Friday, May 25, 2007

Amazon Frieze, Mausoleum of Halicarnasus

Amazonomachy, Frieze, Mausoleum of Halicarnasus, mid 4th C BCE

In the Province of Caria, in southwest Asia Minor, there lived, and then died, a man named Mausolos, satrap of the Persian king. His widow, Artemesia, summoned the great artists of the day - including Skopas - to design his tomb for Halicarnasus, which is the birthplace of the first historian, Herodotus. It was such a grand enterprise, the Mausoleum was recognized as one of the seven wonders of the world. The Mausoleum of Halicarnassus is a ruin now, but its frieze and other artifacts can be seen at the good old BM.

Lord Clark calls this the "heroic diagonal," pointing out that it is used throughout Greek art and later to convey a sense of energy. The contrast between the swirling lines of the cloaks and the rigid diagonals builds interest in the composition. He also points to the flying cloaks, which similarly - and perhaps even more effectively - convey the sense of speed and action. This will remain a feature of art in the west up through Superman. In fact, the reason super heroes have capes is so that we can get a sense of their power and energy as they swirl around them, just as here.

The story being depicted in this frieze is a common one during this period: the Greeks portray themselves doing battle with the fierce Amazons, a race, or tribe, of wild women. This joined with the Centauromachy, the battle with the Centaurs, and the Gigantomachy, the battle with the Giants or Titans, as a way for the Greeks - Athenians, mostly - to think about themselves in league against the forces of darkness. Our contemporary vision of Amazons is likely to be far more positive than anything the Greeks conceived. For the Greeks, Amazons represented a perversion of the norm. They cut off their right breasts - in order to fight more effectively - keeping the left to nurse children. To beat the Amazons in battle was similar to beating the gross, uncivilized monsters, the Centaurs or the Giants. We, the civilized Athenians, this says, compose representations of people just like us conquering some pretty loathsome and fearsome monstrosities.