Greek Grave StelesThe 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 state that their outer beauty reflected the inner. The artist ?endeavors to create ideal beauty and goodness that were identical not only figuratively but actually. ? As a result the artist went beyond the formal and technical means of creating harmonious and balanced images to impart to their works of art something of this ?greatness of spirit. ? There is nothing that is affected theatrical or superficial about this girl. She simply stares at the mirror in the same contemplative mood as Euperous. The back of her hair is veiled and she is adorned with earrings. She wears a peplos with an additional shawl wrapped around her shoulders. The shawl has then been flipped casually over her arm, and it has fallen back towards her elbow when the mirror was raised up. It is a pity that this stele should be so damaged. However, the pleasure of a ruined antiquity is imagining it original splendor. With the other examples one sees the tremendous strides that the artist has made by desiring to reach higher planes technically and physiologically through his sculpture. And these two planes met during the fifth century before Christ and made an impact on people, for many centuries to come. Therefore, at the end of this golden period when art was almost at a climax one could anticipate the achieved advancements of this stele even though the stele itself is quite ruinous. Likewise, one cannot help but be reminded, just as the girl in the stele might be thinking, that even such idealistic achievements must come to an end. This young girl with her broken arm damaged hair who in the prime of her life was the embodiment of the Greek ideal gives this stele a poignancy of an unfinished epitaph.
By the end of the Pelopenisioan war and the beginning of the fourth century gravel steles change dramatically. Gone are the elusive single figured steles. During the fourth century steles with three or more figures become popular. As a result these steles become less like the original steles and more like meteopes of a building, where the stone slab becomes less rectangular and more broader. According to Bordman, by the addition of more figures, apart from taking the viewer’s focus away from the deceased, it also made it harder for the deceased to be always readily distinguished, unlike in the example. (fig.6). Dated around 350-340, this marble stele was found in Athens at the river Ilissus. The aloof nude young man is the dead, while ?his father sadly contemplates his sons untimely death. ? There is ambiguity on weather a slave or a younger brother weeps or sleeps. According to Barron the boy weeps and according to Rielter the boy ignorantly sleeps while a dog noses around in a puzzled air. Unlike in the classical period and in the Archaic period the dead is depicted as a nude. And unlike in the classical period where the viewer was able to identify with the deceased, here the viewer is more inclined to identify with the mourners. It seems that the artist having mastered the techniques of depicting a realistic profile view in the previous century now depicts a successful frontal view. The diseased (fig.6) is in a vacant gaze, and stares past the observer. The artist has rendered the young man with a heroic quality, and in doing so has distanced the viewer from the diseased. In the classical stele ?there are no obvious promises or threats of what might lie beyond the grave, simply an appreciation of life and a quite record of loss. However the fourth century stele begins to popularize even in Attica the death feast motif where the dead reclines as a hero and there are intimations of immortality. ? The artist no longer doubts mans immortality but is completely sure of it and so is the young man on the stele. This takes away the vulnerability that the classical steles embodied. One might more likely be awed by this than be touched as one was with the classical stele. Steles such as this one continued to be built, until cemeteries of Athens become cultural showplaces. ?By a sumptuary decree Demetrious Poliorketes who governed Athens put an end this lavish display in 317. ?
?And here the story ends, the anti luxury decree of Derrios forbade the erection of sculptural gravestones and thenceforth there appear only insignificant pillars bowls and slabs in the graveyards. ? The new law killed one of the most beautiful forms of artistic expression and not until the second century B.C did elaborate sculptural gravestones appear. However, it never rose to the enchanting simplicity and physiological complexity that the classical period achieved. Although the Romans did make successful copies of these steles ?the Roman copies do not convey the subtleties and magnificence of the Greek proto types, and they lack the inner life we sense in the original work. ? In the classical period if the figures on a stele contemplated they did not make an outward show of it as steles from the fourth century, if they were engaged in a certain action, it was done simply and naturally, unlike the exaggerated action of steles of the Archaic period. And yet these steles were not absolutely perfect or flawless, for that was something artists were still striving for during the fifth century. This makes it all the more appealing since it represents the continuous human struggle for perfection and never quite reaching it. The statement below shows how the emotion that the classical period evokes in one is capable of even overriding logical thought
One of the most deeply rooted notions of civilized man is that there existed, at some time in the remote past an era when humanity reached a glory from which it has been in decline ever since. This is the belief in the golden age. The Greeks dreamed of a golden age just as we do now:
When Saturn did reign, there lived no poor
The king and beggars on roots did dine.
But when we think of a golden age we think most often of that classical period in Ancient Greece roughly defined as the fifth century BC, distinguished for art of a serene and restrained majesty, and an ideal beauty of proportion form and impression to which we have never attained.
(Robertson Davis ? The Greek Miracle : Reflections of a Golden Age pp69)
Finally one cannot help but ponder if the Greek stele sculptors would still have carved such enigmatic expression of the departed had they known that these would be their portals to immortality.
1. Barron, John. Greek Sculpture, E.P. Dutton and Co. Inc., Newyork,
2. Bordman, John. Greek Sculpture : The Classical Period, Thames and
Hudson Ltd., 1985.
3. Bordman, John. Greek Sculpture: The late Classical Period, Thames and
Hudson Ltd., 1995.
4. Lawrence, A.W. Greek and Roman Sculpture.
5. Oliver, Diana. The Greek Miracle, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
5. Richter, M.A. The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks, Yale University
Press, London, 1950.
List of Illustrations
Fig.1 Relief of warrior runner, Marble, 570-500B.C National Museum, Athens. Photo taken from : Richter, The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks, pp372.
Fig.2 Grave Stele by Alxnor of Naxos, Marble, 490-480B.C. National Museum of Athens. Photo taken from: Barron, Greek Sculputre, pp50.
Fig.3 Grave Stele of a little girl, Marble, 450-440B.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo taken from: Oliver, The Greek Miracle. Pp141.
Fig.4 Grave Stele of Eupheros, Marble, 430-420B.C. Kerameikos Museum, Athens. Photo taken from: Oliver, The Greek Miracle. PP143.
Fig.5 Grave Stele of a girl with mirror, Marble, 420-410B.C. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photo taken from : Richter, The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks, pp535
Fig. 6 Gravestone from near the river Ilissos, Marble,340B.C. National Museum of Athens. Photo taken from: Bordmen, Greek Sculpture: The Late Classical Period. Pp125
Figure 1 Relief of warrior runner, Marble,
Figure 2 Grave Stele by Alxnor of Naxos, Marble, 490-480BC.
Figure 3 Grave Stele of a little girl, Marble 450-440
Figure 4, Grave Stele of Eupheros, Marble, 430- 420BC.
Figure 5 Grave Stele of a girl with mirror, Marble,420-410
Figure 6 Gravestone from near the river Ilissos, Marble 340BC.
The Portals to Immortality