Hermes and the infant Dionysos- The work of Praxiteles
According to the ancient Greek history Praxiteles was born in the city of Athens in the year 395 BC. (Corso, 110) He was only twenty years old when he first constructed a notable monument, which still holds its value in the ancient history of Greece. The term Praxiteles refers to “who makes completely” or it also may mean, “who finishes”. These names are being given generally to male children, who often became politician or artists. (Corso, 111) The name of the great sculptor can be also explained from a different angle. This angle gives more of a social insight into the matter. It is known that the family of Praxiteles was devoted to the Eleusinian cult. (Corso,112) Thus the name may be derived from the name “Praxithea” who was regarded as a heroine of the Attic myth. It was though evident that Praxiteles was born to a family of sculptors and he had inherited his skills from there on. But more often Praxiteles was regarded as the most renowned among all other sculptors of his time. Moreover it was also known that he was also involved in political activities of Athens. (Corso 112) So from the fact it can be said that Praxiteles can be considered as a man of power and authority with great deal of social respect in his time. But it was in his time the Greek art saw a significant shift. Many analysts were criticized the works of another ancient Athenian sculpture Xenocrates, as rude. (Havelock, 39) This is more of a common practice among his contemporary artists also. But in works of Praxiteles, Pliny finds the sense and relevance of nature is more visible. (Havelock, 39).
Praxiteles inclination towards naturalism can be considered to be an affect of the social changes that had taken place in that era. It was in this time when Gods were more often represented as a child. It was the mother and son relation that was being presented more often, through the works. Also there was another revolutionary aspect contributed to the development of Greek art, where the Roman art more often influenced Greek sculptors. (Havelock, 39). In this form of art the sculptors did not concentrate on the making the exact natural representation of the objects they see or perceive but they concentrated more on seeking outline beauty that resides in the mind of an artist. (Havelock, 40) But in respect of both the forms of representation Praxiteles excelled in his class. The specific skill that Praxiteles had was in the area of portraits. (Havelock, 40). He mainly constructed statues of divinities, mostly representing the female goddesses. Most of his works are either the sculptures of ancient Greek goddesses like Aphrodite, Demeter, Artemis, Hera or sometimes portraits of infant god Dionysos. (Havelock, 41). One form of argument that can be made to justify the choice of the subject matter by Praxiteles is that, being a naturalist and a seeker of divine beauty by style he chose subject matters which are more likely to produce sense of natural beauty than others. According to Winckelmann, Praxiteles often chose subject matters, which are covering aspects of mind, as well as aspects which are more practical. He often linked the divine and immortal beings like gods and goddesses with more mortal identities. (Havelock, 42) This transition can be also explained by the sculptor’s shifting of view from beauty to more of natural form of arts. All his sculptors though comprised of images of conventional goddesses but the instincts and the gestures they show are more human in nature. It was significant from the works he had done specially with the image of Greek goddess Aphrodite. (Havelock, 43) So the sculptures of Praxiteles can be regarded as a more human representation of the gods and goddesses.
In the classical Greek history Dionysos can be regarded as the most popular among the divine infant gods that were more often represented in the Greek arts. (Williamson, p.57). According to the ancient Greek history Zeus when had a union with mortal woman named Semele, made her pregnant. But Hera who was a Greek goddess became jealous about the incident and she tricked Semele in convincing Zeus to appear in his full god like stature in front of her. But Semele being a mortal being was unable to withstand that power imposed upon her. But Zeus in order to save the child snatched the child from the mother’s womb and hid it there until it was ready to be born. According to some literary sources Hermes was entrusted upon by Zeus to bear the child. . (Williamson, 57) This is the main underlying story of one of the most talked sculptures made by Praxiteles. The major notable feature that this sculpture had is the languid S-curve of the figure of Hermes. (Havelock, 16). Also the eyes of the figure was dreamy and the curves oh his hairs also catches attention. There is remarkable sense of pictorial beauty present in every aspect of the sculpture. (Havelock, 16).
Typically this attempt on the part of Praxiteles can be explained in two ways. Firstly, it should be kept in mind that this particular sculpture is not a bronze sculpture which was more of a practice in that era. Rather it was a marble sculpture and according to literary sources the only marble sculpture of the classical era. So the maker (Praxiteles) may have tried to show his skills in marble and in order to do so he has purposely put extra effort in the subject matter and concentrated in extracting more sense of beauty through his work. Another reason may be that Praxiteles was considered to be the master of sfumato effects. (Havelock, 16). That means, his works always had some relevance with the curvatures and postures of a woman’s body. This might be reflected in the figure of Hermes. The standing posture and the some other features were visible in the statue, which quite reassembles a woman’s statue made by Praxiteles. This also explains the cause for the figure being more tall and slender rather than a muscular male figure. Here another inference which can be made about the womanlike representation of Hermes. It may be due to the fact that Hermes was protecting and carrying an infant with him, as a result in this particular sculpture a conscious attempt could have been made to establish him as a woman who is protecting the infant god Dionysos. Here another notable fact is that though in these sculptures representations of infant children were visible but most of the time they were only used for the sake of subject matter. (Williamson, 57) This means that a child was represented as an image to show the care or devotion of the original subject matter. In this sculpture it should be noted that though Dionysos represents the infant god and Hermes is only his protector. But the sculptor here gives more emphasis on the details of the figure of Hermes. (Two Fourth century Children’s head, 100) This aspect can reveal the fact that in that society children were not given much importance as a character.
It is the relationship or the attachment that caught more attention. Here the child figures are not represented properly, keeping in view the natural aspects the sculptor has always considered. This fact can be analyzed in two ways. Firstly it may be simply the general perception of the makers of these sculptures that an infant’s body is not a good subject matter to show sculpting their skills. It may be due to the lesser curvatures and folds of a body of a baby, which they can show while representing an adult male or a female body. As a result they tend to neglect that aspect. The other reason can be more social. The negligence of infants in these forms in the sculptures may mean that a child was not given much importance in that society. Or it can also be that a child was never thought as a separate entity than his her mother or a guardian for that matter. Stephen Bertman is revealing this area in his book “The Conflict of Generations in ancient Greece and Rome”. Here according to the derivation made by the author regardless of the class (here, by class social hierarchical order is being meant) a child is often being looked upon as person of lower social stature. (Bertman, 61) Even during the fifth century, in Athens, literary and historical studies reveal that a female child occupied the lowest social position in both sex and age related aspects. (Blundell, Williamson, p.93). This necessarily means that adult men occupied the highest order in the society and their sculptures also significantly revealed their power and dominance. Next come the women, who hold their importance in different regards. Though some cults considered and worshiped many goddesses but stature was well below strong male gods like Apollo. (Havelock, 40) Women hold their beauty and dignity in a different sense. But children however necessarily occupied the lowest social order no matter they are Son of God or goddesses.
So we get an overview on the various aspects, which may have influenced Praxiteles to construct the sculpture of ‘Hermes and the infant Dionysos’. The social aspects as well as the maker’s point view both equally got reflected in that representation. The following illustration shows the sculpture on which discussion has been made.
Figure 1 Source: “The art of Praxiteles” by Antonio Corso
Blundell Sue, Williamson Margaret. The sacred and the feminine in ancient Greece. United States: Routledge, 1998.
Havelock Christine Mitchell. The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors: a Historical Review of the Female Nude in Greek Art. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2007
Corso Antonio. The art of Praxiteles. Rome: L’ERMA di BRETSCHNEIDER. 2004
Gardner EA. “Two Fourth century Children’s head”. Journal of Hellenic Studies. 11(1890). 100-108