Greek Grave Steles

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.

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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 artists 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 …