Miniature Sculpture from the Athenian Agora

Miniature Sculpture from the Athenian Agora

Miniature Sculpture from the Athenian Agora

Miniature Sculpture from the Athenian Agora

Excerpt

Since earliest times men have loved to make small likenesses of themselves and of their animals. The ancient Greeks kept images of the gods in their houses to watch over the inmates; they placed statuettes in graves to please the dead, and they offered others to the nymphs of a spring so that water might flow fresh in the fountain (see above). Such ideas lingered long and sustained a craft that gradually turned from religious to artistic preoccupations and from the production of primitive images to true miniature sculpture.

This booklet offers a selection of such miniatures from the excavations conducted by the American School of Classical Studies in the ancient Agora of Athens. Several supplementary pieces from the School's excavation in the assembly place on the Pnyx have also been included; their numbers are 34- 36, 38-40. The material in all cases is baked clay (terracotta) unless otherwise noted.

The development of these minor crafts may here be traced from the 14th century B.C. (Mycenaean period) to the 5th century A.D. (Late Roman period). Mycenaean artists were experts in carving ivory, of which one example is shown (2). In contrast their clay figurines are naive, handmade, solid, without features (3-5). These simple types continued until the 7th century B.C. when the makers of terracotta figurines (called coroplasts) began to use moulds, at first for the heads alone, then for complete figures; sometimes the parts of the body were moulded separately and variously combined. The master craftsman made a free-hand model (42). This was baked hard and from it were taken moulds (see below, 1) from which casts could be made. The finished figure was gaily painted.

Our selection suggests the range in miniature sculpture: religious, frivolous, theatrical, funereal, not to mention vases and lamps. The greatest virtuosity was reached in the Hellenistic period (ca. 325-86 B.C.). Coroplasts created masterpieces like the famous 'Tanagras' (made both in Attica and Boeotia), sensitive genre scenes reminiscent of epigrams in the Greek Anthology, and studies of torsion and movement in the manner of bronzes. Under the Romans Athenian craftsmen lost their artistic flair and turned out stereotyped classical subjects, often in bronze and ivory. During the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. coroplasts grew bored with traditional subjects and began to create new types under the influence of foreign religions. They also ingeniously modelled lamps, rattles and other toys. Lively and like modern creations, these pieces enjoyed an immense popularity till the end of the 4th century A.D. after which time the craft rapidly degenerated. Finally, Christianity put an end to the making of such things; its laws forbade the worship of 'senseless images'.

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