Hydria (Water Jar) with Domestic Scene, 470–460 BC
Greek (Attic)
Terracotta with slip
o/a: 13 3/4 × 13 1/4 × 12 inches (34.9 × 33.7 × 30.5 cm)
Museum purchase funded by General and Mrs. Maurice Hirsch

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect

Transformations in Math

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Define and recognize translations, reflections, and rotations in math, and find examples of each in the painted designs on pottery.

•  Write mathematical descriptions of shapes.






Observe Details

Connecting to the Work of Art

This ancient Greek water jar, called a hydria, is decorated with a scene of three women engaged in their daily activities.  On the left, a woman holds an alabastron, a small bottle, in her left hand and passes a similar bottle to the woman at the far right.  In the center a third woman bends over a wicker wool basket and either places in it or removes from it a bundle of wool.  A charming element is the long-legged heron.  Because the heron was often kept as a pet in ancient Athens, its presence indicates that this scene is set in a home.


Able to hold almost one gallon of water, this medium-sized vase is decorated with patterned bands on the lip and below the figures.  The domestic scene occupies the center of the vase’s body and extends onto the shoulder.  The artist uses line to describe faces, hair, and drapery, paying special attention to small details of hair styles – wispy curls and bangs – and of the fabric and folds of the dresses.


Greek vases like this one were thrown on the potter’s wheel.  Handles were formed by hand and attached to the body of the vase.  The clay contains significant amounts of iron, and so turned pink when it was fired.  This style of painting is called “red-figure,” because the figures retain the color of the clay.  A mixture that turns black during firing was painted on the remaining areas of the vase and for the details of clothing and facial expression.¹


Often Greek vases were a collaboration between a potter and a painter.  Although some vases are signed, the names of most Greek vase painters are unknown.  Over the decades, scholars grouped together vases with similar styles, and named the artist of each group.  This vase is one of twenty-eight attributed to “the Painter of the Yale Oinochoe” after a wine pitcher in the collection of Yale University.


Attica, a region of Greece that includes Athens, was the leading ceramics center for the entire Mediterranean.  The Greeks had many overseas colonies and extensive foreign trade.  Thus Attic pottery has been found throughout southern Europe, North Africa, and Asia Minor.


This vase provides a glimpse into the daily lives of women in ancient Greece.  Although in the fifth century B.C. Athens was a major political, artistic, and intellectual center, “the treatment of women was more repressive and unenlightened than at almost any other time in the history of the West.”² Scenes of women became popular on vases during this period, perhaps because the vessels were used by women and the decoration thus reflected their lives.


Curators are always researching the museum’s collection.  In the process, titles of works of art can change.  This work used to be called Hydria: Women Sorting Wool and is now titled Hydria: Women Engaged in Domestic Activities.


1.  Susan Matheson Burke and Jerome J. Pollitt, Greek Vases at Yale (New Haven:  Yale University Art Gallery, 1975), pp. xv-xvii.


2.  Peter J. Holliday, “Red-figure Hydria:  A Theme in Greek Vase Painting,” Bulletin (Houston:  The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Winter 1984), p. 3.


  • Study the geometric designs on the three works of art and sketch them on paper.  Discuss how the designs conform to the rounded shapes of the vessels.  How do the designs call attention to the different parts of each piece of pottery?
  • Discuss the repetition of shapes, lines, and colors in the designs to create patterns and a sense of movement and rhythm.
  • Describe the types of lines you see on this jar (i.e. horizontal, vertical, curved, diagonal).

  • Follow one line with your eye and recreate it, using your arm. Have others in the class guess where that line can be observed. Are there other areas where that same type of line can be found?

  • What types of shapes are created with lines? Characterize those shapes as organic or geometric. What types of patterns are created?

  • How would you describe the colors used?

  • Descriptions of jars often use words reminiscent of the human body, such as lip, neck, shoulder, body, and foot. Describe and locate which parts of this jar could be described using those words.

  • Ancient Greek vases like this one were thrown on a potter’s wheel; the handles were formed by hand and attached. How would the rotating pottery wheel be advantageous in forming the parts described above?

  • What types of patterns are used in the bands around the lip, shoulder, and body? Compare how they are similar or different.

  • Jars such as this one were often a collaboration between a potter and a painter. Which parts would be attributed to each? Explain.

  • Assess the size of this jar by using the measurements provided. Compare its size to other jars or vases. Hypothesize the amount of liquid it might hold.

  • Identify parts of the scene depicted on the jar. What activities are being shown?

  • In small cooperative groups of approximately 3-6 students, reconstruct the scene on the jar by using gestures and placement of bodies to represent the entire scene including the people, animal, and objects.


  • Extend the group activity above by hypothesizing what the characters might be saying or thinking.Write those quotes on speech bubbles and have other students guess which bubble correlates with which character. Defend guess with reasoning based on observations from jar.

  • The scene depicted on this jar comes from everyday life in ancient Greece. The woman on the left holds an alabastron, a small bottle, in her left hand and passes a similar bottle to the woman at the far right.  In the center a third woman bends over a wicker wool basket with bundle of wool, next to a heron. Because the heron was often kept as a pet in ancient Athens, its presence indicates that this scene is set in a home.  How does this description of activity compare with activity in your home? Would you have a heron as a pet?

  • In ancient Greece, when this was made, these jars were called hydrias.This jar was large enough to hold about a gallon of water for daily use. How does this water jar from ancient Greece compare to our ways of storing water for daily use today?

  • This hydria is made from clay that has a significant amount of iron in it.Research what happens to the color of iron-based clay after it is fired.Assess and explain how that impacts the coloration of this jar.Why do you think this style of painting is referred to as “red figure” painting?

  • Since the figures retained the red color of the clay during firing, hypothesize how the other areas of the jar would turn black. Upon researching 5th century B.C., curators have learned that a mixture that turned black during firing was painted on the remaining areas of the vase and the clothing details.

  • Compare and contrast this Greek hydria to other vessels from around the world:


•  Teach the math concepts of translations, reflections, and rotations.

•  Look at the decoration on the vessel and find examples of reflected, translated, and rotated designs. For example, the Greek key design above the figures on the hydria is an example of a translation.

•  Draw the designs on graph paper and label them.  Write mathematical descriptions of the shapes.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.