Tanagras: Terracota Beauties

May 18, 2020 | Diggin Past | 0 comments

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Tanagras are ancient Greek terracotta figurines from the 4th-3rd centuries BC. When they first came to the world’s attention in the 1870s, they were instantly recognised for their sheer beauty and artistic qualities. Coincidentally, this period was the middle of a renaissance in interest in terracotta sculpture in Europe. With their fine lines, frequently sensual designs and superb artistic qualities, tanagras quickly became highly sought-after items. A source of inspiration to many artists, they have been copied and imitated ever since.

Tanagras take their name from the town in Tanagra in Boeotia, Greece, where they were first discovered in 1873-4. When the necropolis (cemetery) was uncovered, thousands of these delicate terracotta statues were found inside the graves. Some graves held as many as 12 Tanagras. While it is now accepted that this style of sculpture emerged in Athens in the middle of the 4th century BC, nevertheless many of the finest examples were produced in the town of Tanagra itself. Exported widely throughout the Mediterranean during the late 4th century and 3rd century BC, it wasn’t long before local examples of Tanagras were being made, with items produced as far away as Cyprus, Sicily, and Myrina in Turkey.

Tanagra lies in the region of Boeotia in central Greece. The Boeotian League, a confederation of ancient city-states, was established in the 6th century BC. The chief city and head of the League was the city-state of Thebes. The other principal towns besides Tanagra were Orchomenus, Plataea, Thespiae, Chaeronea, Coronea, and Haliartus.

Boeotians were primarily farmers and craftsman who, at the time, were considered to be yokels by the Atticans. The region produced earthenware products throughout the 1st millennium BC. Originally the earthenware was hand-made but by the 7th century BC moulds were introduced into the production process.

Most Tanagras date to the 3rd century BC. Made of unglazed brownish-red clay, the figurines were produced in moulds. Once removed, a small hole was usually made in the back of the figurines to enable access to join the various parts, as the heads, hats and bases were often moulded separately. These were then attached to the body which consisted of front and back pieces. Sometimes they were touched up with small details such as adding texture to hair. Whilst Tanagras are detailed when viewed from the front, the back is often not sculptured at all. Once the artisan had finished his work, they were fired in ovens. The hole in the figure also allowed hot air to circulate during this process.

Although most examples today have a plain terracotta appearance, Tanagras were normally finished off after firing by being painted in bright colours. The whitish lines that are seen in the folds on many examples are the remains of a plain white undercoat applied before the colours.

Tanagras have several noticeable features. Foremost is that Tanagras are usually of women. Tanagras of gods (most common in the earliest period), men and children have also been found but not in nearly the same numbers as women. In fact, so prevalent were female designs that Tanagra sculptors were called coraplasters, from the Greek, “cora” – a girl, and “plastein” – to sculpt.

The women are usually wearing a chiton (a loose-fitting gown) and often have a himation (a cloak) draped over the chiton. Sometimes they wear a hat or wreath, or hold an object such as a fan. Their clothing appears thin and fine. Draped around their bodies, the material is stretched across the limbs, accentuating the feminine figure underneath, before falling gracefully in folds. The effect is both sensual and elegant.

The one jarring item however are the hats. They seem out of place, like plates balanced on their heads. While clearly being of a particular style of the period, the hats do not really fit the mood created by the rest of the statue.

Another feature of Tanagras is their design. The bodies are long and lean with smallish heads and stand in realistic, informal poses. It is this liveliness that seems to be most revealing, for it is quite unlike most Greek statues and statues of other Mediterranean regions during this time which probably explains why their export was so successful. They appear fluid, seemingly capturing a moment in time.

Exactly why the Tanagra style appeared is uncertain but they have been found in private homes as well as graves. It is most likely they had some religious or social function, although, like in many homes today that have a porcelain statue or figurine, they may simply have been decorative ornaments.

For whatever reasons they appeared, the style was not to last. By the end of the 3rd century BC production of Tanagras in Boeotia declined and by the Roman Imperial times it ceased altogether.

Ralph E Bruhn
December 2003-January2004

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