The ancient Greeks thought that at the point of death the soul (psyche) left the body and began its journey toward Hades, the realm of the dead, and the body should have received proper funereal rites. The funerary ceremony was one of the most important events in life of the Greeks. Rituals of burial and mourning did not really change fundamentally throughout antiquity, but the method of mourning and the procedure of rituals varied from one period to another. Funerary scenes are frequently portrayed in the ancient Greek art, although the origin of funereal rites has been not known.
The Greek funeral was composed of the three-step procedure: prothesis (the laying - out of the dead with the accompanying dirge), ekphora (the carrying - out of the corpse from house to tomb), and expositio (the depositing of its cremated or inhumed remains). Among them, the prothesis scene occurs continuously on vases of various shapes or on the plaques from the Geometric times to the Classical period. These scenes reflect the actual practice of the ceremony, so scholars have studied them to understand the Greek society and culture. Their study is concentrated on prothesis of the Geometric or Archaic period.
However, my interest here is in the prothesis scenes on white-ground lekythoi of the Classical period. For the second half of the fifth century, prothesis was represented only on white-ground lekythoi which were produced for holding oil in Athens, and after that time prothesis was no longer represented in Greek art. A white-ground lekythos is not large and is thinly coated with a white slip and the images are rendered in outline or silhouette. Usually, the height of lekythos is about fifteen inches and the height of the picture is about seven inches. The white-ground lekythoi were originally made for ordinary life, and were decorated with various subjects from mythological themes to everyday life. Because the white slipped surface is too perishable to use in ordinary life, they were gradually used only in funerary ceremony. Accordingly, as time went on the scenes changed to be more appropriate for the purposes for which the vases were needed. At last, in the second half of the fifth century, white-ground lekythoi were made only for the dead and decorated with sepulchral subjects. The prothesis seems to have been less popular for painters of white-ground lekythoi than the visitation of tombs was, but the remaining scenes can contribute to our understanding of Athenian prothesis practice of the fifth century B.C. I will analyze them, comparing them with earlier prothesis scenes to reveal the Classical Athenian custom and thinking about the prothesis.
Classical prothesis scenes basically keep essential elements of the compositions and the iconography of the earlier pictures. The deceased is laying out on the bier in the center of the scene, showing with his/her head on the spectator's right. One or more pillows are placed beneath the head of the deceased. Mourners are around the bier, gesturing mourning with their arms. However, there are differences between the earlier ones and Classical ones in scale, the figures' expressions and some details. The most conspicuous difference is the scale of the scenes. Fewer mourners are present and the dirge singers or the guests in approaching the dead disappear in the Classical scenes. For instance, a Classical prothesis scene in Boston (pl. 3) simply displays the body of the dead on a bier with only three mourning survivors. It is entirely different from a huge Geometric prothesis scene. The Geometric prothesis scene of a Krater in New York (pl. 4-a) has many mourners. At the center of the scene, the deceased, who is laid out on a high bier, is surrounded by six persons, who are under a canopy with the deceased. The six persons, whose sizes and gestures are various, are thought of as the immediate family or the closest relatives of the deceased. In addition to those, sixteen persons at the both sides of the central scene and sixteen persons on the handles of vessel are standing away from the deceased; they are mourning with formal gestures, i.e., by touching or tearing their hair with both hands (pls. 4-b & c). These mourning people are regarded as the professional mourners or more distant relatives of deceased. The main prothesis scene is extended into the lower zone which is composed of warriors with shields and a chariot parade (pl. 4-d). The chariots are thought of as parading in honor of the dead or bringing guests to his funeral.
This multiplicity has symbolic meaning as a big funeral. Survivors had to hire the mourners to show their wealth and pride rather than their deep sorrow because a funeral presented opportunities for the display of wealth, kin-solidarity and family pride at that time. Thus, the ceremony is solemn and very controlled as a large festivity. As Zschietzschmann explains, the mourners, who perform the same gestures, are not concerned with the specific dead person, and for them a close relation to the deceased is avoided. The Classical Greeks did not want to stick to that kind of formality. Of course, the number of the figures represented on vases could be dependent on the shape or size of the figure field, but the Classical artists basically seem not to be concerned with heroic and huge expression. The change alludes to the modification of thought about death as well as actual practice of funerary ceremony.
The large scale of prothesis ritual of the Geometric period diminished as time went on. The huge, heroic characteristic of Geometric times had already begun to disappear in the scenes of the Archaic period. Only less than ten persons are usually mourning around the dead in Archaic scenes. Like one of Archaic funerary plaques in Musee du Louvre (pl. 5), the number of the mourners is obviously curtailed, and the chariot teams are gone. Instead guests are approaching the deceased with the processional gestures: the elevated arm and the hand twisted to the outside.
The gradual reduction of the Greek prothesis ceremony occurred as a result of funereal legislation which was passed throughout Greek history because the Greeks had to overpay for funerals. In Athens, popularization of a cheap and small, white-ground lekythos in the second half of the fifth century can be understood in the same vein.
With the reduction of scale, the behaviors of mourners changed later on. The most characteristic difference of Archaic prothesis pictures in comparison to Geometric prothesis is the closer relation of the mourners to the deceased. In the plaque of Louvre, only seven women, who wear the same kind of clothes, are mourning with rather formal gesture around the bier. The whole corpse, except the head, is tightly wrapped in a cloth. Although the bier is mounted on rectangular objects, it is shorter than earlier ones. Interestingly, this plaque indicates the relation of persons represented to the dead through inscriptions on the plaque. According to the inscriptions, the women are the immediate family and the closest relatives. Men do not attend the mourning itself, and in this scene a man (the father) is just greeting the arriving guests at the foot of the bier.
The composition of scenes and the behaviors of figures in the Classical period changed in various ways. Like the prothesis scene on white ground lekythos in Boston (pl. 3), the position of the deceased and bier does not change, but guests and dirge singers are no longer represented. In the classical scene only the immediate family (men and women) is gathering around the deceased and are intensively mourning the loss of the loved one. Their mourning gestures no longer follow the traditional rules, and they express their deep sorrow and grief much more freely. Particularly, the expression of figures are more natural and individual in white-ground lekythoi. Although sometimes the gestures of mourners are similar to those of earlier ones, there is one decisive difference: a general deep expression of sorrow and grief by everyone in the Classical scenes. The Archaic prothesis scenes are much more personal than those of preceding periods. But, during the Archaic period, the expression is accomplished through the configuration of the mourners on specific position around the bier. That is, expression is just the action of the process without revealing their actual feeling in the Archaic scenes.
Not only were the expressions of figures more personal, but also the place where the prothesis rite was held was more personal in the Classical scenes. The prothesis scenes on white-ground lekythoi sometimes have columns (pl. 7)or mirrors. These elements imply that the prothesis ritual in the fifth century was held indoors. Before the sixth century the prothesis ceremony was performed in open, public places. Therefore, it can be implied that the Classical prothesis ceremony was neither a grand public occasion (as in the Geometric times) nor a kin event (as in the Archaic period), but simply a family occurrence.
In detail, the prothesis scenes of white-ground lekythoi can be divided into the two groups according to the expression of figures and some details: one, which dates the third quarter of the fifth century, is more traditional in the process of lamentation, as well as more natural in the expression of figures; the other, which dates the last quarter of the fifth century, is free in gestures of figures, and literal and imaginative in the whole expression.
Three scenes of white ground lekythoi in Boston (pl. 3), New York (pl. 8) and London (pl. 9) can be grouped into the first category. They bear resemblances among them in composition, the position of the three mourners, and details. These scenes are rather formal and traditional in the appearance of the body of the dead, as well as the attitude of mourners. The stiff corpses are laid out on the high couch that is held up by supports. The dead is wrapped to the neck and the head is supported by one pillow. Particularly, in plates 3 and 8, women's mourning gestures are quite formal and follow those of Archaic plaques. The women at the side of the dead are tearing their hair with both hands, and the women at the foot of the bier put their left hands on top of the head and extend their right hand. In the plate 3, the three women wear the same kind of clothes. The woman at the head of the dead is touching the shoulder of the dead with her left hand and tearing her own hair with her right hand. This is traditionally the mourning gesture of the person who occupies the place at head of the bier. Therefore, some aspects in the custom of prothesis must have been continued into the Classical period.
On the other hand, the Classical period introduced some changes. The Classical scenes have a more natural touch than the Archaic scenes have. The figures of the dead are stiff and have closed eyes. The mourners, who are each wearing different kinds of clothes, are wildly tearing their short hair. In the scene on a white-ground lekythos in New York (pl. 8), the figures are informally dressed, and the heavily mantled man at the right, who, perhaps, is the father of the dead youth, is leaning forward on a staff. His desolated attitude, concealing his grief, is strikingly represented. This realistic individuality is felt in the attitude of the central woman in the scene of London (pl. 9). She bends toward the head of the deceased, touching the face of the dead with her right hand instead of formally tearing her hair. Of course, this gesture is not new; what is new is that her attitude is so active and natural that her sorrow is vividly felt.
Accordingly, the prothesis ritual in the third quarter of the fifth century seems to have perhaps followed the sixth century tradition somewhat. But, it was less formal, so mourners represented their sorrow more freely. The balance between a formal tradition and the personal expression of mourners is a typical characteristic of the prothesis scenes on the earlier white-ground lekythoi.
The prothesis scenes in the last quarter of the fifth century such as the scenes of white-ground lekythoi in Vienna (pl. 11), Paris (pl. 12), and Berlin (pl. 1) are literal, as well as imaginative. One of them, the prothesis scene of Vienna, is composed of the usual laying-out of the deceased and the three mourners. It is, however, different from the earlier examples of traditional Classical scenes (pls 3, 8 and 9) in some aspects. First, the upper part of the dead woman is peculiarly not covered, and the deceased is wearing an elegant dress and earrings and necklace with pendants. It seems to be quite a literal representation of what was their contemporary custom. In the Greek customs, the dead were bathed, anointed with oil, dressed and adorned with flowers, wreaths, ribbons, and jewelry. The literal representation reaches its peak in the fanning woman at the right. She is not mourning, but fanning with a big fan, carrying a flat basket with traces of taeniae on her left arm. As Fairbanks points out, fanning the dead body actually must have been done to keep away the flies, but it had never been represented until the fifth century. Also behind the bier stands a woman in conventional posture, but her head bows as she looks at the dead woman's face. These literal depictions indicates to me that the artist must have depicted the scenes from actual observation. The fact that the secondary elements of the prothesis are depicted in the prothesis scenes means that the Classical Greeks no longer stuck to the conventional formality of prothesis ritual.
In addition to their departure from convention, the prothesis scenes in the last quarter of the fifth century have an imaginative aspect that was lacking before. Instead of the close relation to the actual practice of the ceremony, some scenes have the mythical element. In the prothesis scene of a white-ground lekythos in Vienna (pl. 11), the small souls fly (one is between two women, the other is not shown in the illustration), gesturing lamentation. The flies seem to be mourning their own lost bodies in a repetitive way. Although this imaginative creature is not unusual in contemporary Charon or grave scenes, it is non-traditional in the prothesis scenes. We can often see them in the prothesis scenes on white-ground lekythoi in the last quarter of the fifth century. This makes us guess that the painter was not just working from actual occurrences, but modifying a familiar scene on lekythoi by elements introduced from other sources. The Greeks at the end of the fifth century were interested in Hades which had never been a subject of funereal scenes until the fifth century.
This modification is also found in the prothesis scene in Paris (Musee National Rodin) of the last quarter of the fifth century (pl. 12). The appearance of the laying-out of the dead of the scene is similar to that of other ones. Behind the bier stands a woman who is looking at the deceased and touching her hair with both hands. Strangely, at the right of the bier is a stele which is a round column. Customarily, the prothesis ceremony would have been executed in the dead's home, not at the grave. But we can understand it in the same terms as the small flying creature in contemporary prothesis scenes. Because the stele or grave monument is usually depicted in the scenes of offerings or of visiting the tombs, the painter must have added them into prothesis scenes without hesitation. Accordingly, at the end of the fifth century, logical or rational expression seems to be no longer important in the funereal scenes. This modification seems to relate to the popularization of mystical subjects at the end of the fifth century.
Another characteristic of the later prothesis scenes on white-ground lekythoi is the more natural and emotional expression of mourners. Particularly, one of the large white-ground lekythoi in Berlin (pl. 1) has the prothesis scene which is similar to the earlier scenes on white-ground lekythoi. Although the gesture of persons as well as the type of the scene are unchanged, individual expression of mourners is more realistic and emotional. Behind the bier, a woman in profile bends to the face of the dead, extending both hands, as though to caress the dead man's head. Her lamenting gesture is no longer formal, but spontaneous. At the right a bearded man in profile leans forwards on a staff under his left armpit, his left hand touching the head of the dead man and his right hand raised behind his own head. Even though his gesture is similar to that of the woman in the earlier scene in Boston (pl. 3), his expression is more emotional. He is perhaps the father of the dead because his hair and thin beard are grey, and his gesture is so intimate. His sorrowful expression is entirely different from that of the father of the Archaic plaque (pl. 5) or of the loutrophoros (pl. 10), who greets the guests formally. In the Berlin scene, the mourners, who are, perhaps, the parents of the dead youth, have their own individual means of expressing sorrow and indeed seem to be in deep grief over the death of their child. Therefore, the psychological expression of figures in white-ground lekythoi of the last quarter of the fifth century is more naturally represented than that of any other earlier scenes.
It is thought that no portrayal of prothesis can be dated much beyond 400 B.C. when the perishable white-ground lekythoi were no more produced. This decline of prothesis as a subject does not mean that the ceremony itself fell into complete disuse at that time. Rather prothesis gradually occupied a less important role in funerary proceedings from the Archaic period onwards. At last, prothesis had become of less significance than any other funereal rituals. Thus, as a subject, prothesis failed to hold interest either for the artists or their client.
Until now I have analyzed prothesis scenes on white-ground lekythoi. Prothesis scenes on white-ground lekythoi follow the tradition of prothesis scenes in the composition and iconography. These scenes are, however, simplified. Secondary elements such as chariots or guests, which are important elements in the earlier prothesis scenes, are no longer represented, and the number of mourners declines remarkably. Only the immediate family members participate in the prothesis. The Classical prothesis was not huge and was performed indoors by the immediate family of the deceased
Above all, the white-ground lekythoi painters were interested in the individual emotion of mourners rather than in a well-attended form of the funereal ceremony itself. They emphasized the tragedy of death over the actual mourning over the body of the dead. The mourners reveal their sorrow and grief more freely. The mourners sometimes lament wildly or sometimes quietly. It is totally different from the gesture of the formal, `hired' grief. Athenian prothesis of the second half of the fifth century was no longer an ostentation of the family wealth or unity; rather, it was just the last sorrowful farewell to the loved one.
The painters of the Classical period must have been interested in the actual rite of prothesis rather than the manneristic formality. Although prothesis scenes on white-ground lekythoi are not elaborate works, some of them remain a literal representation of what actually took place. Mirrors and columns, which are not directly related to funeral, and funereal objects such as lekythoi, taeniae, or wreath are represented in prothesis. In the scene of Vienna (pl. 11), keeping away flies from the corpse is a very literal touch. The literal portrayal of prothesis practices is a visual record of their rites and beliefs.
In contrast to literal representation, some scenes have mythological and imaginative aspects. The scenes from the end of the fifth century are modified realistic aspects with imaginative elements. The small souls hover over the realistic scenes, or a stele appears in the prothesis scene. This illogical representation alludes that the painters neither stuck to only literal record nor strictly distinguished the prothesis scenes from the other funerary scenes. Because the Classical Athens purchased these lekythoi, we can assume that they were interested in real life as well as in the mythological imagination.