Greek terracotta figurines

Hermes criophorus (?), Boeotian terracotta figurine, ca. 450 BC, Louvre

Terracotta figurines are a mode of artistic and religious expression frequently found in ancient Greece. These figurines abound and provide an invaluable testimony to the everyday life and religion of the ancient Greeks. The so-called Tanagra figurines, in fact made elsewhere as well, are one of the most important types.

Techniques of manufacture

Modelling

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

Modelling is the most common and simplest technique. It is also used for the realization of bronzes: the prototypes are made out of raw clay. The small sizes are directly worked with the hand. For the larger models, the coroplath (or κοροπλάθος koropláthos, manufacturer of figurines) presses the clay pellets or wads against a wooden restraint.

Molding

Plaster key mold for the reverse side of a figurine of Demeter-Isis, Louvre

The mold is obtained by application of a bed of clay or plaster on the prototype. Simple molds, used by the Greeks of the continent until the 4th century BC, are simply dried. Bivalvular molds, borrowed by the insular Greeks from the Egyptians, require cutting to obtain an obverse and a reverse, with which "keys" are sometimes associated protuberances allowing the two parts to fit better. When the piece becomes complicated, with important projections (arm, legs, head, clothing), the craftsman can cut out the mold in smaller parts. The piece is then dried.

The second phase consists of applying a layer of raw clay inside the mold, which can be incised beforehand in order to obtain effects of relief. The thinness of the layer varies according to the type of object to be realized. The faces of the mold are joined together, the object is then unmolded, and the craftsman can proceed to the final improvements, typically smoothing the junction. The craftsman also creates a small opening, a vent hole that allows steam to escape during the firing. The vent can also be used for assembly, allowing intervention inside the piece. The limbs are then joined to the body either by pasting them with slip, clay mixed with water, or by mortice and tenon joint.

Firing and completion

The piece is then fired in the kiln, with temperature ranging from 600 to 800 °C. Once the figurine is fired, a slip can be applied. The slip is sometimes itself fired at low temperature. In the beginning, the range of colours available was rather limited: red, yellow, black and blue. From the Hellenistic era on, orange, pink mauve, and green were added to that repertoire. The pigments were natural mineral dyes: ochre for yellow and red, coal for black, malachite for green.