BMCR 2002.11.18

Greek Funerary Sculpture. Catalogue of the Collections at the Getty Villa

, , Greek funerary sculpture : catalogue of the collections at the Getty Villa. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001. ix, 159 pages : illustrations ; 31 cm. ISBN 0892366125 $55.00.

This publication follows, after some thirteen years, that of Guntram Koch’s (with Karol Wight) on the Roman funerary sculpture at the Getty villa, which was the first to treat specific sections of the permanent collections of antiquities. Like Koch’s catalogue, Grossman’s is organized geographically and chronologically, but she, fortunately, includes an introduction and an index, which the earlier publication does not.

The catalogue entries number fifty-nine sculptures from Attica (34 Classical; 1 Hellenistic), Megara, Boeotia, Northern Greece, East Greece (1 Classical; 10 Hellenistic), South Italy (6 Late Classical/Early Hellenistic), 2 others of questionable authenticity, and 2 more that were formerly in the Getty collection. Date, material, measurements, condition, and bibliography are given for all entries, the majority of which are stelai (6 categories), but which also include lekythoi, loutrophoroi, animals, anthemia, and sirens. Not surprising there is a wide range in quality, although the majority are well carved and several reach very high standards, such as catalogue numbers 14, 22 and 46.

The introduction is concise, but nicely puts this diverse collection of objects into an historical context beginning when marble grave markers were first produced in Greece in the Archaic period (600-480 B.C.) to their virtual disappearance in the late fourth century — at least in Athens (see the East Greek and South Italian examples dating to the late Classical and Early Hellenistic periods). It is, therefore, unfortunate that the collection does not include an example of funerary sculpture from the Archaic period (excluding the Getty kouros) that would fill the void before 480 B.C. — the date of the earliest object, number 36 (the only example of Megarian funerary sculpture [according to the letter forms], although it may well have been carved in an Attic workshop). Note that the two “sixth-century examples” are perhaps forgeries (nr. 58), or at best, in the case of number 56, a later ancient (?) imitation of an Archaic work.

It is impossible in this context to discuss every entry so that only some of those about which I have observations or questions will be included. The earliest Attic stele (nr. 1), dating c. 420 B.C. depicts three figures — a seated man, and two standing females. The two women are identified as a mother/daughter pair in the act of shaking hands, the so-called dexiosis, a common gesture for grave reliefs, although it is usually between a standing and a seated figure. In such a case, the seated figure is normally thought to be the deceased who is saying goodbye to a living relative. In the case of the Getty stele both figures engaged in the dexiosis are standing, while the seated figure looks towards the two females. What are we to make of this? Grossman concludes that the shorter of the two females (the daughter, so identified because of the “hanging sleeve” of her cloak, a motif associated with youth) is the deceased (because her head is thought to be covered?), “a young woman ripe for marriage who died before she could wed.” The lack of any painted or inscribed names further exacerbates the difficulty of reading this stele, but even in cases where inscriptions exist, the meaning of the relief sculpture is not always clear.

For example, names are inscribed on a stele (nr. 4), identifying Philoxenos and Philoumene, who are depicted standing and shaking hands, but it is not clear to whom this stele is dedicated. Because Philoxenos is dressed in military garb he is believed to be the deceased fallen in battle, yet we cannot be sure that this is the correct interpretation. Furthermore, the identification of Philoumene as the wife of Philoxenos is surmised, but again is not assured. Grossman points out that her upright gaze (and stance that is almost a mirror image to the male figure) is in contrast to the usual lowered head “thought appropriate to a well-bred Athenian woman.” Could Philoumene be the mother of Philoxenos, accounting perhaps for her unusual gaze? The beard depicted on Philoxenos is usually interpreted as a sign of “old age” rather than of “youth”, but even this aspect of the image does not rule out a mother/son relationship. Indeed, another grave stele (nr. 6) a bearded man (Thrasynos) shaking hands with a seated woman (Archilla) is interpreted as a mother, bidding farewell to her deceased son while her husband (Thrasonides) stands behind her. Were it not for the preserved inscriptions we would be hard pressed to interpret these relationships. But, because Thrasynos is in the nominative while the other two are in the genitive cases, it is clear the gravestone is dedicated to him. Otherwise, we might be inclined to see the seated female figure as the deceased.

Number 6 is intriguing also because it appears to have been re-carved in antiquity. Thrasonides, the father, originally wore a cloak that was later re-carved into a long, loose tunic. Furthermore, his left hand (visible beneath the clasped hands of the dexiosis of mother and son) holds a long knife (incised into the garment of Thrasynos), and these are likely to have been carved when this figure was transformed into the image of a priest (suggested by the loose tunic and knife). Grossman explains that this re-carving is ‘noteworthy’, but she does not attempt an explanation. I understand her apparent reluctance to offer a reason for this transformation because it is impossible to know the circumstances under which such re-carving was carried out. Yet, the fact that it was re-carved is fascinating, suggesting that grave stelai carried more than funerary significance. Indeed, Grossman mentions (p. 3) that such images served a public as well as a private function. They were dedicated to a particular person, yet the depiction of living family members indicates the desire, or even the necessity, for a public display of familial relationships. Such gravestones, therefore, could act as pseudo-legal documents in claims of inheritance, legitimacy, and of social standing. Thrasonides’ image was likely re-carved, therefore, when he obtained a priestly office, which must have come about only after the death of his son. In this way Thrasonides raised his own social prominence as well as that of his wife’s and deceased son’s. It is only in the context of a publicly displayed monument, rather than a simple funerary object, that such a re-carving can be understood.

Another apparent re-carving occurs on number 7: the stele of Mynnia with her mother Euphrosyne and her sister Artemisias. In this case, according to Grossman, the second line of the two-line inscription on the architrave above the heads of the carved figures was increased with the addition of the name Artemisias and her father’s patronymic, Eutelo. The entire inscription reads:


Here lies Mynnia to the sorrow of her mother,
Euphrosyne. Artemisias, Mynnia (daughters) of Euteles

Grossman does not explain her reasons for assuming such a re-carving, although the photograph (p. 25) and the drawing of this inscription (p. 26) appear to show that the final sigma of Artemisias is slightly compressed and that the letters are larger. It is likely that the final sigma is misplaced (an even later addition?) because Artemisias, as opposed to Artemisia, is otherwise not attested as an ancient Greek name. On the other hand, Eutelo (which according to Grossman was also added later) fits nicely into the space provided. The proposed interpretation is that Euphrosyne is the seated and veiled figure at the left, and that Mynnia, the deceased, is the standing figure at the right, shaking hands with her mother. A considerably smaller figure (Artemisias) kneels between these two and raises her right hand to the seated woman, her mother. Each image is identifiable because the positioning of the words in the second line of the inscription appears to correspond with the figure below each name. So far so good.

If, however, the names of Artemisia[s], and that of her (and Mynnia’s) father, Euteles, were added at a later time, we must ask what could possibly account for such additions. According to Grossman, “[p]erhaps Artemisias died after the relief was carved, but before marriage…”, and her name was then added above to honor her death. If this were the case, why was an image of Artemisia[s], right hand gesturing upward (in grief?) towards her mother, included in the original grouping of figures and why was she not named originally? Furthermore, the seated figure, identified as the living mother, Euphrosyne, is veiled and looks down. If it were not for the inscription, I am sure we would interpret her as the deceased rather than the standing figure. Finally, why was Euteles an apparent afterthought? Was he already deceased by the time of Mynnia’s death, and therefore his name could not appear on the relief? It was clearly important enough that his name be added as the father by the time of the possible death of his second daughter, Artemisia[s]. Was the addition of his name as the father of these children so that the surviving Euphrosyne could claim an inheritance? We obviously will never know the events that prompted these additions to this gravestone, but their existence cannot be ignored. It seems clear, moreover, that such changes imply Attic gravestones were more than singular funerary objects; they were important public testaments of family relationships.

Another example of a change to a grave monument is suggested for a naiskos (nr. 9), but the evidence for such a change is, to my mind, not convincing. It depicts three figures whose names are inscribed on the architrave (“Theogenis, Nikodemos (son) of Polyllos”) and on the geison (“Nikomache”). According to Grossman, because the name Nikomache was carved by a different hand, and is positioned apart from the others it is “a later addition.” Furthermore, the carving and placement of the left hands of the two standing figures, and an unfinished area behind the head of Nikodemos suggest that these figures have been re-cut. Yet, the placement of the carved names on both the geison and the architrave is found on other grave monuments (see for example nr. 10), and the apparent different carving of the name Nikomache is not necessarily diagnostic of a later addition. Also, the “unusual” left hands of Theogenis and Nikodemos are comparable to the left hand of a figure on another naiskos (nr. 14), and the “unfinished” area near the head of Nikodemos is not necessarily indicative of re-carving. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the seated figure, apparently Nikomache, was, according to Grossman, originally nameless when the other two figures were identified by inscriptions. As a result of Grossman’s arguments for the later addition of the name of Nikomache, she must conclude that the naiskos is dedicated to Theogenis, the standing woman at the left. Yet, the seated figure, Nikomache, to whom the two other figures (apparently sister and brother) gaze, seems a more likely candidate for the deceased. Indeed, see another naiskos (nr. 14) with a similar composition, but without preserved inscription, in which it is difficult to determine the deceased. Finally, the presence of the father’s name, Polyllos, in the inscription but not in the figural relief could suggest that he was already deceased. Thus, the inclusion of Nikodemos in the center of the composition may publicly declare his new position as head of the family upon the death of his mother.

The peribolos, or family burial plot, usually lasted up to three generations, giving substantial time for re-carving or additions to be made to older grave monuments. Furthermore, it is likely that the addition of monuments to the plot over time helped in solidifying family relationships, so that changes made to older monuments may have been to “update” the development of the family. But, these monuments became more than symbols of family ties because their very existence side-by-side over a long period of time must have been significant in pointing out the development of art itself. In other words, the peribolos was an ideal location to view works sculpted over several generations, allowing the public to understand the artistic development of relief sculpture in particular. Not only this, but the Athenian graveyard likely still had standing at least a few examples of Geometric amphoras and kraters as well as kouroi and korai alongside these Classical examples. It must have been one of the few, if not only, places where such a long artistic tradition could be seen — an unintentional ‘museum’ spanning perhaps more than four centuries.

There are other intriguing works offered by Grossman that cannot be fully discussed here; however a grave naiskos of a seated man, dating about 75 B.C. found in Roma Vecchia, is worthy of some final comments. According to style and perhaps even the sandal type, it is likely that this naiskos came from the Greek island of Rheneia (the necropolis of Delos). Furthermore, an inscribed name, Xeanthe (according to letter forms dating to the first century B.C.) appears on the underside, and according to Grossman this “probably identifies the sculptor … or the workshop.” I know of no other example of such an inscription on a Greek gravestone, but its placement on the under surface could suggest a commercial marking, perhaps for purposes of shipping. Of course, if this were the case then the sculpture was apparently shipped to Italy immediately after its creation on Delos. We know of other Greek funerary stelai found in Rome, but all of these are considered to have been taken there many years after their creation. Is it possible that someone, perhaps one of the numerous Roman merchants on Delos in the first century B.C., could have commissioned this naiskos for his private use back home? We probably will never know for sure, but we need to be open to such speculation.

A catalogue of any collection of ancient works, almost by definition, is a gathering of objects that are joined by chance. But, such serendipity has its advantages in pointing out relationship among objects that might not otherwise be considered. Grossman has done a great service in publishing this fine collection of Greek funerary art from the Getty collection, but her ‘readings’ of many of the pieces, to my mind, are too conservative. There are many more ways of looking at these works that must be explored, if we are to employ these funerary objects as ‘living’ examples of the ancient Greek world.