I am thrilled to announce that one of our students has won second prize in the prestigious Humanities essay competition run by Girton College, Cambridge. Isabel received the following news:
“The judging of the Humanities Writing Competition at Girton College has now been completed and I am delighted to be able to tell you that your entry, ‘Identification of a Greek terracotta woman and the world that surrounded her’, has been awarded joint second prize.
The prize will be £50 in cash, £50 in book tokens from Cambridge University Press to be divided equally between the winning entrant and their school, and a Girton College gift bag, including a copy of The Lawrence Room at Girton College, a book on Girton’s museum collection by members of the college published in 2019.
With best wishes and congratulations on your excellent submission to the competition.
Head of Tutorial & Admissions Office
on behalf of the Humanities Writing Competition Judging Panel and the Schools Liaison Officers Girton College, University of Cambridge”
This is a fabulous achievement - well done, Isabel!
Read Isabel's essay here:
Though an artefact only fifteen centimetres in height, this terracotta figurine retains a mystical presence. She is sedentary, right hand reposeful upon her knee, kithara silent. This languid grace, as well as the minimalistic nature of her attire (merely a chiton, pigmented with only the white slip of clay and water applied before firing), allows the focus to be centered on her eyes. Blue was used rarely in Tanagra figurines due to the expense of the pigment, and thus her eyes (contrasting with the conventional black) interact distinctly with her perceiver and retain a power, though cast demurely downwards. Admittedly, knowledge of the original colours is uncertain, as, in the nineteenth century, when the figurines were so fashionable in amongst the galleries, museums, and private collections of the West, forgers repainted the faded vegetable and mineral tints. Yet the colour scheme reveals what the artists saw as the most significant and evocative. In Being and Nothingness (1943), Jean-Paul Sartre argues that the gaze is purely a force of objectification. One becomes aware of oneself through the assumed lens of another, and thus change and lose aspects of the self. In their depiction of the gaze, most Tanagra figurines follow a long history of art whereby women are portrayed looking away, captured voyeuristically and invasively in a moment of solitude, and thus able to be observed without threatening the comfort of the observer. Michel Foucault identifies the gaze as a source of power, a force of domination in prisons, schools, and the medical profession. Yet her eyes seem aware of her audience as she waits to perform, or observes their response; her face, though averted, shows the hints of a small, delicate, knowing smile.
Astride what appear to be rocks, suggesting a location by the ocean, she conveys a lifestyle beyond the domesticity most Ancient Greek women were confined to. Tanagra itself was a minor agricultural town in Boeotia, more or less unrelated to the sea. Poseidon, in his personification of the ocean, was responsible for storms, earthquakes, and the disaster and wreckage these entailed. This theological perception is no surprise in relation to what the maritime experience in the Mediterranean sea must have been like; many sailors would have found themselves like Odysseus, pursued with callous vindictiveness by an antagonistic ocean. Yet her garment flows loosely over the coastal rocks. The coroplaster - sculptor of the concave mold, made of wax or terracotta, from which these figurines were shaped - has created a woman at once conforming to expectations of performative allure, yet compelling centuries of audiences in her own right, despite the mold from which she came.
It is this power, not to mention her pink and yellow kithara and the instrument’s religious significance as an accompaniment to worship, that perhaps has led her to be interpreted as one of the nine Mousai, goddesses of the arts. The importance of her instrument is emphasised by its prominence, carved and attached last, along with other accessories such as wreaths, hats, or fans. She could personify Terpsichore, patron of dance. Terpsichore was often portrayed sitting, not participating in her dancing rituals but holding the instrument with which to inspire them. However, the vivacious and fluvial depiction of Terpsichore awaiting to animate movement, face tilted upwards, and hair streaming in the ecstasy of inspiration, seems erroneous considering the languor of the statuette. It also wants Terpsichore’s customary adornment of a laurel wreath. Thus, Calliope, muse of epic poetry, seems apt; music in the form of the kithara was central to Ancient Greek epics in the oral tradition, notably Homer, as well as the bards that sing stories within his stories. Furthermore, according to Hesiod’s Theogony, Calliope was assertive in her wisdom and foremost of her sisters, bestowing glorious speech upon princes, and thus peace to all. Though this reflects the statuette’s serene authority, Calliope is also frequently portrayed in a scholarly light - other depictions have her holding a scroll or a writing tablet. Thus Erato is perhaps the clearest candidate. Goddess of love poetry, she was principally associated with the kithara. This Tanagra figurine does perhaps suggest the self-aware power to strike love (consistent with the amorous pink on the instrument and lips) into the hearts of mortals. In this way, a religious context could signify a continued tradition of using terracotta statues as venerated cult images, or votive offerings at shrines to give thanks and request favour, perhaps here in love or in poetry. The method of forming many figurines from one mold would have enabled the Muse’s sisters to also be produced, perhaps once accompanying her.
However, the same features could also suggest one of the Sirens; disconcertingly, they were sometimes identified in classical times as the children of Terpsichore or Calliope. Popularised by the Odyssey and the more contemporary Argonautica, these mythical creatures awaited sailors on the coasts to lure them to their deaths, though for what purpose - cannibalism, loneliness - it is unclear. Whilst earlier artists emphasised their ornithological characteristics, by the Hellenistic period, their favoured presentation was that of a beautiful woman with wings and occasionally bird-like claws. Sirens were believed to have the ability of a psychopomp, guiding the newly deceased into Hades, aligning with the use of Tanagra figurines as grave goods. Their discovery began in the 1860s, when local ploughmen began to uncover tombs around the site of the otherwise insignificant city of Tanagra. It is believed up to 10,000 graves were emptied. However, it contrasts with other contemporary funereal depictions of Sirens. A statue, made in 300BCE and found in the Necropolis in Kerameikos, Athens, for example, shows a Siren using its lyre to mourn the dead warrior Dexileo with prominent wings, claws, and diminished frame that distinguishes it from reality. This Tanagra figurine obviously reflects only the erotic elements suggested by a beautiful yet perilous woman: the bare right breast, the exploration of the body through the veil of her attire. The figurine could represent a Siren as perceived by a man entranced into mania by their song, but the kithara is silent. Thus, the identity of a Siren seems remote.
It is perhaps more likely that the artefact’s human features are intentional. Tanagra figurines gained popularity during the Hellenestic period due to their realistic humanity. In contrast with the 5th and 4th Century tradition of terracotta being used to fashion solely religious images or theatre merchandise, sculptors began to depict the lives of the people largely unrepresented in the literature of the elite. The development of sculpture further enabled this life-like quality, such as the use of two separate molds for the front and back (rather than merely a front, with an blank attachable back). This created a naturalism not available before, and which resonated with the artistic ideal of the 19th Century’s Belle Epoque so much so that they were grave-robbed and produced fraudulently. Thus, she could depict a woman recognisable to contemporary audiences. Her ‘melon’ hairstyle (called so by the segments, divided in waves from the forehead and tied in a chignon at the nape) was a recognisably youthful fashion. The same coiffure was worn by Cleopatra in visits to Rome to emphasise her Greek ancestry, and the fashion was typical of the Ptolemaic queens ever since the dynasty was founded at the beginning of the Hellenistic period from which this figurine originates.
Perhaps she depicts a hetaira, an Ancient Greek courtesan who participated in the aspects of social life not usually open to women. A hetaira would maint her independence through her profession by displaying, not only physical beauty, but witty conversation, various talents, and companionship. They were often hired as entertainers for sacrifices and symposia, where the ability to play a kithara would have been useful.
Nevertheless, it is probable that she depicts merely an ordinary person. Many historians conclude that Tanagra figurines were placed in graves as auxiliary, sentimental items that would provide the dead with a comforting reminder of their mortal life. Some funerals even used the figurines as sacrifices of clay: mourners would crush the delicate statuettes against the grave, a death they could have control over, a compensation for their loss. Again, their mass-producible nature - especially when combined with the separately attached, molded, and uniquely poised head, arms, and accessories - made them ideal as commissions representing the life and interests of the newly deceased. She could be reminiscent of a Greek woman, likely of middle or upper class, who enjoyed playing the kithara, or perhaps revered the poetry of Sappho, an iconic female kitharode whose lifestyle and poetry to this day encapsulates all the passion and independence suggested by this statuette.
Yet, by not negating the importance of mass culture, especially in an epoch that was becoming increasingly globalised after the expansion of the empire of Alexander the Great, it is arguable that her purpose was simply decorative (perhaps she was even used as a toy). This may be the aspect of the art of the Hellenistic Period that Pliny the Elder refers to in his Natural History; after an extended list of glorious Archaic individual artists, Pliny dismisses approximately the first two centuries of the Hellenistic Period with “Cessavit deinde ars” ("then art ceased"). When their graves were emptied and their religion part of history, it is to this aspect of the figurines that modern audiences returned. Ironically, the same mass demand that brought Tanagra figurines to life ended up destroying many of them. The peasants who discovered them unsurprisingly proffered them to those who could pay, and thus news spread before the authorities could intervene, leaving an interim of looting and pillaging. Those that remained were not enough, and the same simple three-dimensional molds that made them so easy to craft made them easy work for forgers.
The process of identifying ancient artefacts is perhaps not dissimilar with that of crafting them in the first place. It is not difficult to feel like a forger oneself, reproducing something almost separate, if unintentionally, out of the clay, paint, and scatters of mould. It acts as a reminder that art lies in the perception of the beholder - we can wonder what she might interpret of us were she to look upward. Whether Muse or Siren, hetaira or kyria, this Tanagra figurine’s presence gives a lasting impression of the wider role of women, the gaze, society, and art. In the words of Virginia Woolf: “She belonged to a different age, but being so entire, so complete, would always stand up on the horizon, stone-white, eminent, like a lighthouse marking some past stage on this adventurous, long, long voyage, this interminable - this interminable life.”