Friday, January 15, 2021

The Anthropological Implications of Laconian Art

When scholars seek to show the role of Spartan austerity in the evolution of artistic production, they often limit themselves to objects of luxury and high prestige, supposedly condemned by the egalitarian civic ideology of the homoioi.  This raises the question, then,  of who among Spartan citizens actually produced the art.  Did Spartan citizens participate or was the art produced by the "perioikoi," a group of residents, sometimes referred to as mercenaries, living within the body of Lacedaemonians but not equal to Spartiates and yet distinct from the oppressed helots. Classicist Conrad M. Stibbe thinks we should also consider a third possibility, that Laconian art production was not a privilege of one social class or another but rather a branch of artistic industry open to all inhabitants of Laconia, whether free, less free, or unfree.

Stibbe poses that archaic Sparta of the seventh and sixth centuries BCE was an open society in which artists of all kinds could freely move and produce whatever art objects they wished with no other social restrictions than those which applied to all other aristocratic societies of Greece at the time. In the latter half of the sixth century to the middle of the fifth century, however, a hero-cult developed in Laconia and began to be reflected in both sculpture and vase painting.

Among distinctive art objects produced in Laconia were both hand and stand mirrors.  Sixth century mirrors feature figures associated with religious ritual while figural decoration of the fifth century are less religious in character.  Sixth century mirrors are embellished with sculptures of prepubescent girls wearing ritual sashes or gymnastic garb sometimes with castanets identifying them as temple dancers, acrobats or officiants possibly connected with shrines such as Artemis Orthia's in Sparta or robed, powerful women with idealized features whose bearing and attributes, including doves, pomegranates, sirens, and sphinxes, identify them as goddesses,  such as Aphrodite in the form of the Oriental Earth Mother, or priestesses.  Were these, then, produced by craftsmen employed in religious sanctuaries, or individuals otherwise exalted but separate from the aristocratic power structure? 

In the fifth century BCE, however, the idealized features were replaced with individualized women accompanied by an assortment of creatures such as rabbits, roosters, dogs, frogs and foxes around the rim or on the base.  Art historian Lenore O. Keene Congdon thinks this evolution appears to point toward owners that were preoccupied with love, beauty, and all that Aphrodite represented. Complex stand mirrors produced during this time required experts in miniature sculpting as well as casting and joining separately casted pieces, up to fifteen or more in a single mirror.  Mirror disks were also precisely crafted - convex on the front and concave on the back to make enlarging or diminishing images. This all points to a non-warrior, highly trained social class no longer associated with religious centers but was probably not part of the hero-worshiping, martial elites.

By the late fifth century, though, possibly as a result of the financial drain of the Peloponnesian Wars, these complex mirrors disappeared and were replaced by more utilitarian handleless box mirrors decorated with less demanding repoussé motifs. These mirrors proliferated throughout the Hellenistic period and even through the Roman period. This makes you wonder if the social class of highly-skilled craftsmen also diminished, perhaps due to a new emphasis on military service.


Bronze mirror with a support in the form of a nude girl, Laconian, 2nd half of the 6th century B.C.E. at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The girl stands on a curled-up lion, and griffins springing from her shoulders help support the mirror disk. She holds a pomegranate in her left hand and is nude except for a necklace and a strap from which hang a crescent-shaped amulet and a ring. Her nudity and the animals that surround her bring to mind images of the Mistress of Animals, an ancient Near Eastern deity who contributed characteristics to two Olympian goddesses, Aphrodite and Artemis. As a mirror handle, the figure may simply evoke the powers of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty; alternatively, she might be connected with Artemis Orthia, whose cult was important at the Laconian city of Sparta.
Bronze mirror support in the form of a nude girl, Laconian, ca. 540–530 B.C.E. at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  The girl stands on a frog, and the traces of feline feet at her shoulders must have belonged to animals that helped in the support of the mirror disk. She wears a band decorated with a ring and amulets and holds cymbals in her hands. 
Bronze mirror of the Caryatid type, from ancient city of Halieis, 490-470 BC. Archaeological Museum of Nafplion courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Zde (digitally enhanced)

Greek mirror possibly from Sicyon, 470-460 BCE, at the Cleveland Museum of Art courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Daderot.

Mirror with Siren, about 450-400 BCE, Greek, Locri Epizephirii, necropolis, Lucifero district, bronze at the Cleveland Museum of Art courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Daderot.

Box mirror cover with relief of Pan late 4th century BCE at the Metropolitan Museum of Art courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Greek mirror depicting Aphrodite (?) with flanking Erotes (cupids) said to be from an Etruscan tomb 465-450 BCE Bronze that I photographed at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City Missouri

The handle of this mirror is the goddess Aphrodite, a logical choice for an object where beauty is the central theme. The goddess is accompanied by two flying Erotes, gods of love. Surrounding the mirror flowers and pigeons adorn it, they are symbols befitting Aphrodite. Bronze, Peloponnesus (?), c. 460 BCE (inv. 566) at the Allard Pierson Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Dick Osseman.

Greek mirrors and handle attachments from the mid 5th century BCE. 7565- Bronze statuette of a female figurine wearing a heavy tunic (peplophoros). From the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore Karpophorol at Agios Sostis, Arcadia. Probably represents Artemis with a torch. Peloponnesian work with attic influence. About 450-425 BCE. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece. --- 6197. Bronze statuette of a female figurine wearing a heavy tunic (peplophoros). From Elis. The figure supported a mirror. Argive workshop. About 455 BCE. 15226. Bronze mirror. Provenance unknown. The mirror is supported by a female figurine wearing a heavy tunic (peplophoros) with a bird. Figurines of cocks and a hare at the top of the disk. Local variant of the Argive-Corinthian type. About 470-460 BCE. --- 12449. Bronze mirror. From Ioannina. The mirror is supported by a female figurine wearing a heavy tunic (peplophoros) with a bird. Disk with attached figurines of a hare and a dog. Work of a Corinthian workshop. About 465-460 BCE. At the National Archaeological Museum in Athens courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Tilemahos Efthimiadis (digitally enhanced).
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