Dating is esential for an archaeological study of iconoclasm. Statues were destroyed for many different reasons both before and after the fourth century CE, and just how tricky this issue can be is well illustrated by a monument known as the Charonion in Antioch, modern Antakya. It’s usually dated to the Hellenistic period and related to a story in the Chronographia of John Malalas, who himself was born in Antioch and writing in the sixth century. The story tells of certain seer, Leios, who in response to a plague in the city demands that a prosopeion (‘mask’) was to be carved on the face of the mountain (205.8-13). Excavations at the site were carried out in the 1930s along with many other sites in Antioch that produced a huge number of mosaics for museums around the world. In his classic history of Antioch, Glanville Downey notes that “the face of the bust has been badly battered” (p. 104). If this monument found just outside Antioch and above the Grotto of St Peter is the Charonion mentioned by Malalas, it has been out in the open for nearly 2500 years, exposed not only to the elements, but also random acts of vandalism and other kinds of destruction. The damage to the small statue is probably due to weathering, but it does seem to me that the head of the main figure has been struck by a sharp instrument. While this certainly could be classed as an act of iconoclasm, the lack of a precise date for this violence makes it difficult to blame early Christians.
The Charonion outside Antioch, and just above the Grotto of St Peter. Photo: TMK, August 2003.
I’m preparing an entire post (although it might be a two-parter) with an archaeological overview of Antioch, so stay tuned for that sometime in the near-future.
Glanville Downey. 1961. A History of Antioch in Syria from Seleucus to the Arab Conquest. Princeton, NJ.
Glanville Downey. 1963. Ancient Antioch. Princeton, NJ.