The Terra Cotta Centaur from Lefkandi
Standing 36 cm in length and 26 cm in height, the terra cotta centaur from Lefkandi, Euboia is among the earliest representations of a centaur known from the Aegean area and one of the largest known terra cotta centaurs (Biers, 106). The piece is an incredible work of art from the tenth century. When discovered, the centaur was found in two pieces from two different graves. In the Toumpa cemetery, the head was among the offerings of grave T1, and the body was found in grave T3 about three meters away. The piece was composed of fine, light brown clay and painted with reddish-brown to dark-brown paint on a matte, brown surface. The legs and human body are solid while the animal body is a hollow, wheel-made cylinder. The eyes appear to have been punched out and the groove across the forehead indicates the edge of the hairline (Desborough, 21-30). The centaur once carried something over its left shoulder, which is argued to have been a branch or tree since that was the believed weapon of the species.
There is much support for the belief that the statuette refers beyond everyday life to a world of fantasy and imagination and to heroic myth. Some have argued that the Lefkandi centaur is meant to be a depiction of Cheiron, the wise tutor of heroes. The centaur’s right hand has six fingers, which was a sign of wisdom in antiquity at the time. There is a gash on the centaur’s left knee suggesting that the beast had been in a fight. The artist, who may or may not have had a specific fight from epic poetry or spoken story in mind, could have been referencing Herakles who proved to be the centaurs’ biggest foe in Archaic art. Herakles even once wounded Cheiron in the knee by mistake (Hurwit, 610). Even if the centaur does not in fact represent Cheiron, although one would be inclined to think so based on the evidence provided, and even if it does not allude to a specific epic, the Lefkandi centaur is not only an early masterpiece but also one of the first indications of the Greeks’ fascination with illustrating heroic tales. This is significant because as one of the earliest known depictions of myth in the history of Greek sculpture, the Lefkandi Centaur as a grave good suggests the importance of myth in remembrance of the dead.
Biers, William R. The Archaeology of Greece. 2nd ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1996.
Desborough, V. R., R. V. Nicholls, and Mervyn Popham. “A Euboean Centaur.” JSTOR.
N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/30103206?seq=10>.
“Early Excavations at Lefkandi: The Protogeometric Building and the Cemetery of
Toumba.” EXCAVATIONS AT LEFKANDI. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2012. <http://lefkandi.classics.ox.ac.uk/Toumba.
Hurwit, Jeffrey M. The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 B.C. Ithaca: Cornell
UP, 1985. Print.
By Maddy Chabot