Death in Athens

Why do Greek stelai leave the viewer with all the work to extrapolate information? Are they portraits or standard representations of Athenian views of death?

To commemorate the life of a dead individual in Ancient Greece, richer families commissioned the production of a stele, which was then placed to mark the grave of the prominent individual. Although these stelai were built to honour the dead man or woman, they left the viewer of the stele to extrapolate all the information pertaining to the honoured. Moreover, they can be considered to be standard representations of Athenian views of death rather than personal portraits.

The stelai leave the observer with all the work to extrapolate information because they have a single plane on which to portray the character of the deceased, evidenced in the way that the stelai of Hegeso and Ilissos both are sculpted only on one side. All stelai were sculpted on one side because they were only meant to be viewed on that side and therefore sculpting on all sides would have been redundant. Nevertheless, this single plane on which there were figures limits the amount of information that the sculptor is able to relay directly to the viewer. Consequently, there is greater responsibility for the viewer to retrieve the narrative from the stele. The single plane also coaxes the viewer to focus on the figures and on nothing else. This means that the viewer has no choice but to try and understand the story that the stele is trying to tell.

Stelai leave the viewer to extrapolate information because they are standardised. This can be seen in that both the stelai of Hegeso and Drexileos were found in the keramaikos, the ancient cemetery of Athens. These stelai would have been produced on an ancient form of mass production. Instead of being individually tailored to every individual, a family would simply choose one from a range and ask for it to be made. This means they can be very impersonal. This means that the viewer has to extrapolate information because small changes in the details may change the stele from the original ‘master copy’. Because the stelai would have been very similar and there would have been some which were exactly the same, the viewer would have to look closely at the figures to understand what this certain stele was trying to say about the deceased.

The limited number of figures on the stele means that the viewer has to extrapolate more information than they are given: consider the grave stelai of Hegeso and Dexileos both only have two figures, two women and two men respectively. The limited number of figures that are on a stele mean that the narrative of the stele is limited because it is extremely difficult to tell the story of a person’s whole life through only two figures. This means that the viewer has to interpret the images much more deeply than usual and must take every detail of the figures into account in order create a complete narrative.

The stelai force the viewer to extrapolate information because it can increase the reputation of the deceased. It is possible to see that with the stelai of Drexileos and Ilissos, the mind of the viewer wanders from the concrete figures to the abstract thoughts of the achievements of the people in the figures. With the quasi-minimalistic number of figures, the viewer is obligated to build upon it with their own imagination. This means that the viewer creates his or her own story, which is very likely to be an amplified version of the reality. In this way, the person who is being remembered, gains a greater posthumous reputation than maybe they had when they were alive. By allowing space for the viewer to digress and formulate their own account of their life, it honours the dead in a greater way.

Stelai were simply standard representations of Athenian views on death, shown by the grave stelai of Hegeso and Drexileos were found in the keramaikos which was the cemetery of Athens. As I have previously mentioned, these would have been produced on a huge scale and would not have been designed personally for individuals. They would have been chosen from a range and possibly slightly altered but otherwise there would have been several stelai which had the identical designs. This means that stelai were standard representations of death because they were built for the sole purpose for being grave markers. As a result, there would have been limited designs because there were certain accepted Athenian views of death. This is also because stelai were built by citizens to be admired by citizens. This means that there was only a certain range of subjects which were able to be displayed in public.

Stelai were in fact portraits if the deceased because they varied in size and some actually had the names of the subject inscribed in them. This is evident as the stele of Drexileos has his name on it and is much larger, over 2m tall, than the stele of the River Ilissos which is only 1.68 m tall. The size of a stele was used as a personal portrait of the individual and the family. This is because it was a definite, concrete affirmation of their wealth. This was a portrait of the individual because it showed how great they were to have acquired so much wealth in their life. The naming of some stele showed that they were a portrait because when a viewer stopped to look at the stele, the name, along with sculpture created a certain image of that person’s life. It allowed a certain stele to be identified from all the others that were of the same design. An identity is important in creating a portrait of the deceased, which is to be remembered.

Although many stelai were identical, they were still portraits because each stele was chosen for a particular person. This is shown by how the stele of the River Ilissos has figures which clearly show a young hunter and the elderly man he will never become. The stele of Drexileos shows a cavalryman in battle. Both of these figures are relevant to the deceased person. There is no sculpture of a woman weaving on the River Ilissos stele, nor is there an image of him addressing a large crowd because neither is suitable. The family carefully chose the stele sculpture in order to show the best side to the dead person. This means that although the sculpture is generic, its application is personal and is a portrait of the person. This is compounded by the fact that the sculptors made small alterations to the master copy to slightly tailor it to the individual. This demonstrates how instead of general views of death, the stele were in fact portraits.

Overall, the stele leave the observer with all the work to extrapolate information, not only because of the physical limits of the stele, but also because it allows the human mind to wander and wonder how great the person was in life to merit such a great memorial in death. This also adds to why stele were in fact portrait of the individual rather than a general representation of Athenian views on death. This is also because small alterations accompanied by the suitability of the sculpture makes them personal and public monuments contemporaneously.

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