Object: Statuette

Tanagra: Statuette
Boeotia, Greece
Late Hellenic
ca. 350 – 250 BCE
Materials:  terra-cotta

This object is a hollow, terra-cotta female figurine atop a low, flat base.  The standing woman is draped in cloth to make a robe with many folds, the arms are covered, the right hand is holding gathered cloth, and the left hand is holding a leaf-shaped fan.  The mantle is pulled up over the head to make a hood with a pointed fold in the center above the forehead.  The back side has less draping detail, except for one piece of draping that falls from the left shoulder (see image below).  A rectangular opening has been cut in the middle of the back of the figurine, and another hole is located at the bottom of the base.

A series of small statuettes were uncovered in Tanagra in the late 19th century.  Due to their association with graves, the objects were first determined to be votive offerings; however, some scholars now believe that the purpose of the statuettes was not religious, but simply for personal use and decoration.   The Tanagra statuettes were mass-produced terra-cotta figurines that were mold-cast and fired.  Terracotta, which literally means “baked earth,” is made from natural clay, which gives it a characteristic reddish brown color. The color varies slightly depending on the clay used. Tanagra figures were molded in clay from possibly two or more molds, with the head often molded separately. This practice of molding separate head pieces is visible on the object pictured above.  After baking the clay, the figurines were painted to accentuate details such as eyes and hair. The statuettes are an expression of what is referred to as the later Hellenic civilization. Most of the figures, like those pictured here, are of women wearing various styles of garments, Phrygian style hats, and holding fans. This statuette holds the leaf-shaped fan characteristic of Tanagra statuettes.

This statuette belongs to the group of Tanagra figurines known as the “Tanagra Dancers.”  While not all scholars agree that the Tanagra statuettes portray dancers, many of the figurines show females in a pose that has been referred to as “dancing.”   The position of the body and the drape of the clothing suggest a style reminiscent of oriental dance.   The example here has the left leg bent in possible movement under the garment.  The statuette conveys a sense of movement which is gained by the cascade of folds of the cloth around the body.  The depiction of movement displayed by the statuette is representative of the ideal canon of proportions established by Polyclitus.

During the fourth century BCE, Philip of Macedon conquered Greece triggering a transformation in the thinking of the people of Greece.  The emphasis of daily Greek life turned away from the previous attention given to heroic traditions and public affairs, and instead turned to matters of private interest. Within the shadow of conquest came the advent of the mass-produced Tanagra statuettes.  The popularity of the figures among the common people can be directly connected to a change in attitude. The old belief system of faith in civic ideals had been replaced by progressive individualism, and a paradigmatic shift in attitude from the group mentality to the importance of the individual.  The Tanagra statuettes exemplify this shift as the individual is represented, not for religious or ceremonial purposes, but simply for personal enjoyment.

[Debra Taylor]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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