Greek terracotta figurines  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Terracotta figurines are a mode of artistic and religious expression frequently found in Ancient Greece. Cheap and easily produced, these figurines abound and provide an invaluable testimony to the everyday life and religion of the Ancient Greeks.


Techniques of manufacture


Modelling is the most common and simplest technique. It is also used for the realization of bronzes: the prototypes are made out of raw clay. The small sizes are directly worked with the hand. For the larger models, the coroplath (or Template:Polytonic koropláthos, manufacturer of figurines) presses the clay pellets or wads against a wooden restraint.


The mould is obtained by application of a bed of clay or plaster on the prototype. Simple moulds, used by the Greeks of the continent until the 4th century BC, are simply dried. Bivalvular moulds, borrowed by the insular Greeks from the Egyptians, require cutting to obtain an obverse and a reverse, with which "keys" are sometimes associated protuberances allowing the two parts to fit better. When the piece becomes complicated, with important projections (arm, legs, head, clothing), the craftsman can cut out the mould in smaller parts. The piece is then dried.

The second phase consists of applying a layer of raw clay inside the mould, which can be incised beforehand in order to obtain effects of relief. The thinness of the layer varies according to the type of object to be realized. The faces of the mould are joined together, the object is then unmoulded, and the craftsman can proceed to the final improvements, typically smoothing the junction. The craftsman also creates a small opening, a vent hole that allows steam to escape during the firing. The vent can also be used for assembly, allowing intervention inside the piece. The limbs are then joined to the body either by pasting them with barbotine (clay mixed with water), or by mortice and tenon joint.

Firing and completion

The piece is then fired in the kiln, with the temperature ranging from 600 to 800°C. The kiln used is the same as the potter's. Once the figurine is fired, slip can be applied. The slip is sometimes itself fired at low temperature. In the beginning, the range of colors available is rather reduced: red, yellow, black and blue. From the Hellenistic era on, orange, pink mauve, and green are added to that repertoire. The pigments are natural mineral dyes: ochre for yellow and red, coal for black, malachite for green, etc.

Religious functions

Thanks to their low cost, the figurines make perfect religious offerings. That is indeed their primary purpose, the decorative aspect coming only later. This explains why the Greek temples host abundant quantities of votive or funerary figurines and why there is almost no document written on their subject.

These figurines can present identification issues. Admittedly, the attributes make it possible to recognize a particular god in an unquestionable way, such as the bow for Artemis. Moreover, certain types of statuettes correspond to a precise form of worship related to a specific divinity. Sometimes, however, "visiting gods" complicate matters: these are figurines dedicated to a god who is not of that sanctuary. In addition, the great majority of the figurines simply represent a woman upright, without attribute. These latter figurines are offered in all sanctuaries, independently of the divinity.

The gift of figurines accompanies every moment of life. During pregnancy, future mothers had care to offer a figurine to Ilithyia, goddess of childbirth: the statuette represents a woman squatting, in full work, according to the Eastern practice. Certain statuettes include a small cavity intended to receive smaller figurines, representative of their babies. During early childhood, one gives figurines of squatting children—a representation of Eastern origin, arrived in Greece via Rhodes and Cyprus. The so-called "temple boys" seem to protect the children. Similar representations are also found in tombs. These figurines are of variable size, perhaps to indicate the age of the dead child. Indeed, the habit is to bury the dead accompanied by objects of daily custom: jewels, combs, figurines for the women; weapons and strigils for the men; figurines and toys for the children. Figurines are often voluntarily broken before being placed in the tomb.

The terracotta figurines are often purchased at the entry of the sanctuary. They are the offerings of the common people, who cannot afford to dedicate more valuable objects. They are also used to replace offerings in kind, like animals or food. They were placed on the benches of the temples or close to the cult statue. They were also deposited in places of worship outdoors: Socrates recognized a sacred spring on seeing figurines on the ground (Phaedrus 230B). Figurines were dedicated to ask favours from a god as well as to thank him. When the figurines were too numerous in a temple, they were thrown in a "sacred dump". In that case, they are frequently broken to avoid recovery.

Ludic and decorative functions

From the 4th century BC, the figurines acquire a decorative function. Thus, figurines represent theatrical characters, such as Julius Pollux recounts in his Onomasticon (2nd century CE): the slave, the peasant, the nurse, the fat woman, the satyr from the satyr play, etc. The features are readily caricatured and distorted. By the Hellenistic era, the figurines become grotesques: deformed beings with disproportionate heads, sagging breasts or prominent bellies, hunchbacks and bald men. Grotesques are a specialty of the city of Smyrna, even if produced everywhere in the Greek world, for instance, in Tarsus or Alexandria.

Lastly, the terracotta is often used to manufacture dolls and other children's toys. Thus, we find articulated figurines or small horses, easy to manipulate for small hands. Sometimes, the nature of a figurine is difficult to determine, such as the curious bell-idols from Boeotia, which appear at the end of the 8th century BC. They are equipped with a long neck and a disproportionate body, cylindrical and lathe-shaped. The arms are atrophied and the legs are mobile. Lastly, the head is pierced with a hole to hang them. It is uncertain if they were toys or votive offerings.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Greek terracotta figurines" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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