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Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Lefkandi Centaur

When the Mycenaean world suddenly came to an end c. 1200, the palaces, literacy, and the whole tradition of monumental art and architecture all went up in smoke.  Yet pottery continued to be made, though of much lower quality.  Indeed, in the period that followed, called the Dark Age (ca. 1200-900), pottery is the only constant in the archaeological record.  This period of cultural impoverishment, the Dark Age, in which there was really nothing in the way of representational art, lasted for three centuries.  Then an amazing thing happened.  Starting around 900 BC, Greek culture underwent a rebirth, a renaissance.  The pottery improved, with Athens as a major center of production.  A faster potter’s wheel, the compass, and the multiple brush were among the technical innovations. The resulting “Geometric” style is characterized by the use of triangles and rectangles, by circles and semicircles drawn with the new compass and multiple brush in dark paint on a light background.  Human figures reappear on vases.

Foreshadowing this renaissance is the famous centaur found in Lefkandi, Euboea, in 1969.  The excavators considered their find to be “the most remarkable work of Greek sculpture yet known from that Dark Age that followed the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization and that preceded the artistic revival of the eighth and seventh centuries BC” (V. R. Desborough, R. V. Nicholls, and M. Popham, “A Euboean Centaur,” The Annual of the British School at Athens, 65 (1970) 24).  Made of terracotta, it is about fourteen inches tall.  The artist used the potter’s wheel to make the hollow, cylindrical body but formed the human torso and the legs by hand.  The hole in front is one of two vents to insure proper firing in the kiln. 

Despite its large ears, the face has a human look.  There are holes the ears and nostrils.  The holes for the eyes may have held inlays of bone or stone.  His missing left hand may have held a branch or a tree over his left shoulder (note that there was an attachment there)—this is suggested by later representations of centaurs.  Tree branches are their weapons of choice.  There is a deep incision below his left knee.  As for the paint on his body, “the necklet-like bands at the neck, the panel of lattice-hatching on the chest and the mitra-like striped reserved area on the human abdomen, along with the zigzags, dog-tooth triangles and reserved lozenges on the animal body, are all probably to be seen as more decorative than representational in function” [Desborough et al. 25]).  The decoration recalls the patterns used in late Protogeometric and early Geometric pottery.

Was this a figure from myth?  Can we call it a centaur?  If so, was it a generic centaur?  Or was it perhaps Chiron, tutor to numerous heroes?  Jeffrey Hurwit thought so (The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 BC [1985] 61.  The gash below the knee, he argued, could be an allusion to the story, preserved by Apollodorus (Library 2.5.4), that Heracles once gave Chiron an unhealable wound in the knee with one of his poisoned arrows (it was to end his suffering from this wound that Chiron ended up giving away his immortality).  In any case, the Lefkandi Centaur “is not only the first masterpiece of early Greek sculpture, it is also the first indication that the Greeks, who always told heroic tales, would eventually become obsessed by the urge to illustrate them and superintend a revolutionary change in the meaning of images.”

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