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Saint Nicholas Fells a Sacred Tree 21 December 2006

Posted by Troels in : Juxtapositions,Secondary Evidence , 2 comments

To celebrate the Christmas season, I thought I would share an act of iconoclasm that in a way is re-enacted in many corners of the world at this time of year. It is the story of how Saint Nicholas of Sion cuts down a ‘Christmas’ tree. Except that this tree is possessed by a demon and worshipped by pagans. Truthfully, the Saint Nicholas in question here should not be confused with Saint Nicholas of Myra (also in Lycia, hence why many hagiographers probably did confuse the two), more commonly known as ‘Santa Claus’, and the story has nothing to do with Christmas or Christmas trees. Rather, the story represents a rather common topos in late antique hagiographies where the saint must face particularly powerful and demonic statues or, in this case, a kind of natural shrine.

The story is taken from the fascinating Life of Saint Nicholas of Sion (15-18, here presented in the translation by Ševčenko & Ševčenko): (more…)

Dagon in Dura Europus 15 September 2005

Posted by Troels in : Quick Notes,Secondary Evidence , add a comment

I have previously written above visual representations of iconoclasm (have a look here). Arguably, these can be interpreted as part of a “visual polemic” (Elsner’s term) against paganism. A fresco in the Dura Europus synagogue could be interpreted in the same way, but it is, of course, a depiction of a biblical scene. Wikipedia has a good article on this story from the first Book of Samuel.

Depiction of the fallen idol Dagon in the Dura Europus Synagoue, Syria. Dated c. 245 CE. From Elsner 1998, p. 216.


The Papyrus Goleniscev 15 August 2005

Posted by Troels in : Secondary Evidence , 1 comment so far

A while ago, I wrote about a graffito in the Via Paisiello hypogeum that possibly is the only ancient depiction of iconoclasm (it is also shown in the header of this page). There is another illustration, however, that at least alludes to an act of iconoclasm, the so-called Papyrus Goleniscev, one of the happy survivals from the sands of Egypt and named after the Russian collector, who bought the papyri fragments in Giza at the beginning of the 20th century. It was shortly after published by Adolf Bauer and Josef Strzygowski with some excellent colour reproductions of the illustrations that accompany the Greek text. It was probably made in Alexandria in the early fifth century CE.

Papyrus Goleniscev
A fragment of the Papyrus Goleniscev (folio VI verso B). Photo source: Elsner 1998, fig. 162.


A Depiction of Iconoclasm in the Via Paisiello Hypogeum 2 July 2005

Posted by Troels in : Secondary Evidence , comments closed

I better start off by explaining the photo at the top of this page. Here’s the full version:

Via Paisiello Hypogeum

Actually, there’s another person, who is not shown here, on the left side of the statue throwing rocks. But what is shown here is a statue, identifiable by its base and a staff (Jupiter has been suggested), with a rope around its neck. The rope is being pulled by the figure on the right. The phrase used by Juvenal in his description of an act of damnatio memoriae is “descendunt statuae restemque secuntur” (10.58-59) or “down come the statues in obedience to the rope” (in Peter Stewart’s translation). Placing a rope around the neck is probably the easiest way to tear down a statue. In fact, we have seen the same procedure being carried out in Iraq recently when the citizens of Baghdad tore down Saddam’s statues (although this time with a little help from American tanks).

It’s one of the few (if not only) ancient depictions of iconoclasm. There are medieval depictions, but this example can be dated to the 4th century CE, and is therefore especially noteworthy.

The scene is from the Via Paisiello hypogeum in Rome, that was explored as early as 1865 by G.B. De Rossi. In the same hypogeum there’s a series of very interesting wall-paintings that mix pagan and Christian themes. I might write about them in the future.

Image source: P. Stewart. 2003. Statues in Roman Society. Oxford. Fig. 48, p. 293.