Tsimbidou-Avloniti, M.: The Macedonian Tombs at Phinikas and Ayios Athanasios in the Area of Thessaloniki. Contribution to the Iconography of the Funerary Monuments of Macedonia / Μακεδονικοί τάφοι στο Φοίνικα και στον Άγιο Αθανάσιο Θεσσαλονίκης, (Greek with English & Italian Sumaries), 40 €, ISSN 1108-1244 & ISBN 960-214-442-4
(Hellenic Ministry of Culture - Archaeological Receipts Fund, Athènes 2005)
Compte rendu par Kenneth Lapatin, The J. Paul Getty Museum

Nombre de mots : 2037 mots
Publié en ligne le 2010-05-25
Citation: Histara les comptes rendus (ISSN 2100-0700).
Lien: http://histara.sorbonne.fr/cr.php?cr=642
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          The discovery of spectacular paintings and other impressive artifacts in the ‘royal’ tombs at Vergina in 1977 dramatically changed modern perceptions of ancient Greek art [1].  The two more recently unearthed Macedonian tombs that are the subject of this exemplary volume, though robbed in antiquity and thus lacking the richness of the portable finds at Vergina, also preserve significant painted decoration even if they remain relatively little known, especially outside of specialist circles. Previously published in relatively brief reports and conference proceedings [2], the tombs, their paintings, and associated finds here receive full scientific treatment, although the book was published in 2005, half a decade after the author sent it to the press early in 2001.


          The story begins in 1987, when, during construction of a ring road linking Thessaloniki with Chalkidiki, archaeologists in the area of Phinikas excavated the largest Macedonian single-chamber tomb known to date.  Seven years later, another, smaller, but better preserved tomb was found within the large tumulus east of Ayios Athanasios, about halfway between Thessaloniki and Pella, on the west bank of the Axios river, in the territory of what seems to be ancient Chalastra. Both tombs have impressive painted facades and barrel vaulted interior chambers with platforms for funerary couches.  Both can also be dated securely to the late fourth century BC by the style of the architecture and paintings and associated finds: an inscribed Thasian pointed amphora and a posthumously issued gold quarter stater of Philip II at Phinikas; and a gold quarter stater of the same ruler at Ayios Athanasios.


          Although the painted decoration of both tombs is the highlight of this well-produced volume, Tsimbidou-Avloniti furnishes a full publication of the tombs in every sense, including catalogues of surviving small finds, detailed presentation and interpretation of architectural form and iconography, and, for the tomb at Ayios Athanasios, archaeometric analyses of the pigments by Lorenzo Lazzarini. In addition, an appendix provides a catalogue of painted Macedonian tombs. Numerous line drawings depict architectural plans and clarify details; black and while photographs illustrate the small finds; and the paintings themselves are presented in clear, large color images as well as line drawings and watercolor restorations.


          The painted plaster relief façade of the Phinikas tomb is well preserved up through the Doric frieze, which, between blue and red trigylphs and taeniae, has seven metopes each filled with a phiale rendered in gold paint, with blue central omphaloi; brushstrokes around the rims in darker hues emphasize the three-dimensionality of these illusionistic renderings. Antae capitals and relief mouldings are painted with blue and red tongues and white florals (palmettes alternating with stylized lotuses).


          Unfortunately, the half-meter high pedimental tympanon was damaged by ancient tomb robbers, especially at the center, which depicted a scene of dexiosis (hand-shaking) between a sitting and standing figure.  Additional standing figures — all painted against a blue background; some leaning on staffs, others reclining and holding weapons — fill the remainder of the composition on both sides along with a horse, stele, table, and open chest.  Similar dexiosis scenes appear on late fifth-century BC white-ground lekythoi, late classical Attic grave stelai and marble lekythoi, and late fourth-century BC Apulian vases.  At the better preserved edges of the composition, the artist can be seen to have skillfully employed both color and shading to render convincingly the volumes of the figures, and deployed chiaroscuro effects in their drapery.  Such painting techniques, largely lost on marble reliefs, have also been discerned on white ground pottery. [3]


          Inside the tomb, a sculpted Ionic entablature at the base of the vault consists of three taeniae, relief dentils, and a cornice painted with palmettes and eggs and darts.  The uppermost taenia is decorated with red rosettes with a hint of chiaroscuro, and the remains of actual iron nails suggest that garlands, wreaths, or other objects, such as strigils and alabastra (sometimes depicted in tomb paintings) were hung from the walls. Weapons are another possibility. [4]  The chamber itself is dominated by two altar-like pedestals, painted black with white lotus, palmette, and meander decoration along with other standard mouldings.  Fragments of ivory figures and glass elements suggest the luxuriousness of the funerary couches that originally stood upon them.  The discovery of both gold jewelry and weapons suggests that the tomb was intended for a man and a woman, presumably a married couple.  The extension of one of two benches with unbaked bricks covered with low quality plaster and the deposition there of a silver drachm of Alexander III along with a bronze coin of Kassander indicate that this tomb was reused at a later date.  Especially intriguing are two pairs of life-size marble eyes with inlaid irises and pupils, and several bronze eyelashes, as if for larger composite statues fashioned from more perishable materials.


          The smaller tomb at Ayios Athanasios also has a brightly colored Doric façade. The metopes are blank, but large akroteria painted with illusionistically shadowed palmettes and flowers top its small pediment, which is filled with a central gold disk flanked by heraldic lion-griffins with long curving tails and florals in the angles.  This tomb combines the architectural orders as a stunning Ionic frieze 3.75 meters long and 0.35 high, consisting of 25 figures divided into three distinct sections, runs between the antae, just above the doorway. At center, a banquet unfolds: six wreathed male revelers paired on three couches with colorful cushions lounge before tables laden with eggs, fruit, and cakes;  they listen to the music provided by a female kitharist and auletris, while a young, naked male wine-pourer stands to the side.  This central scene is closed at either side by an imposing sideboard (kylikeion) on the left and marble basin on the right.  Further left, a group of three wreathed horsemen and five attendants approach bearing torches against the dark background.  Opposite them, eight soldiers with spears, brightly painted Macedonian shields, mantles, and distinctive plumed helmets and Macedonian kausiai, calmly look to the central scene: the first extends his hand over the basin to one of the banqueters.   Below, flanking the doorway, two larger youths, just under life-size, appear to be guarding the entrance to the tomb.  The are placed not unlike the four large-scale figures painted on the façade of the ‘Great Tomb’ at Lefkadia, which also has a stucco relief decoration combining Doric and Ionic elements. [5]  The two mantled warriors carry spears and are appareled similarly to the warriors on the right of the frieze above, but their larger scale allows for greater elaboration of their tussled hair, facial and other features, as well as for greater illusionism of their three-dimensionality.  Above them, two elaborately painted shields hang from painted nails, one decorated with a gorgoneion on a pink ground with a gold rim, the other with a winged thunderbolt on a red ground with a blue rim.  There is a greater variety of colors employed here, as a whole, than at Phinikas: blues and greens along with pinks, purples, yellows, and browns.  Lazzarini’s analyses (utilizing an Energy Dispersive Spectrometer coupled to a Scanning Electron Microscope, X-Ray diffractometry, and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy) indicate that the colors were mixed from a variety of materials: yellow, red, and brown ochres; red and violet lakes; carbon and bone blacks; hematite; cinnabar; calcium carbonate; white lead; and Egyptian blue.


          Inside the tomb, the walls are painted red above a white socle, and springing of the vault is emphasized by a frieze of painted rosettes and bucrania on a black background.  Traces of a large painted blue and red shield adorn the back wall.  Here too, fragments of gold, ivory, and glass are evidence of a luxurious couch that stood on a platform.  Numerous iron fragments seem to be the remains of the deceased’s armor, and the components of a gilded wreath were also recovered.  Particularly interesting is the fragment of an alabastron inscribed krokos (‘saffron’), a costly graveside offering.


          While most of this volume is dedicated to the presentation of the architecture, painted decoration, and small finds from both tombs, Tsimbidou-Avloniti also attempts to review their iconography in the general context of late fourth-century Macedonian beliefs about burial and the afterlife.  At both Phinikas and Ayios Athanasios, luxurious wooden couches placed on platforms were apparently intended to receive cinerary urns, presumably of precious metals, containing the cremated remains of the deceased.  The author interprets the dexiosis scene on the façade at Phinikas not as the ‘farewell of a warrior’, but rather, because of the presence of other armed young men in the pediment, as a scene unfolding in the Underworld, where the deceased (the standing central figure) meets one of his ancestors, perhaps even his father, who preceded him in death and now extends a hand to welcome him.  In the frieze at Ayios Athanasios, in contrast, the author sees a banquet taking place in Macedonia ‘in an open-air space of what is presumably a luxury residence owned by a high-ranking military officer, probably an etairos, a “companion” of the royal court’, identified tentatively as a central reclining figure pouring wine from a winged rhyton.  Moreover, she reads grief in the expressive, individualized faces of the two larger youths represented flanking the doorway: ‘the eyes narrow in an attempt to hold back a tear that is on the point of falling.  Even without seeing them, one can guess at the lips clenched tight in inexpressible sorrow that the man is trying to cover with the hand wrapped in his chlamys’.  This reading of the gesture is probably correct, though the present reviewer is less inclined to see what is not depicted.  Nonetheless, in this rare survival of large-scale Greek painting of the fourth century BC, we are now better able to glimpse something of the lost works of such masters as Timanthes, who, according to several Latin authors, after painting the figure of Calchas sad, Ulysses mournful, and Menelaus lamenting at the sacrifice of Iphigenia, deliberately veiled the face of Agamemnon because he could not adequately depict such grief  (quoniam summum illum luctum penicillo non posset imitari - ‘because supreme grief cannot be portrayed by the brush’, according to Cicero). Scholars have recently highlighted the pitfalls of attempts to reconstruct Greek art from Roman painting and sculpture. [6] The discovery and publication of the painted tombs at Phinikas and Ayios Athanasios adds inestimably to the corpus of noteworthy originals.




(1). The two most impressive painted tombs at Vergina are Tomb I, the ‘Tomb of Persephone’, and Tomb II, the so-called ‘Tomb of Philip’: see, e.g., M. Andronikos, Vergina: The Royal Tombs and the Ancient City (Athens, 1984), esp. 86-119; and idem, Vergina II: The ‘Tomb of Persephone’ (Athens, 1994). Many scholars question Andronikos’ association of Tomb II with the King Philip II of Macedon, preferring to see the deceased male deposited therein as his son, Philip III Arrhidaios; nonetheless, it remains possible that one of the other tombs housed Philip II: see, most recently, E.N. Borza and O. Palagia, ‘The Chronology of the Macedonian Royal Tombs at Vergina’, JdI 122 (2007) 81-125; and D.W.J. Gill, ‘Inscribed Silver Plate from Tomb II at Vergina: Chronological Implications’, Hesperia 77 (2008) 335-358.


(2). Several early publications in Greek by the same are cited in the bibliography.  More recent and more readily available to non-Greek speakers are:  M. Tsimbidou-Avloniti, ‘Excavating a painted Macedonian tomb near Thessaloniki: An astonishing discovery’, in M. Stamatopoulou and M. Yeroulanou (eds.), Excavating classical culture: recent archaeological discoveries in Greece (Oxford, 2002) 91-97; and eadem, ‘Revealing a painted Macedonian tomb near Thessaloniki’, in A. Pontrandolfo (ed.), La pittura parietale in Macedonia e Magna Grecia : atti del Convegno internazionale di studi in ricordo di Mario Napoli, Salerno Paestum, 21-23 novembre 1996 (Paestum [Salerno], 2002) 37-47.

(3). E.g., Berlin, Antikensammlung, SMPK F 2683: B. Cohen, ed., The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases (Los Angeles 2006) 237-238, no. 69, esp. fig. 69.3.


(4). S.G. Miller, The Tomb of Lyson and Kallikles: A Painted Macedonian Tomb (Mainz, 1993) pls. 2, 3, and 12e for painted swords hanging from nails.


(5). Inscriptions identify two of the four as Rhadamanthys and Aiakos, judges in the Underworld; the third figure is Hermes, and the fourth, a warrior, is often taken to be apparently the deceased:  see Ph. M. Petsas, Ho Taphos ton Lefkadion (Athens, 1966); M. Robertson, A History of Greek Art (Cambridge, 1975) 568-571.


(6). Cicero, Orator 74; see also Pliny, Natural History 35.73; Quintilian 2.13.13; Valerius Maximus 8.11.ext.6. For a critique of modern attempts to identify copies of Timanthes’ work in Roman painting see E.E. Perry, ‘Rhetoric, Literary Criticism, and the Roman Aesthetics of Artistic Imitation’, in E.K. Gazda (ed.), The Ancient Art of Emulation (Rome, 2002) 153-172, esp. 154-156.  For Roman originality in general see, e.g., M. Marvin, The Language of the Muses: The Dialogue Between Greek and Roman Sculpture (Los Angeles, 2008).