Greek Grave Steles Essay

This essay has a total of 3547 words and 14 pages.

Greek Grave Steles



The portals to immortality-Greek Grave Steles
To us who live in modern times the ‘melancholic look’ that we find in the sculpture of
cemeteries throughout the world is something we take for granted. Although its
authenticity has been lost to us, this so-called look can be traced back to 5th century
Greek funerary sculpture. For us it is only natural to associate such a look with death.
However, as the above verse elaborates, the Greeks viewed death somewhat differently from
the way we do. To them death freed their souls and brought true happiness: then why does
their grave sculpture look so pensive and thoughtful? It is because unlike today where
the dead are only represented figuratively in a sobbing angel or mournful cherub, the
Greeks depicted their dead as they were in life - life which was full of uncertainties and
burdens but also with simple pleasures that made it all worth while. The Greeks
successfully combined these two juxtaposed experiences, and harmonized its contradictions
to portray in steles the individual, whose simplicities and complications was a reflection
of the bitter-sweetness of life. No where is this combination more successful than in the
Greek grave stele of the 5th century before Christ. The 5th B.C. encompassed two distinct
periods: the early classical and the high classical. However both these periods shared
the uniquely contradicting, constantly explorative, and modestly idealistic vision of
life, which made the subjects of the stele, at their moment of death, all the more human
to the observer. Neither the previous Archaic period, nor the following 4th century, or
the preceding civilizations quite so convincingly capture for the observer the poignancy
of death the way a fifth century BC stele could.

The period of the 5th century B.C. is sometimes referrd to as the golden age, which is the
height for Greek art and civilizations; and ironically has its beginning and ending in
war! “The 480 B.C. marked the defeat of the Persians and 404 B.C. the beginning of the
pelopannasian war and the collapse of Athenian democracy. ” Perhaps the culturally
significant buildings and sculptures that were destroyed and the many lives that were lost
during the long war with Persia might made grave monuments and stele all the more personal
to the Greeks during this time. For whatever reason Greek stele of this particular
period, between two historically significant moments (480-404), stand-alone in more ways
than one.

“Between the boundaries of 480 and 404 the human figure ran through a wide gamut of
psychological nuances. ” Of these many ‘nuances’ there are two significant styles that
are observed in art history. First there is “the self-confidence brought about by a
deep-seated certainty of the outcome of the struggle with the environment in the course of
the ‘severe style’ which is a characteristic of the early classical period. And then
there is the resignation bought about by dashed hopes the fickleness of illusions and
escapism in the ever fragile creatures of the ‘rich style’ ”, which can be identified in
the high classical period. The stylistic differences mentioned above tend to break this
so-called golden era of the 5th century B.C. into two periods. However, ironically the
one factor that combine these periods together is death- or at least monuments erected for
death –the stele. “If there is any hint in Greek sculpture of a sunset melancholy that
were brought upon by the war years it remains to be seen not in the civic monuments but in
the beautiful series of grave stele that were produced during the 5th century BC. ” The
common thread that runs through the two periods of the fifth century are “the touch of
unpretentious and sublime otherworldliness ” combined with a sense of austere melancholy.

During the Archaic period although vases were the popular method for marking graves,
steles with human figure relief begin to appear during this period. These steles later
predominate during the classical period. The Archaic grave steles usually “consisted of a
rectangular slab surmounted first by capitals and then back to back volute scrolls with a
sphinx atop. ” An example of an archaic stele is the stele of a warrior runner made in
Athens around 500-450 B.C. The runner according to Lawrence is “Hoplitodrome the winner
of a race in armor. ” The young man wears a warrior helmet and looks down at his feet,
which are twisted in an impossible running position. He has stylized hair and his cap
looks too big for him. He has an Archaic smile although it is not quite evident in the
photograph. The warrior looks in the opposite of where his legs seem to heading. Since
this position represents a running as well as flying position, it could be possible that
he is flying towards Hades and is taking a last look at the earth he knew. There is a
desire on the artists’ part to produce a reaction through this sculpture. However,
conventions such as the Archaic smile and the lack of knowledge in certain technical
aspects keeps the sculpture from being successful realistically, and therefore less
impressive emotionally and physiologically to the viewer. Also keep in mind that unlike
the photograph the stele in its restored state would be taller than the relief itself, and
the sphinx at the very top (a sculpture in the round) would have taken the focal point
away from the warrior. The bright colors used during this time to paint the surface would
have given the stele a glaring effect. It is appropriate that this stele made almost at
the end of this period should be a warrior. For the coming years would produce a war and
victory for the Greeks that not only wipes the predictable smiles out of their sculpture
but also would bring new discoveries to sculptural techniques that would bring even the
dead alive.

“The classical period (480-404) removes us from the world of Archaic rigidity and patter
into one in which art takes on the task of representing even counterfeiting life, and not
merely creating tokens of life and as a result involves the viewer more intimately .”
Also, there is neither a high pediment nor sphinx that would take the emphasis away from
the figure. One of the earliest 5th century examples is the grave stele by Alexnor of
Naxos dated around 490-480B.C. “The inscription proudly states in hexameters: ALXENOR OF
NAXOS MADE (ME): JUST LOOK. ” Although this stele still contains some archaic rigidity,
compared with the previous stele, here, there is clearly an experimentation to produce a
more natural stance and a genuine identity. In addition, the old man here is engaged in a
passive activity compared to the runner who was involved in an aggressive action. In this
stele an old man lovingly holds a locust to which the dog enthusiastically responds. One
cannot help feeling that the smile of this man is a genuine representation of the
affection he has towards the dog and not a remnant of the Archaic period, therefore in
context to the scene the smile is appropriate. The staff in his hand suggests that he is
about to embark on a journey. Perhaps in his old age he might not have anybody but the
dog and therefore takes time to say his farewells. Apart from the technicalities such as
the slightly schematic rendering of his drapery and the experimentation of the right
angled feet, the overall impression that the artist projects of this lonely man and his
dog evokes a certain empathy between the subject and the viewer.

Gravestones during the 5th century identified not only the gender ad occupation of the
deceased but also of the age. As seen in the (fig.2) example this gravestone of a little
girl depicts her, as she would have been in life. Here the little girl holds two doves,
one with its beak close to her mouth as if kissing it; the other is perched on her left
hand. The girl wears a peplos fastened at both shoulders and open along her arms and
buttock. Her tender years are indicated by the lack of a belt and the slight disarray of
the bloused upper part of her dress, which has been flipped up by her motion in raising
the dove to her face. This gravestone found on the island of Paros was carved at a time w
hen decorated gravestones did no appear in Athens perhaps “because of an anti luxury
decree ”. Her hair is exquisitely stylized and according to Oliver “the detail of the
straps of her sandal and part of the plumage of the doves would have been indicated in
paint. ” One could imagine that the original result of the surmounted palmette finial and
the elegant hues of the painted pigments would have made this stele even more enchanting.
The experimentation in the previous example has paid off with an overall simplistic and
naturalistic look. This could be a description of a young girl saying her final farewells
to her treasured friends, or the doves could be a representation of her soul. Therefore,
just as she would free the doves so would death free her soul. There is a simplification
and fluidity of form and at the same time a complexity of meaning. Here, unlike in the
previous example, the artist is not so much confused with the physical renderings as he is
with the emotional representations, which are indicated by the contemplative gaze of the
child that goes beyond her years. The viewer can fully appreciate through this sculpture
“the artist’s innate feeling about what was right and perfect, and identify with the
unhurried, unsensational revelation in the common place of this beauty. ”

The Greeks had a saying “ ’Kalos Kagathos’ the beautiful and the good ,” where the outer
appearance of physical beauty reflected the moral goodness of mind and spirit. This was
the principal used to measure the essence of the mortal human. To the Greeks “Mortal man
became the standard by which thing were judged and measured. Buildings were made to
accommodate the body and please the eye of man, not a giant. Gods were portrayed as
resembling human beings, not fantastic creatures. As Sopohokles wrote in Antigone
‘wonders are there many, non more wonderful than man’. ” The fifth century stele of the
Athlete from Athens does justice to the statement above. Here is “a boy of fifteen ” who
must have loved sports when he was alive. He stares at his ‘strigil’ (the curved metal
tool used for cleansing the body after exercise), perhaps contemplating its use in his
next life in Hades, or perhaps reminiscing the many years it had served him by cleansing
his beautiful human body. His name Eupheros is inscribed on the pediment above his head.
Eupheros is dressed in a himation (large cloak) and sandals and wears a headband. The
folds of his drapery, which pile on his arm and wrap around his body subtly indicating the
natural contours of his body. According to Oliver “Eupheros was a victim of the plague
that ravaged Athens in 430-427 ” however, nothing the stone confirms this. Furthermore,
she goes on to say “a desire to commemorate the many victims of the plague may have
something to do with the reappearance of decorated gravestones in Athens at this time. ”
Whatever the reason, Eupheros certainly conveys the divine spark that the Greeks found in
every mortal through their outer appearance. With his noble simplicity and quite grandeur
Eupherous could have passed off as a God (had he not been on a stele). However, the fact
that he is not naked the lack of heroism which becomes evident in the next century, show
that although still experimenting the artist is not quite bold as to pass of man as God.
In the search to embody the complete man the artists of this period had to grapple with
the question of man’s immortality. This was a question that had to be left unresolved
till the next century. Consequently, this very doubt makes one appreciate and understand
the vulnerability in the simplicity of this boy. For, immortality is a question for which
we too have yet to find an answer.

Finally as we come to the end of the 5th century there continues to be a preference for
the lone figure steles, although steles with two or more figures do exist as well. Steles
that belonged to women most often depicted them with maids, and scented oil vases. They
were also depicted admiring their jewelry or gazing at mirrors, as in the example (fig.
5). However, this sort of depiction was not to exaggerate their vanity but to simply
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