You’re doing THINGS (?!) to my vocabulary Richard Armitage! (or the ancient Greeks had headcanon too!)

I knew I wanted to post a piece about a particular vase painting today, but I was struggling a bit with exactly how to introduce it.  While I was reading a bit of background, I had an epiphany (nope…that is a pre-Armitage word in my arsenal).  The recent addition to my personal lexicon is HEADCANON.  Having never really participated in fandom activities prior to tumbling head first into Armitageworld in 2012, I had never heard the term, which an UrbanDictionary entry defines as,

Used by followers of various media of entertainment, such as television shows, movies, books, etc. to note a particular belief which has not been used in the universe of whatever program or story they follow, but seems to make sense to that particular individual, and as such is adopted as a sort of “personal canon”. Headcanon may be upgraded to canon if it is incorporated into the program or story’s universe.

The realm of fan fiction is heavily populated with this concept as fic writers expand on or reinterpret chaRActers and stories.  But headcanon are not confined to authors.  Whether we define them as such or not, virtually every fan has his or her own personal and chaRActer/story related Richard Armitage headcanon – with so much information in the realm of supposition, it’s almost impossible not to.

I'm a little afraid to contemplate the headcanons this pic inspired!  ;)

I’m a little afraid to contemplate the headcanons this pic inspired! 😉

The concept of headcanons is a relatively recent one, and is largely confined to fan based activities.  In fact, a search of will bring one to exactly zero definitions of the term in mainstream lexicons.  Imagine my surprise when it jumped out as perfectly applicable to a piece of ancient Greek pottery!

"Vatican 344" by Exekias Source

“Vatican 344” by Exekias

The vase above is considered by many to be the masterpiece work of the potter/vase painter Exekias.  It was made in Athens around 530BC in a style known as Black Figure, which refers to a method of decorating and firing the vessel so that areas painted with slip appear black while the unslipped portions retain the characteristic orange-red color of the local clay.

Detail of Vatican 344

Detail of Vatican 344

While the style of the period and the limitations of the Black Figure technique result in typically “Archaic” looking figures, evident in the heavily stylized indications of musculature and the characteristically rendered eyes, there is no question that Exekias was an artist at the pinnacle of his craft here.  I have always marvelled at the incredible intricacy of the garments the figures wear.  In this technique, each and every bit of detail is added by incising lines into the black areas after firing.  Looking carefully at the cloaks, you can see just how skilled the artist was.

This vase is certainly exceptional in terms of artistry, but the subject of the scene is also very interesting.  On the surface, we have two male figures, dressed in military garb, their armor and weapons close by.  We don’t have to guess at who they are since Exekias was in the habit of labeling his figures.  On the left, still wearing his helmet, is Achilles.  Across the table from him is Ajax.  Achilles and Ajax were the greatest of the Greek heroes who fought in the legendary Trojan War.  Interestingly though, Exekias didn’t show them in the midst of what they did best – fighting.   Instead, he chose to depict these two outstanding Greek warriors…playing a board game?!  There is no question as to what they are doing…again, the artist has captioned the “action” for us as each player calls out the number he’s thrown – Achilles rolled a four, Ajax a three.

Scenes associated with the Trojan War are extremely common in Greek art, and although Homer’s Iliad is the most well known source of Trojan War lore, it actually only covers a very small portion of the whole story arc.  There are a whole slew of other bits and pieces of the Trojan Cycle that survive in fragments from a variety of different sources.  Here’s the catch though – this particular episode is not to be found in any of the extant stories that discuss the Trojan War, yet it became extremely popular as an art motif in the wake of Exekias (there are over 150 known vases decorated with this scene in the 50 years following Exekias’ career).  John Boardman, a heavy hitter in the world of Greek vase painting, suggested that perhaps Exekias was pulling a vignette from local “bardic traditions”  that had never become part of the mainstream story.   In the absence of any strong evidence pointing in another direction, I’d argue that it’s equally possible that an artist like Exekias was tapping into his own imagination…developing a headcanon for what might have gone on in the considerable downtime that the Greek heroes would have had during the ten year siege of Troy.  What was I saying about things changing and staying the same?

I was looking around for an Armitage related image to weave in here, and it turns out that there are not very many filmed scenes of chaRActers playing games, but look at this great piece of original fan art by Natascha illustrating another fan’s prompt:

Thorin and Dwalin arm wrestling....FANtastic headcanon!! Source:

Thorin and Dwalin arm wrestling….FANtastic headcanon!!

πτοιώδης καὶ ὑποδύσκολος: Richard Armitage plays shy and awkward…

I should be grading some papers right now, so of course I’m writing a blog post…it has to be brief though, those students might revolt if I don’t have their papers tonight!

Fortunately, I have just the thing…When I was at the Art Institute of Chicago last fall, moving through the Of Gods and Glamour:  The Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman and Byzantine Art, the raison d’etre of that pilgrimage to Chicago,  I noticed this vase:

Attic Red Figure Hydria attributed to the Leningrad Painter - mid 5th century BC

Attic Red Figure Hydria attributed to the Leningrad Painter – mid 5th century BC

(This is a photo that I shot and I apologize for the glare in some spots…the high gloss fire of the slip along with the curve of the vase and the halogen spots in the exhibit was not a winning photographic combo.)

This is a  beautifully preserved vase dating to the period when Athens was reaching the height of its political and cultural influence.  The central couple was what really caught my eye…a couple who appear to be engaged in a rather shy kiss between a woman and much taller man.  His left arm is around her waist, his right appearing to hang awkwardly between them as he stoops over.

At face value, this scene reminded me very much of the body language used by Richard Armitage in his role as John Standring in Sparkhouse (BBC, 2002).

Wow, this is awkward...(John Standring and Carol Bolton on their wedding night)

Wow, this is awkward…(John Standring and Carol Bolton on their wedding night)

Richard Armitage does a great job embodying the shy awkwardness of John Standring as he interacts with a much smaller, but much more worldy Carol Bolton (Sarah Smart).  His hesitance, his great care to measure his movements towards her, his willingness to let her take the lead, sits in touching contrast to his much larger physical presence.  (I got the impression he would have stood in that stairwell all night had she not taken his hand to lead him up the stairs.)  This is one of my favorite things about Richard Armitage, how he uses tiny cues to make himself believably vulnerable despite his imposing physicality.

Close up...what is that hand actually doing?

Close up…what is that hand actually doing?

For all that I appreciate the superficial similarity of scene, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that hesitance and shyness is probably not the intended tone of this vase painting.  Yes, this is a much taller man bending to reach a shorter partner, but the difference really lies in how one “reads” that sort of awkwardly hanging right arm.  Without prior knowledge, it is easy to interpret this as an inexperienced young man who’s not quite sure where to put his parts during this embrace…that is a possible reading, but it would be unusual to see such a scene in the Corpus Vasorum (yes, that is an actual term 🙂  )  In fact, that arm is most often read by scholars as cupping toward her crotch…so much for shy and awkward!

I can’t for the life of me see “Sweetie John” moving in for the full frontal grope!  Although…..who knows, Carol might have made a lot of different choices if he had 😉