The artistic value of the magnificent sculptures of Amphipolis
Roman writer Pliny the Elder (1 st century AD), in his writings about ancient Greek art, said that after the Greek sculptor Lysippus, art ceased to exist (“deinde cessarit ars”). He believed that after the great creations of Lysippus, the personal sculptor of Alexander the Great, what characterized the art of the Hellenistic period was at best a classicized form, a decadent version of the higher classical art.
The Roman writer expressed rather a conservative opinion of the art of his era. Apparently, he was not impressed by the innovations of the Hellenistic period, and insisted on going back to the authentic style of art that sealed with its high quality of expression, an era that was at least three centuries before his own. The reason that I have started this article with a reference of Pliny, is because of the clear boundaries he placed between the two artistic eras, the classic and the Hellenistic periods, using the work of the bronze sculptor, Lysippus, as the last example of high quality classic art.
The time frame when Lysippus was active, during the second half of the 4 th century BC, brings us at the same time to the era that the archaeological team provided for the creation of the Amphipolis tomb in Greece, which is between 325 and 300 BC. The sculptures that were found inside the tomb certainly do not belong to the description of classical art that Lysippus provided, and are not consistent with the realistic and personalized characteristics of classical art as we know it. But on the other hand they also do not belong to the mature Hellenistic period. So what could this possibly mean?
Caryatid sculptures found within Amphipolis tomb in Greece. Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture
What happened here is probably the same as what typically happens to pieces of art created during a transition period between an older artistic style and a new one – they appear to have a combination of characteristics that make their dating amphoteric; in other words, they could belong to either period. Different opinions talk about a ‘classicizing’ style of the caryatid statues (female statues serving as architectural supports) in Amphipolis, supporting the view that they just mimic the older genuine classic style, which was appreciated with nostalgia during the Roman period, as we have seen with Pliny. There is also the opinion that the sculptures are creations of artists from the island of Paros, while a few mentioned the ‘Athenian’ workshops too. The island of Thasos, where we will find the quarries that were used for building the monument, had a direct connection with the island of Paros, both belonging to the same Municipality. It is clear that artists from Paros, at the end of the fourth century BC, were following a sculptural tradition that still preserved the memories of the archaic style, during a period of time when Macedonia didn’t have any notable sculpture workshops. I tend to appreciate the second opinion as the most appropriate to explain the sculpting style.
The proposition that the marble statue of the Lion in Amphipolis was positioned at the top of the hill, additionally places with confidence the building of the tomb at the ends of the fourth century BC. In any case, other characteristics of the caryatids like the drapery of their tunics and how they are carved on the statue, show a distance from the classical motives of caryatids of the fifth century BC. They imprint a lively style of artistic expression and experimentation that combines the previous classical achievements along with any classical innovation that had already started to appear in arts at the end of the fourth century, preparing the era of the Hellenistic period. The tomb is special because of the existence of statues and certainly is distinguished because of the innovations in comparison to other Macedonian tombs, and at the same time is the largest monument of its kind that has ever been discovered in Greece.
Scaled representation of how the caryatid sculptures would have once looked inside the Amphipolis tomb. © Gerasimos G. Gerolymatos.
The caryatid statues for the era that we are talking about, represent an excellent early sample that could reveal one of the first entries in the development towards the Hellenistic period, and this is probably the greatest artistic value of the sculptures of the Amphipolis burial monument, since they could help art historians better understand the transition from classical to Hellenistic art. I have also suggested as appropriate the study of the Tanagra figurines , in order to examine commonalities with the caryatids’ morphological directions. We frequently know that because of freedom of expression, arts such as ceramics and pottery painting were the first to flag any change of style, while the high art of large temples and public buildings were not as willing to change their official established style.