Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Stele of Hegeso

The Stele of Hegeso, c. 420 BCE

This grave marker commemorates the domestic life of Hegeso, a wealthy woman - wealthy enough in life to have one of her servants hold her jewelry box for her to select something, and in death for someone to pay for this touching, and rewarding, stele. As on the Parthenon frieze and elsewhere, the drapery falls gracefully from the bodies of the two women, and although they are not engaged in any dramatic action, their attention to the little task at hand, and their awareness of one another, is well conceived. The artist engages us by representing the rapt attention of his subjects, so that we become involved in their consciousness. Hegeso's pose suggests to some that she is weary, or regretful - she may be saying farewell to worldly goods - or lost in thought. The stele conveys the abstract quality of her consciousness.

True enough. But I equally prefer finding here a quasi-portrait of the woman - now dead - when she was alive. I think that other-worldliness of her gaze comports well with that interpretation. Selecting jewelry, presumably for some occasion, we are reminded, is not a trivial matter. It is what we do, and it is the kind of thing we pay attention to, when we are alive. The delicacy of gesture, particularly in Hegeso's hand, is memorable (one of the characters refers to it when describing a person in Proust's Within a Budding Grove), and, surely, memorability is the point - its a grave marker, and she is both dead and, if not alive, represented in a lively state of consciousness.

Both of the figures are turned slightly towards the audience - in 3/4 profile - and both of their heads incline towards the center of the composition, where Hegeso's hand creates the center. The sweep of their arms forms a satisfying frame to the upper half of the piece, echoed in the sweep of the chair's legs. They are framed by two simple pilasters and a pediment. ornamented with what would be acroteria in an actual temple. The serving woman's body gently pushes the boundaries of the frame.

Their frame is called an aedicule, or an aedicula. Although the term is usually reserved for similar recesses in a wall, I have found this to be an extremely useful term to identify the common design in which two columns - pilasters, most likely - which support an entablature, frame a vertical rectangular space.

I am especially fond of aedicules and of aediculated designs, and they are ubiquitous in both Classical and Western art.