Friday, April 30, 2021

Bust of a Boy or Eros with the Attributes of Herakles, 150-100 BCE, Roman Period Greece

This thinly-cast bust depicts a youth wearing a lion-skin over his head and a quiver strap across the chest. The figure has delicate features and fine hair that is drawn up in a braid with tendrils falling onto his forehead. The figure may depict a young Herakles, or an unidentifiable youth in the guise of the great hero. A third possibility is that this young man is Eros, who was often depicted with attributes associated with Herakles. Two small holes at the bottom edge may have been used to attach this bust to a piece of furniture. 

While in wealthy households beds were used for sleeping in the bedrooms (lectus cubicularis), and couches for banqueting while reclining were used in the dining rooms (lectus tricliniaris), the less well off might use the same piece of furniture for both functions. The two types might be used interchangeably even in richer households, and it is not always easy to differentiate between sleeping and dining furniture. The most common type of Roman bed took the form of a three-sided, open rectangular box, with the fourth (long) side of the bed open for access. While some beds were framed with boards, others had slanted structures at the ends, called fulcra, to better accommodate pillows. The fulcra of elaborate dining couches often had sumptuous decorative attachments featuring ivory, bronze, copper, gold, or silver ornamentation.

Bust of a Boy with the Attributes of Herakles, 150-100 BCE, Greek, now part of the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum on view at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.  Image courtesy of Bruce White Photography.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Flight of Aeneas

While browsing the Getty's collections today I saw yet another intricately sculpted Roman cornelian gemstone from the 1st century BCE.

"The gem captures the moment when Aeneas, son of the Trojan prince Anchises and the goddess Venus, escapes with his family from Troy at the end of the Trojan War. Aeneas climbs up the steps to a waiting ship, with his father over his right arm and his son, Ascanius, holding his left hand. Aeneas wears a corselet but no other armor. His father wears robes with a mantle pulled over his head. Ascanius, shown just at the moment of leaving the gates of the city, wears a Phrygian cap, a chiton, and cloak while holding a pedum (a hunter's throwing stick) over his left shoulder. Anchises holds a cylindrical box with an X pattern on the side. Behind them, the walls of Troy rise up, and a Greek solider in a crested helmets looks towards them from the battlements while holding a lit torch aloft in his raised right arm, a spear upright in his left. Three Trojans await them on the ship, all wearing Phrygian caps: one works the rudder, another the still-furled rigging of the ship, and the third raises a trumpet or other horn-shaped object. Above them, a single star." - J. Paul Getty Museum

I noticed the similarities between the scene on the gem and a 1st century CE sculpture of the flight of Aeneas from the Sebasteion, an imperial cult temple of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and Aphrodite (Venus) in ancient Aphrodisias.  The three-storey complex was embellished with richly carved panels depicting mythological scenes, heroes, and gods surrounded by the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero and their spouses, children and  a series of personified ethne or 'nations' of Augustus' world empire, from the Ethiopians of eastern Africa to the Callaeci of western Spain. The temple was excavated beginning in 1979.  Of the original 200 reliefs, 80 were recovererd.

Read more about the excavations and see more images of the temple here:


Intaglio with Scene of Aeneas and his Family Escaping from Troy, Carnelian, Roman, 20 BCE now in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Pacific Palisades, California
Roman relief of the Flight of Aeneas with his father Anchises and son Ascanius helped by Aphrodite, 20 - 60 CE. The Trojan hero, Aeneas was the son of the prince Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite. His father was the second cousin of King Priam of Troy. The journey of Aeneas from Troy (with help from Aphrodite), which led to the founding of the city Rome, is recounted in Virgil's Aeneid. The 1st century CE relief is now in the Aphrodisias Museum in Turkey, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Dick Osseman.


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Monday, April 26, 2021

Usil, the Etruscan god of the sun

Usil, the Etruscan god of the sun, is equated with the Greek and Roman Helios/Sol Invictus. Appliques depicting the god usually depict the deity with spread wings and a nimbus of rays surrounding his head which is also adorned with a diadem.  On such a plaque obtained by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the figure merges into a broad plate decorated with undulating lines, suggesting the sea from which the sun emerges at daybreak and sinks at dusk.

 "Ornamental reliefs such as this functioned as fittings on funeral carts and chariots, which often accompanied the burials of Etruria’s equestrian elite. Probably affixed to the sides of the vehicle, the winged god reflects the imagery of a celestial divinity driving the chariot of the sun across the sky, which was common in Greek and later Etruscan art. The earliest Usil plaque, in the Vatican Museums, was reportedly found at Roma Vecchia between 1760 and 1775 and was illustrated by Francesco Piranesi in 1778. In 1845, four similar plaques were discovered in the Tomb of the Quadriga at Vulci, which preserved the skeletons of horses. Among the appliqués held in the National Etruscan Museum of the Villa Giulia in Rome, the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, and other museums, some may belong to that burial. Although displaying slight variations in size, facial features, form of the plate, and position of the rivets, all are associated with a preeminent bronze-casting workshop in Vulci." - J. Paul Getty Museum 

Other depictions of the Etruscan god feature Usil rising out of the sea, with a fireball in either outstretched hand, on an engraved Etruscan bronze mirror in late Archaic style and with a halo on Classical style Etruscan mirrors.

While Usil is depicted most often as male, there are also feminine depictions equating Usil with another indigenous Etruscan goddess, Catha, which is often interpreted as having a solar character. Usil is also shown in close association with Thesan, the dawn goddess, something almost never seen with Helios and Eos.

Appliqué depicting the Sun God Usil, Etruscan, 500 - 475 BCE, made in Vulci, Italy, Bronze, courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Pacific Palisades, California

A low relief bronze mirror crafted using the wax method said to depict the winged Greek goddess Eos (Aurora) running or in flight with Kephalos, a young hunter hero that is the son of Hermes and Herse in her arms. However, as this mirror is from the Etruscan workshop in Vulci crafted between 480- 470 BCE, it may equate the winged figure to the Etruscan goddess Thesan or Usil in a female aspect. Now in the collections of the Vatican Museums.

Etruscan mirror from Orvieto depicting the Etruscan sun god Usil fising from the waves, juggling balls of fire, circa 500 BCE now in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts courtesy of the museum.

Outline of Etruscan mirror from Orvieto depicting the Etruscan sun god Usil fising from the waves, juggling balls of fire, circa 500 BCE now in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Nancy T. de Grummond

Outline of an engraved bronze mirror from Tuscania. From left to right, Nethuns, Usil, Thesan. In the lower exergue a winged anguiped demon who holds up a dolphin in each hand. Now in the collections of the Vatican Museums' Museo Gregoriano Etrusco in Vatican City courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Nancy T. de Grummond


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Sunday, April 25, 2021

The beautification of Medusa

While ancient Greek vase-painters and relief carvers of the Archaic Period imagined Medusa and her two immortal sisters as having monstrous form that is both male and female, human and animal, with  round faces, wide eyes, beards, and gaping mouths with extended tongues and gnashing, sharp teeth, sculptors and vase-painters of the fifth century BCE began to envisage her as being beautiful as well as terrifying and she loses the frightful teeth and beard but retains her wild hair and her uncompromising riveting gaze. In an ode written in 490 BCE, Pindar already speaks of "fair-cheeked Medusa".  Art historians attribute this to the emergence of a new artistic emphasis on the ideal form that codified standards of perfection and beauty.

In fact, the depiction of a snake-haired Medusa does not become widespread until much later in the 1st century BCE, further perpetuated by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses (4.794–803), who explains that Medusa was originally a beautiful maiden, but when Poseidon had sex with her in "Minerva's (i.e. Athena's) temple, Athena punished Medusa by transforming her beautiful hair into horrible snakes.

I found this an interesting side note: a number of early classics scholars interpreted the myth of Medusa and her beheading by the hero Perseus as quasi-historical, a sublimated memory of an actual invasion.  Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell proposed that in the early thirteenth century BCE, a historic rupture or sociological trauma actually occurred in which the Hellenes overran Athena's chief shrines and stripped her priestesses of their apotropaic Gorgon masks.

Read more about it in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's article, "Medusa in Ancient Greek Art."

Image: Gilded silver roundel thought to have been a bridle ornament, Roman, 150-235 CE, now in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum.  Image courtesy of the museum.


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Saturday, April 24, 2021

Nero: The Man Behind the Myth to open at the British Museum May 27, 2021

An exhibition that will examine the misogynistic treatment of women under the reign of the emperor Nero is slated to open at the British Museum on May 27, 2021.  It will be on display until October 24, 2021.

This "fresh look" at one of Rome's most notorious emperors will include more than 200 objects from the imperial palace in Rome to the streets of Pompeii that appear to contradict the traditional depiction of the “tyrant”, which is based on a “narrow range” of “brutally biased and partisan” sources. Part of the exhibition will also explore the role of imperial Roman women who were portrayed as adulterous and incestuous.

Visitors will be able to see sculpture, manuscripts, objects destroyed in the 64 CE Great Fire of Rome, jewelry and even slave chains from Wales.  The Fenwick Hoard, a treasure discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop in Colchester, will also be on display.

Drawing on the latest research, this major exhibition questions the traditional narrative of the ruthless tyrant and eccentric performer, revealing a different Nero, a populist leader at a time of great change in Roman society.  Was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus a young, inexperienced ruler trying his best in a divided society, or the merciless, matricidal megalomaniac history has painted him to be?

Read more about it:

Marble bust of Nero. Italy, around AD 55. Photo by Francesco Piras. With permission of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali e per il Turismo ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari.

Portrait bust of the younger Agrippina, the mother of Nero. 37–39 AD.

Marble statue of young Nero, AD 50–54. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski.

Copper head of the emperor Nero, found in England, AD 54–61.

Copy of a doodle scratched into the wall of a shop or tavern on the Palatine Hill in Rome, probably representing the emperor Nero.

The recently excavated Fenwick Hoard was buried for safekeeping during Boudica’s attack on Colchester. The owners of these objects, a Roman veteran and his wife, never managed to retrieve them. AD 60-61 © Colchester Museums.

Marble relief with soldiers of the Praetorian Guard, who served as personal guards to the emperor. Rome, Italy, AD 51–2. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Hervé Lewandowski.

Marble portrait, possibly of Claudia Octavia. Italy, Julio-Claudian. With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Copy of a doodle scratched into the wall of a shop or tavern on the Palatine Hill in Rome, probably representing the emperor Nero.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Death of Antinous

In my travels I have photographed a number of sculptures of Hadrian's companion, Antinous.  Over 100 sculptures of the tragic young man have survived to modern times and classicist Caroline Vout has noted more images have been identified of Antinous than of any other figure in classical antiquity with the exceptions of Augustus and Hadrian himself.  This is probably attributable to Hadrian's deification of the young man after his death and the subsequent cult of Antinous that became widespread throughout much of the Roman Empire. 

Although officially, Hadrian announced that Antinous fell into the Nile and drowned, there have been a number of hypotheses about the young man's death.  Hadrian's entourage at the time is thought to have included  Lucius Ceionius Commodus, a young aristocrat whom Antinous might have deemed a rival to Hadrian's affections. In fact, soon after Antinous died, gossip quickly spread that Antinous had been intentionally killed.  Despite the official circumstances of the young man's death (at the time of his death, Antinous is thought to have been only 18-20 years old), Hadrian does not describe the death as being an accident, however, and some scholars point to this as suspicious.

If Antinous' death was not accidental, some scholars propose that he may have been murdered by a member of a court conspiracy.  The entourage assembled at Heliopolis included powerful military figures including the Prefect in Egypt as well as army and naval commanders.   But Royston Lambert, author of "Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous," points out that, besides lacking any supporting historical evidence, Antinous appeared to exert little influence over Hadrian's political activities, thus an assassination would seem to serve little purpose.

Other scholars have suggested Antinous died during a voluntary castration as part of an attempt to retain his youth and thus his sexual appeal to Hadrian. However, Lambert observes this is improbable because Hadrian deemed both castration and circumcision to be abominations and as Antinous was aged between 18 and 20 at the time of death, any such operation would have been ineffective anyway.

Another possibility is that Antinous represented a voluntary human sacrifice. The earliest surviving evidence for this comes from the writings of Dio Cassius, 80 years after the event, although it was subsequently repeated in many later sources. In the 2nd century Roman Empire, a belief that the death of one could rejuvenate the health of another was widespread, and Hadrian had been ill for many years. In this scenario, Antinous could have sacrificed himself in the belief that Hadrian would have recovered. If this last situation were true, Hadrian might not have revealed the cause of Antinous's death because he did not wish to appear either physically or politically weak. Conversely, opposing this possibility is the fact that Hadrian disliked human sacrifice and had strengthened laws against it in the Empire. Hadrian also appeared to be genuinely devastated by the youth's death and was probably directly responsible for his immediate deification by the local Egyptian priests. Although deification was not uncommon, in the Roman world formal divinization was, until that time,  reserved for the Emperor and members of the imperial family. Hadrian also did so without permission of the Senate, making the establishment of Antinous' cult highly unusual.

Archaeological evidence makes it clear that the cult ended up being genuinely popular among the different societal classes in the Empire. Part of the appeal was that Antinous had once been human himself, and thus was more relatable than many other deities. It is also possible, however, that his cult borrowed power from parallels between Antinous and beautiful young male immortals in the Greco-Roman pantheon like Apollo, Dionysus, and Silvanus as well as mortal youths beloved by gods in classical mythology like Ganymede, Hylas, Hyacinth, and Narcissus. These characteristics were common also to the cults of Attis, Endymion, and Adonis. Like the latter and the god of the newly established Christian religion, Antinous was also treated as a dying-and-rising god, not only in Egypt, but in Rome and Greece.

By the way, Lucius Ceionius Commodus was eventually named Hadrian's heir and became Lucius Aelius Caesar, who would father the Emperor Lucius Verus. Although Lucius had no military experience, he had served as a senator, and had powerful political connections. Perhaps Hadrian's affection for Antinous just proved to be too much of an obstacle to the political proponents of Lucius Ceionius Commodus even though Antinous himself expressed no political ambitions.  After all, Hadrian was seriously ill during this period and succession may have appeared imminent.

Image: A portrait bust of Antinous thought to have been sculpted around the time of his death that I photographed at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence in 2005. 


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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Phlyax play

A Phlyax play, also known as a hilarotragedy, was a burlesque dramatic form that developed in the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia (southern Italy) in the 4th century BCE. Its name derives from the Phlyakes, “Gossip Players,” in Doric Greek. From the surviving titles of the plays they appear to have been a form of mythological burlesque, which mixed figures from the Greek pantheon with the stock characters and situations of Attic New Comedy. The absence of any surviving script has led to conjecture that they were largely improvised. 

Although only a few script fragments have been found, fortunately, such plays were a popular subject of vase paintings from the region. The vases first appeared at the end of the 5th century BCE, but most are 4th century BCE. They depict grotesque characters, the masks of comedy, and the props of comic performance such as ladders, baskets, and open windows. These vase paintings indicate that they were performed on a raised wooden stage with an upper gallery, and that the actors wore grotesque costumes and masks similar to those of Attic Old Comedy. The term phlyax, which is used for both the play and the costumed actors, probably derives from the Greek verb "to swell" and finds its meaning in the actors' costumes. They wore a mask, tights, a padded tunic, and a large artificial phallus.  Any other garments necessary for the role were worn over this. They parodied heroes and themes of mythology or the comic elements of everyday life and incorporated acrobatics into the performances.

The Greek version of phlyakes seems to have died out by the late 3rd century BCE, but the Oscan inhabitants of Campania subsequently developed a tradition of farces, parodies, and satires influenced by late Greek models, which became popular in Rome during the 3rd century BCE. This genre was known as Atellan farce, Atella being the name of a Campanian town. Atellan farce introduced a set of stock characters such as Maccus and Bucco to Latin comedy. Even in antiquity, these were thought to be the ancestors of the characters found in Plautus, and perhaps distantly of those of commedia dell'arte, an improvised kind of popular comedy in Italian theaters in the 16th–18th centuries. Although an older view held that Attic comedy was the only source of Roman comedy, it has been argued that the phlyax playwright Rhinthon, in particular, influenced Plautus’s Amphitruo.

Image: Phlyax scene: three men (Gynmilos, Kosios and Karion) robbing a miser (Kharinos) inside his house. Side A of red-figure calyx-krater made in Paestum, 350–340 BCE, now in the Altes Museum in Berlin courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.


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Monday, April 19, 2021

Gallo-Roman villa of Orbe-Boscéaz

Orbe-Boscéaz, also named Boscéay, is an archaeological site in Switzerland, located at the territory of the town of Orbe (Vaud). It includes a vast Roman villa measuring over 200 m long comprised of about 100 rooms, some heated by hypocaust, colonnaded porticoes, and ornamental ponds.  Nine of the rooms featured intricate mosaics depicting gods, trompe l’œil geometric shapes or figurative scenes of Greek mythology, such as the famous labyrinth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Excavations have revealed the villa, constructed at the end of the 2nd century CE on the remains of a structure from the 1st century CE, was mostly abandoned during the crisis of the 3rd century CE.  Sadly, by the 5th century CE much of the structure became a quarry for building materials.

The first of its mosaics were discovered in 1841. The Triton and the Labyrinth mosaics were found in 1845 (the latter is reburied the same year, then rediscovered in 1930), the Divinities mosaic in 1862, the laurel leaves mosaic in 1863 (reburied and rediscovered several times up to 1925), and the Mosaic of Achilles on the island of Skyros, was discovered in 1993 and recently underwent restoration. The site is now open to the public.

The Triton mosaic at this villa depicts ichthyocentaurs, mermen with a horse's forelegs in place of arms.  The earliest known examples of this artistic variation of traditional Greek tritons date from the 2nd century BCE. The term "Ichthyocentaur" did not originate in ancient Greece, though, and only appeared in writing in the Byzantine period (12th century).  They were also known as "Centaur-Tritons".  Double-tailed tritons began to be depicted by the late 2nd century BCE, and can be seen on the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus at the Glyptothek in Munich.

Gallo-Roman Villa of Orbe-Boscéaz (Vaud, Switzerland) - The Deities Mosaic includes four medallions with a Triton and a Nereid. This photo shows the southwest medallion. The Deities Mosaic is preserved in its original location and the Gallo-Roman villa is a site open to the public and can be visited. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sylvain Gailloud. (adjusted perspective, sharpened and enhanced)

Mosaic depicting Zeus in the form of an eagle and Ganymede at the Gallo-Roman Villa of Orbe-Boscéaz (Vaud, Switzerland) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Leemburg-CH.

Another medallion from the Triton mosaic at the Gallo-Roman Villa of Orbe-Boscéaz (Vaud, Switzerland) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Leemburg-CH.

Geometric mosaic with leaves at the Gallo-Roman Villa of Orbe-Boscéaz (Vaud, Switzerland) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Paulusburg

Closeup of the Deities Mosaic depicting Mars, the God of War at the Gallo-Roman Villa of Orbe-Boscéaz (Vaud, Switzerland), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Leemburg-CH

Mosaic of the deities at the Gallo-Roman Villa of Orbe-Boscéaz (Vaud, Switzerland) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Leemburg-CH

Mosaic of the Rustic Procession at the Gallo-Roman Villa of Orbe-Boscéaz (Vaud, Switzerland) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Leemburg-CH

Triton with two fish-tails. Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus. Glyptothek Munich courtesy of Wikimeddia Commons contributor Miguel Hermoso Cuesta

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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Achilles' Ambush of Troilus

All Greek and Etruscan metal rings with engraved bezels ultimately derive from Egyptian and Phoenician cartouche-shaped rings. The cartouche-shaped ring was especially popular in Etruria in the later 500s B.C., where immigrant Greek goldsmiths from Ionia introduced it.

This example features an intricate scene of two men approaching a fountain where water gushes into a vessel from a lion's head spout. Behind the fountain, a man squats as if hiding, holding a sword. These details identify the scene as a standard depiction of the ambush of Troilos (Troilus), prince of Troy, by the Greek hero Achilles during the Trojan War. On this ring, however, a strange dog-headed creature, who is not part of the Troilos myth, sits atop the fountain. The creature may actually be jackal-headed and thus meant to recall the Egyptian god Anubis harking back to the origin of such rings from Egypt.

Prophecies retold in the Iliad link the fate of Troilos, one of the sons of King Priam (or Apollo in some versions of Greek myth), with the fate of Troy itself. Ancient writers including Sophocles treated Troilos, a paragon of youthful male beauty, as the epitome of a dead child mourned by his parents. 

 Only 54 words have been identified as coming from Sophocles' play, Troilos.  Fragment 619 refers to Troilos as an andropais, a man-boy. (A fragment from the 6th century tragic poet Phyrnichus refers to Troilus as possessing the light of love glowing on his reddening cheeks) Fragment 621 indicates that Troilos was going to a spring with a companion to fetch water or to water his horses but a scholion (explanatory comment) to the Iliad states that Sophocles relates how Troilos was ambushed by Achilles while exercising his horses in the Thymbra. Fragment 623 indicates that Achilles mutilated Troilos' corpse by a gruesome method known as maschalismos. This involved preventing the ghost of a murder victim from returning to haunt their killer by cutting off the corpse's extremities and stringing them under its armpits. 

Considering Troilos, according to many versions and interpretations, was still a child, Achilles' behavior was beyond the pale. Greek heroes were not always heroic!

Gold finger ring depicting Achilles' Ambush of Troilos, Etruscan, 550-500 BCE, at the J. Paul Getty Museum, image courtesy of the museum.

Red-figured bell-krater depicting Achilles in wait for Troilos. Troilos leads up a mule to drink, with right arm over its back. He is represented as a child, with curls in front of his ears, chlamys over left shoulder, petasos hanging from neck, in left hand two spears. Mid-fifth to third centuries BCE, British Museum.

Roman relief from a statue of Germanicus, 2nd c. CE, depicting the ambush of Troilos, Archeological Museum of Perugia courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Haiduc.

Achilles ambushing Troilos and Polyxena, shoulder of an Attic black-figure hydria, 560-550 BCE at the Metropolitan Museum of Art courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Image: Achilles (left) ambushing Troilus (on horseback, right). Etruscan fresco, Tomb of the Bulls, Tarquinia, 530–520 BCE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Centaur battling a Giant?

Centaurs are popular on Archaic and Classical Greek gems and are often shown fighting, armed with branches or stones as signs of their wild nature. Battles with Herakles or the Lapiths (a people of Thessaly, famous in Greek mythology for their defeat of the centaurs) appear often, but the exact scene on this gem is unclear. The two snakes seen below the centaur’s forelegs recall the standard depiction of giants in Greek art, which are typically shown with human bodies and snake-legs: although a battle between a centaur and giant would be extremely unusual and is not a specific feature of Greek myth, the subject is attested on a Roman glass paste intaglio, suggesting it might also be depicted here. Such motifs probably reflect the Late Classical and Hellenistic interest in fanciful scenes involving mythical creatures popular in painting and sculpture.

A scaraboid is a simplified scarab, with a plain curved back and an intaglio design decorating the flat underside. The form gradually replaced the scarab in Greece in the 400s B.C.E. Like scarabs, they were typically pierced and worn either as a ring or pendant. When attached to a metal hoop and worn as a ring, the curved side faced out and the intaglio surface rested against the finger. When needed as a seal, the ring was removed, the gem swiveled, and the intaglio design was pressed into soft clay or wax to identify and secure property. - J. Paul Getty Museum 

Image: Engraved scaraboid with a bearded centaur wearing an animal skin cloak battling a snake-legged Giant, brown chalcedony, 1st quarter of the 4th century BCE, Greek in the J. Paul Getty collection of engraved gems. The centaur is shown advancing to the left to battle an unknown adversary – suggested only by the presence of two coiled snakes below the centaur’s legs. 

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Friday, April 16, 2021

Daedalic Style of the 7th century BCE

In the early 600s BCE, new artistic ideas flowed into Greece as a result of increased contacts with the Near East. Because of Crete’s central location along maritime trade routes between these regions, artists on the island played a leading role in synthesizing native and Near Eastern elements.

An artist from Crete that became known as Daidalos (Daedalus) , produced a series of female figurines that combined both Greek and Near Eastern features including triangular faces and stylized wig-like hair forming two upward-facing triangles on either side of the face.  The top of the head is flattened to maintain triangularity, giving a “brainless look”, according to some scholars, and producing a low forehead with a straight hairline. The eyes are usually large and set rather high.The woman is portrayed in a frontal orientation and the female's clothing was often depicted as formless drapery or as a simple style, sometimes decorated with geometric patterns, tied with a wide belt at the waist.  A few male figures were also produced, nude except for a belt.  In addition to figurines, these sculptures appeared on clay plaques and in relief decorations on vases. The style had a marked influence on artistic productions in the Peloponnese, Dorian Crete, and Rhodes.

An artist named Daidalos is actually mentioned in Homer's Iliad (18.590.92), as the builder of a dancing floor on Crete.  Later authors state he was the grandson of the early Athenian king, Erechtheus.

Daidalos was also credited with the invention of agalmata, votive statues of the gods which had open eyes and moveable limbs.  These statues were so lifelike that Plato remarked upon their amazing and disconcerting mobility.

A figure of a woman with her arms folded across her belly forms the body of this aryballos, a container for holding scented oil. The modeled human head forms the vessel's spout and neck. A hole at the back of the head would have been used for suspension. The artist used black paint to further elaborate the figure, and traces of the original pigment remain on the eyes and hair, and in three bands on the body, Greek (Cretan), 675-650 BCE, terracotta, at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Yet another Middle Daedalic piece is this Protocorinthian aryballos (oil flask) from Thebes. The head was made with a mold. The decoration was by a known artist, the Boston Painter, and can be dated with some confidence to around 650 BCE. Datable vases such as this one are important, for they give us a means of dating other Daedalic pieces. Courtesy of art historian Emily Claire Kibbe

Representing the Late Daedalic (c. 630-600 BCE) is this torso of a seated woman from Eleutherna on Crete. The medium is limestone. The oval face points to a late date, c. 600. The coiffure is crimped tresses (Perlenlocken). Courtesy of art historian Emily Claire Kibbe

Representing the Early Daedalic (675-c. 655 BCE) is this ivory sphinx from the sanctuary of Hera Limenia in Perachora. In this phase the faces tend to be long triangles, with the chin rounded off. Courtesy of art historian Emily Claire Kibbe

Also representing the Middle Daedalic is this torso from a female figurine, mold-made out of terracotta, from Crete, one of a series produced there from c. 680-625 BCE. The detailed coiffure (Etagenperücke) and anatomy indicate a date toward the end of the series, c. 650-625 BCE. Courtesy of art historian Emily Claire Kibbe

A rare male example of the new style, a bronze statuette from Olympia dating to c. 700-675 BCE a warrior, naked but for his belt and crested helmet, stands with his right arm raised to hold a spear (missing). His hair is an early rendition of the Etagenperücke. Courtesy of art historian Emily Claire Kibbe

For more about Daedalic art:

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Wednesday, April 14, 2021


In Greek and Roman Mythology, the Giants, also called Gigantes, were a race of great strength and aggression, though not necessarily of great size. They were known for the Gigantomachy (Gigantomachia), their battle with the Olympian gods for supremacy of the cosmos. Historically, the myth of the Gigantomachy (not to be confused with the Titanomachy) may reflect the "triumph" of the new imported gods of the invading Greek speaking peoples from the north (c. 2000 BCE) over the old gods of the existing peoples of the Greek peninsula. For the Greeks, the Gigantomachy represented a victory for order over chaos—the victory of the divine order and rationalism of the Olympian gods over the discord and excessive violence of the earth-born chthonic Giants. More specifically, for sixth and fifth century BCE Greeks, it represented a victory for civilization over barbarism. 

Archaic and Classical representations show Gigantes as man-sized hoplites (heavily armed ancient Greek foot soldiers) fully human in form. According to Hesiod in his Theogony, the Giants were the offspring of Gaia (Earth), born from the blood that fell when Uranus (Sky) was castrated by his Titan son Cronus. Later representations (after c. 380 BCE) show Gigantes with snakes for legs. In later traditions, the Giants were often confused with other opponents of the Olympians, particularly the Titans, an earlier generation of large and powerful children of Gaia and Uranus. 

In the Odyssey, Homer has Giants among the ancestors of the Phaiakians, a race of men encountered by Odysseus,  Their ruler, Alcinous, compares the Giants to the Cyclopes, saying they are "near kin" to the gods. Homer compares them to the Laestrygonians, who " huge as a man could lift." Surprisingly, however, Homer does not mention anything about the famous Gigantomachy.

Bacchylides portrays the giants as arrogant and victims of their own hubris.  Pindar describes the Giants as excessively violent and provides some of the earliest details of the Gigantomachy. He says it took place on the plain of Phlegra (the ancient name for Pallene -modern Kassandra) and has the legendary seer Teiresias prophesying that the Giants would be killed by Heracles "beneath his rushing arrows." He tells us that Porphyrion, the king of the Giants is overcome by the bow of Apollo. These events are recalled in Euripedes play "Heracles." In the play, Heracles' son Ion has the chorus describe seeing a depiction of the Gigantomachy on the late sixth century BCE Temple of Apollo at Delphi, with Athena fighting the Giant Enceladus with her "gorgon shield", Zeus burning the Giant Mimas with his "mighty thunderbolt, blazing at both ends", and Dionysus killing an unnamed Giant with his "ivy staff". Apollonius of Rhodes describes how  the sun god Helios takes up Hephaestus, exhausted from the fight in Phlegra, on his chariot.

Apollodorus provides the reason for the war between the giants and the Olympians. Although he mentions the theft of Helios' cattle, he suggests a mother's revenge as the actual motive for the war, saying that Gaia bore the Giants because of her anger over the Titans defeat and imprisonment. 

The vanquished Giants were said to be buried under volcanoes and to be the cause of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid says from the blood of the Giants came a new race of beings in human form. According to Ovid, Earth [Gaia] did not want the Giants to perish without a trace, so "reeking with the copious blood of her gigantic sons", she gave life to the "steaming gore" of the blood soaked battleground. These new offspring, like their fathers the Giants, also hated the gods and possessed a bloodthirsty desire for "savage slaughter".

From the sixth century BCE onwards, the Gigantomachy was a popular and important theme in Greek art, with over six hundred representations cataloged.

Detail of Gigantomachy (the battle between the Greek gods and the Giants portrayed here as Tritons), Hellenistic art of the Roman period, 2nd century CE. From Aphrodisias in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Giovanni Dall'Orto.

Poseidon attacks Polybotes in the presence of Gaia, red-figure cup late fifth century BCE at the Antikensammlung  in Berlin courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko.

Detail of the Sala dei Giganti in the Palazzo del Te, Mantua, c. 1530, Giulio Romano courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Poseidon (left) holding a trident, with the island Nisyros on his shoulder, battling a Giant (probably Polybotes), red-figure cup c. 500–450 BCE in the Cabinet des Medailles in Paris courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.

Scene from the Gigantomachy on the frieze of the Pergamon Altar depicting Athena and Nike fighting Alkyoneus, as Gaia rises up from the ground, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Mila Ranta.

Metope from the Temple of Hera in Paestum depicting Hercules killing the giant Alcyoneus, now in the National Archaeological Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Miguel Hermoso Cuesta.

Second century CE Roman sarcophagus depicting the Gigantomachy at the Vatican Pius Clementine Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor xiquinhosilva.

Statuette of a Giant Hurling a Rock, 200–175 BCE, Bronze, in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California.

Gigantomachy (the battle between the Greek gods and the Giants portrayed here as Tritons), Hellenistic art of the Roman period, 2nd century CE. From Aphrodisias in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Giovanni Dall'Orto.

Gigantomachy on the north frieze of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi, 525 BCE, with the gods facing right and the Giants facing left, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bgabel.

A serpent-legged giant from a mosaic depicting the Gigantomachy at the Villa Romana del Casale courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Lasterketak.

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