Relief on a sarcophagus with the image of a fallen Amazon

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According to Greek mythology, the Amazons were a tribe made up exclusively of bold women warriors who lived in the regions around the Black Sea. Descendants of Ares, the god of war, these women only recognised the authority of their queen, and they only coupled with men to ensure the continuation of their tribe.

In the Greek imaginary, they were converted into valiant equestrians who dedicated their lives to the struggle against other peoples. Apollonius of Rhodes described them in his work: “The Amazons were not an agreeable tribe with good manners: they were brutal and aggressive. Their main interest in life was warfare. War, clearly, was in their blood as daughters of Ares and also of the nymph Harmonia, who lay in the depths of the Akmonion Wood and bore daughters who were enamoured of struggle.” (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 2. 989 and ss.).

While a-mazon means “without breasts” in Greek (some sources assure us that they auto-mutilated themselves so as to use bow and arrow with greater ease) artistic representations of the Amazons have not depicted this anatomical detail. The first images of these women-warriors date from the 7th century BC and present them dressed in a long peplos open laterally to make the movement of the legs easier. They carried arms like the Hoplites (helmet, shield and greaves). At the beginning of the 6th century their iconography assimilated almost completely that of these soldiers, substituting the peplos for a short tunic and adopting the cuirass. Around 550 BC, the prototype of an Amazon dressed in an eastern style was introduced, with a knitted cap, pants and a shield in the form of the half-moon (peltast). During the 5th century BC, both models coexist, with the Amazon wearing a short tunic and an exposed breast being the most outstanding form. At the same time, the eastern motif becomes more complex, and adopts the Phrygian cap and the chlamys, the usual dress of eastern peoples (Paris, Athis, Mithras, etc.). In this manner, the Amazon prototype passed into the art of the Hellenistic Period, and later into the Roman, without great variations.

Amazons are generally represented fighting against the Greeks, in the so-called “Amazonomachy”. According to ancient authors, Theseus accompanied Heracles in his ninth labour, in the expedition against the tribe of these warriors, with the aim of seizing the girdle of Hippolita, their queen. To this end, he abducted the Amazon, Antiope, married her in Athens and had a son by her, Hippolytus. However, either to get their companion back or to punish Theseus, the Amazons undertook the conquest of Attica. The final battle took place on the Acropolis, where Antiope died. This great battle became the symbolic image of Athena against the East, of civilization against barbarity. The Amazonomachy was represented particularly from the 6th century onwards, with landmarks such as the metopes of the Parthenon (c. 445 BC) or the shield of Athena Parthenos of Phidias (c.440 BC).

A variation on this theme is the so-called Amazonomachy of Achilles, which appeared represented at the beginning of the 7th century BC, and where one of the shortest stories of love in Greek mythology is retraced, that of the hero of Troy and Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons. Achilles, in the heat of battle, killed the queen of the Amazons, who was fighting in defence of the Trojans. While taking off her helmet and noting her beauty, he fell in love with her in the moment, despite the fact that she was lying there already dead.

The struggle of the Greeks against the Amazons changed into a recurrent motif in the decoration of sarcophagi in the Roman epoch, as it alluded to the theme of death and heroism in battle, and referred to the virtues of the deceased. The many different representations of the battle allowed the artist to show off his elaborate technique, playing with the various levels of the relief and the depth of field, thus creating effects of chiaroscuro and giving great dramatic content to the scene. In this manner the contorted figures stand out, the folds of the garments of various types, the anatomical study of the musculature and the dynamic rhythm of the figures adorned the front of Roman sarcophogi. At the same time, the Amazonomachy served as a support to express the dichotomy between the masculine and the feminine, the virile musculature and female beauty, the victorious hero and cruel defeat, life and death (Musei Civici d’Arte e Storia di Brescia, s. 2nd-3rd century AD, from Athens, Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna and Vatican Museums North Portico 28).

On this fragment we can observe the body of a wounded Amazon, almost without life, lying on the ground, hardly able to hold herself up on her bent arm, while a soldier steps on her hand. The delicacy of her facial features and her gesture are in contrast with the violence of the soldier who is showing his dominance and making a show of his victory by trampling on such a noble female warrior. Her beautiful face is turned towards her enemy, as if she were trying to keep her dignity, next to the great circular shield which can only be partially seen. The curling hair and the exposed breast seem to continue the Hellenistic inheritance of the models already mentioned (see the details of the Brescia sarcophagus). The scene would have been framed by a number of vegetal elements, such as can be seen in sarcophagi from the eastern Roman provinces of the same period (British Museum n. 1864, 0831.1.). Even though we are only dealing with a small marble fragment, it is possible to appreciate the beauty of the piece, the excellence of the technique and the ethical and aesthetic values which are hidden in the theme.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

- BLÁZQUEZ, J.M. Mitos, dioses, héroes en el Mediterráneo Antiguo, Vol. 15 de Clave Historial, Real Academia de la Historia. 1999.
- BLOK, J. The Early Amazons: Modern and Ancient Perspectives on a Persistent myth. 1994.
- CASTRIOTA, D. Myth, Ethos and Actuality: Official Art in fifth-century BC Athens, Studies in Classics, Univ. of Wisconsin Press. 1992.
- DAVIS-KIMBALL, J. y Behan, M. Warrior Women: An Archaeologist’s Search for History’s Hidden Heroines, New York. 2002.
- DIEPENBROEK, M. “Searching for Amazons”, Warfare, Conflict and Violence in Antiquity, p. 5-19. (s/f).
- DUBOIS, P. Centaurs and Amazons: Women and the Pre-History of the Great Chain of Being. 1982.
- ELVIRA BARBA, M.A. Arte y Mito, Silex Ediciones. 2008.
- HARRISON, E.B. The composition of the Amazonomachy on the Shield of Athena Parthenos, American School of Classical Studies at Athens. 1966.
- TAUBE, C. (2013) “Literarische Amazonenbilder der Antike”, Amazonen zwischen Griechen und Skythen: gegenbilder in Mythos und Geschichte, Berlin, p. 39-55.

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