27 September 2018

Phrasikleia: An Unmarried Woman

"I would not touch the sky with both hands."
    - Sappho, as translated from the Greek by Anne Carson in If Not, Winter: Fragment of Sappho, New York: Alfred A, Knopf: 2002.

"Kore I must be called
evermore; instead of marriage,
by the gods this 
name became my fate." 
  - inscription on the base of the stature of Phrasikleia

She gazes at us straight on, neither coy nor shy.  This is not the studied indirection we are accustomed to in statues from  ancient Greece, the figures often seeming to gaze inward or at a world they alone can see.

Her bearing is regal, displaying her robe striped with meanders on a field of rosettes, indicators of her family's high status.  Because the base  she once stood on was found in a church nearby we know that her name was Phrasikleia, that she was created by the sculptor Aristion of Paros ("Aristion of Paros made me") between 550-540 BCE, and that she died a young unmarred woman.  Even well-born women led constricted lives, not welcome in the public sphere, they were confined to child-bearing and wool-spinning.  They did eat better food than slaves, though.

On May 18, 1972, in a field at Merenta in Attica, a kore (a young maiden, an unmarried woman) was unearthed from a shallow grave where she had been buried since the 6th century BCE.  Next to her was her brother, a kouros.  The most famous excavation of kourais was made on  the Acropolis at Athens in the 1880s.  Kourais had one foot in the world and the other pointed toward the  gods.  Originally created as votive offerings to goddesses in worship and supplication, the kourais gradually developed an aura of what we now call conspicuous consumption, their elaborate robes attesting to the status of their families.

The pink caste to the figure of Phrasikleia in the photograph is not due to the red backdrop but rather is attributed to the red polychrome with which the figure was originally painted. It was the classicist Vincenz Brinkmann and his wife art historian/archaeologist Ukruke Koch-Brinkmann who worked to reconstruct the original colors used in Greek and Roman sculptures  that has helped  to alter our perception of an antique world pervaded by whiteness, in more ways than one.   Change can be jarring, as witness the comment of another art historian, Fabio Barry, who complained that a full-color recreation of a statue of Emperor Augustus in the Vatican Museum looked like nothing so much as "a cross-dresser trying to hail a taxi."  While Phrasikleia's colors have been bleached by time her gaze retains its dazzling directness.

Phrasikleia Kore - c.550-540 BCE, photograph courtesy of National Archaeological Museum, Athens.


Rouchswalwe said...

Beautiful! A woman to drink an ale with over conversation!

Jane said...

Having a drink was probably one more thing women weren't allowed to do in Phrasikleia's time.
When I was a teenager and on vacation in Canada, my mother took a photograph of me standing in front of a roadside inn that had two entrances with signs above them and the one read "Ladies and Escorts."