Wednesday, November 14, 2012

68. A Greek pomegranate

Among the grave steles in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens is a wonderful marble one, registered as Inv.No.733. It is a marble stele, found in Larisa in 1882, 113 cm in height. We made a photograph of it, only to lose our camera the next day. However, on Flickr an image of it has been posted by Unforth.
Marble stele, c. 440 BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens [© All rights reserved by unforth, posted on Flickr]
The stele has been described by Nikolaos Kaltsas in his book Sculpture in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (2002) (see p. 99, no. 175): 'It depicts a female figure, the dead Polyxenaia, standing and facing right with her left knee bent. She wears a chiton and a himation that also covers her head. Both garments hang in heavy, straight, severe pleats. In her right hand she holds a pomegranate, while with her left she “unveils herself”, drawing back the himation from the head. Thessalian work dating from about 440 BC.'

The name of the dead woman is written in Greek characters on the left side of the stele, and translated as 'Polyxene' on the display in the museum (the catalogue has: Polexenaia).

Grave stele of Polyxene, National Archaeological Museum, Athens (detail of a photo by Ark in Time, posted on Flickr)
The figure of Polyxene or Polyxenaia is almost 2500 years old. Such images do sometimes recur in other artefacts of a different era, or they have the ability to remind you of familiar images. While I was looking at the grave stele in Athens, earlier this month, my mind wondered and I recalled a drawing by Charles Ricketts for A house of pomegranates by Oscar Wilde (1891).
Charles Ricketts, illustration for Oscar Wilde, A house of pomegranates (1891)
In this book the figure of a pomegranate picker reappears after each story, and towards the end of the book her basket of pomegranates is filled. Of course, there is no real connection between the Greek stele and the Ricketts drawing, apart from the pomegranate, and the use of an ancient symbol. In Greece the pomegranate was known as 'the fruit of the dead'.
Charles Ricketts, illustration for Oscar Wilde, A house of pomegranates (1891)

D.G. Rossetti, 'Persephone' (1874)
Ricketts must have been familiar with Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting of Persephone, holding a pomegranate and symbolizing the seasons. In other cultures the fruit was regarded a symbol of prosperity and fertility, and Ricketts probably had these significances in mind when he drew the figure of the pomegranate gatherer for Wilde's book.