BMCR 2007.02.10

Die Jacobsthal-Reliefs. Konturierte Tonreliefs aus dem Griechenland der Frühklassik. RdA Supplement 29

, Die Jacobsthal-Reliefs : konturierte Tonreliefs aus dem Griechenland der Frühklassik. Supplementi alla RdA ; 29. Rome: G. Bretschneider, 2006. xii, 281 pages, lxxxv pages of plates : illustrations (1 color), map ; 30 cm.. ISBN 8876892117. €248.00 (pb).

They were called “Melian Reliefs” since their first comprehensive publication in 1931,1 which advocated an origin on that Greek island. This second, more in-depth study has ascertained different sources of manufacture, and therefore proposes a different terminology in honor of the original researcher, who, because of his Jewish origin, was slighted by his German political contemporaries (p. X). Given the complexity of the subject, despite the apparent uniformity of the material, this new appellation seems entirely appropriate. It refers to a group of 153 plaques (plus 12 forgeries, Cat. nos. 154-165) characterized by their contouring technique combined with the a- jour treatment of some inner details. A white slip over the baked surface and the addition of lively colors (now often lost) once produced an appealing effect successfully conveyed by color plate A (Cat. no. 21). A peculiarity of this material is that it was manufactured for a relatively short span of time, (ca. 500-440 B.C)., thus falling within the stylistic phase usually called Severe.

Florian Stilp (henceforth cited as S.) began this investigation as part of his 2004 doctoral dissertation for Freiburg University (V. M. Strocka supervisor) and the Sorbonne in Paris (under A. Schnapp). This double sponsorship underscores the international range of the research: S. personally viewed 104 of the 153 originals, for an impressive 68% of the total, as well as comparanda, especially terracottas from Corinth, which are listed in an Appendix. The present book consists of a very detailed catalogue that occupies almost half the volume and is preceded by an extensive discussion of all aspects of the reliefs, from the history of their collecting and scholarship to the technical, the typological, and the iconographic, with frequent summaries of conclusions. The plates illustrate all but 14 of the catalogued items (some no longer recoverable; three known only through drawings) and even a few forgeries. Two photographs show an object’s conditions before and after WW II, in the present damaged state or with modern additions removed (Cat. nos. 58 and 80). S.’s examination is so thorough and painstaking that his book is bound to remain the final word on the subject for the foreseeable future.

Comparison with Jacobsthal’s work reveals several differences. First of all, S. has added 59 items to the previously known total (see Concordance, p. 271); he has also established firm criteria for identification, thus being able not only to eliminate some forgeries (e.g., the familiar and often cited scene of Odysseus meeting Penelope, Cat. 161, in the Metropolitan Museum) but even to “rehabilitate” some debated pieces.2 The single preserved inscription (two names on Cat. 78) is also proven authentic by renewed analysis. In terms of technique, S. has shown through experiments that a string, not a stick as occasionally repeated (cf. n. 7, p. 31), was used to detach the reliefs in their molds from additional clay, thus creating distinctive radiating lines that only exceptionally were smoothed over with the fingers or an instrument: pls. 59-79 helpfully illustrate the backs of many items.3 Against previous interpretations, S. dismisses the possibility that the “Melian Reliefs” were used to embellish sarcophagi or other movable objects. They have been found in sanctuaries and in graves, but context in the latter, where known, shows that the plaques were probably heirlooms and were thus originally displayed within households. Regrettably, only 13 of the catalogued objects come from regular archaeological excavations (p. 5); all others were part of early collections attesting to the great popularity of this type of object in the 19th century.

S.’s major contribution consists in his determination of places of manufacture. A distribution map and a chronological chart (pp. 58-59) clearly illustrate the wide scattering of the finds, whenever safely ascertainable, with items coming from as far as Naukratis and Olbia, as well as from Sicily and South Italy, areas well known for their own terracotta production. The majority of the plaques, however, come from Melos, Aigina, the Peiraieus, Athens and Attica. S. identifies two major “blocks” and a lesser third one, each comprising the output of several workers/workshops and distinguishable through technique, style, and (partly) iconography. Block 1, with 39 pieces (cf. p. 50 n. 36), is strongly indebted to Attic vase painting for themes and renderings and should therefore have originated in Attica; it ranges chronologically from 480 to 460 B.C. Block 2 is both earlier (ca. 500-460) and larger (68 reliefs, listed on p. 50 n. 37); its style connects it with the Ionic islands. Block 3 (with only five reliefs, p. 47) is later (450-440) and different yet again but closer to Attic renderings. Finally, 51 reliefs (p. 50 n. 38) cannot be confidently assigned to any block and cover the entire chronological range, from 480 to 440.

S. scrupulously discusses each criterion for attribution to the various blocks, first separately and then in combination. Yet the illustrations are not arranged by blocks or by chronology, but by themes, in accordance with the catalogue numbers. While this arrangement greatly facilitates the reading of the iconographic section and of the individual entries, it unquestionably hampers verification of the attributive part of the book. The format, as typical of Bretschneider’s publications, is large and lavish, on heavy paper. The plates are at the end of the text. As a result, the reader who wants to follow S.’s reasoning has to flip back and forth continuously, and ends up relying on the author’s undoubtedly painstaking observations which cannot always be readily confirmed on the photographs.

The iconographic discussion is stimulating and demonstrates the enormous aid to our studies provided by the publication of the LIMC. Remarkably, many of the themes illustrated by the plaques are unique to them, or represent the earliest occurrences, or are repeated only much later in a different geographic sphere (cf. p. 141 ns. 865-866). An example of the last is the scene of The Ransom of Hektor’s body (Cat. 55, “isolated”) which includes a large scale for the weighing of the corpse; comparable representations are known only on 4th-century South Italian vases. There is no space to list here all other instances, but note the unusual depiction of the Kalydonian Boar Hunt (Cat. 39, Block 2): the huge animal looks like a horse, a female dog has jumped on his back, and Atalante is clearly in attack pose from the front. Also remarkable is a Bellerophon on Pegasos bearing downward with a spear, but without the chimaera (Cat. 31, Block 1), or riding a wingless Pegasos (Cat. 33, Block 2), or a fragment with the chimaera lying on the ground (Cat. 34, unclassified). Unparalleled in Greek iconography is also an Aktaion with a deer head (Cat. 15, unclassified); since that specific relief was found in Italian Lokroi, one wonders whether the destination influenced the rendering.4 S. identifies themes that belong exclusively to each block (pp. 113-116), and stresses that no subjects seem to have an exclusively funerary meaning, although some finds from graves have no known counterpart from sanctuaries (p. 142 n. 876). On the other hand, no prothesis or ekphora is included among the depictions—except for one forgery, Cat. 165.

Only Cat. 61 may represent an overcast—a procedure probably discouraged by the fugitive paint of the finished plaques. All other catalogued items are original impressions from individual models, as verified by measurements. Regrettably, no thorough chemical analysis of clay compositions could be carried out because of the destructive nature of present-day techniques and our limited knowledge of clay beds for comparative purposes. Only macroscopic examinations were used for attribution to blocks (cf. p. 36, and n. 7 on p. 49), admittedly an imperfect procedure. The debated Cat. 23 (Birth of Erichthonios) was tested with thermoluminescence to prove its antiquity (p. 123 n. 192). S. doubts that the concept of contoured terracotta reliefs , originating at Corinth (whose production is, however, mostly limited to three subjects: crouching sphinxes, standing cocks, and running Gorgons), may have spread to Attica (p. 147). On the other hand, the Greek islands, with their tradition of appliqus on vases, may have provided the impetus for the Attic production, given also the earlier inception of the artifacts assigned to Block 2 (p. 63).

It is clear that the Jacobsthal Reliefs were no luxury items and certainly no replacements for, or imitations of, more costly renderings in ivory or metal. And I would concur in doubting that their unusual iconography was inspired by a now-lost category of evidence: monumental painting and sculpture, of which both vase painting and our plaques would be “parallel phenomena with similar roots” (p. 114). A greater puzzle is why they should have lasted for such a limited time. I find it intriguing that the peak of Block 1 (the Attic) came in a period when few votive and even fewer funerary reliefs were produced. S. wisely leaves many questions open. Yet he has presented an extremely detailed analysis of possibilities and parallels which make this book a much more important study than a mere catalogue.


1. P. Jacobsthal, Die Melischen Reliefs Berlin, Keller, 1931.

2. Most striking among the latter is the unusual scene of Erichthonios bing given to Athena by Ge in the presence of a snake-tailed Kekrops (Cat. 23, Block 1).

3. To the technical studies mentioned by S. should be added two forthcoming publications dealing with terracotta production: on the Penteskoufia plaques, by Eleni Hasaki, and on the statues from the Demeter Sanctuary on Acrocorinth, by Nancy Bookidis.

4. S. excludes the possibility that finished “Jacobsthal” molds were exported, or that a “wandering workshop” may have produced similar reliefs elsewhere (p. 39; later such cases are cited in n. 9, p. 49; see however also his apparently contradictory comment on p. 61 and n. 17). Yet the former seems to obtain for the nearly contemporary types of Lokrian plaques found at Francavilla di Sicilia (in the hinterland of Naxos) and apparently made with local clay. See, e.g., the entry (by U. Spigo) in Lo stile severo in Sicilia. Dall’apogeo della tirannide alla prima democrazia (Palermo 1990) Cat. 127 p. 292, and cf. comments (by N. Allegro) p. 129.