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), who studies motion by means of photography. Eyal chose to refer to one of the pioneering researchers of photography and motion and to cite him, and she combines in her ceramics not only this medium but also a contemporary, social, gender critique of his work”.

Samira, R. (2013), “The Vase Then and Now”, Magazin 12800C, 28 (Summer 2013), Tel Aviv: Israeli Ceramic Artists Association, 12.


“…. He photographed the other models, particularly the women, with his own, primarily aesthetic, narrative concerns in mind.

Both men and women walk, run, jump, move with props and throw buckets of water, but the men are usually involved in feats of strength that make their muscles visible- they lift, carry and throw big rocks and heave logs; they pose as farmers and miners.

The women carry out domestic chores- they sweep, dust, scrub floors and lift cups, glasses, bowls, jugs and vases. But they also perform particularly awkward or ungainly movements and carry out activities, like smoking, that would have been frowned upon, being associated with ‘loose’ women. Muybridge often photographs them in gestures we now recognize as coming from the standard pornographic vocabulary. Naked women kneel in supplication or meet and kiss, disrobe themselves and each other, dump buckets of water over each other’s heads or down each other’s throats.”

Braun, M. (2010), “Eadweard Muybridge”, Reaktion Books, London, 211.

“The decoration applied to the vases features a recurring pattern of everyday items such as bottle-cleaning brushes, toilet brushes, sewing needles, padlocks, surface scrubbing brushes, plungers and clothes hangers. These items are evocative of feminine household chores like sewing, cleaning, feeding and dressing and they complete a formal and mental circle around the figures. Eyal, like the Greek artists, matches the design of the models and images with the form of the vessel, and she is careful to align the images such that the limited color gamut of black, red and white is maintained”.

Samira, R. (2013), “The Vase Then and Now”, Magazin 12800C, 28 (Summer 2013), Tel Aviv: Israeli Ceramic Artists Association, 12.


“The red-figure technique was invented in Athens around 525-520 BCE and is the inverse of black-figure. Here light-colored figures are set against a dark background. Using added color and a brush to paint in details, red-figure painters watered down or thickened the slip in order to create different effects”.

Gondek, R. (2016), “Greek Vase-Painting, an introduction”, (accessed 15.8.2017).

“Pelike”, Attica, 400BC – 360BC

22.89cm x 30.48cm


© The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence

A red-figure Pelike describes a contest between Gryphons and Arimaspi. “The scene is laid on the side of a wooded hill, part of which is indicated below, covered with dotted trefoils and with laurel branches issuing from it. The figures stand on different levels, and the spaces between them are filled with laurels springing from the ground”.

Pelike, Attica, (accessed 20.8.2017).


The Arimaspoi (Arimaspians) were a tribe of one-eyed men who lived at the foot of the Rhipaion (Rhipaean) Mountains in northern Skythia (probably the Carpathians). They warred constantly with the gold-guarding Grypes (Griffins) of the mountains—winged beasts with the heads of eagles and the bodies of lions. According to Herodotos their name was derived from the Skythian words arima “one”and spou “eye”.

“The Arimaspoi”, (accessed 20.8.2017).

“In the Centre an Arimasp, moving her face to the right, but looking round and brandishing over her head her battle-axe (sagaris) and with her crescent-form pelta in her left, tries to defend herself against the attack of three Gryphons. One of these springs forward on the left, descending on her with both forepaws; the second crouches on the right, biting her knee. The third, at a higher level on the right, crouches as if about to spring on her.  In the background behind the left-hand Gryphon a second Arimasp, with spear in right and pelta in left, steps to right and thrusts downwards at the Gryphon beside her, and above the central group the body of a third appears, half hidden behind the hill top. This Arimasp is en face, but with head in profile to left has raised with both arms on to her shoulders a large mass of rock, preparing to hurl it down on the left-hand Gryphon.”

Pelike, Attica, (accessed 20.8.2017).

“Red-figure Pottery is a style of Greek vase painting that was invented in Athens around 530 BCE. The style is characterized by drawn red figures and a painted black background. Red-figure Pottery grew in popularity, and by the early 5th century BCE it had all but replaced black-figure pottery as the predominant pottery type in Athens.”

Montgomery, H. (2012), “Red-Figure Pottery”, (accessed 28.8.2017).


“An amphora (Greek: amphoreus) is a jar with two vertical handles used in antiquity for the storage and transportation of foodstuffs such as wine and olive oil. The name derives from the Greek amphi-phoreus meaning ‘carried on both sides’, although the Greeks had adopted the design from the eastern Mediterranean. Used by all the great trading nations from the Phoenicians to the Romans, the sturdy-walled amphora spread throughout the ancient world and it has become an important survivor in the archaeological record providing clues as to dates of sites, trade relations, and everyday diet.”

Cartwright, M. (2016), “Amphora”, (accessed 28.8.2017).

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