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Work Melian Relief

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Electre sur la tombe d'Agamemnon

© 2000 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Author(s):
Hasselin-Rous Isabelle

This relief, which shows the meeting of Electra and Orestes at the tomb of their father Agamemnon, was probably inspired by the scene in Aeschylus's tragedy, Choephoroe, performed in Athens in 458 BC, the plaque having been made between 460 and 450 BC. It is one of a series of works called Melian reliefs, most of which come from the island of Mílos. This molded relief, in which the ground is cut out from around the figures, was perhaps intended to decorate chests.

Electra and Orestes at the Tomb of Agamemnon

The relief shows the meeting of Electra and her brother Orestes at the tomb of their father Agamemnon. Electra, wearing a figure-hugging chiton, is seated on the left, in front of the stele. Her inclined head rests on her left hand, her face marked by the conventional signs of affliction. Behind her, a veiled maidservant advances towards the tomb. Draped over Electra's knees are broad ribbons like those decorating the stele, and at her side is an oenochoe for use in pouring a libation. She is accosted by a young man dressed in a chlamys and wearing a pilos cap: this is Orestes. Bending towards his sister, his right foot on the top step of the stele, he holds out his right hand to her, hoping to be recognized. His left hand is perhaps holding the bridle of the horse in the foreground. Two men standing further back accompany him. The nearer one, wearing a chlamys and a petasus thrown back over the shoulder and holding a sword in his left hand, is Pylades. Behind him a servant wearing a pilos cap carries a sack on his back.

A Scene from Aeschylus's Choephoroe?

In the spring of 458 BC, Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy was performed in Athens. One of the tragedies was the Choephoroe or Libation Bearers, and the success of the play may have inspired the creator of this relief. After Aegisthus and Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon, the child Orestes was taken by his sister to the house of Strophios in Phocia, who would raise him alongside his son Pylades. On reaching manhood, Orestes was commanded by Apollo to avenge his father by killing the murderers. He travels with Pylades to Agamemnon's tomb in Argos, where he offers a lock of his hair. It is then that the scene shown in the relief takes place: Electra, instructed by her mother Clytemnestra to make offerings at the tomb to appease the victim and to ward off revenge, sees on the tomb a lock of hair the same color as her own. This tells her that Orestes is in Argos. The latter then appears at the grave and shows her the place in his hair from where the lock was cut. Electra falls into his arms, begging him to avenge his father. This decisive moment at the tomb of Agamemnon figures in both Aeschylus's play and in this Melian relief.

Melian Reliefs

This relief is one of a fairly uniform series of cut-out plaques that take their name from the island of Mílos where most of them were found and perhaps produced. Dating from between 470 and 430 BC, they share the same technical characteristics, with shallow molded relief (1.5 cm maximum) on the front and a flat back. After removal from the mold, the craftsman cut away the background around the outline of the figures. These were then enhanced with bright colors. These reliefs were most likely produced for use on wooden chests, offering an inexpensive imitation of decorative reliefs in ivory or other costly materials.

Bibliography

S. Besques, Catalogue raisonné des figurines et reliefs en terre cuite grecs, étrusques et romains, Paris, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1954, p. 8, C 16, Pl. 58.

Catalogue de l'exposition "Mer Egée, grèce des Iles", Paris, Editions dela Réunion des musées nationaux, 1979, p. 221, n 157, fig. 157.

S. Besques, Figurines et reliefs grecs en terre cuite, Paris, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1994, p. 20, p. 30, fig. 69.

V. Jeammet, "Le costume grec à travers les figurines en terre cuite. Reflet d'une société démocratique ?", Costume et société dans l'Antiquité et le Haut Moyen Age, Actes du colloque de l'université Paris X-Nanterre, 23-24 avril 2001, sous presse 2004.

Technical description

  • Electre sur la tombe d'Agamemnon

    Vers 460 - 450 avant J.-C.

    Provenance : Athènes

  • l. : 34 cm. ; H. : 23 cm.

  • Acquisition, 1876 , 1876

    Electra and Orestes at the Tomb of Agamemnon

    MNB 906

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    Greek terracotta figurines
    Room 648
    Vitrine 24 : "Reliefs de Milo"

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Additional information about the work

Painted Greek inscriptions on base and stele: ALECTR, MEG