|Paris, Louvre. Miniature mosaic. Eros harvesting wine grapes.|
|Paris, Louvre. The Borghese Centaur.|
(The color photos are my own)
Centaurs as a synopsis of Greek Art
By the later 2nd century and thereafter, the "Dionysian and heroic styles were different parts of the same stylistic or expressive spectrum." R. R. R. Smith, in OUP, 1993, pp. 204-205; The Oxford History of Classical Art, pp. edited by John Boardman. R. R. R. Smith is also the author of Hellenistic Sculpture in the World of Art series, and both texts are worth reading. The Furietti Centaurs, from Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli, are in harder stone and more academic in their treatment; besides, Hadrian's Old Centaur has no baby Eros. When I was a child, I wondered whether the Eros was part of the original, though, of course, compositionally as well as iconographically, he had to be. Cézanne was right to love this statue. The head of anguish on the old centaur is similar to other anguished Hellenistic heads, but the Eros is uniquely masterly. There are some contemptible 20th century centaurs in Google Images (though the Disney ones in the original Pastoral Symphony in "Fantasia", though they may be too cute, do have real charm, and, of course, centaurs of both sexes and lots of sentimentality go back at least to the Classical period), but I won't discuss the latest ones, evidently less than a half century old, which look as if they came from SciFi or Fantasy Fiction.
If you would like a fine catalogue of Centaurs in their prime period, I recommend the Princeton University exhibition catalogue edited by J. Michael Padgett, The Centaur's Smile. Perhaps you will agree that centaurs play a different role after, approximately, the Peloponnesian War. That is, they provide something different for viewers to relate to.
Anyway, that's how I came to use the baby Eros in lieu of my high school photo for myself on line. In art history, 60 years ago, I was actually discouraged from admiring this art, and of course it is not because Eros is erotic that I love it; I rank it right up there with Verrocchio's.
This coin shows that an eros, full of energy, but with the attributes of Dionysos, expresses the same enthused joy as a winged Eros. Habitually, I like to keep the Greek names but capitalize the name of Eros, specifically. As the vintner eros (top of page) shows, by the late Antonine period, the use of wings is not quite proof of its being Eros himself.
As R. R. R. Smith said, these works dwell in an artistic expressive realm where Bacchos and Eros dwell alike. I'd love to know the immediate source of the dancing infant with beribboned thyrsos and kantharos on the copper coin that Thracian Philippopolis issued for Marcus Aurelius (it is my favorite coin).
This is the realm, of course, of the Berthouville cups, which recently came to the Getty Museum for technical study. Anyone who had doubted whether the Old Centaur properly had the Eros, and anyone who doubted whether centaurs dwelt in heterosexual families was just wrong. We have Pompeian copies of the Centaur Family, pitiably attacked by a predator, copying evidently the famous painting of c. 400 BCE. My modern period favorites are Winsor McCay's of 1921, but I shall refrain from discussing them here. There is too much else to consider concerning centaurs.
I cannot recall, or find, even in Asia Minor, among all the exotic combined creatures that Greek art preserved and transmitted to us through the Romans, any centaurs. I think that, after all, they must be really and truly Greek. The only doubt in my mind that I tried to pursue came from the fact that the very earliest one is the 36 centimeter, c. 900 BCE, centaur with a wheel-made body from Lekfandi in Euboia. Today it is illustrated in every textbook, but it has such 'presence' (to use the art critic's favorite epithet) that it reminds us that power, nobility, humor, etc., etc., are not due to realism or expressive faces but solely to the artist's vision and ability to imbue his work with it (OK, I cannot prove the gender of the artist, but...). And though 36 cm is nothing like lifesize, it is no figurine; in fact it looks bigger than it actually is. Now Lefkandi is Greece, but by ship it is close to the Aegean islands and indeed to Anatolia, yet I cannot find any early centaurs farther east, even though I cannot find, either, a bona fide Greek origin for satyrs, griffins, and all the rest that, thanks to Greece, are still with us.
--Kenneth Lapatin, ed., "The Berthouville Silver Treasure and Roman Luxury", Los Angeles, the Getty Museum, 2014.
--Jon Van de Grift, "Tears and Revel, The Allegory of the Berthouville Centaur Scyphi", American Journal of Archaeology 88, 1984, pp. 377-388, 386-387, ills. 1-2, pls. 51-53.
Naturally, I cannot use the brand-new photographs from the 2014 catalogue, and the generous supply of photos s.v. Berthouville in Google Images are mostly of the the most winsome centauress (chosen also for the catalogue's dust jacket) or are small and poor images, while the photographs used by Van de Grift probably were made for the Babelon's 1916 monograph and, even though the reproductions are small, they are useful. However, I must say that the Getty Foundation has priced their reasonable and very beautiful catalogue quite affordably, and Amazon has it. Indeed, I learned of it, here in the deep south where I live, thanks to Amazon's very well programed servers which, when I ordered the book on Hellenistic sculpture (also published by the Getty Foundation), instantly suggested the Berthouville book as well. As for Jon Van de Grift, his article, abstracted from his dissertation (its committee eminently well chosen for this work), is the only thing he has published, or taught, on Greek and Roman art, as I learned from my Google searches: I wanted to make sure that he had not died.
I had forgotten how much I must have forgotten (if, as I doubt, I had ever thought through the subject) about the representation of centaurs in Greek art. But if I am ever to complete this blog post, as such, I must do it now.
Here I shall illustrate only a few of my favorites, which also are good examples, I think, of what I've been mulling over.
For example, on the cusp from Archaic to Early Classical art, the attack of the centaurs on the goddess Iris by the Kleophrades Painter, whose indomitable joyous energy prevents his rowdy image from being typical of its time. Or the centaur on the Broomhall krater, still essentially Late Geometric, a vigorous man-beast, a wild creature with anthropoid potential to educate heroes. Here Greek art verges on the utter humanity of the Ram Jug Painter's amphora in Berlin, just decades later, where Peleus knows to hand over the infant Achilles to the wise centaur Chiron, the tutor of heroes. There may have been folklore about Chiron for generations, but here an innately empathetic artist brings us to the dawn of literary storytelling: it consists of fragments of a huge vase, but between Beazley's description and the early-digital photos I tried to get you can make out the infant in his short-sleeved chiton handed over to Chiron:
Chiron, like the Broomhall centaur, still shows himself the Hunter.
Carefully reassembled, using the curvature as well as the story, we see infant Achilles (with his hair in a layered-wig format) proffered on the palm of Peleus.