Imagine living in Athens after the collapse of the Roman Empire and seeing the majestic ruins of the Parthenon, built on the Athenian Acropolis during the much earlier Athenian Empire. Christians living in Athens 1500 years ago lived that experience of vanquished empires. From then has survived an engraved stone for Athenodora. Scholars describe the Athenodora stone as a funerary stele. With more imagination, you can sense an inscription on a dedication stone. The Athenodora stone presents an all-encompassing perspective on historical loss within the maternal hope of a new Athenian Christian church.
The inscription on the Athenodora stone seeks poetic reading. Here’s the Athenodora inscription in a tight English translation respecting the structure of the ancient Greek phrases and lines:
+Athenodora the good, the Attic,
the wife of Thaumasios, the woman who loves god within,
who bore children and nurses infants,
the earth took her, the young, the mother
and holds her, leaving her children in want of milk. 
This text could be read straightforwardly as an epitaph for a woman named Athenodora. The simple cross, sized like a letter, has the position of the first letter in the first line. Nothing else on the stone explicitly indicates that Athenodora was a Christian.
Various features of the Athenodora inscription indicate that it isn’t a straight-forward epitaph. The inscription is an epigram composed in iambic trimeter, a meter “not altogether frequent” in fourth-to-sixth-century Athens. The woman’s name Athenodora (“gift of Athena”) is very unusual. So to is Thaumasios (“the wonderful”). The Athenodora epigram’s Greek word for “loving god within” is a “striking word” and “extremely rare.” In Greek culture before Christianity, it is associated with “joy in or desire for divine possession,” meaning the indwelling of a god. In the era in which the Athenodora epigram was inscribed, epigrams were a literary genre of subtle and highly developed art. The Athenodora epigram fits within that genre.
Athenodora can be more insightfully understood as a particular Christian church in Athens. Athena was the patron god of Athens. In Christian understanding, Mary the mother of Jesus was the first Christian disciple and figures the church as a particular human community in history. For Christians in Athens, the gift of Athena was further fulfilled in history with the gift of Mary. The death of Mary was also the beginning in history of particular Christian churches. By the early medieval period, a church known as the Church of Theotokos Atheniotissa (the Mother of God, the Virgin of Athens) had been built within the Parthenon. Early Christian inscriptions show veneration of the mother of God in the region of Athens. Mary has been particularized in local figures and local churches throughout the history of Christian communities. So it was in the fifth or sixth century in Athens for a particular church led wonderfully in history by Thaumasios.
The Athenodora epigram has paratactic phrasing like an ancient Christian prayer. A recent description describes the Athenodora epigram as “syntactically incoherent.” But consider the ancient Christian trisagion prayer:
Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.
The Athenodora epigram features similarly elaborated paratactic characterization. Parataxis contributes to the Athendora epigram’s liturgical sense.
Church is at the center of the Athenodora epigram. Its first two lines consist of four paratactic phrases that move from conventional local credits “good” and “Attic” to extraordinary descriptions evoking “wonderfully guided” and “bearing God within.” The middle line of the epigram describes a particular church as a maternal figure creating and nourishing Christian disciples. The last two lines of the epigram cry out like a psalm for that church. In the psalms, sections of faith and praise alternate abruptly with cries of desolation. A dedication to a church may well have sought to have disciples enter the church with thoughts of being in want of Christian nourishment. Mary, the mother of Jesus, died in history. But particular Christian churches continue to be born and nourished.
The Athenodora stone’s figural design has been misleadingly associated with a classical pediment. The epigram and figural design are engraved on the top surface (abacus) of an unfinished marble Ionic capital (capping part of an architectural column). The figural design has been called an aetoma, or tympanum on an engraved pediment. But those terms from classical architecture have only an abstract geometric relation to the Athenodora stone’s figural design. An engraving on top of a re-purposed, partly finished Ionic capital doesn’t necessarily have a design meaningful in terms of a classical facade. The Asclepiodote and Euphemia stones from about fifth-century Athens have triangular shapes on top. The Asclepiodote stone’s molded triangular shape is quite like pediments common on the top of classical Attic tombstones. The triangular shape on the Euphemia stone, like that on the Athenodora stone, is rather different.
The Athenodora stone’s figural design, like its epigram, gains meaning with extensive thought. The figural design consists of a open-top triangle containing a four-petaled rosette symmetrically flanked by two figures that scholars have described as leaves. Rosettes are infrequent in inscriptions from this period. Four-petal rosettes symmetrically flanked by two figures are surely even more rare. However, the design in abstract is similar to early Christian images of two angels symmetrically bearing aloft a chi-rho symbol. The rosette and flanking figures, whether they are leaves, doves, or angels, could be a simpler form of a common Christian design: some type of Christogram with two flanking figures.
The open-top triangle appears to be an intentional feature of the figural design on the Athenodora stone. Carved volutes exist on the top and bottom surfaces of the stone. The volutes were cut nearly flush with the side surfaces and with the back plain to make the stone roughly rectangular. For the stone surface to hold the completed figural triangle, the stone would have to be at least 31% taller. That’s inconsistent with a reasonable geometry for an Ionic capital and the presence of the volute carvings on the top and bottom of the stone. Hence the triangle was originally engraved without the top angle.
The figural triangle might represent a building with a central opening. The Roman Parthenon had such an opening, called an oculus. The oculus admitted light (and rain). On the Athenodora stone, the (partially complete) left and right sides of the triangle are carved as double lines (double incisions). The bottom side of the triangle, in contrast, is only a single line. That suggests interpreting the open top of the triangle as an oculus, the sides of the triangle as walls, and the bottom, a floor. A leading scholar of Roman archaeology has observed:
Christian Greeks in Late Antiquity transformed the monumental landscape by building churches while they respected, and even appropriated, the memory of earlier structures.
That macro-context is relevant to the simple triangular figure on the Athenodora stone. If you think of the triangle as a building, you can understand why it has an opening in the top and double lines for the sides.
The Athenodora stone makes best sense as a dedication stone for an early Christian church in Athens. Its inscription is an epigram that subtly connects Athena to Mary, the mother God in Christian understanding, and to a particular Christian church in Athens. Its figural design alludes to a building in which angels bear a representation of Christ. The stone itself re-purposes and re-orients a partially carved Ionic capital. Persons viewing the Athenodora stone are positioned in the heavens looking down upon the upper surface of that Ionic capital. The stone’s substance is fine-grained Pentelic marble. That white marble, which was used for the Parthenon, glistens with a golden hue in sunlight. Amid reminders of the collapse of empires in post-Roman Athens, the Athenodora stone acknowledges losses and signals a place for a community to continue to grow.
The Athenodora stone is on display in the exhibition Heaven & Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections at the U.S. National Gallery of Art in Washington through March 2, 2014. That exhibition includes stunningly beautiful objects. The Athenodora stone isn’t stunningly beautiful. But with some understanding, it generates wonder.
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This is Part II of a review of Heaven & Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections.
- figural design with a Hellenistic coronis epigram
- Galen mocked Posidippus’ epigram on Philitas of Cos
- Asterius of Amasea’s fourth-century ekphrasis on Euphemia’s martyrdom
 “Funerary stele of Athenodora” in Zavvou (2013); “An Early Christian Epitaph” in Rife (2004-9); “Grave Epigram for Athenodora” in Sironen (1997) p. 236 (no. 195). The Athenodora stone was found in 1869 in excavations of the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. It is now held in the Epigraphic Museum (Athens), inv. no. EM 9940.
 Adapted from translation in Rife (2004-9) p. 268 (added lineation, made minor re-arrangement of some phrases, added initial cross). Zavvou (2013) and Sironen (1997) p. 236 (no. 195) provide formally looser but substantively similar translations.
 The Greek word for “loving god within” is ΦΙΛΕΝΘΕΟΝ (φιλένθεος). Rife (2004-9), p. 269-70, provides the information in the above paragraph and the quotations, except for the quoted name etymologies. The etymology of Athenadora, a theophoric name, follows straightforwardly from the etymology for Theodore. The ancient Greek root of Thaumasios is used in Matthew 21;15 (“amazing things”). The Greek phrase “the earth … holds her” and the bereavement of children echo phrases and themes from post-Classical literary elegiac verse. Id. p. 270.
 See, e.g. Sironen (1997) nos. 328, 332, 333. Women played important roles in the early Christian church. For example, Paul of Tarus describes Phoebe as a deacon of the church at Kenchreai and praises her highly:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Kenchreai, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.
Romans 16:1-2. See also Acts 18:18.
 Zavvou (2013) p. 70.
 That parataxis is underscored in Greek through the repetition of an article (ΤΗΝ / την), in translation “the”. An epigram for Euphemia, who was an honored Christian saint, has similar parataxis. See Sironen (1997) no. 168 bis.
 The abstract architecture of church — a mainly or totally enclosed space that persons enter — should not be taken for granted. In ancient Mayan culture, persons stood on top of open platforms to encounter gods. See, e.g. the structures at Chichen Itza in Mexico. The abstract structure of churches parallels Christian understanding of maternal encounter with God.
 Sironen (1997) p. 217, comment on no. 168bis.
 That design isn’t exclusively Christian. It’s found in a Buddhist sculpture in India 2200 years ago. By 1500 years ago, it was probably widespread across Eurasia. Leaves are associated with an after-life paradise in Greek culture before and after Christianity. Leaves appear in various arrangements in Greek non-Christian and Christian epitaphs about the time of the Athenodora stone. Triangles are infrequent, but among those triangles, rosettes commonly occur inside. Consider, for example, the following three designs below from Attic epitaphs dated roughly to the sixth century.
Epitaph 1 (on the left above) apparently doesn’t have a coherent figural design. Epitaph 2 (middle), thought to show two menorahs and thus indicate the burial of Jewish person, is somewhat similar to the design on the Athenodora stone. However, even abstracting from the significance of the menorah, epitaph 2 isn’t amenable to the above interpretation of the Athenodora figural design. Epitaph 3 (on the right above) provides an example of a Christogram with symmetric flanking figures that quite clearly appear to be leaves. Epitaph 3 has a figural design like the four-petal rosette with symmetric, flanking figures in the Athenadora inscription. That design conforms to a well-established Christian figural geometry. In the Athenodora inscription, the four-petal rosette is rotated slightly counterclockwise from a vertically symmetric position. I leave to others to ponder whether that makes it less likely to allude to a Christian cross. The drawings of epitaphs 1 and 3 are from Bayet (1877), Pl. XVI, nos. 5 and 2. The drawing of epitaph 2 is from Bayet (1878), Pl. III, no. 4.
 The dimensions of the stone are 37 cm by 36 cm by (11 to 12.5) cm. I estimated with a graphical simulation the minimum additional length required to contain the completed triangle. In general, the carving on the Athenodora stone is neither exact nor highly skilled. The baseline of the triangle isn’t exactly square with an approximating rectangle for the stone. The baselines of the letters aren’t quite straight. Most obviously, the last two letters of the last verse did not fit on one line. That’s a size misjudgment of about 10%. A supposed size misjudgement of at least 31% (and likely more, assuming a reasonable top margin) seems to me to be a qualitatively different and much less plausible occurrence. The person who composed the figural design may not have been the same person who carved the stone. The person who carved the stone almost surely was not the same person who composed the epigram.
 Rife (2010) p. 431. In Kenchreai, the port city for Corinth, a Christian basilica constructed roughly about 500 GC overlooked a massive Roman tomb. Id. pp. 425-31. With respect to the Athenodora stone, the opening on the top of the triangle is 48% of the base-line inner expanse of the triangle. The diameter in the oculus of the Roman Parthenon is 19% of the diameter of the dome. A triangle is a crude or highly abstract representation of a building. An extraordinarily large oculus isn’t unreasonable within such a representation. As noted in , the carving itself is neither exact nor highly skilled.
The most difficult issue for the interpretation above seems to me to be why the truncated triangle is pushed up against the top edge of the stone and the epigram is centered vertically on the stone. An alternate interpretation: the figural design originally had a complete triangle, but after the carver placed the epigram in the middle of the stone, rather than at the very bottom, the complete triangle wouldn’t fit. The carver then added as much of the figural design as would fit above. That scenario seems to me less likely than the interpretation above for three reasons. First, the epigram would be crowded at the lower level of the stone. The importance of the epigram argues against it being crowded into the ground. Second, if the epigram was carved first and mistakenly placed in the middle of the stone, accentuating that mistake by carving a figural design that purportedly is rightly interpreted as wrongly truncated makes no sense. Third, this “mistake” interpretation doesn’t connect to other important aspects of the stone and doesn’t provide a meaningfully integrated understanding of the artifact. Pushing the truncated triangle to the top edge and providing empty space on the lower part of the stone could have been meant to encourage viewers to complete the design beyond what was engraved on the stone. Examples of such designs in literature are the Gospel of Mark, originally thought to have ended in media res at Mark 16:8, and Asterius of Amasea’s Euphemia ekphrasis.
 Rife (2004-9) p. 274.
[images] “Funerary stela, 6th century,” Epigraphic Museum, Athens; courtesy of the National Gallery of Art press office. Side panel of a Christian sarcophagus made in Constantinople, c. 400, now held at the Le Grand Palais, Paris; thanks to Wikipedia and uploadalt.
Bayet, Charles Marie. 1877. “Inscriptions chrétiennes de l’Attique (pl. XIV, XV, XVI).” Bulletin De Correspondance Hellénique 1 (1): 391-408 (note: the pdf version excludes the plates of drawings).
Bayet, Charles Marie. 1878. “Inscriptions chrétiennes de l’Attique (pl. II, III).” Bulletin De Correspondance Hellénique 2 (1): 162-170.
Rife, Joseph L. 2004-9. “An Early Christian Epitaph from the Panathenaic Stadium in Context.” ΗΟΡΟΣ (Horos, published in Athens) 17-24 (2004-2009): 267-278.
Rife, Joseph L. 2010. “Religion and society at Roman Kenchreai.” Pp. 391-432 in Steven J. Friesen, Daniel N. Schowalter, and James C. Walters, eds. Corinth in Context: Comparative Studies in Religion and Society. Leiden: Brill.
Sironen, Erkki. 1997. The late Roman and early Byzantine inscriptions of Athens and Attica: an edition with appendices on scripts, sepulchral formulae and occupations. Helsinki: Hakapaino Oy.
Zavvou, Eleni. 2013. “Funerary Stele of Athenodora.” Cat. 16 description, pp. 70-1 in Anastasia Drandaki, Demetra Papanikola-Bakirtze, and Anastasia Tourta. 2013. Heaven & earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections. Athens: Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports and the Benaki Museum, Athens.