See the mastery of form developed in the Classical period translated to private art on this solemn gravestone.
This stele at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens
Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:
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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:03] At the end of the 5th century B.C.E., the end of the very brief period that we call the High Classical moment, there was a resurgence of funerary sculpture in Athens.
Dr. Beth Harris: [0:14] In fact, we’re standing in a room in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens that’s filled with grave markers, most of them in the form of what art historians call stele, or upright slabs, decorated with relief sculptures.
Dr. Zucker: [0:27] Not so different from what we in the modern world would recognize as a gravestone.
Dr. Harris: [0:33] Interestingly, there was a disappearance of this type of monument during that High Classical moment, and then we see it reappear.
Dr. Zucker: [0:39] What we do have in the High Classical moment is most of the great sculptors working on the sculptural program of the Parthenon and the other buildings of the Acropolis. We see private sculpture begin to re-emerge, that is, sculpture that’s not part of a program of the state.
Dr. Harris: [0:55] Before the Classical period, in the Archaic period, there were kouroi and korai, the male and female figures that were set up by the elite Greek families as funerary markers. During the period of democracy in Athens the state was primary, and not wealthy families.
Dr. Zucker: [1:13] You see this resurgence especially in the cemeteries just outside of the city gates of Athens.
Dr. Harris: [1:18] That’s where this particular sculpture was found, which is called the “Grave Stele of Hegeso.” Hegeso is the woman who’s shown seated, opening a box of jewelry presented to her by her servant and examining a necklace, which is no longer there but which was once represented in paint.
Dr. Zucker: [1:35] There’s such a precise rendering of the chair that she sits on.
Dr. Harris: [1:40] Don’t forget, women’s sphere was the home. Women were not allowed to be citizens of Athens. Hegeso is shown in a domestic setting. We see pilasters on either side and a pediment above, on which we see an inscription that says, “Hegeso, daughter of Proxenos.”
[1:56] Women in ancient Greece led very circumscribed lives that were defined by their relationships with men, first their fathers and then their husbands.
Dr. Zucker: [2:05] What I find most compelling is its quiet reverence. This is so much in keeping with the tradition of the High Classical that we see in Parthenon sculpture.
Dr. Harris: [2:15] This is a style that resembles very closely the kind of carving that we see on the figures on the Parthenon frieze, drapery that very closely follows the form of the body that creates elaborate folds and swirls that have a visual interest in their own right.
[2:31] The drapery that bunches up between her two arms and around her belly and between her breasts are beautiful passages of sculpting.
Dr. Zucker: [2:40] Her foot is resting on a footrest so that there’s no part of her that is actually touching the ground. We see a beautiful representation of her foot foreshortened and wearing a sandal.
[2:49] Look at the very delicate veil that falls to the right of the shoulder, or the way in which the drapes around her legs fall on the far side of the chair and yet the drape by her waist falls on this side of the chair. Although we have this very shallow space, we have the full width of the body.
[3:07] For all of this really vivid carving, this is a quiet image that is absolutely appropriate to the solemn mood of a grave stele.