Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.09.51

Matthias Steinhart, Die Kunst der Nachahmung: Darstellungen mimetischer Vorführungen in der griechischen Bildkunst archaischer und klassischer Zeit.   Mainz:  Philipp von Zabern, 2004.  Pp. xi, 154; ills. 31, pls. 48.  ISBN 3-8053-3338-2.  €86.00.  

Reviewed by Jeffrey Rusten, Cornell University (
Word count: 2852 words

When philologists and literary historians (of which this reviewer is one) want to study the beginnings of Athenian performance before the 5th century, we usually turn to Dithyramb, Tragedy and Comedy. That is a mistake. The evidence for performances in 6th (and early 5th)-century Greece is found in pictures rather than texts, yet modern scholars' insistence on subordinating them to the history of literary genres has condemned them to a limited circulation as objects of controversy -- vivid and detail-rich images, often preserved in their entirety (and dateable!), are assumed to make no sense unless they can be accounted for by Aristotle's Poetics, a citation in Athenaeus or a scrap from Hesychius or the Suda.

By contrast, Die Kunst der Nachahmung is one of a new generation of studies, a wide-ranging, generously illustrated,1 richly documented, large-format (and relatively inexpensive) book offering a fresh approach to the study of archaic images of Greek performance. Texts are by no means neglected, being cited and translated as relevant, but interpretations start from close "readings" and comparisons of the visual elements rather than preconceived theories or the hunt for specific origins. In fact, S(teinhart) does not deal with theories of dramatic origins ancient or modern, nor with the early history of any literary genre. He seeks first to consider a complex of questions: What types of mimetic performances are represented in Greek art before the familiar genres appear at the Dionysia of Athens; how can we recognize them as performances; and how do they relate to textual descriptions of archaic Greek performance? Then he proceeds to two specific problems: what Greek religious rituals (not just archaic) involved mimetic performance? And finally: need all satyrs not in familiar Dionysiac surroundings be depictions of satyr plays, and if not, what roles are they playing?

Along with a survey of approaches to mimesis in literature and art (and the kinds of artistic mimesis he will not cover here), Chapter I introduces the crucial concept of a "Bildbruch", a disturbance or disruption in the visual logic of a scene that juxtaposes different levels of content, which S. considers a potential indication that the scene is mimetic (my translation):

Deviations of this kind from the normal customs of representation are designated here as Bildbrüche, meaning a notable and obvious lack of correspondence or even an error in iconographical visual consistency. As will be shown, pictures of this kind can nevertheless be interpreted if we understand them as representations of role-playing, the embodiment of models chosen deliberately, which, according to ancient terminology, form a part of Mimesis, that is imitation. Such representations of some models are of fundamental importance in the cultural history of Greece .... When it comes to the diverse pictorial reproductions of such role playing, they can be recognized because, as in many representations of Greek theater, the costuming of the participants is reproduced. But as a novel approach to mimetic images, the "break" in the iconographic pictorial consistency just described can significantly expand the visual spectrum of role-playing in archaic and classical times.

This Bildbruch seems to derive from practical observation rather than having a theoretical basis, and it is somewhat differently (though quite successfully, with a few exceptions) applied in the numerous images that follow.2 (Even the rather full summary below is necessarily selective.)

Chapter II covers a particularly diverse and problematic set of images of dancers, including those best-known to philologists, the archaic Attic choruses discussed by G. M. Sifakis and expanded by J. R. Green,3 that clearly indicate performance through costume, the presence of an aulete, or dance-gestures, but also present problems of interpretation in costume or choral identity. It is inevitable that this chapter will provoke the most disagreement, and these images also form an organizational challenge. S. begins (8-11) with three examples of male choruses with a significant oddity ("2-feather" headbands, handstand-dancing like Hippokleides, walking on stilts). He proceeds to a discussion of armed choruses, but spends most of this section (11-20) on the pyrriche, which has been especially widely studied recently (his omission of Ceccarelli is notable). Noting the lack of vase-paintings from its traditional homelands in Sparta and Crete, he finds pictorial traces of war-dances in 7th century Crete in dedicatory inscriptions of decorative weapons, and in leg-raising figures he interprets as dancing Curetes (12-13). The numerous Attic vase-paintings of pyrrichists begin ca. 530, and S. initially limits himself to those with a clear Bildbruch, usually in the form of a stationary aulete: the dancers are mostly solo or in pairs; large groups are rare, though the pyrriche was a tribal competition at the Panathenaea (a prize amphora shows a pyrrichist with shields on each arm, as described by Xenophon). Other pyrrichists may possibly be associated with Artemis; some may be women, which leads S. to the odd suggestion (p. 20) that, on the well-known rf Basel column-krater, the 6 dancers raising both arms in front of a rising, hooded, bearded figure, are grieving Amazons.

His subsequent discussion of rider- and animal-choruses, the most frequent candidates for imaginative illustrations of dramatic/choral performances, is initially rather skeptical: in the series of hoplite dolphin-riders (with aulete or inscribed song) "it makes little sense to pursue the often-posed question of whether they go back to one or several performances" (21, in contrast to his later discussion 31). He prefers to place the emphasis here on the hoplites, and suggests at least the latest of them allude to Athenian naval power. Also contrary to standard opinion is his suggestion that the dancing "Minotaurs" of a bf hydria in London and the cock-costumed men with aulete in a bf Berlin amphora might be connected with Dionysus-steers and Athena-cocks respectively.4 Even if these interpretations are not entirely persuasive to the present reviewer, S. gives good illustrations and full references to previous discussions.

This chapter concludes with several images where a Bildbruch (an aulete or dancers juxtaposed to a mythical figure) indicates dance with mythic content, or courtship scenes where the fact that both partners are adult males, and both are dancing, might suggest an erotic dance. Next there is a reminder -- as if to moderate the skepticism of some of the preceding interpretations -- that the comic performances of a certain Sousarion, attested by the Parian Marble, are contemporary with the earliest of these animal-mimes, (He might have added that the second half of Sousarion's name brings him especially close to the dolphin-riders, although it does not explain why they are armed.)5 Finally he notes that the stag-horns and other gear attributed to the precursors of bucolic in one ancient theory (Scholia Theocritus p. 2 Wendel) are found on a dancer on an early Hellenistic seal (31 n. 282).

Chapter III is devoted to the Corinthian "Dickbauchtänzer" (in English usually not "fat-bellied" but "padded dancers" since their projecting bellies and buttocks seem to be a costume; calling them "komasts" might be thought to beg the question of their identity). These figures are depicted on drinking vessels dancing, with projecting elbows and three recurring dance-steps, around kraters or carrying drinking horns in 7th century Corinth (where they are the only kind of mimetic characters), then spread to Athens and Boiotia in the early 6th century, and are found in variations in archaic Sparta as well.6 T. J. Smith is preparing a complete collection of them all, but Steinhart's interest is restricted to padded dancers with a clear Bildbruch, which places the dancers in alien contexts that suggest mimetic dances, and these turn out to be among the most famous and problematic of the genre: the first is an alabastron that shows the padded dancers hunting (quite ineptly) a panther, and in their midst a padded kitharist and diaulete, and a male bust rising chthonically from the ground for good measure -- this jumble, he suggests, is a send-up in dance of an aristocratic hunt (the sort danced seriously in Pindar's hyporcheme fr. 107). Next a kotyle of the Samos painter in the Louvre, which combines padded dancers with comic names and Heracles' battle against the Hydra, is argued to be a single unit, because of the stances of the surrounding dancers and the centrality of the krater -- once again a parody-dance, this time of a story from myth. Another suggested performance is on an amphoriskos from Athens (40-3) where a returning Hephaestus on an ass is preceded by two backward-looking padded dancers (ithyphallic but not, S. argues, proto-satyrs); here again he uses the figural composition to show the scene's unity and suggests that the other characters are Dionysus and his family (Oinopion, Staphylos, Ariadne).

But when he comes to the Corinthian vase most commonly assumed to depict performance,7 the so-called Dümmler krater in the Louvre (by the Ophelandros painter, the same artist as the Return of Hephaestus just considered), S. argues for a different kind of composition. He starts from the characteristics of each figure, and points out that on one side there is only a single padded dancer who sings, accompanied by a diaulete -- the three other male figures are nude, named and engaged in vase-transport, not dancing (though they watch the singing dancer.) On the other side the scene is nearly filled by six stacked kraters, while squeezed to the right are two men in head-stocks (one naked, one clothed), one of whom reaches back to grasp the food offered to him by a woman from her basket. S. returns to Greifenhagen's long-abandoned suggestion that the krater-storage characterizes one side as a pot-factory and belongs to a group of generic slave-punishment scenes. S. adds that the other side too is likely another part of the same factory, since the workers are carrying a pot (of indeterminate shape), lifted by two men not because it is full, but because it does not yet have handles attached, and being prodded on by a man carrying two kiln-rakes as known from other potter-depictions. How can a singing dancer and diaulete invade a pottery factory? As an analogy S. cites for a change a literary text, a particularly felicitous one: the hexameters sung to a group of potters (Homer Epigram 14 = Hesiod fr. 302) invoking blessings or curses on their work according to how they repay him. Though S. does not go this far, to this reviewer it does not seem too outlandish to suggest that the two scenes might thus represent episodes in the life of the factory that produced this particular krater, a sort of mise en abîme (or what we might call "meta-pottery").8

This section continues with suggested interpretations of padded dancers in some unusual contexts: amidst women dancers clothed (women's cults of Artemis or Hera?) or naked (prostitutes' cult of Aphrodite?), a single dining male figure (perhaps a cult hero), sirens and a sphinx (clearly not sepulchral, perhaps musical). S. concludes by insisting that the padded dancers in Corinthian art, with their distinctive but consistent costume, should be interpreted not as mumming aristocrats nor as beggars (and certainly not as demons), but as professional entertainers, performing in various aristocratic contexts of symposium or cult (not that these two were always separable). This does not however mean they are the main precursors of Old Comedy, since they are not masked and the phallus is rare (56-7); but he proposes a connection with the dithyramb and Dionysiac cults as favored by the Kypselids, suggested among other things by the chronological correspondence of the tyrant-family with the appearance of the dancers, numerous instances of dancers' lameness, and the occasional presence of dolphins in their midst.

Some modern theorists posit cultic re-enactments of religious stories (dromena) as the origin of drama, so it is valuable to have in chapter IV a collection of the alleged instances of impersonations of gods in religious contexts, such as the virgin drawn in a chariot by deer, evidently as Artemis (Pausanias 7.8.12). Here the most space is devoted to the impersonation of Athena staged by Peisistratus to regain power (Herodotus 1.60.2), assuming that it could only work if such "epiphanies" had a cultural context (there are two examples of Dioscuri "epiphanies" from Polyaenus). Pointing to images that may depict Athena competing as pyrrichist and apobates, S. argues that the term paraibates used for Peisistratus in Aristotle's version of the story suggests the latter, and adds the Libyans' parade of an Athena-impersonator at a festival in Herodotus 4.180. Next S. considers the clearly mimetic Stepterion at Delphi (called mimema and hypomnema by Plutarch and Strabo), for which however no clear pictorial representations are known; then the ritual which the scholia to Lysistrata describe as "girls imitating the bears" at Brauron, giving the story it re-enacts. Here there are two plausible scenes of running girls (with a central palm for Artemis), one of which depicts the girls as naked and, in a fragment, what is presumed to be a statue of bear (its back is so high it must be on a base) under the central palm -- thus it is not the bear, but its intended victims that the girls imitate. Next the plowing rituals of the Bouzygai and others, where S. notes ingeniously that the three plowmen of the Nikosthenes cup in Berlin correspond to the three such events listed by Plutarch. What is called the mystikon drama of Demeter's search for Persephone and her return in the Eleusinian mysteries lacks detailed pictorial confirmation, although the fact that Alcibiades could be accused of an insulting imitation of it suggests a performance. Next are mimetic rituals possibly associated with the Anthesteria, all known also on vases: the hieros gamos of the wife of the archon Basileus to Dionysus, the swings of the Aiora, and the ship-wagons of Dionysus (more likely the Dionysia than the Anthesteria). S. ends the list with the well-known sculptural motif of Hermes carrying a goat on his shoulders (imitated in a cult in Tanagra according to Pausanias), the wedding of Zeus and Hera, and the deeds of Theseus (in the geranos dance and Athenian Oschophoria). In closing this section, he notes the sharp distinction between the hybristic Salmoneus-like impersonation of a god privately, and religiously sanctioned impersonations using human youth and beauty, imposing surroundings (chariots and sound-effects), as well as more allusive re-enactments, as in the swing of the Aiora. (I don't think, however, that he has proved his conclusion [p. 100] that cultic impersonations have "had a rich effect" on art.) When it comes to satyrs in Chapter V, S's aims are different: he does not wish to expand the number of satyr-scenes associated with actual performances but to strike many of them off the list (in Appendix 2 he gives a more rigorous list of the 115 vases that he thinks can be securely linked to satyr plays, a far smaller number than previous ones). At the same time he opens up a new category, beginning ca 530 BC (probably before satyr plays existed), with satyrs substituted for the more normal figures in a wide variety of scenes: satyrs picking and stomping grapes for wine, playing games, satyr-athletes, satyrs as aristocratic erastai, satyrs praying and sacrificing, satyr-pyrrichists and kitharists, satyr-blacksmiths and sculptors, satyr shepherds, hunters and fishermen, finally satyrs as criminals vandalizing tombs and herms, or torturing a bound woman. Unlike the performance-mimesis hitherto discussed, S. seems right to view this kind of Bildbruch as an entirely intra-artistic enterprise; he implicitly assumes that even the few such "originals" of these satyr-substitutions not currently attested did in fact once exist. Particularly striking are the baby-satyrs running a torch-race (Pl. 43.2-3) the satyr mutilating with an axe the face of a herm (pl. 46.3, well before 415 B. C.) and the satyr on a "Lenaean" vase offering a kantharos to the mask of Dionysus (pl. 42.1). This phenomenon has certainly been remarked upon before, but not to my knowledge studied so systematically, and it would be interesting to speculate on its possible meanings: are these images kitsch in the style of poker-playing dogs, or could satyrs in art be a vehicle for satire that they do not seem to have been on the stage?

The conclusion returns to the conceptual framework of the book, reviewing (with tables) how often one must rely on a Bildbruch in its different forms to elucidate the mimetic character of the image. It is followed by complete indices of names, works of art and texts cited. The absence of a general bibliography is understandable since the number of works cited, especially in German, is so large (many of the pages have as much notes as text, although the large format and skilful two-column layout give the pages a graceful look).

Such a wide-ranging collection must rely heavily on work done by previous scholars, and take stands on dozens of iconographic controversies, so that specialists on paintings of armed dances, padded-dancers and satyrs will doubtless find interpretations with which to differ; it also remains to be seen how S's criterion of the Bildbruch will be received and further applied. But the book's comprehensiveness, its clear organization, abundant bibliography and beautiful illustrations will make it a starting-point for anyone wanting to study archaic Greek performance.


1.   The book's 130 pages of text are supplemented by 48 plates containing more than 150 large individual photographs and more than 30 drawings in the text itself.
2.   There is a list of the types of Bildbruch in the table on page 130. Similarly variable is S's use of "mimetic" itself, which initially designates a role-playing sort of performance -- dramatic as opposed, for example, to rhapsodic -- but other times the visual depiction of such performers, and later still (in the case of satyrs in chapter V) the substitution of alien figures imitating the "normal" ones in previous art.
3.   Gregory M. Sifakis, Parabasis and Animal Choruses: A Contribution to the History of Attic Comedy (London 1971) and J. R. Green, "A Representation of the Birds of Aristophanes", Greek Vases in the J. Paul Getty Museum, 95-118 2. 1985. The "Berlin Knights" was among the images "performed" in the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Olympics.
4.   S. is skeptical even (p. 27-8) of the sword-bearing maenad brandishing an animal-haunch, to the accompaniment of an aulete, on a rf pelike in Berlin: most think it tragic, but he suggests a symposium-dance.
5.   I myself have covered some of the same ground in a forthcoming article (forthcoming in AJP 127.1 (March 2006)), arguing that the three main strands of ancient theories for the prehistory of Athenian comedy (phallika, Dorian and Sousarion) are paralleled by three kinds of visual evidence ca 550-480 B. C. (phallic processions, fat-bellied dancers and comic rider-choruses), and that the first comedies at the Dionysia of 486 might have drawn from all these types of non-serious performance.
6.   Two unusually coarse scenes (p. 35 ill. 9), one of male anal intercourse and another of defecation, are found on a cup dedicated at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia in Sparta and may reflect the kinds of helot drunken performances described by Plutarch, see Tyler Jo Smith. "Dances, Drinks and Dedications: the Archaic Komos in Laconia", in Sparta in Laconia (ed. S. E. C. Walker and William G. Cavanagh, London 1998) 77.
7.   To S.'s bibliography add the recent discussion of Rainer Kerkhof, Dorische Posse, Epicharm und attische Komödie (Munich 2001) 24-30.
8.   For two different approaches to this technique see Lucien Dällenbach, The Mirror in the Text (Chicago 2001) and Helga Gericke, Gefässdarstellungen auf griechischen Vasen (Berlin 1977).

Read Latest
Index for 2005
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:30:26, Friday, 03 April 2009