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University of Wisconsin Press
The Iconography of Sculptured Statue Bases in the Archaic and Classical Periods / Edition 1

The Iconography of Sculptured Statue Bases in the Archaic and Classical Periods / Edition 1

by Angeliki Kosmopoulou


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The only systematic study in any language of all known Greek statue bases with sculptural relief, both surviving and known through literary sources

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780299176402
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
Publication date: 03/18/2003
Series: Wisconsin Studies in Classics Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 370
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Angeliki Kosmopoulou is head of the Department of Publications at the Athens Concert Hall in Athens, Greece. She holds a Ph.D. in classical and Near Eastern archaeology and has been an adjunct professor of archaeology at the University of Thessaly.

Read an Excerpt

The Iconography of Sculptured Statue Bases in the Archaic and Classical Periods

By Angeliki Kosmopoulou


Copyright © 2002 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0299176401

Chapter One

Forms and Types of Relief Bases


Pedestals were not a component of Greek sculpture from its inception. The earliest surviving statues and stelai were not provided with separate bases, but were connected to the ground in other ways. Statues were occasionally inserted into the ground supported solely by their plinths, which had smooth bottoms. Such is the case with a kore from Mykale (fig. 1) and a funerary kouros from Thera, found with their plinths sunk into the bedrock. The same method was employed for Geometric stelai. Other statues, provided with substantial cubical plinths that ensured their stability, simply rested on the ground; the occasional carving of the dedicatory inscriptions on the vertical face of the plinth shows that the plinths were meant to be exposed and, thus, were not inserted in bases. The practice of setting a statue immediately on the ground without the intervention of a base became very rare after ca. 650 B.C.

A few Archaic statues, like the kore dedicated by the Naxian Nikandre, terminate at bottom in a tenon; the same device appears only rarely on stelai. The purpose of such tenons is debated.Whereas it was once believed that they were sunk directly into the bedrock, nowadays most scholars consider this idea implausible, arguing instead that the tenons simply helped secure the statue to its base. In any case, this method of attachment, which apparently reached the islands through Asia Minor, never became popular in Greece for stone sculpture, but was primarily reserved for wooden statuary.

The base as a separately worked structural member first appeared in Greek sculpture in the mid-seventh century B.C. Soon it became prevalent, replacing earlier modes of displaying statuary. It has been argued that the existence of statues of different dates resting directly on the bedrock indicates that such a display was a deliberate decision, not associated with the aesthetics of a particular time period. Although this notion is plausible, the fact that very few statues were actually displayed in this fashion after the seventh century suggests that the introduction of statue bases brought along a radical and permanent change in the exhibition of statuary.

The decision to provide a statue with a base distinguishes Greek sculpture from its Egyptian or Mesopotamian counterparts, which did not employ bases. Although the use of a pedestal as a means of creating an artificial groundline seems natural to the modern viewer, one has to admit that its introduction was a breakthrough, since its presence presupposes the acceptance by the viewer of a convention that breaks the impression of naturalism. Ridgway rightly notices that "it is interesting that the Greeks, who may have produced the kouros as a symbol of motion, gave it the restriction of an immovable base."

The origin of Greek bases is a controversial issue that has been explained by means of two theories. The majority of scholars maintain that bases were introduced in Greece in the seventh century B.C., under Neo-Hittite or North Syrian influence. This theory finds support in the fact that some of the earliest Greek statue bases come from areas open to Anatolian influence, such as Samos, Cyprus, and Olympia. An alternative theory advocates the autochthonous creation of Greek statue bases, suggesting that their emergence is contemporary with and parallel to the beginning of monumental sculpture. According to this view, a number of differences between Greek and Oriental examples speaks against a foreign impetus for the introduction of bases to Greece. Two of these differences, pertaining to the proportions and function of bases in the two geographic areas, are of particular importance. Neo-Hittite bases are very tall and raise the statue to a higher level, in contrast to early Greek ones, which are low in proportion to the statue they support. Illuminating in this respect is the case of the Sounion kouros, which, although over three meters tall, rests on a base that projects only 0.11 m above ground. Greek pedestals are usually plain blocks that carry the statue and, occasionally, also bear an inscription. Oriental bases, on the other hand, are frequently decorated in relief and serve multiple functions, maintaining a visual and iconographic association with the statues atop them.

It is true that two of the earliest Greek bases (Cat. nos. 1, 3), going back to the beginnings of Greek monumental sculpture, have certain affinities with Oriental prototypes. Nevertheless, both of them, which happen to be the first to have received sculptural treatment, differ from the majority of Greek statue bases in both form and decoration. Given their uniqueness they cannot, in my opinion, be used to support the theory of an Oriental impetus for the creation of Greek statue bases as a whole. I would rather be inclined to view them as "marginal" or chance occurrences of a type of support that was used extensively in the East but was not successfully transmitted to Greece.

I believe that the distinct form of early Greek statue bases points to their autochthonous conception. A variety of factors may have prompted their appearance as separate structural members. The nature of monumental stone sculpture, which demanded an effective means of securing its creations, must have played a role in the introduction of bases as permanent supports for statuary. Nevertheless, technical considerations were apparently not the sole factor accounting for their emergence, given the large number of enormous Egyptian statues that stood solely on their own plinths. The desire to create a permanent link between the object and the ground may also have contributed to the inception of statue bases. This explanation alone, however, is in my opinion unsatisfactory, since a more direct connection with the earth was maintained by earlier statues which omitted bases altogether. Given the anthropomorphism of Greek art, the addition of a base as a transition between the statue and the ground may have been thought desirable in order to ensure that the statue was conceived as an artificial creation "reproducing in the form of a counterfeit the external appearance of real things."


From the late seventh century onward, statue bases became a significant element of Greek statuary and almost as important for a monument's general appearance as the statue it supported. Bases soon acquired a variety of shapes and forms, conditioned by the purpose and location of the monuments they carried as well as by the artists' technical skills. Despite their growing significance and the increasing interest in their aesthetic appearance, Greek statue bases, unlike their Oriental counterparts, did not receive sculptural treatment or other ornaments except sporadically.

The earliest vestige of a Greek relief base is the fragment of a limestone sculpture from Olympia (Cat. no. 1), showing the right forepaw of a lion with a tiny human foot stepping on it. Thought to be the earliest piece of stone sculpture from the sanctuary, the fragment was found inside the Heraion and was associated with the cult statue of Hera. Dörpfeld and Mallwitz considered it part of the throne of the seated image of the goddess, connecting it with the colossal limestone "head of Hera." More recently, the same piece was attributed to the hypothetical relief base of the cult statue (fig. 6).

The association of the limestone fragment with the cult statue of Hera, however, can be discounted for a number of reasons. First, if the cult statues were made of wood, it is unlikely that Hera would have been seated on a stone throne and, even more so, an intricately sculptedone. Moreover, the remains of the cult-statue base, preserved at the western end of the cella, consist of a simple low rectangular construction that provides no evidence that it ever supported a massive stone throne or carried relief decoration; a series of dowel holes and evidence for anathyrosis, once visible on the front of the base, may have served for the fastening of revetment slabs but certainly not for the attachment of something as substantial as the relief decoration postulated by some scholars. Finally, the sculpted fragment apparently dates to the first half of the seventh century, antedating the construction of the temple and thus the creation of the cult statue.

The limestone fragment from Olympia is reminiscent of massive Hittite relief pedestals. Given its early date and unusual iconography, it is possible that it belongs to a local variant of such a base, as proposed convincingly by B. Schweitzer. If this suggestion is correct, the monument must have formed one of the most imposing examples of the Orientalizing style in Olympia.

Another early relief base (Cat. no. 3, fig. 8) is unique and rather primitive in form. Triangular and retaining the shape of the natural rock, the Euthykartides Base was half-sunk into the ground, recalling the earlier Greek practice of inserting a statue directly in the bedrock. This piece is unique not only for its form but also for its decoration, featuring foreparts of animals at the corners instead of the typical narrative scenes, a trait that recalls Anatolian practices. The general effect produced by this pedestal must have been unusual, since the feet of the kouros resting on it appear to be surrounded by the three animal and monster heads, which apparently had an apotropaic function.

As already seen, the two earliest Greek decorated statue bases betray their dependence on Oriental prototypes. The Olympia fragment, if indeed it belongs to a base imitating Hittite and North Syrian pedestals, provides the sole Greek example of a type of support that was widely employed in the East; its presence in Olympia is not surprising, given the strong Eastern connections of the sanctuary. Both sculpted bases may be considered variations on the motif of a human figure standing on an animal. This iconographic subject is clearly imported from the East, where it has a long tradition. A component of Sumerian and Hittite sculpture, it first appears in Ionia and continental Greece from the eighth century onward, where it is used mainly for figures that have an architectural or structural function and, occasionally, for free-standing creations. In essence, the two relief bases, which represent variations of this motif, are not entirely foreign to the tradition of perirrhanter, which penetrated Greece a little before the mid-seventh century. This does not mean that perirrhanteria were a true prototype for such pedestals, but rather that all monuments originated in a common concept.

Relief bases reappeared in Athens in the mid-sixth century. Their typology gradually crystallized, conforming to the prevalent modes of displaying statuary. It seems that only a few of the numerous types of pedestals were occasionally decorated in relief. Although several subdivisions of relief bases may be proposed on the basis of shape and method of construction, a primary distinction can be made between solid and orthostate examples; the latter type is introduced in the second half of the fifth century.

Solid Bases

The majority of extant relief bases falls under the category of solid blocks that bear at the top one or more cuttings for the insertion of the monument they supported. This group largely comprises low bases, mainly square or rectangular in shape, that rested immediately on the ground; rectangular bases are usually wider than they are tall.

Nonquadrangular shapes are attested only occasionally. Aside from the early Euthykartides Base (Cat. no. 3), only two examples of solid triangular relief bases have come to light. The first (Cat. no. 28, figs. 47-48), a small triangular pedestal with straight sides and flat edges, stands out for its peculiar, very ornate lower molding. Findspot, size, and iconography, along with the shape of the cutting on its upper surface, suggest that it supported an incense burner. The second (Cat. no. 44, figs. 65- 67) is a much taller tripod base with convex sides from the Street of the Tripods. In this case, the selection of the shape was determined by the type of the dedication it carried. The dating of the piece is problematic; nevertheless, it seems that even if not an original fourth-century creation, it reproduces a late Classical prototype.

It is not certain whether circular bases carved in relief were employed in the Archaic and Classical periods. A fragment in the Akropolis Museum storerooms identified by Walter as part of a circular relief base seems to me to belong to a small portable altar, on account of its very small size, unsuitable for supporting a dedication, as well as its iconography, which pertains to the circle of Asklepios. Despite their apparent absence in the period under consideration, circular sculpted bases are well attested during the Hellenistic period.

Aside from simple monolithic pedestals, several sculpted blocks seem to have been part of more complex, composite creations. The plain type of composite base consists of two or more blocks placed one beside the other in order to increase its supporting capacity. Blocks are connected by means of clamps, usually of double T-shape. Occasionally anathyrosis is also used as an auxiliary means of increasing their solidity. Obviously, such bases were created in response to the need for supporting large dedications or sculptural groups. The principal advantages of this mode of construction were that it eliminated the risk of damaging very long and heavy blocks and, possibly, lowered the cost of quarrying and transportation.

The simplest version of this type of relief pedestal is represented by the Atarbos Base from the Akropolis (Cat. no. 39, fig. 60), which is made of two rectangular blocks placed side by side. More complex is the base of the Xenokles dedication (Cat. no. 33, fig. 52). Its only surviving relief block preserves on top part of a double T-clamp that connected it to a backer, as well as anathyrosis, which suggests the fastening of another block on its right side. The estimated length of the dedicatory inscription, along with later replicas of the relief on its face, suggests that lengthwise the base comprised at least two blocks and probably three, if its Neo-Attic replicas, which reproduce three pairs of dancers, reflect the original composition.

A slightly different reconstruction, though based on the same principle, may be postulated for the Apobate Base from the Athenian Agora (Cat. no. 20, fig. 38). On the extant sculpted block, the upper molding runs on all four sides, while the base molding is carved only at the front and back. The partial execution of the bottom molding and the fact that its sides are finished with anathyrosis imply that the preserved block was flanked by an additional block on either side.


Excerpted from The Iconography of Sculptured Statue Bases in the Archaic and Classical Periods by Angeliki Kosmopoulou Copyright © 2002 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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