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Ortwin Dally on Late Antique Sculpture 15 January 2007

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Getty Villa i Malibu
The Peristyle garden of the Getty Villa, Malibu. Photo: TMK, January 2007.

On Thursday night, I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Ortwin Dally of the DAI at the Getty Villa. It was a great experience to see the villa at night as it’s actually quite rare to consider how buildings and monuments would have appeared in darkness illuminated by only torches and oil lamps. And the setting of the Getty Villa is incredibly apt. Perched in a small valley between two hilltops and with a view of the (Pacific) ocean on the horizon, it truly brings to mind a Roman villa by the Mediterranean.

Dally’s talk “Pagan Sculptures in Late Antiquity: Between Destruction and Preservation” was also interesting. He mainly discussed preservation and restoration of earlier statues and only very briefly the production and installation of new works. He focused on the statuary from baths and public buildings in Miletus, Ephesus and Aizanoi – some of which I’ve discussed earlier on this blog (here and here) and also talked about in San Diego. Several (nude) statues from these sites were moved to baths and nymphaea in the 4th and 5th centuries CE, but not before their genitalia had been mutilated. To the right, you see an example of a mutilated Venus from the Baths of Faustina at Miletus and now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. From Dally’s discussion, these ‘castrations’ may seem like a phenomenon limited to Asia Minor, but there are also comparanda to the practice outside this region, e.g. on Cyprus (Salamis) and in the Levant (Scythopolis). A few examples are also found in Italy, so it’s not an exclusively eastern practice either.

My perspective on these statue castrations is rather different than Dally’s but to a large extent, we’re saying the same things. We agree that they are evidence of new viewing habits, influenced by Christian theology and perhaps enforced by bishops or other clerics. We also agree that there was a shift in euergetism and public benefaction. Whereas wealthy citizens previously donated statues for civic structures, in late antiquity their focus turned to churches.

Where we disagree is perhaps how wide the spectrum of attitudes towards statuary in late antiquity really was (on this, see e.g. Lea Stirling’s brilliant “The Learned Collector” and Niels Hannestad’s work). I don’t subscribe to the view that production ceased – the statues produced were now generally smaller, but there are many of them from different parts of the empire. At the same time, we see a large production of sarcophagi and minor arts. In short, the study of pagan sculpture in late antiquity goes much further than preservation and conservation.

Mutilated and Re-Used Inscriptions in Gerasa 7 November 2006

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I have previously mentioned a couple of inscriptions that were desecrated by early Christians. A recent article in Journal of Early Christian Studies by Jason Moralee now presents some further examples from Gerasa (modern Jerash in Jordan – where a Danish-Jordanian project has been excavating an early mosque for a couple of years), especifically the church of St. Theodore, built in 464-466 CE. We don’t know if this particular church was built on top of a pagan sanctuary, although many others were. However, an inscription over the central doorway to the atrium tells us what a horrid place it was before the church’s construction. Note here how the church building itself talks in the first person (quoted from Moralee 2006: 192f):

…formerly so many four-footed toiling beasts fell down here that a stomach-turning stench arose. And often someone nearby pinched his nose and gave up the desire of breathing to avoid the bad smell. But now those passing over the fragrant ground carry [their] right hand to their brow, making the sign of the honorable cross. And if you wish to learn in order that you might know [it] well, Aineias gave this desirable beauty to me, the all-wise priest practiced in piety.

This inscription is a good example of Christian triumphalism. The construction of the church marked the Christian victory over the old pagan topography and its sacrifices (this is perhaps what ‘stench’ and ‘beasts’ refer to in the inscription). In the eyes of the church builders, it was, as Moralee points out, a transition from ‘impurity’ to ‘purity’.

Moralee interprets the mutilated inscriptions in the Gerasa churches as a similar form of Christian triumphalism over the pagan past. The mutilated inscriptions were re-used just as other spolia in occasionally very prominent places in the churches. An inscription, set up a priest of Dionysos asks for the salvation of the emperors, had been defaced and re-used in the Shrine of Holy Mary. Another had been cut into oblong pieces and re-used as paving, so that the church-goers were literally walking on their past.

Parts of another inscription had been re-carved to form a cross. The Christian cross was often used to nullify what was to perceived to be the demonic powers of pagan objects. Moralee quotes a very interesting inscription from Ephesus that points to the power of the Cross in this respect. The inscription commemorates the destruction of a statue of Artemis by a certain Demeas. It is placed on the base of the very statue he had destroyed (quoted from Moralee 2006: 206).

Having put down [the] deceitful form of [the] demon Artemis, Demeas raised this sign of truth, honoring God, who drives away idols, [that is], the cross, the victory-bearing, immortal symbol of Christ.

The Christian triumphalism embedded in the mutilation of inscriptions and their re-use as spolia at Gerasa is a rather late phenomenon, characteristic of the fifth century CE. It is interesting from an archaeological perspective because it tells us how pagan ‘relics’ could function in Christian contexts in spite of the fierce anti-pagan rhetorics of e.g. the Theodosian Code and writers such as Theodoret.


A Mutilated Aphrodite in Istanbul 24 May 2006

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I have previously mentioned the mutilated statue group of the Three Graces, now in the Antalya Museum, that is going to form part of the core argument of my chapter 5 “Before the Fig Leaf: Body & Society in Late Roman Perge.” The statue group is only one of several statues from Perge’s South Baths that have been mutilated in various ways.

I have also found some interesting comparanda to the Perge material. One of them is a statue of Aphrodite/Venus, found in a niche in the frigidarium of the Baths of Faustina at Miletus. It is now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The mutilation is wonderfully noted by Fritz Krischen in the 1928 publication: “Die Brüste und der mons Veneris sind verstümmelt”.

Mutilated statue of Aphrodite from Miletus in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Photo: TMK, May 2006. Larger version here.

Krischen also notes the mutilation of a statue group of Bacchus and a satyr, found in the same baths’ tepidarium. I have previously discussed similar material from Scythopolis here and here.

Inscriptions Mutilated by Christians 25 April 2006

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Damnatio memoriae frequently involved the removal of the names of ‘bad’ emperors from public inscriptions. This was a relatively easy procedure, but usually left behind some awkward gaps in the texts. One of the most famous examples of this is the honorary inscription on the Arch of Septimius Severus, where the name of Geta was erased. The modification of the inscription is more obvious today, as the original bronze letters have disappeared.

A phenomenon that has received considerable less attention is the Christian removal of names of pagan gods in inscriptions. I have already mentioned a couple of examples from Ephesus, and there are further cases from Aphrodisias, including the inscription seen in the photo below.

Lines 1-6 of the inscription. From Jones 1981: fig. 5.

The inscription is a so-called agonistic epigram that honours an athlete. His name, Aurelius Achilles, is known from a decree inscribed on the statue base’s other side. It has been translated by Christopher Jones as follows:

“…And if you wish to proclaim…of Varianus…I defeated him and hold the crown of olive; or if you wish to extol the youth (Arion?) superior to grown men, against him too Zeus gave me the olive. In all the stadia of the nations…I am as great as none of my compatriots (ever) claimed to excel (?); and the number of crowns…of others(?) to the stone portrait, my image. For often have I won the Pythia and the divine Olympia, defeating my rivals, glorious in repute, with no contesting my victory as to confront a second time a contest with him against whom he appealed (?).”


Scythopolis II: A Mutilated Statue of Bacchus 9 November 2005

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Excavations in 1990 in the Eastern Bathhouse at Scythopolis, introduced in yesterday’s post, revealed a statue of Dionysos. It was found in the same layer as the mutilated and discarded statue of Venus. Here it is again the genitalia that have been attacked, whereas the damage to the head is more characteristic of that of a fall (contra Foerster 2000). Selective destruction of nose and mouth is usually characteristic of Christian mutilation, but here it is also the chin and part of a cheek that has been battered, and as such it appears to be non-selective.

The Scythopolis Bacchus. From Tsafrir & Foerster 1997, fig. 40.

The popularity of Dionysos is well attested in late antiquity by the commonality of representations of him in sculpture, Egyptian textiles and the epic poem Dionysiaka. But again we only need to consider Theodoret’s caricature of Dionysos as “that limb-loosener and effeminate creature” to get a glimpse of why early Christians would commit such acts.


Scythopolis I: A Mutilated Statue of Venus 7 November 2005

Posted by Troels in : Case Studies,Thesis Rant , 4 comments

I have been looking for parallels to the mutilated sculptures at Perge, since they will be at the centre of a chapter on the body and society in late antiquity. One group of material comes from Scythopolis in modern Israel, where the excavations of the Eastern Bathhouse revealed a series of sculptures. I will be discussing this material and other pieces from Scythopolis today and over the next few days.

One of the most important things about the excavations of the Eastern Bathhouse is that the sculptures were found in a sealed layer, datable to 515/516 CE. This gives a terminus ante quem for the deposition of the statuary found in the baths. Among the finds was this nude statue of Venus, that had been mutilated before it was dumped in the hypocaust, when the baths were abandoned. The head has so far not been found.

The headless statue of Venus as found in the Eastern Batthouse, Scythopolis. From Tsafrir & Foerster 1997: fig. 37. The statue is now on view in the Israel Museum.

In the case of this mutilated and discarded statue of Venus, it is appropriate to consider an episode in the Life of Porphyry (Chapter 59). Porphyry became bishop of Gaza in the late 4th century, and one of his main tasks was to tackle the large pagan community that was active in the city. His biography tells us about his destruction of the great temple of Marnas in 402, but the same bout of violence also resulted in the destruction of a nude statue of Venus, that the attackers deemed to be unseemly. We can also remember Theodoret’s condemnation of Venus’ nudity as “more shameless than that of any prostitute standing in front of a brothel” (3.79-84).


A Severan Empress from Sparta 4 October 2005

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One of the most striking portraits in the Athens National Museum is that of a Severan empress, found in 1964 in Sparta. Its precise identification has been debated. The excavators suggested Julia Mamaea, the mother of Alexander Severus (emperor 222-235 CE), but recently Lee Ann Riccardi has suggested Julia Aquilia Severa, one of Elagabalus’ wives, based on the portrait’s hairstyle. However, it is the fact that the face of the portrait has been severely mutilated that interests me the most.

The Severan empress in the Athens National Museum. Photo: TMK, October 2004. Another angle here.

The targeting of the face leaves no doubt that the portrait was deliberately mutilated. The excavators connected this with an act of (unofficial) damnatio memoriae after the death of Julia Mamaea. Even though there was no official condemnation of the memories of Julia and Alexander Severus, there are examples of portraits of them and inscriptions naming them that have been mutilated or destroyed. However, the excavators also write that the statue had been buried carefully in a 2nd century BCE public building. Statues that were mutilated because of damnatio memoriae were sometimes dumped in latrines or other humilating places, but more often they were just reused or, in the case of bronze portraits, melted down. A careful burial would therefore be unusual.


The Erechtheion and the Process of Christianization 14 September 2005

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I have previously talked about the Parthenon and the possibility that its metopes were damaged by early Christians. Just this week Bill Caraher (thanks!) put me on to the work of Alexandra Lesk, whose PhD dissertation was on the Erechteion and its reception over 2500 years. I was, of course, especially happy to read her chapter on the the Erechteion in the late antique and Byzantine periods. It’s an excellent piece of scholarship, that will hopefully see full publication to gain a wider readership.

The Erechteion on the Acropolis of Athens (and in the foreground the remains of the Archaic Temple of Athena). Photo: TMK, October 2004.


A Recently Excavated Niobe from the Villa dei Quintili 6 September 2005

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The July/August issue of Archaeology had a small notice reporting the find of a statue of Niobe in the Villa dei Quintili just outside Rome. What is quite exciting abot this find is that it is one of the few properly excavated pieces of sculpture from the villa, that was more or less emptied in the 19th century. The sculpture from earlier excavations is now in several different collections, both in Rome and outside Italy. It is also likely that the Niobe was found in situ.

The Niobe during excavation. From Archaeology.

According to the excavators, the head has been deliberately removed. There can of course be several reasons for this, and it would not make much sense to claim iconoclasm as the cause, especially when the find has not been fully published yet. It could still be a possibility, however, especially when we consider how close the villa was to one of Rome’s major roads, the Via Appia. Another interesting theory could be that the head was removed to be turned into a bust, but this was rare and a Niobe would be a strange choice for such an operation. Another guess is that the head is to be found elsewhere on the site. It is very common for fragments of the same sculpture to be found very far from each other, and it happens even on sites that have been intensively excavated (a recent example from Aphrodisias was reported by R.R.R. Smith in 2002). The head could even have been buried deliberately as part of a ritual deposit. There are many other possibilities, of course, and the above is naturally only guesswork, but it’s an interesting find and I look forward to seeing it fully published.


Statue Bases and Mutilated Inscriptions 2 September 2005

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Congratulations to Jakob (Munk Højte), whose PhD dissertation “Roman Imperial Statue Bases from Augustus to Commodus” now finally is available from Aarhus University Press in the new-format Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity (ASMA) vol. 7.

Roman Imperial Statue Bases

As Philip (Harland) has shown in a series of recent posts epigraphy is an incredibly valuable source to the ancient world. It is also an interdisciplinary field divided between ancient history, classical philology and archaeology, which means that inscriptions sometimes have been neglected in purely archaeological and art historical works. In the case of Roman imperial portraiture, this led to a situation where statue bases and sculpture have mostly been studied separately. This is what Jakob’s study aims to change, and he was worked intesively with statistical analysis to gain new insights into the distribution and production of Roman imperial portraits.