Essays

Dexileos Stele

by Rosie6409

Dexileos’ Stele (394/3 BC)

This Athenian grave stele is a depiction of Dexileos (or Dexilaos) on a rearing horse, with a man cowering beneath him. The scene shows Dexileos as a cavalryman in battle; we can gather this from the fact that he is riding a horse and advancing on an enemy. The scene chosen for the piece is generally effective, with an interesting composition which fills the space well. The composition is skillful with the parallels created between the horse’s body and the fallen foe stretching across the ground below. Together they create strong diagonal patterns that are contrasted by the figure of Dexileos himself and also the spear that he would have held in his hand. Dexileos is presented as heroic, with the added height of the rearing horse giving him an obvious authoritative status. It is also made very clear exactly who the deceased is that the monument is in honour of, which is not always the case in stelai where some group domestic scenes make it difficult to identify who has died. The drapery of Dexileos’ clothing is well carved with his cloak flying dramatically out behind him. As well as serving well to fill the space in the top left corner of the frame, the cloak adds a sense of speed and therefore enhances the violent of the scene. The drapery that Dexileos wears is convincingly real with the fabric falling into soft folds and revealing the shape of his body beneath. His anatomy is also realistically presented although it is mostly concealed by the drapery. Dexileos’ position over the figure on the ground forms a frame around him ensuring the viewer’s attention is brought to him, although the majority of the focus is understandably placed on Dexileos. The cowering figure of his fallen foe is made to look small in comparison to the formidable sight of Dexileos’ horse rearing triumphantly. His arm is raised, but for totally different reasons than Dexileos, who raises his right arm in order to strike his victim with his spear. The victim is attempting to defend himself, and although he is entirely at Dexileos’ mercy his body still appears full of vigor. He does not lay crumpled as you would expect, but is stretched out with his right leg fully extended. Apart from the small crease in his stomach his body appears smooth and supple, with his anatomy accurately depicted. His body is full of tension, although his torso does seem unresponsive to the movement of his limbs. His bent right arm is mirrored by the bent front leg of the horse above him, and at the same time his outstretched leg forms a cross shaped pattern with the back leg of the horse. This gives a sense of order to the piece, illustrating how carefully the scene has been thought out. The horse is not quite as anatomically accurate as the other too figures, with its legs and head a little out of proportion with its large body. The body of the horse is full of tension and it appears to be skidding backwards slightly as it rears so vigorously and with great height over the fallen enemy.

The set up of having a young, noble aristocrat riding a horse and conquering enemies on behalf of the city is a formula that can be found in numerous battle scenes, especially in the form of sculpture adorning a temple. This relief sets out a formula which it now known as the Dexileos motif, which goes on to be popularly used. Most notable is this motif’s recurrence in the South and West friezes of the Parthenon, where the layout of a rearing horse over a fallen enemy is frequently found. The style and iconography of the relief is most definitely rooted in fifth century art and many comparisons can be drawn with the sculpture found on the Parthenon. The style is fluid and it is clear that the sculptor has aimed for as greater degree of naturalism as possible, but at the same time creating an idealised scene. In particular the stock faces of the figures are worth noting; they appear to be emotionally neutral, which is a standard aspect of the High Classical period. In the case of Dexileos, the fact that he wears such an expression in mid battle makes him look cold and detached from the action. This suits the moment well as it essentially portrays the point of moral anguish in having to kill another young man. This is made even more poignant as we are reminded that it is actually Dexileos who has had to suffer a similar death in battle.

The naked figure below Dexileos is believed to be an infantryman. If this is the case then the scene cannot be considered as trying to portray a realistic battle scene. As such a meeting between a cavalryman and an infantryman would be highly unlikely to occur. The action is also implausible as the foe lies caught between the legs and the body of the horse, and yet Dexileos raises an arm to strike him. With his torso facing so frontally though, he would not be able to reach his victim. Furthermore Dexileos is wearing plain cloth without the slightest sign of armor; this is of course not suitable for a battle field and consequently is extremely unlikely The scene is therefore set out to be a representation of war, and although it is not entirely accurate, the message is portrayed in an aesthetically pleasing and dramatic way. An aspect of the relief that is particularly interesting is the fact that whilst Dexileos appears clothed, the enemy is nude. Whereas in previous art, nudity has been used as a way of showing heroism, of both heroes and gods, as a way of portraying an individual as ideal with a youthful, powerful body which is the source of both their beauty and their glory. In comparison Amazons and Persians are shown clothed, and usually in a fairly luxurious way, in order to highlight them as barbarians. In this sculpture we see a reversal of these tradition messages, which could be considered as violating the concept of heroic nudity. The question of why the sculptor would then choose to clothe Dexileos but not his victim is an interesting one, as the victim, and essentially the enemy, is given a hint of heroism. There is a small possibility that this relief has been misinterpreted and that it actually portrays the moment of Dexileos’ death, making him the naked figure on the ground. However, this is unlikely as the inscription as well as other sources tell us that Dexileos was a cavalryman. Of course there is always the possibility that the sculptor made this choice simply for artistic reasons as a way creating a contrast between the two figures, and to exhibit his skill with drapery.

It was around the third quarter of the fifth century that grave stelai became widespread in Athens, and although military or athletic scenes were depicted, the main choice for reliefs were domestic scenes. If it were to commemorate a warrior a solemn scene of the man leaving their family would be more common, however for Dexileos’ stele a much more animated and violent scene was chosen. The monument would have been paid for by the family of Dexileos and therefore their choice must have had reasoning behind it. The monument serves to commemorate Dexileos at his finest; a strong young man fighting on behalf of his city. However the site of Dexileos’ grave monument in his family plot in the Kerameikos area (Athens’ primary Classical cemetery, located just outside the Dipylon gate), was not were Dexileos’ remains were actually buried. Dexileos was buried along with his comrades in a communal tomb. In 393 BC Athens erected a state monument in honor of the soldiers who died fighting in battle that year, included in this was Dexileos. There was also a more specific monument dedicated to 12 cavalrymen who died at the battle of the Nemea river, and again this includes Dexileos. The fact that his family still felt that it was necessary to erect a third monument in commemoration of Dexileos shows that this stele must be of great importance. As well as the relief the monument included an inscription which read: “Dexileos, son of Lysanias of Thorikos/Born in the archonship of Teisandros [414/3 BC]/Died in that of Euboulides [394-3]/As one of five cavalrymen at Corinth”. The first point to note about this inscription is that it includes both the year of birth and death of the deceased, something unusual to Classical Athenian grave monuments. By doing so the family have been able to highlight just how young Dexileos was when he was killed, at an age of only 19 or 20. Perhaps the family wished to stress the waste of young life that results from war and highlight Dexileos’ bravery and achievements at such a young age. There could also be political connotations to the inscription. In the last 12 years of the 5th century two military coups were formed, mostly consisting of cavalrymen, as an attempt to usurp democracy. These coups were particularly violent and by providing Dexileos’ date of birth his innocence in these coups is made clear as he would have been only 10 at the time of the second coup. The inscription therefore is used to illustrate that he was politically sound and the relief can then be used to portray a more blatant and specific presentation of Dexileos.

The family have chosen to make a public statement about Dexileos’ noble sacrifice and contribution to his city using the iconography of a state monument. They have employed the style of self-representation which the Athenians use on the frieze of the Parthenon, highlighting Dexileos’ status as an Athenian citizen, and combined it with the traditional portrayal of an idealised individual depicted in the full glory of their heroic deeds. The overall result is a new image which communicates to the viewer the great bravery of Dexileos as well as his and his family’s support of Athens.

 
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