Fragments of a Roman copy set in a plaster cast of the original Greek marble relief, ca. 450–425 b.c.
H. 89 3/8 in. (227 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1914 (14.130.9)
In this reconstructed marble relief, Demeter, goddess of agricultural abundance, and Persephone, goddess of the Underworld and of fertility of the earth, stand on either side of a nude youth. Demeter, at left, is clad in a long, woolen peplos, belted at the waist; she holds a scepter in her left hand. Persephone, at right, wears a long, linen chiton with buttoned sleeves and a himation; she holds a long, lighted torch against her left side. The scene is usually explained as Demeter and Persephone giving Triptolemos the ears of wheat so that he may teach men how to cultivate grain.
This relief is one of a number of Roman copies of a Greek marble relief made in the fifth century B.C. It is exceptional in that it reproduces a Greek work of art that still exists, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. According to the original, the execution of the hair and drapery in this copy is sharper and accords with the style current in Augustan art. The original marble relief was found at the sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis near Athens, a site renowned for its secret cult of the Mysteries. Initiates from all over the Greek-speaking world participated in this secret ceremony of which we know very little. As Demeter gave grain to humanity, the rites at Eleusis may have celebrated this gift.
The renderings of the woolen peplos worn by Demeter and the linen chiton donned by Persephone show clear differences in weight and fabric. The peplos has wide, regular flutes, while the chiton is depicted with tightly crimped folds that suggest pleating. Unlike the regularly spaced folds seen in Egyptian or Assyrian representations, the fine, irregular texture of the linen suggests that the material has been bound and compressed, a technique still seen in certain regional costumes. In contrast to wool, which has a springlike elasticity, the fibers of linen are easily creased and pleated.