Before the Fig Leaf: Christian Response to Nude Statuary

It’s about time that I give some archaeological examples of early Christian iconoclasm. I start with one of the less ferocious cases.

There were many different motives for Christians to smash pagan sculpture, and one of them was an aversion to nudity. This is clear from a series of sculptures, whose genitalia have been mutilated. A good example is this statue group of the Three Graces:

Three Graces
A statue group of the Three Graces, Antalya Museum. Photo: Niels Hannestad (scanned slide).

The group is from the Southern Baths at Perge. These baths seem to have been the scene of systematic attacks from iconoclasts, and there are several sculptures from this site, including a Marsyas, a Meleagros and a Horus, that all appear to have been mutilated in much the same way. The baths were excavated mainly in the 1980s, and are still awaiting full publication. Only when they are published, will it be possible to date these attacks more accurately.

N. Hannestad. 1999. “How did rising Christianity cope with pagan sculpture?”, pp. 173-204, in: E. Chrysos & I. Wood (eds.) East and West: Modes of Communication. Proceedings of the First Plenary Conference at Merida. The Transformation of the Roman World vol. 5. Leiden.
N. Hannestad. 2001. “Castration in the Baths”, pp. 66-77, in: N. Birke et al. (eds.) Macellum. Festschrift Robert Fleischer. Mainz. (Online version here).
M.E. Özgür. 1987. Skulpturen des Museums von Antalya I. Istanbul.

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  1. Like your blog & topic, which loosely corresponds to my own “thesis-in-progress” – Jewish/Christian encounters (literary) w/ an iconic world (pre-constantine) … I’m mainly interested in exploring a discourse on statues.

    FYI … the University of Michigan hosted a conference on the sculptural environment of the Roman Near East last fall, the proceedings of which are currently with the publisher (Peeters). Two interesting papers on iconoclasm may be of interest to you: David Frankfurter “The Vitality of Egyptian Images in Late Antiquity: Christian Memory and Response” and John Pollini “The Imperial Cult in the East: Images of Power and the Power of Intolerance.” Wish I could tell you when the book will be out … hopefully soon!

    Good luck with your project.

  2. I am GLAD I am NOT a fundamentalist nut Christian. I am an Unitarian modernist liberal (I say the last 2 as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and various Sacred Name cults are Unitarian -and are cruel in their strictness).

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