Greece – Attic Grave Reliefs

THE average modern graveyard is neither cheerful nor interesting. Artistically, most cemeteries are a failure, which is only atoned for when the beauties of nature offer compensation for poverty of art. Our gravestones serve to mark, for the most part, the resting-places of the dead. They are monotonous enough. Occasionally, wealth may command artistic talent and produce something more beautiful, though it is very apt to take a conventional or traditional form, and represent a broken shaft or some impossible winged angel pointing to an open Bible.

The Greeks, on the other hand, had a more interesting and cheerful way of commemorating the dead. I have found little in the way of sculpture at Athens which more appealed to me than the grave reliefs still standing in the old cemetery and the large and fine collection of stela, or tombstones, in the National Museum.

One could not avoid the cemeteries in the old time ; for the Greeks, as also the Romans, had the custom of burying the dead outside the city gates, along the great highroads. That was a road over which, in life or death, every one must pass. The chief street of this kind left in Greece is the “Street of Tombs” outside the Dipylon, or double gateway, of Athens. Most of the monuments unearthed have been removed to the Museum; but enough are left in place to revive the impression which they must have made twenty odd centuries ago.

The Greeks did not mean that this highway of tombs should be a vale of tears, or that the passerby should have to whistle to keep his courage up. They did not, therefore, except in a very few instances, represent death : they pictured life. Whether it was the life here or the life hereafter is a debatable question ; but, at all events, it was life, — such scenes and groups and companionships as are familiar now and here, and such as we should like to have repeated in the life to come. The departed person is seldom represented alone, but nearly always appears as one of a pair or group. In some of these reliefs the avoidance of the slightest allusion to death in feature, act or situation is striking. Thus, one of the most beautiful monuments in the cemetery is that to Hegeso. A woman is sitting in a chair, while her female slave stands before her holding an open toilet-box. Both faces are fixed upon the casket and its contents, as if this were the one thing of interest. Apparently, the toilet is completed, and only the jewel or ribbon which the mistress is selecting is needed to finish her preparation. But her preparation for what? Is she getting ready for death or for life? If for death, where, according to modern ideas and exigencies, are the doctor and the priest? The subject is treated too seriously for us to assume that the artist or the person who dedicated the tomb was having a fling at women in picturing love of dress as “the ruling passion strong in death.” This is not meant to be a death scene. It is not exceptional in type or character, but one of a class in which the toilet-case or the mirror is frequently introduced.

The difficulty of regarding this as a scene in the next life is evident. Or did the Greek faith insist on slavery and toilet-making in heaven? And which slavery is it worse to perpetuate, — that of the servant to her mistress, or the slavery of the mistress to the Goddess of Fashion? But these scenes were less complex than with such casuistry we are capable of making them. They were as simple and natural and human as the daily life they describe.

On one of the tombs is a monument of a valorous young Athenian named Dexileos, who won his laurels during the Corinthian War, 394 B. C. Mounted on a spirited horse, he is striking down a foeman, who falls, half recumbent, beneath his horse’s feet. An inscription identifies the hero and the deed. In this case it is clear that the tomb is a monument to a military hero. It signalizes the deed which made him famous, and by which his memory is to be perpetuated. This desire to single out some one act of a man’s life, or some professional success to adorn and distinguish his tombstone, is a common one in both late and early times. On the poles of the scaffold upon which the Sioux Indians elevate their dead on the open plain, they mark in red paint a record of some deed of valor,— perhaps the number of scalps he has taken or of the horses he has stolen.

To see the grave reliefs in greatest number and variety, and to study their significance, we must go to the National Museum. Many as there are, there would have been more Attic gravestones, if a law had not been passed to restrict their erection. Demetrius of Phaleron seems to have been a funeral reformer, who forbade the use of elaborate grave monuments, and who thought three inexpensive varieties would be enough. It was probably owing to earlier interference with the stone-cutter’s craft, and not to any pro-longed period of public health, that the production of Attic gravestones fell off in the fifth century, and again, after a period of reaction, under Demetrius at the end of the fourth.

These tombstones were not made for or by distinguished people; they were made for everyday people by everyday workmen. We must treat them as gravestones, not as achievements of art. They were not made for competitive exhibition in this Museum. Nevertheless it is remarkable to what an extent technical ability had been developed, and that so many sculptors could be found in Greece capable of doing such excellent work. Some of them pass beyond the ordinary level, and exemplify the highest artistic skill.

The simplest form in which these monuments appear is that of a slab. In the sixth century before Christ it was made tall and narrow, with variations as to size in different parts of Greece and in succeeding years. There are also great inequalities of depth : sometimes the relief is very deep, sometimes only an outline. Different kinds of technique seem to have been in use at the same time. The lower part was left rough, to be set in the ground, and sometimes the stone was surmounted by a sculptured gable in low relief. Though there are many inaccuracies in detail, the total impression is often strikingly effective, and originally was no doubt heightened by color. A more ambitious and costly form of monument was constructed of a number of slabs of marble framed together like a temple front, and in this the commemorative slab was set.

These funeral slabs received various symbolical decorations. A figure half woman and half bird, — with human head and arms, and bird’s wings and claws, — a sort of siren playing upon a musical instrument or in an attitude of lamentation is frequently found. A lion is a common symbol. Just what its relation to death was, it is not easy to see; perhaps the figure was simply decorative. On one tombstone in the National Museum the animal serves as a pictorial pun ; the man’s name was Leon, as the inscription shows, and the corroborative figure left no doubt about it.

Marble vases formed another kind of grave-ornament, and were also of varying types. Many of these amphorae have a long, slender neck and flat mouth-piece. Then there is the, or copy of a type of vase with two handles. From a passage in one of the orations of Demosthenes, in which it is said that a certain man died unmarried, as is proved from the on his grave, it is inferred that this form of two-handled vase is found only on the graves of unmarried persons. To a modern reader, a one-handled vase might seem to be a more appropriate symbol of celibacy.

When a grave-monument has but a single figure, it is natural to assume that it designates the one who has died. But where two or more persons are figured, it is difficult to tell which was intended for the dead. The Greeks did not write long eulogies or epitaphs on their tombstones. The inscriptions were mostly confined to the name. Many stones have no inscription whatever; the names originally may have been painted. On the other hand, certain slabs are crowded with several names when there are only two figures. The explanation of this redundancy may be found in the fact that a tombstone made to commemorate one person was afterwards appropriated for another. Whether there was any legitimate trading in second-hand tombstones I do not know; but it looks as if in some cases the original name had been chiselled out and the monument used by a later generation.

The student of sculpture will find interesting material for technical study and comparison in these reliefs, some of which show close resemblance to Parthenon work, while in the later Roman period the melancholy degeneracy of art is evident. But of far more interest to me are the questions of life, death, and the life after death which these grave reliefs suggest. One of the most common motives is that of two persons clasping hands. What is the meaning of the clasped hands? Is it a gesture of farewell from the departed? is it the joyous greeting he receives in the next life? or is it merely an expression of friendship and affection in this life, as when on other stones a woman is playing with a pet bird? These are questions not easily answered.

The reasons advanced for rejecting the first suggestion are that the clasping of hands was not with the Greeks exclusively or chiefly a sign of farewell. Nothing was more common, however, than for them to clasp hands when they met. We find it on the

opening pages of the Odyssey, — Telemachus grasped the right hand of the disguised Athene on the thresh-old of his father’s court. Again, it is clear in some cases that the monument commemorates the seated person and not the one who is standing. In such cases it is not natural to think that the sitting figure represents the one who is saying farewell.

There are many things pointing strongly to the conclusion that these are simply scenes of earthly life. Whatever the meaning of the clasped hands as to time and place, there is no doubt that these persons are presented to us in relations of trust, friendship or affection.

Among the large number of Greek grave monuments at Athens, there are only three or four in which there is an evident suggestion of sickness and death; and there are, I believe, but two cases known in which Hermes is shown in the act of leading persons to the lower world.

Curious and interesting are the banquet scenes which form a common type in these’ grave reliefs. One figure is usually reclining on a couch; food is set on a table near by; slaves or companions are present, and sometimes a dog is munching a morsel beneath. Other pet animals, such as birds or rabbits, are frequently introduced.

The numerous votive tablets are hard to distinguish from sepulchral monuments. We know little about them. It is possible that they may have been kept in the houses of the survivors in commemoration of the dead.

There is one stone in the National Museum on which I can never look with dry eyes. It represents a youth who has passed away. His father, apparently, is standing opposite him. In the corner sits a boy in abject grief, which is shared by a dog mourn-fully holding his head to the ground. This stone, softly yielding to the pressure of the deepest emotions, shows that the Greeks could not always avoid the sadness of death by euphemism in art. Even marble sometimes melted at the touch of grief. The dog is no intrusion. The scene would lose greatly in interest and pathos if he were removed, because the range of sympathy would be limited. Human emotion seems to have its source deeper in the life of nature when we find a kindred emotion welling up from the heart of a dog.

Simple and natural as they are, there is no frosty hardness in the reserve of these grave stones. The warmth of life is felt even in death ; they are too ten-der to be cold. To feel, however, the deep pathos beneath all the tenderness of the conception of death we must turn to Greek literature. From Odysseus in the shadowy land of the dead with unrestrained grief crying, ” My mother, why not stay for me who long to clasp thee! ” down through the long vista of the Greek anthology, the whole gamut of sorrow is touched; sometimes in soft flute-like strains in varied keys, or, as in the inscription to the dead at Thermopylae, with the grandeur of the Eroica. If the minor mode is the natural language of grief there are epitaphs which remind us that Handel was not the only one who could write a funeral march in the major; and some at least, as this of Plato’s, furnished their own consolation, singing in clear hopeful tones like the clarinet in the allegretto of the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven, over the solemn fateful rhythm of death:

” Morning Star, that once didst shine among the living; dying, thou shinest now the Evening Star among the dead.”

No sweeter flowers of literature have been gathered than those which have bloomed on Greek graves. Their fragrant affection is often a tribute more to the joy of life than to the sorrow of death.

” Find no fault as thou passest by my monument, O wayfarer; not even in death have I aught worthy of lamentation. I have left children’s children; I had joy of one wife, who grew old along with me; I made marriage for three sons whose sons I often lulled asleep on my breast, and never moaned over the sickness or the death of any: who, shedding tears without sorrow over me, sent me to slumber the sweet sleep in the country of the holy.”