Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Personal worship in the ancient world

This pair of terracotta altars depicts the death of Adonis, a god of vegetation, and the rituals that were celebrated in his honor. On the altar on the right, Adonis, looking weak, sits supported in the arms of his lover Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Adonis was born of an incestuous love between the Assyrian king Theias and his daughter Myrrha; Aphrodite was smitten by the infant Adonis's great beauty and hid him in a box (cista), which she entrusted to Persephone. When Persephone opened the box, she too fell in love with the beautiful infant and decided not to give him back to Aphrodite. Zeus interceded in the quarrel between the two goddesses and ordered that Adonis should spend a third of the year with Aphrodite, a third with Persephone, and the last third wherever he liked— Adonis chose to devote that time to Aphrodite as well. The woman at bottom right, sitting on the box, is likely to be Persephone. On the left altar, three women rush to the scene, carrying musical instruments: a tympanum, or drum, and a xylophone.

Small terracotta altars such as these would have been used for private worship, perhaps to burn incense. This pair still bears traces of burning on its upper surfaces, as well as pigment used for decorating the relief figures. Stylistic features of the figures and their drapery, as well as the type of clay that was used, suggest that the altars were made in Medma, in Southern Italy. - J. Paul Getty Museum

Household shrines and a personal relationship with the gods were also important to the Romans as well.  

"The quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is in my opinion the nature of their religious convictions… These matters are clothed in such pomp and introduced to such an extent into their public and private life that nothing could exceed it, a fact which will surprise many… It is a course which perhaps would not have been necessary had it been possible to form a state composed of wise men, but as every multitude is fickle, full of lawless desires, unreasoned passion, and violent anger, the multitude must be held in by invisible terrors and suchlike pageantry." - Polybius

Classicist Ben Potter, in his article "Rituals, Temples and Worship in the Ancient World" observes, "Here, the historian seems to confirm that the vast majority of common/uneducated Romans engaged in ritual practice with a high level of credulity and were not merely going through the motions when it came to showing devotion to the gods on days of ritual worship."

Read more about it:

Small personal altars depicting the myth of Adonis produced in Calabria, southern Italy, terracotta, fourth quarter of the 4th century BCE on view at the Getty Villa, Gallery 109

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Professional mourners in the ancient world


Statues of Mourning Women, South Italian (Apulian, Canosan), 300-275 BCE Terracotta, now in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa venue, Pacific Palisades, California

This group of mourning women, often understood as female figures in prayer (orantes), was likely produced in the area of Canosa in south-eastern Italy. Although there are considerable differences in terms of clothing, poses and hairstyles, the four statues seem to depict a type of youthful female figure, probably envisioned as one of the mourners who expressed their grief during funerary ceremonies. The group was intended to be placed around a funerary couch (kline), and was probably produced for a fairly prestigious client who, in the context of Romanization in the area, aspired to underscore his economic prosperity, personal identity, and native traditions. The figures were made not with molds, as has been previously conjectured, but rather through a modeling process over a fairly thick conical structure. Working from the bottom up, clay pieces were laid over this hollow structure to define the anatomy and iconographic details of the figure. The forearms, created separately, and the head, made with a bivalve mold, were inserted in holes specially made by the craftsman. The tubular structure was then modeled from within to establish the round shapes of knees and breasts, and from the exterior, through the application of clay parts, to depict the details of the chiton and himation. A spatula and other sharp tools were used to define the hair, eyes, and various details of clothing. Colors were applied after the firing over a preparatory layer of white slip, which has been preserved in several areas. The palette shows little variety, consisting of pink, red, white, possibly dark brown, and black. - J. Paul Getty Museum

These sculptures probably represented women who were known by the Romans as praeficiae, professional mourners, who followed musicians in the funeral procession and sang a funeral song praising the deceased. Paying mourners to attend your funeral showed society the importance of your social status.

The practice of hiring professional mourners has been documented in ancient Egypt, China, and the Middle East as well as in Greece and Rome.  In ancient Egypt only childless women could become professional mourners as it was considered unseemly for men to weep in public. These women could not have any body hair and had the names of goddesses tattooed on their shoulders.

Mycenaean larnakes, burial chests, depict mourners performing ritual laments. During the Greek Archaic Period, greater simplicity in burial practices coincided with  the rise of democracy and the egalitarian military of the hoplite phalanx.  But during the 4th century BCE,  the decline of democracy and the return of aristocratic dominance was accompanied by the return of more elaborate funerary rituals.

"Ancient Romans honored their dead through extended mourning. Men would typically mourn for a period of a few days, during which they would always wear black and would not cut their hair or beards. Women would wear white and might not cut their hair as well. However, while formal mourning usually only lasted a few days for men, when a woman lost a husband or parent, it wasn’t uncommon for her to mourn for a year. Adopting traditions from the ancient Greeks, many Romans also periodically visited their deceased loved one’s tombs or burial sites to offer gifts and sacrifices. Toward the end of February, ancient Romans sometimes celebrated Feralia as well. This was a general festival for honoring the dead. Romans would traditionally celebrate by bringing food to the sepulchers of the deceased." - Joe Oliveto, State University of New York at New Paltz

Statue of Mourning Woman, South Italian (Apulian, Canosan), 300-275 BCE Terracotta, now in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa venue, Pacific Palisades, California

Monday, May 10, 2021

Archaic Period Horse Sculptures

 Horses, with or without riders, were favorite subjects for Boeotian artisans. The figurines were frequently left as burial offerings in graves. Horses were a sign of wealth for the Greeks of this period, and the terracotta horses were probably left to symbolize and to reinforce the high status of the deceased. Thousands of clay figurines like this one survive from the Archaic period (600 to 480 BCE).

"Horses played a central role in the great civic festivals in the ancient world, such as the Panathenaic Games in Athens and the Olympic games at Olympos, where they took part in chariot races and single horse races. The horse’s long affiliation with gods and heroes in Greek mythology no doubt also fostered a special respect and admiration for this remarkable creature in the minds of “ordinary” Greeks. In Homer’s Iliad, horses drive the chariots of the heroes and are praised for their swiftness and beautiful coats. They are often depicted as having special relationships with their owners, like Achilles and his immortal horses, Balius and Xanthus.  In the Iliad, it is told how, when Patroclus was killed in battle, Xanthus and Balius stood motionless on the field of battle, and wept, yet when Achilles rebuked Xanthus for letting Patroklus get slain, Hera granted the horse human speech to deliver to Achilles a warning about his own fate." - Stasahatzoglou, The significance of the horse in ancient Greece.

Terracotta horse and rider, Greek, Boeotian, about 550 BCE, courtesy of the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

Archaeic Period Horse and Rider from Cyprus, 700 BCE 

Pyxis Lid with Three Horses Greek made in Boeotia 760-750 BCE Terracotta that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California

Terracotta horse with warrior rider Cypriot Cypro-Archaic I-II 600 BCE said to be from the temple of Apollo Hylates at Kourion that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Terracotta wheeled horse thought to be a toy Cypriot Cypro-Archaic 6th century BCE that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

A BOEOTIAN TERRACOTTA HORSE AND RIDER, 575-550 BCE,  courtesy of Christies

Greek Horse and Rider 6th century BCE Terracotta with slip decoration courtesy of The Barnes Foundation

Sunday, May 9, 2021

"Colors of the Romans: Mosaics from the Capitoline Collections" opens at the Centrale Montemartini in Rome

The “Colors of the Romans” exhibition at Centrale Montemartini, one of Rome’s great museums, hopes to attract tourists to the Italian capital through this lesser-known but varied selection of mosaics. The exhibition is divided into four sections. 

The first showcases the history and mosaic techniques. The works chosen represent all types of mosaic floors and wall decorations, allowing to illustrate through the techniques, materials, colors, decorative motifs, the stylistic evolution and the transformation of mosaic art over time. 

The second explores living and dwelling in Rome between the end of the Republican age and the late ancient age: luxury residences and domestic contexts.  The route follows a chronological criterion, passing from the oldest examples - such as the large polychrome mosaic with coffered, discovered at the Villa Casali al Celio - to the more recent ones, up to the fourth century CE, the period to which the mosaic belongs with a seasonal bust, perhaps part of the floor ornamentation of a building that was owned by the Emperor Gallienus. 

The third examines the mosaic’s sacred function, particularly those of the Hilarian basilica,  seat of the college of priests assigned to the cult of Cybele and Attis. Manius Poblicius Hilarushe was the rich pearl merchant who incurred the financial burdens for the construction of the basilica. The first archaeological remains of the Hilarian Basilica came to light between 1889 and 1890 during the excavations for the construction of the Celio military hospital. 

The fourth demonstrates  how mosaics were used in funerary buildings in the necropolis of the suburb of Rome to evoke the fundamental collective values ​​of Roman society. With its bright colors, the octagonal mosaic with peacocks is an emblematic example of a decorative motif full of eschatological and salvific meanings: the peacock, a bird sacred to Dionysus, losing its tail every year and putting it back in spring with the blossoming of flowers, alludes to regeneration beyond death. 

The rich and precious archive documentation , which accompanies the works on display, illustrates the findings with historical photos, watercolors and drawings, testimonies that help to tell the climate and circumstances that determined these discoveries: the urban transformations and the building fervor that characterized the history of Rome between the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the last century, when, in parallel with the progressive expansion of the city to meet its new function as the capital of Italy, one of the most "fortunate" pages of Roman archeology. 

Images courtesy of the Centrale Montemartini Museum in Rome.

Octagonal polychrome mosaic with peacocks. Tesserae of limestone, marble and glass rods. Coming from Rome, from a tomb along the Via Appia, near the left tower of the Porta S. Sebastiano. Image courtesy of the Centrale Montemartini Museum in Rome.

Polychrome wall mosaic with ship and lighthouse. Vitreous paste tesserae of various colors; white tiles in limestone material. Discovered in Rome in 1876 during the excavations for the opening of Via Nazionale. Image courtesy of the Centrale Montemartini Museum in Rome.

Black and white mosaic with an evil eye scene. Found in 1885 during the excavations for the construction of the Celio Military Hospital. (First?) Half II century CE. Image courtesy of the Centrale Montemartini Museum in Rome.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Waterfowl in Greco-Roman art

Ducks, geese, and swans were often depicted on serving ware in both Greek and Roman households. Although fish was a more common protein source than ducks and geese, even the humiliores occasionally enjoyed poultry.  Following his triumph, Caesar sponsored a public feast for 260,000 of the poorer people of Rome, offering them ducks and geese as well as seafood and game.  

But waterfowl as art was used to appeal to Greek and Roman intellect as well as to their stomachs.  In addition to their inclusion in myth such as  the legendary transformation of Zeus into a swan to seduce Leda, these species appeared multiple times in popular works of Aesop and Aristophanes as they were deemed "characterful" enough to lend themselves to literary purposes.  In his play "The Birds", Aristophanes points out that a goose could act as an agent of Eros when used as a competitive gift exchanged in the homosexual courtship between an erastês and his young erômenos.

Some scholars, like Pliny the Elder, also thought these birds possessed "intellectus sapientiae," an understanding of wisdom. In his Natural History, Pliny relates the story of a goose that attached itself as the constant companion of the philosopher Lacydes, never separating from him either in public or at the baths, and either by night or day.

It is not surprising, then, that they were among the 69 species identified as subjects of paintings, mosaics, and sculptures found in the remains of Roman structures in Pompeii and other cities that survived the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE.

Image: Silver Wine Strainer from Greece, 2nd half of the 4th century BCE, now in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum and on display at the Getty Villa in Gallery 111.  Image courtesy of the museum.

Note: The form and decoration of this silver strainer were popular in the 300s BCE, especially in Macedonia in northern Greece. The flanged rim and projecting handles allowed the strainer to rest on the rim of a container. The perforations in the strainer's bowl form an elegant whirligig surrounded by concentric circles. The Getty describes the ends of the handles as terminating in ducks' heads but I think geese or swan heads are more likely due to the long necks that curve sinuously out from the wide base, which is engraved with palmettes.