Art Historical Background
Let’s start off with what is a “grave stele.” Like the prehistoric Anthropomorphic Stele, a stele is an an upright stone monument with carvings. Couple that with the word “grave” and you know it’s function: a vertical grave marker (aka today we’d call it a headstone). This particular stele is from the ancient Greek period art historians call the High Classical, right after the height of the Classical Era of the Acropolis but before the expansion of Alexander the Great and eventually decline into a Roman province.
This grave stele can be connected to two other ancient Greek grave markers: #27. Anavysos Kouros & #28. Peplos Kore. But unlike those two, this was not meant to glorify the state, instead this was made as part of a private commission. This stele was found in the cemetery of the Kerameikos which is just west of ancient Athens, unlike the other above that were associated with the state-sponsored Acropolis.
The reason it is called the “Grave stele of Hegeso”is because, thanks so an inscription at the top, we know the women who it was created for: “Hegeso, daughter of Proxenos.” Hegeso is the seated lady. She is being presented with jewelry (some say a necklace) by her standing female servant.
*Note: that like the other two grave markers, this would have been highly pained in its time but due to the erosion of paint, the jewelry in her hand and probably in the box can no longer been seen.
Women in Ancient Athens were not considered citizens and therefore were not allowed to participate much in public functions. Hegeso is seen here firmly rooted in domestic sphere: the columns to the right and left confine her and the pediment at the top suggests a home-like setting. You can also see an indication of her lack of social status from the pediment, she is identified as an individual only via he relationship to her father.
Read more: Student Series! Girls, Gays, & Greco-Romans
Although this stele demonstrates low-social status for women, it is also an indication of the family’s high economic status. Hegeso’s dress and hair demonstrate her wealth in ancient Athens. She also sits on an intricate chair with a footstool, her person never touching the ground. And although, while seated, she is shorter than her maid, if Hegeso were to stand up she would be unrealistically taller. This is indicative of the Ancient Mediterranean artistic practice of hierarchy of scale: tallest/biggest person = more important. Historians also point to a slight increase in women’s social/legal status during this time period by the passing of the Periclean law in 451 BCE. This law stated that to be an Athenian citizen, both parents had to be Athenian born. Therefore, keeping track of women’s ancestry because more important to prove citizenship for their children (especially sons, as women could not become citizens).
As mentioned before, this is not the only piece like this. It forms a pretty consistent type of grave steles from the High Classical Period for wealthy Athenian families. High Classical sculptures typically have a quiet attitude to them, which is quite different from the emotion of the Hellenistic Age. This somerness fits nicely with the theme of grave steles: commemoration of death.
- Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 15th edition, pg. 139
- Greek Art and Archaeology, pg. 280-281
- Khan Academy: Grave Stele of Hegeso
- AP Art History: 36. Grave Stele of Hegeso
- University of Cambridge, Museum of Classical Archeology Database: Grave Stele of Hegeso
- Brock University: Object Analysis: The Stele of Hegeso
- Brown University: Archaeologies of the Greek Past, Grave stele
- Castor Minor: Analysis of Kallimachos’ Grave Stele of Hegeso
- Oregon Undergraduate Research Journal: Silent Slaves: Reconstructing Slave Perspectives on the Grave Stele of Hegeso
- Tufts University: Athens, NM 3624 (Sculpture)
- Harrison Humanities: Grave stele of Hegeso