View of the Street of the Tombs in the Kerameikos, Athens. Photo: Seth Estrin

Sculpture Between Life and Death

Funerary stele inscribed for Phylonoe, from Psychiko, Attica, ca. 380–360 BCE. Height: 1.50 m. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, 3790. Photo: M. Zorias. © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports/ Hellenic Organization of Cultural Resources Development.

Seth Estrin—

On a monument erected in Athens in the fourth century BCE, a seated woman is seen from two different perspectives. To our eyes, she appears as a living person. Dominating the monument, her body is forceful presence, animated by a play of light and shadow in the folds of her garment and beneath the recesses of her arms and head. But to the two figures before her, her status is more ambiguous. An infant, seemingly recognizing its mother, plunges its arms toward her. She stares back, but does not return the gesture, curling her hand beneath her chin as if resigned to the impossibly of contact. A figure who holds the infant, in turn, fails to acknowledge the woman at all, looking instead toward the infant as if unsure of its purpose. These uncertain connections begin to fracture when we read an inscription on the monument’s frame and learn that it was erected to mark the grave of a woman named Phylonoe. Recognizing the seated woman as Phylonoe, we see her not as a living person but a dead one. The child now reaches toward not a living mother who refuses to respond, but a phantom or memory that cannot. Observing the orphaned infant, cracks emerge in our own perception as well, leaving us to wonder what, precisely, we are looking at when we see an image of someone we know is dead. 

A funerary monument that depicts the deceased stages an inherent contradiction. Overlaying the corpse with a living body, it mobilizes sculpture in defiance of the very conditions of mortality that the monument has been erected to mark out. Experienced at the gravesite, in relation to a burial, the monument’s internal conflict takes on an emotional valence, opening our eyes not only to the identity of the deceased, who lies dead beneath the earth, but to the devastating experiences of the bereaved, for whom the dead remain proximate in memory. To encounter a sculpted funerary monument such as that of Phylonoe is to confront both a symptom of death and a symptom of grief. 

Phylonoe’s monument is one of thousands of surviving sculpted funerary monuments erected in gravesites surrounding Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. While set up by private individuals, these monuments were the most numerous and visible works of sculpture in Classical Athens. Clustering along public roads, especially those leading to city gates, monuments were oriented away from the graves they marked and instead toward those passing by. Anyone approaching or leaving Athens who would have been accompanied for miles along their journey by sculpted bodies bearing the names of the city’s former inhabitants.  

The attention these monuments demanded was not only visual, but tactile and aural. Many were placed at or near ground level, inviting mourners to touch them directly by adorning them with ribbons, rubbing them with oil, or offering libations from vessels that were subsequently deposited at the gravesite. All bore inscriptions that a beholder was meant to read aloud. Some inscriptions consisted simply of the name of the deceased. Others took the form of short poems, which gave voice to the perspective of the bereaved. On Phylonoe’s monument, for instance, the poem inscribed above the figures sustains the ambiguities of the relief. “Here lies Phylonoe,” it begins, directing our attention to a corpse that lies below. Yet it continues from the perspective of her parents, who remember her as a daughter who was “wise, intelligent, possessing all excellence.” As we read these words out loud, we internalize the perspective of the bereaved through our own body, addressing the dead as if they were someone we too could remember, someone we might long to touch.  

The funerary monuments of Classical Athens have often been studied for what they can tell us about the persons whose graves they marked. Yet by orienting themselves to a broader public, they served another purpose: to construe the pain of bereavement as a legitimate, socially-recognizable form of grief. While celebrated today for its democratic institutions, Classical Athens was a deeply hierarchical society, one in which egalitarianism among adult male citizens was maintained through exclusions directed at women, children, foreigners, and, above all, the enslaved. In such a society, not every death was automatically considered worthy of grief. Instead, grief was recognized through the emotion called “pity” (oiktos or eleos in Greek). Pity is the term used by the Greeks to describe what we feel when we encounter a stranger afflicted by suffering. It describes our ability to negotiate the relationship between someone else’s pain and our own subjectivity. Pity is not a natural or instinctive reaction to seeing others in pain. It is not, in other words, equivalent to empathy—a modern concept with a deceptively Greek-sounding name. Instead, it is a considered if still deeply felt response, one based on an evaluation of the victim and the merits of their suffering. Crucially, pity is not contemplative, but a motivator for action. In the courtroom or on the battlefield, for instance, pity can save a life. Before a funerary monument, pity instigates a different response: it acknowledges someone else’s suffering and recognizes it as grief. 

The sculpture of Classical Athenian funerary monuments is configured so as to sanction the grief of those who erected them by securing the pity of those who encounter them. Rather than attempt to convey facts of individual biography, sculptors render the deceased so that they appear familiar to any beholder. The figure of Phylonoe, for instance, resembles depictions of the deceased on thousands of other funerary monuments, where she sits in the same position, clad in the same garments and performing similar gestures. Sometimes, this woman looks up at a bereaved family member who stands across from her, even taking them by the hand, as if reunion with the dead were possible. Just as often, she stares downward, unable to see someone whose body seems so close as to brush against hers. Each of these monuments was occasioned by a different death, erected by a different family, and inscribed with a different name. Yet by showing the same woman again and again in different connections and proximities to the living, such monuments cumulatively give material form to a shared experience of bereavement. Experiencing them one after another, along a stretch of road leading toward Athens, we construct a system of emotional experience, one in which we can pity the bereaved by visualizing their loss as if it were our own.  

Funerary stele inscribed for Pythogenes of Eleusis, from Ampelakia, Salamis, ca. 400-375 BCE. Height: 1.32 m. Archaeological Museum, Salamis, 75. Photo: Seth Estrin. © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports/ Hellenic Organization of Cultural Resources Development.
Funerary stele inscribed for Mnesarete, daughter of Sokrates, Attic (said to be from Velanideza), ca. 400–380 BCE. Height: 1.64 m. Glyptothek, Munich, 491. Photo: Renate Kühling. State Collection of Antiquities and Glyptothek, Munich.

Approached in these terms, funerary monuments have the unique potential to reframe how we look at ancient works of sculpture. Today, the sculpted monuments of Classical Athens are often studied as conveyors of elite or state ideology. Yet as objects integrated into some of the most private and intimate moments in the lives of Athenians, funerary monuments operated at the level of subjective experience. In this capacity, a history of Greek art traced through funerary monuments can embolden us to ask why sculpture mattered to so many people in a city such as Classical Athens—to ask what desires sculpture fulfilled, what fantasies it sustained, what sense of self it constructed, what existential crises it addressed. Funerary monuments help us access forms of experience often considered to fall outside the study of Greek art—ones conditioned by individual subjectivity, by personal memories, by deeply felt emotions. These marginalized forms of experience pertain not to a marginalized corpus of objects, but are central to our understanding of one of the most vaunted achievements of Classical Athens, its marble sculpture. 

Seth Estrin is assistant professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.

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