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