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Of Red and Black Greek Vases of the Luynes collection

BnF, musée des monnaies, médailles et antiques October 2013 – December 2014

The Duke of Luynes

Honoré d’Albert, duke of Luynes (Paris 1802 - Rome 1867) was a very important French personality of the 19th century: this aristocrat had a political career and many activities, but his true passion was antiquity, its history and archaeology. He became a renowned scholar, and his wealth allowed him to accumulate an amazing collection of statues, ceramics, gems, jewelry, coins... At the end of his life, after the loss of his beloved wife, he detached himself from this collection, and gave it to the “Cabinet des Médailles” of the National Library, to be placed near the royal collections for everyone to admire.

The Greek vases are an important part of the gathering, and it is not surprising: the many excavations in Italy in the early 19th century lead to the discovery of the fine clay vessel made in Antiquity, especially the one from Athens. Thanks to his means, knowledge and taste the Duke was able to collect only the best objects he could find, and the exhibition show how this collection of about a hundred vases can be considered a perfect personal collection in terms of quality and iconography.

Greek Vases The Luynes vases show how Athenian potters and painters mastered their craft to create one of the most sophisticated ceramic. Some of the pots and cups were of common use, but the elegant ones were for the elites. They were used in daily life, for storage, transport, serving and drinking, mainly for wine consumption in the symposion. They were also chosen to honor the Gods or to accompany the dead in the grave. Their success was great and they were export around the Mediterranean, for example in Etruscan cities in Italy.

The images almost only come from the contrast of the shiny black and the red color of the clay; to create this only mineral materials were used. The complex firing process consisted of three stages alternating opening and closing the kiln, allowing the part covered by a clay slip to become a very hard gloss that can still be admired today after all these centuries buried underground. The first vases had black figures over red background; around 530 B.C., the Athenians inversed the process, with red figures over the black, and painted details.

Gods and Heroes The pictorial decoration is of great interest and provides insights into how the Athenians represented their gods and heroes, and into several aspects of Athenian life. The Greek gods are numerous and have different areas of intervention; the images show them gathered around Zeus, the king of gods, alone, or in the many adventures they were in. Dionysus, god of wine, appears many times, with his companions, satyrs (half men half animals) and maenads, in a world of dance, music and drunkenness.

The heroes are men whose lives and actions were exceptional; the best known is Heracles, of great strength and courage, easy to recognize with his club and the lion skin over his head. There’s also Perseus who decapitated the Gorgon, Theseus who fought the Amazons, and the warriors of the Trojan War, Achilles, Odysseus ‌ A lot of rich myths are to be told from these images.

Images of Greece

Athenian painters also choose to create pictures about some very human activities of the Greek world. The Greek citizens were all soldiers, defending their cities in many wars and conflicts: the clothing of the warriors, their departure and the fights themselves are often depicted. But some peaceful activities were also shown, for example the athletic games so important in Greek history, like the ones in Olympia. Seduction is also the pretext of beautiful representations; all these views, admired by the Greek owners, are of great value to us to approach several aspects of Antiquity life and beliefs. So come to the exhibitions to discover all these great stories gathered for us by the duke of Luynes.

Credits: Text by Cécile Colonna Photography by BnF Design by Nassra Al Buainain

Musée des monnaies, médailles et antiques (Museum of coins, Medals and Antiques) 5 rue Vivienne – 75002 Paris Open Monday-Friday, 13h - 17h45 – Saturday, 13h - 16h45 - Sunday 12h - 18h Free admission For group reservation: 01 53 79 49 49 or

Greek vases of the Luynes collection  

a catalogue of Greek vases of the Luynes collection done by the Musée des monnaies, médailles et antiques, BnF

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