Terracotta figurines

Terracotta figurines are a form of artistic and religious expression often found in ancient Greece. These figurines abound and are invaluable evidence of the daily life and religion of the ancient Greeks. The so-called tanager figurines, actually made elsewhere, are one of the most important types.

Manufacturing methods


Woman with arms raised, typical funerary offering, Cyprus, 7th century BC, Louvre

Sculpting is the most common and simple technique. It is also used to make bronze: prototypes are made from raw clay. Small sizes are processed directly by hand. For larger models, the coroplath (or κοροπλάθος koropláthos, figurine maker) presses clay balls or wads against a wooden stop.


Plaster mold for keys for the reverse side of the figurine of Demeter — Isis, Louvre

The form is obtained by using a frame made of clay or gypsum according to the prototype. The simple forms used by the Greeks of the continent before the 4th century BC are simply dried. The bivalve forms, adopted by the Insular Greeks from the Egyptians, require cutting to obtain the front and back, with which projections are sometimes associated, allowing the two parts to fit better together. When the product becomes complex, with important protrusions (arm, legs, head, clothing), the craftsman can cut the shape into smaller parts. Then the product is dried.

The second step is to apply a layer of raw clay inside the form, which can be pre-cut to obtain a relief effect. The thickness of the layer depends on the type of object being implemented. The edges of the mold are joined together, then the object is taken out of the mold and the craftsman can start finishing, usually by smoothing the seam. The craftsman also creates a small hole, a vent, through which steam escapes during firing. The vent hole can also be used for assembly, allowing you to tamper with the inside of the part. The limbs are then connected to the body either by gluing them with a pad, clay mixed with water, or with a spiked joint.

Firing and finishing

The piece is then fired in a kiln at 600 to 800°C. After the figurine has been fired, the overlay can be applied. The slip is sometimes fired at a low temperature. In the beginning, the range of colors available was rather limited: red, yellow, black and blue. Since the Hellenistic era, orange, mauve and green have been added to this repertoire. The pigments were natural mineral dyes: ocher for yellow and red, charcoal for black, malachite for green.

Religious functions

Woman with offerings, archaic figurine from the Peloponnese, Louvre

Because of their low cost, figurines were widely used as religious offerings. This was their main purpose, and the decorative aspect came later. This explains why ancient Greek temples have a huge number of votive or funerary statuettes and why there are almost no documents written on their subject.

These figurines can cause identification problems. These properties make it possible to recognize a particular god in an undeniable manner, such as the bow for Artemis. Moreover, certain types of statuettes correspond to a certain form of worship related to a certain deity. However, sometimes «visiting gods» complicate matters: these are figurines dedicated to a god who does not belong to this sanctuary. In addition, the vast majority of figurines simply depict a woman straight without any attributes. These last figurines were offered at all shrines, regardless of divinity.

The gift of figurines accompanied every moment of life. During pregnancy, expectant mothers took care to give a figurine of Ilithyia, the goddess of childbirth: the figurine depicts a woman squatting, in full, according to Eastern practice. Some figurines include a small cavity reserved for smaller figurines characteristic of their infants. In early childhood, figurines of children squatting were presented — this is the personification of oriental origin, who arrived in Greece through Rhodes and Cyprus. The so-called «temple boys» were believed to protect children. Similar images are also found in tombs. These figurines vary in size, possibly to indicate the age of the deceased child. They buried the dead along with everyday items: jewelry, combs, figurines for women; weapons and strigils for men; figurines and toys for children. Figurines were often broken voluntarily before they were placed in the tomb.

Terracotta figurines were often bought at the entrance to the sanctuary. These were offerings from common people who could not afford to dedicate more valuable items. They were also used to replace offerings in kind, such as animals or food. They were placed on the benches of temples or next to a cult statue. They were also kept in outdoor places of worship: Socrates recognized the sacred spring by seeing the figurines on the ground (Phaedrus 230B). The figurines were intended to ask for favors from God, as well as to thank him. When there were too many figurines in the temple, they were thrown into the «sacred dump». In this case, they often break to avoid recovery.

Ludic and decorative functions

Grotesque: 350–300 AD BC, Louvre

From the 4th century BC figurines took on a decorative function. They began to portray theatrical characters such as Julius Pollux tells in his Onomasticon (2nd century CE): Slave, peasant, nurse, fat woman, satyr from a satyr play, etc. The details of the figurines may be caricatured and distorted . By the Hellenistic era, the figurines had turned into grotesques: deformed creatures with a disproportionate head, sagging chest or protruding belly, humpbacked and bald men. Grotesques were a specialty of the city of Smyrna, but were also produced throughout the Greek world, including Tarsus and Alexandria.

figurines of Tanagra were casts. cast figurine type, made from the end of the 4th century. BC e., mainly in the Boeotian city of Tanagra. Before firing, they were coated with a liquid white slip and then sometimes painted with watercolors in naturalistic tones, such as «Dame en Bleu» («The Lady in Blue») at the Louvre. The tanager figures depict real women, as well as some men and boys in casual costume with familiar accessories such as hats, wreaths or fans. They appear to have been decorative items for the home, used in much the same way as their modern counterparts, though unlike them they were often buried with their owners. Some parts of the characters may have represented standard figures from the New Comedy from Menander and other authors. Others have continued the earlier tradition of stucco terracotta figures used as cult images or votive objects. Usually they were 10 to 20 centimeters high.

Terracotta was often used to make dolls and other children’s toys. Examples have been found of articulated figurines or small horses that are easy to manipulate with small hands. Sometimes the nature of the statuette is difficult to determine, such as the curious bell idols from Boeotia, which appear at the end of the 8th century BC. They were equipped with a long neck and a disproportionate cylindrical and turned body. The arms are atrophied, the legs are mobile. A hole was made in the head to hang them. Whether these were toys or votive offerings is unknown.