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Sunday, October 25, 2020

Opus sectile mosaic techniques restored in the Renaissance as pietre dure

 The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida will open its newly renovated galleries to the public on October 27.  Among the items now on display include a 3400 pound carved marble sarcophagus probably from Roman Syria featuring a reclining couple surrounded by Erotes and smaller animal figures.  The piece is on loan from a private collection.  The museum also displays a 2200-year-old bronze head of Dionysus, also on long-term loan to the museum from a private collector.

The newly designed "Jade Room"  features jade, serpentine and obsidian works including masks, figurines, and a segmented crown from the  Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica.

Although not ancient, a piece I found particularly interesting is a 17th century pietre dure commissioned by the Medici family that was once part of the decor of a Medici villa outside Florence, Italy.  Pietre dure is an intricate process in which colored marbles and other stones are cut into thin sheets and assembled on a support to create a decorative composition. The technique reminded me very much of the 4th century CE Roman opus sectile mosaic depicting the rape of Hylas by the nymphs from the basilica of Junius Bassus on the Esquiline Hill that I saw at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. 

 Unlike tessellated mosaic techniques, where the placement of very small uniformly sized pieces forms a picture, opus sectile pieces are much larger and can be shaped to define large parts of the design. The earliest examples have been found in Egypt and Asia Minor. The floor of the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem, built during late 1st century BCE and early 1st century CE featured a opus sectile floor. Hadrian's Villa, 2nd century CE, featured opus sectile floor inlays as well. Fragments of a vegetal design from the 2nd century CE, resembling portions of the Medici work, were found in the villa of Lucius Verus in Acquatraversa.  

The popularity of opus sectile decoration continued in Rome through the 6th century CE, and decorated floors in a number of Byzantine churches. Particularly remarkable are a series of fourth-century CE panels in glass opus sectile, found in a possible sanctuary of Isis at the eastern Corinthian port of Kenchreai, Greece.  Excavated in the 1960s, these mosaics include scenes of famous authors like Homer and Plato, scenes of Nilotic landscapes, harbor-front cities and geometric panels. 

For more information on the St. Petersburg, Florida exhibit:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/chaddscott/2020/10/23/must-see-works-spanning-5000-years-of-human-creativity-fill-museum-of-fine-arts-st-petersburgs-renovated-collection-galleries/#379d22b8540d

Medici family-commissioned 17th century pietre dure at the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg Florida, courtesy of the museum.

Opus sectile mosaic depicting the rape of Hylas by nymphs from the basilica of Junius Bassus at the Palazzo Massimo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen. 

Opus sectile representing the head of the god "Sol", Roman, early 3rd century CE from the Mithraeum discovered under the church of Santa Prisca in Rome now in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Jean-Pol Grandmont.

Glass opus sectile mosaic of a temple scene from a possible sanctuary of Isis at the eastern Corinthian port of Kenchreai, Greece 500 CE at the Isthmia Archaeological Museum courtesy of Jona Lendering, Livius.org.



Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The River of Forgetfulness

Near is thy forgetfulness of all things, and near the forgetfulness of thee by all. Marcus Aurelius.  Meditations.  Book 7.

Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, is one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld. The other four are Acheron (the river of sorrow), Cocytus (the river of lamentation), Phlegethon (the river of fire) and Styx (the river that separates Earth and the Underworld). According to Statius, it bordered Elysium, the final resting place of the virtuous. Ovid wrote that the river flowed through the cave of Hypnos, god of sleep, where its murmuring would induce drowsiness. The shades of the dead were required to drink the waters of the Lethe in order to forget their earthly life. In the Aeneid, Virgil (VI.703-751) writes that it is only when the dead have had their memories erased by the Lethe that they may be reincarnated.

Amongst authors in antiquity, the tiny Lima river between Norte Region, Portugal, and Galicia, Spain, was said to have the same properties of memory loss as the legendary Lethe River, being mistaken for it. In 138 BCE, the Roman general Decimus Junius Brutus Callaicus sought to dispose of the myth, as it impeded his military campaigns in the area. He was said to have crossed the Lima and then called his soldiers from the other side, one by one, by name. The soldiers, astonished that their general remembered their names, crossed the river as well without fear. 


Image: Sleep and his half-brother death, 1874, by John William Waterhouse, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Monday, October 19, 2020

Battle sarcophagi of the 2nd and 3rd century

Discussion of a Roman sarcophagus with battle scene, Antonine Period, 2nd century CE marble at the Dallas Museum of Art: 

The complex composition of this battle scene—with warriors, horses, captives, and trophies of armor intertwined to suggest the violence and bloodshed of war—is typical of Roman relief carvings during the Antonine period (138–192 CE). The sarcophagus was probably made to celebrate the victories of a Roman general in the series of wars that Rome fought with Germanic tribesmen along the Danube frontier, in what are now Hungary and Romania; however, the prototype for the scene might have been a monument created by the Greek King Attalos I of Pergamon in Asia Minor during the 3rd century BCE, which was erected to signify the Greek defeat of the barbarian Celtic invaders. The nude warriors with torques around their necks follow descriptions of Celtic warriors by classical authors. The powerfully modeled and lively Pergamene art style was much admired during the Roman Empire. Here it seems to have been adapted to a Roman taste for historical realism. The man buried in such a battle sarcophagus, several examples of which have survived, probably wished to identify his life and career with well-known Greek scenes of military triumph. - Excerpt from Anne Bromberg, Label copy (1999.107), 2001.

I actually photographed this sarcophagus at the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas three years before I visited the Palazzo Altemps in Rome and photographed the famous 3rd century CE Ludovisi Battle sarcophagus dating to 250-260 CE.  Its barbaric figures have been generally identified as Goths and the Romans wear mail shirts of a longer length characteristic of the later period.  However, the Ludovisi sarcophagus is considered an outlier of the trend for deceased commanders to commission such burial artwork.  Of the 25 such sarcophagi that have been found, 24, like the Dallas example, were sculpted during the Antonine Period. 

The scenes depicted were intended to represent Roman values of heroic struggle and glorification of the hero, as well as themes of good over evil and civilized men over barbarians with Romans viewing themselves as preservers of civilization.  Stylistically, the scenes were modelled after the representations seen on the column of Marcus Aurelius. 

The art historian Donald Strong points to a subtle difference in theme between the Antonine sarcophagi and the Ludovisi symbolism however. From the time of the reign of the Antonine emperors, Roman art increasingly depicted battles as chaotic, packed, single-plane scenes presenting dehumanized barbarians mercilessly subjugated by Roman military might, ironically, at a time when in fact the Roman Empire was gradually being overwhelmed by constant invasions that would ultimately lead to the fall of the empire in the West.  After this period there was a transition from mythological battle scenes to historical battles where the deceased person in the sarcophagus was specifically commemorated in the relief and his conquest of death inferred.  

"The barbarians (of the Ludovisi sarcophagus) all seem frozen in the moment before disaster and death overwhelm them. Their attitudes are highly theatrical but none the less immensely expressive... The main theme is no longer the glorification of military prowess but that of transcending the struggle, presumably conveying the notion of triumph over death ... The ugliness of pain and suffering is stressed by the dishevelled hair, the tormented eyes, the twisted mouth." - Donald Strong, Art historian

Differences in scale between the figures, though present, became far less marked than in earlier Antonine sarcophagi, too, such that the general is only slightly larger than his troops or enemies.  Nor is the general seen wearing a helmet or in the act of combat, as in the earlier sarcophagi.


Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine Period  2nd century CE photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas


Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine Period  2nd century CE photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas


Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine Period  2nd century CE photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas


Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine Period  2nd century CE photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas


Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine Period  2nd century CE photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas


Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine Period  2nd century CE photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas


Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine Period  2nd century CE photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas


Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy


Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy


Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy


Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy


Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy


Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy


Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy


Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy


Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy


Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy


Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy


Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy






Sunday, October 18, 2020

Gallienus, Third Century Reformer

 Born into a wealthy and traditional senatorial family, Gallienus was the son of Valerian and Mariniana. Valerian became Emperor on 22 October 253 CE and had the Roman senate elevate Gallienus to the ranks of Caesar and Augustus. Valerian divided the empire between him and his son, with Valerian ruling the east and his son the west. Gallienus defeated the usurper Ingenuus in 258 CE and destroyed an Alemanni army at Mediolanum in 259 CE.

The defeat and capture of Valerian at Edessa in 260 CE by the Sasanian Empire threw the Roman Empire into the chaos of civil war. Control of the whole empire passed to Gallienus. He defeated the eastern usurpers Macrianus Major and Mussius Aemilianus in 261–262 CE but failed to stop the formation of the breakaway Gallic Empire under general Postumus. Aureolus, another usurper, proclaimed himself emperor in Mediolanum in 268 CE but was defeated outside the city by Gallienus and besieged inside. While the siege was ongoing, Gallienus was stabbed to death by the officer Cecropius as part of a conspiracy.

Although ancient historians did not treat Gallienus favorably, he was actually responsible for several useful reforms. He was the first emperor to commission the Comitatenses, military cavalry units that could be quickly dispatched anywhere in the empire.  The formation of these units created a precedent for the future emperors Diocletian and Constantine I.  Gallienus also prioritized more reliable equestrian commanders over senators. Classicist Pat Southern, author of "The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine", observed that, although this policy undermined senatorial power, these reforms and the decline in senatorial influence not only helped the later emperor Aurelian to salvage the Empire, but they also make Gallienus one of the emperors most responsible for the creation of the Dominate, along with Septimius Severus, Diocletian, and Constantine I.

Dionysus (Bacchus), of course, represents the god of wine and the grape harvest, but the Romans also associated him with freedom, at times calling him Liber (meaning free).  As Eleutherios ("the liberator"), his wine, music and ecstatic dance freed his followers from self-conscious fear and care, and subverted the oppressive restraints of the powerful.  The cult of Dionysus is also a "cult of the souls." His maenads feed the dead through blood-offerings, and he acts as a divine communicant between the living and the dead.  It is probably these more somber symbols Gallienus sought to invoke with this portrait since the chaos of the Third Century was  anything but carefree.


Image: Roman portrait dated to 260 CE thought to be possibly the emperor Gallienus (253-268 CE) in the guise of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine that I photographed at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Minoan snake goddess and other "mistresses of animals"

 The iconic figurine of a woman holding a snake in either hand with a cat sitting on top of her head discovered by Arthur Evans in the "Pillar Shrine" within the Minoan palace of Knossus, Crete is probably one of the most instantly recognized artifacts from the Minoan world.  The original faience sculpture is displayed today at the Herakleion Archaeological Museum on Crete.  But a less well known delicate figurine composed of ivory and gold, dating from 1750 to 1580 BCE, can be seen in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

In the ancient world, snakes were symbolically associated with the renewal of life because the reptile was known for sheddding its skin periodically.  This belief was shared not only by the Minoans and Pelasgians, indigenous inhabitants of the Aegean Sea region and their cultures, but by the ancient Mesopotamians and Semites as well. Within the Greek Dionysiac cult, the serpent signified wisdom and was a symbol of fertility.  Other scholars relate  the snake goddess with the Phoenician Astarte (virgin daughter) because her temples were decorated with serpentine motifs. 

Sir Arthur Evans thought the goddess may be linked to the Egyptian snake goddess Wadjet, especially since the figurine he discovered was constructed of faience, a well-known technology using a fired quartz paste that he thought the Minoans probably acquired from the Egyptians. The figurines have also been interpreted as depicting  a mistress of animals-type goddess, a widespread motif in ancient art from the Mediterranean world and the ancient Near East, showing a central human, or human-like, female figure who grasps two animals, one to each side.  Art historians frequently refer to such images using the Greek term Potnia Theron regardless of culture of origin.  The term was first used by Homer as a descriptor of Artemis because of her association with animals and was since used to describe other female divinities associated with animals. The word Potnia, meaning mistress or lady, was a Mycenaean Greek word inherited by Classical Greeks, with the same meaning.  

The snake goddess was also thought to be a precursor to Athena Parthenos, who was associated with snakes.  According to the Bibliotheca, Athena visited the smith-god Hephaestus to request some weapons, but Hephaestus was so overcome by desire that he tried to seduce her in his workshop. Determined to maintain her virginity, Athena fled, pursued by Hephaestus. He caught Athena and tried to rape her, but she fought him off. During the struggle, his semen fell on her thigh, and Athena, in disgust, wiped it away with a scrap of wool and flung it to the earth. As she fled, Erichthonius was born from the semen that fell to the earth. Athena could not abandon the infant but did not wish anyone to find out what happened so placed the infant in a box and gave the box to the three daughters (Herse, Aglaurus and Pandrosus) of Cecrops, the king of Athens, and warned them never to look inside. Pandrosus obeyed, but Herse and Aglaurus were overcome with curiosity and opened the box, which contained the infant and future-king, Erichthonius ("troubles born from the earth,"). The sisters were terrified by what they saw in the box: either a snake coiled around an infant, or an infant that was half-human and half-serpent. They went insane and threw themselves off the Acropolis. 

When he grew up, Erichthonius became king of Athens and Athena protected him. The snake was his symbol, and he was represented in the statue of Athena in the Parthenon as the snake hidden behind her shield. The most sacred building on the Acropolis of Athens, the Erechtheum, is dedicated to Erichthonius. 

The iconic figurine of a woman holding a snake in either hand with a cat sitting on top of her head discovered by Arthur Evans in the "Pillar Shrine" within the Minoan palace of Knossus, Crete in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum courtesy of Wikimeda Commons contributor Soverylittlehoneybee

Minoan snake goddess of ivory and gold dating from 1750 to 1580 that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Gold pin with a Mistress of the Animals (potnia theron). Gold with granulation, Greek, ca. 630 BCE at The Louvre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Bronze sheet with embossed representation of the Mistress of animals, probably a decorative cover of an object from a Samian workshop, about 600 BCE recovered from the Sanctuary of Olympia at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Zde.

Winged goddess with a Gorgon's head wearing a split skirt and holding a bird in each hand, a type of the Potnia Theron. Probably made on Rhodes. From Kameiros, Rhodes at the British Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Ealdgyth.

Ivory representation of the goddess Artemis Orthia found in her sanctuary, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marsyas (white balance adjusted).

Mistress of animals (Potnia theron) and nature on a Pithos with relief, from the years 625-600 BCE. National Archaeological Museum of Athens, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Zde.

Snake-witch (Ormhäxan) stone from Gotland, Sweden. Now in Fornsalen Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Jürgen Howaldt.