Greek Marble Relief with a Gorgoneion
Period: 5th-4th century B.C.
Dimensions: Dim: 55 x 71 cm
Ex-private Collection, Switzerland; ex-A. Ruegg Collection, beginning of the 1980’s.
This plaque is made of white, coarse-grained marble with grey veins. It is roughly square, and slightly curved at the top.
The figure, sculpted in low relief on the flat, regular surface of the stone, is a gorgon, whose dramatic appearance may have been hightened by polychromy. Depicted here are her laughing mask and part of her massive neck which has a wavy lower edge. The gorgon is from an intermediate period as her shape (large and circular, with a pug nose, large ears, open mouth with a hanging tongue, large chin) is reminiscent of the hideous appearance of archaic period gorgons. However, because of her gentle expression, short wavy hair (instead of snakes), plump, feminine lips and the soft gaze of her large round eyes, she seems less terrifying and more “humanized”. This “intermediate” iconography, which precedes the much later “beautiful” type (the Medusa Rondanini), appears near the end of the archaic period, notably in red-figure vase painting and spreads in the 5th century to antefixes, coins, gold work, mosaics, etc. This piece is remarkable for its high artistic quality, as well as to its size and the image it bears. Decorated with the head of a gorgon, a monstrous, frightening beast, this plaque would have had an impact on the ancient observer. It is possible to imagine this piece mounted on a large, important, architectural monument; similar, for example, to the gates of the ramparts at ancient Thasis, built between the 6th-4th centuries B.C. These walls are made up of large perfectly carved and assembled blocks. The reliefs, well executed in the local style, showed mythological subjects (Heracles, the town’s protector, Dionysos and satyrs, Hermes and Artemis, Zeus and Hera, etc.) both as a display to impress visitors as well as to safeguard the inhabitants of the city. A plaque such as this one may also have adorned a religious or funerary monument (temple, treasury, heroon).
Despite some formal stylization and the absence of any precisely dated parallels, many factors allow us to probably place this piece in the Classical period. The style (especially in the rendering of the eyes), the intermediate typology of the gorgon and the fact that this was probably part of an important architectural structure are principle among these criteria.
On the Gorgon and her iconography, see:
Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC), vol. IV, Zurich-Munich, 1994, c.f Gorgo, pp. 295-296 (masque intermédiaire).
On the Reliefs at Thasos:
DAUX G., Guide de Thasos, Paris, 1968, pp. 46-67.
PICARD C., Etudes thasiennes VIII, Les murailles, les portes sculptées à images divines, Paris, 1962.