THE ANCIENT SEPULCHRAL RELIEFS AT ATHENS.
THE unique series of ancient sepulchral reliefs which have been brought to light by excavations in the Cerameiens, the public cemetery of ancient Athens, have two interests, at any rate, which it would be hard to exaggerate. For one thing, many of them are extraordinarily beautiful; for another, they illustrate as nothing else does certain aspects of Athenian life and civilisation at a period when Athens was still one of the great powers of Greece. Naturally, these reliefs are exceedingly various, both in date, and workmanship, and character. Some of them are archaic, and stiff, and formaL Others, again, easily distinguishable, are simply bits of bad work. Bat a large number are full of the most exquisite beauty and pathos ; and it is chiefly of these that we wish to speak. In a great number of cases, the artist has chosen for representation on these monu- ments the last farewells between the dying person and the survivors. Evidently this was a very favoarite form of sepulchral monument; and it admits of the expression of a far snore delicate and a deeper pathos than any other form. There are reliefs representing the last farewells between husband and between father and son, between mother and daughter, between friends. Sometimes the representation is allegorical. A lady takes her last look at her casket of jewels, which stand allegorically for the pleasant world to which she is saying fare- well; and the relief is saved from all charge of triviality by the exquisite sadness of the lady's face. Of coarse, it must not be supposed that all the beet reliefs represent these farewells. One of the most famous, erected to Dexileos, represents him as a victorious warrior in battle, slaying his foe. Still, what we have said is a true general description. Now, in order properly to appreciate the spirit of these grave monuments, we must re- member that to the Greek death was necessarily far MOTO terrible than it is to us. In the nature of things, he could have no "sure hope of a glorions Resnrrection." Whatever may have been the exact conception of death current among the average Athenians of, say, the fourth century RC., we know that they considered it "the supreme evil." Very few people indeed could have been convinced by Socrates' famous argument to his friends after his trial that it must, after all, be reckoned to be a good thing. To the ancient Greeks it was not only a dreadful mystery ; it was the final parting from all that they held dear, from their families, from their friends, from life itself. It still had all its bitterness. Nothing could have been keener than the grief which it excited. And yet almost the first thing which one notices about these reliefs is the resolute and strong restraint which the artist in each ease has put upon himself in representing grief. There is no violence and no despair ; no "madness of farewells." All passionate longing-
" to be drunk with loos, To dance with death, to beat the ground,"
is sternly repressed. And the result is that these artiste have succeeded in representing the idea of a far deeper and a far keener grief than they could have dons by portraying it in he more violent forms. Strength and violence are proverbially very different things ; and nothing could well be more real and pathetic than this carefully restrained sorrow. The pathetic effect is enormously increased by the delicacy and refinement of every gesture represented. The exquisite caressing tenderness with which a woman touches her dying friend's cheek ; the way in which the living and the dying clasp each others hands for the last time; the way in which a child's hand rests upon its mother's knee, or grasps her garment as if to detain her ; the folds of the drapery ; the whole pose of the figures, are in the best reliefs admirably perfect and true. Those artists copied no conventional forms. They worked straight from Nature. And their work is true in another and a higher sense. They had to represent the most solemn and the most tremendous parting imaginable, in which any unreality would be utterly out of place ; and they have remembered this. The expression of the faces, and the whole attitude of the figures, are full of the keenest and most intense consciousness; and, at the same time, there is an absolute and complete absence of any 8g-consciousness whatever. There is something infinitely pathetic in the intense and tender wistful- ness with which the persons on these monuments, the living and the dying, gaze into each others' eyes, sadly, for the last time. They are completely wrapped up in each other. They are quite unconscious of everything, save the one hard fact that one of them is dying, and is going a long way, they know not whither. The present writer knows nothing in the whole range of ancient sculpture which, for exquisite pathos, comes near some of these reliefs. Of course it must not be imagined that these remarks apply to anything like the whole series of them. In some instances, the faces have no very marked expression at all. In others, the effect is marred by a certain self-con- sciousness. For instance, there is a monument still standing in the Cerameicns, generally referred tons the "Demetria-Pamphile slab," which is much admired by travellers. It is not a relief in which people are saying farewell. The lady to whom it is erected is looking straight in front of her at the spectators. The execu- tion is no doubt good, and the work has been well preserved. She is a very stately figure, though her expression is self- conscious. But it is impossible not to feel that we have lost all the sadness and wistfulness and pathos of those last farewells, and that their place is not adequately taken by a certain stateli- ness of demeanour.
And the strange thing about it all is that these reliefs are not the work of the great Athenian sculptors whose names are famous, and certainly by far the greater number are private monuments, and not public ones. Indeed, the majority are erected to women ; several of them are in memory of children. One of the interesting things about them is that they are a specific illustration of the ex- tremely high level of excellence reached by the average Athenian sculptor. Let any one look through any good series of photo- graphs of these Athenian monuments, and then go round St. Paul's or Westminster Abbey and look at the monuments therein—public monuments, be it remembered—and he will see the difference between England and Athens. It is true that there are curious faults in almost all the Greek reliefs, even in the best, which a sculptor of the first rank could not have afforded to leave uncorrected. Even in the finest female figures, the wrist, and forearm, and foot are often coarse bits of work. In several cases where the husband standing is saying farewell to his wife sitting down, there is no attempt to keep any proportion in size between the two : he is stunted, and it is quite evident that she would simply tower over him if she stood up. These defects are the more curious because one of the most marked characteristics of the great Athenian work—e.g., on the Acropolis—is the extra- ordinarily careful finish of all details, whether conspicuously placed or not. Fortunately, the faults in question do not in the least mar or interfere with the pathos of which we have been speaking.
There is another aspect of Athenian life which these reliefs illustrate,—namely, the social side of it. The Athenians, it must be remembered, drew a very broad and deep line between public life, political and social, on the one hand, and domestic life on the other. The former was the exclusive sphere of men and citizens : the latter was the sphere of the free Athenian woman. She had no part in public and social life. Now, of course, we know a great deal about the Greeks, or rather the Athenians, from the remains of their magnificent literature and art. But in classical times, at any rate, this literature and art refer to and illustrate public and social life, from which the free woman was debarred, almost exclusively. As a rule, you get nothing more than
allusions to domestic life. The result has been that the Athenian character has not nnfrequently been seriously mis- represented by modern writers. Because the Athenians did not talk much about their domestic life, it has been assumed that they had none. One of the interests of these funeral monuments is that it is no longer possible for any one to argue, witha certain most learned German professor, that in the eyes of the Athenians, their free women belonged to an inferior order of beings; that they were "naturally prone to evil ;" that true love between men and women was an impossibility, and so on. A very large number of these reliefs are, as we have said, in memory of women ; wives, mothers, children, friends; and whatever be the exact form taken by the monument in each case, it is as clear as daylight that the husband, the children, the mother, the friend, had a very deep and true and pure love for the woman com- memorated. These are certainly not partings between a superior and an inferior order of beings. Granted that at Athens free women were not allowed to overstep their sphere, and that their sphere was a narrow one; still these bas.reliefs are evidence which is unimpeachable and incontrovertible of the strength and purity within that sphere of the domestic affections.
We trust that we have succeded in bringing out the fact that these ancient Athenian grave monuments have a beauty and an interest which are peculiarly their own. It is much to be regretted that they are not more widely known than they are. It is impossible, as far as the present writer's experience goes, to purchase really satisfactory photographs of them in London; though Constantin, of Athens, has published and sells a very good series in two sizes. May we appeal to the authorities of the British Museum to obtain for their gallery of ancient sculpture, which is so splendidly rich in the remains of Periclean Athens, a selection, at any rate, of casts of these sepulchral reliefs ? Their intrinsic value, and the comparative rareness of original Athenian, or even Greek work, make the omission of casts of them from any Greek sculpture-gallery a rather serious one.