The Heraion on the island of Samos was one of the most renowned sanctuaries of the goddess Hera in ancient Greece. It was the site of cult rituals as early as the second millennium BC, and peaked in importance during the Archaic period – particularly the sixth century BC. Because of its long and celebrated history, the sanctuary contained a wealth of archaeological finds like votives and the remains of buildings. Visitors entered the Heraion from the “Sacred Way,” the street that linked the temenos (Greek for “sacred precinct”) with the ancient city of Samos. Both sides of the street offered the ideal place to erect votive offerings that simultaneously honoured the gods as well as the dedicator. The stone bases that once held such offerings are still visible today.
Among these remains was the six-metre-long base for this statue of a young woman. Located north of the Sacred Way, it was dedicated to Hera by a family. The family members were represented in six statues set into the base, four of which are almost completely preserved. The arrangement of figures can be reconstructed from the cuttings where they were inserted: the mother sat on a throne at the left end, while the father, depicted as a guest at a symposium, reclined at the far right. Between them stood their four children, three daughters and one son. The Berlin figure probably stood beside her father. Her name, Ornithe (Greek for “little bird”), is carved into her robe. Her father’s name is only partly legible, ending in -arches; her mother and (the preserved) sister are named Phileia and Philippe. The sculptor’s own name is also known through an inscription carved into the seated figure of Phileia: “Geneleos made us.”
Geneleos gave life to the otherwise static row of figures by subtly varying the three daughters’ appearance. Despite their similar clothing and poses, each daughter has slightly different proportions, drapery, and hair. They wear belted chitons with long sleeves tied at intervals down the arms, the excess fabric slanting over the hips. The thin material clings to the body and alternates smooth swathes with pleats. The soft curves of the left leg show through the fabric all the more because of the girls’ pose: each gathers her skirt in her right hand and pulls it tight across her legs. The obvious delight in surface pattern and undulating contours is a hallmark of east Ionian Archaic sculpture. Each kore (Greek for “girl”) rests her left arm at her side, her hand closed into a fist. Yet Ornithe is more graceful than her sister, marked out in part by her long, elegant hair. Perhaps all three sisters were represented as participants in a solemn round dance held in the sanctuary to honour Hera. A fragment of a male torso that almost certainly belongs to this same votive monument, also in Berlin, can be reconstructed as a flute player – thus another participant in the festival, providing music for the dances and feasts.
With this monument, the sculptor Geneleos possibly created the earliest family votive offering in Archaic Greek art. While the figures do not interact with each other through their poses or gestures, they nonetheless form a group monument by virtue of their base, the seated and reclining figures framing the composition on either end, and the consistent treatment of the drapery. The figures are even more closely linked by theme: they are not only members of the same family, but also participants in the cult rituals performed in Hera’s honour.