Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Prothesis

These prothesis scenes decorate and animate the central panels of the huge Dipylon vases from the middle of the 8th century BCE. They portray the laying out of the hero's dead body, with suitable mourners raising their arms, and family gathered around. The sense of geometrical pattern is overwhelming, and, I think, accords nicely with the theme of death, which has an abstract and abstracting nature of its own.
These are among the first figural representations in Greek art for several hundred years. Highly geometric themselves - these figures seem to emerge naturally out of their geometric background - they are constructed of triangle shapes, a form which will continue to emerge in Greek figural art from early freestanding sculpture through the kouroi figures.

Here is Richard Brilliant:
The individual figures have been drawn flatly, with anatomical details reduced to the barest geometric and significant essentials: the heavy legs indented at the knees are shown from the hips down in profile; the torso is defined as an inverted triangle seen from the front; the gesticulating arms are sticks that extend the triangular shape of the torso; and the head becomes a round blob placed on a skinny neck and characterized by a carrot like nose. Emphasis is placed on the most salient shapes of the human body, whose repetition develops a pattern akin to the geometric bands that frame the panel on all sides. But unlike the two bands of animals drawn on the neck of the Dipylon vase, whose circular movement like the abstract motifs enhances its cylindrical shape, the prothesis panel is self-contained and static, a truly pictorial, if limited, composition, which develops a dignified, heroic atmosphere and represents human action, however categorically expressed. The subject matter of the panel is monumental, and so is the pot itself, which offers dramatic testimony to the extraordinary skill of the eighth-century Athenian potter. (Brilliant, Arts of the Ancient Greeks, 1973, 21-2).
These paintings make for an interesting task of deciphering. Presumably, the figures which appear to be seated below the bier are intended to be in front of it. Also, the checkerboard pattern above the corpse represents the shroud; the shroud needs to be shown, but so does the body, so... Especially effective, it seems to me, is the variety of visual rhythms across the panel, so different from those in the amphorae at large.