Icons of the ancient world: gods, goddesses, and other human or divine beings exposed
With figures ranging from Apollo to Juno, Christie's Antiquities sale brings together masterworks from ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt
How can we identify whether a statue is from ancient Rome, or from Greece? In what context should we view a sculpture where only a Pharaoh’s head remains? And what do the various garments and hair accessories connote? Mysteries from the ancient world maintain relevancy today, as the research continues to draw new connections and our fascination intensifies. This peek into the world of antiquity will demonstrate a veritable who’s who in some of this era’s finest works, through the exceptional sculptures featured in The Devoted Classicist: The Private Collection of a New York Antiquarian, selling on 6 October at Christie’s in New York.
In antiquity, ancient sculptors employed specific artistic language in the form of unique attributes to express which individual or deity was represented. They wanted their viewers to easily identify certain gods and goddesses so that they could be worshiped and be incorporated into society. However, over time, surviving sculptures have lost many of these symbols or identifying marks, as over 2000 years of wear has aged and affected the original appearance. It is up to us to piece together the puzzle based upon the remaining clues on the sculpture itself and by researching supporting historical writings, including mythology and history, and by looking at more complete sculptures, which still retain their identifying attributes.
Join us on an exploration of the icons of the ancient world as seen through the lens of the upcoming sale.
The fiercest goddess
In both her demeanour and dress, Athena is one of the most feared of the goddesses. In her guise as the goddess of war, she is frequently shown ready for battle, wearing a helmet while carrying her spear and shield. On some occasions, she is further embellished with her aegis, a special protective cloak.
She is constantly mentioned in Greek mythology and Homeric hymns, all of whom differ on the exact details. While some say she wore a garment made of goat skin, others say her scaly aegis was adorned with a gorgoneion and lined with snakes along its fringes, as seen in the present example. This cloak was received from Perseus, the Greek hero who used Athena’s glistening shield to protect himself from the gaze of the gorgon Medusa.
One of many examples of her might, in the Iliad, Homer characterized her aegis as so powerful that when shaken, it could ‘scatter hosts and terrify mankind’ (Iliad, Book XV).
The Queen of the gods
As expected, her highness Juno is typically depicted wearing a crescentic diadem atop her head, as she is in this example. It secures her luscious wavy hair which is centre-parted, pulled back, and secured in a chignon at the nape of her neck. She has cascading waves framing her idealized flawless visage, befitting of an ageless deity. To make her look lifelike and powerful in antiquity, her eyes were hollowed for inlays in another material like glass or stone with bronze lashes which unfortunately have not survived.
Juno is not the only goddess to wear such a diadem and to have her hair arranged in waves, but through comparison with other examples, such as the Juno Ludovisi now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, her identity is undoubted. The heads are nearly identical in style but for their scale, since the Boston example is monumental and has been attached since the Renaissance to a twelve-foot-tall ancient body, likely originally that of a Muse.
The multi-faceted god
Apollo is one of the most important Olympian deities in ancient Greece, responsible for numerous realms. He is worshiped as the god of agriculture, oracles, healing and music and more across the Greek world.
He is frequently portrayed in sculpture holding a lyre or kithara to emphasize his role as the god of music, and the inventor of the stringed instrument. The Greeks believed he was able to harmonize musicians, moving both gods and humans forward through song.
The present sculpture likely once held such an instrument. It is recognized as the ‘Apollo of Mantua’ type, named for its resemblance to a figure of Apollo now in Mantua’s Palazzo Ducale, which was based on a Greek bronze attributed to Hegias, and known from several Roman copies. Hegias was a master sculptor whose pupil was Phidias, famed for the cult statue of Zeus at Olympia — one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Despite its resemblance to the Mantua type in its contrapposto stance, diadem — or crown — around the head and luxuriously crafted hair, this Apollo departs from the rigid, archaic stiffness prominent in the other surviving examples. The Roman artist who created it borrowed from Hegias’ bronze as inspiration, but brought in a softness of features and artistic freedom that makes this sculpture of Apollo highly unique.
Who’s that Olympian?
This nude male torso depicts a Greek athlete from the mid-5th century B.C. His status as a contender of sport is confirmed by the remains of a fillet, the thin strip of cloth worn by athletes, falling onto both shoulders. It was common for small scale statues to be made to honour the victors, as a kind of ancient equivalent of a trophy.
Unfortunately, his identity and his home are unknown, as any inscription or identifying marks are now lost, but his status as a Greek original is undeniable. The soft modelling of the body, his gentle contrapposto stance, the exaggerated arched back and the lack of running drill work or high surface polish clearly mark him as Greek original rather than a later Roman copy.
The earliest athletic events in the Greek world are thought to have been held in Olympia — the namesake of the present-day Olympics — in 776 B.C. They inspired athletic games at numerous Panhellenic centres, such as Athens, Delphi, Nemea and Isthmia.
Those who won these competitions were seen as the living embodiment of arete — excellence and virtue. Rather than the gold medal we now equate with Olympic victory, the winners of these games were often honoured by their home cities with the dedication of a statue in bronze or marble.
The syncretistic god of the underworld
Hermanubis was created during Ptolemaic Period and gained in popularity after the Romans conquered Egypt, following the deaths of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra. He combined the jackal-headed Anubis from Egyptian religion, with Hermes from Greek mythology. As both were gods of the underworld, together they made a greater deity, certain to protect citizens from the perils of death and plagues.
In this depiction of Anubis, his identity is clear even though he has lost his characteristic jackal head, confirmed by the wings on his sandals and his caduceus — the staff of Hermes. His twin, which retains its animal head and its Egyptian identity is originally from Anzio and now in the Vatican. His exceptionally luscious and creamy polished marble is characteristic of 2nd century Roman art, so it is clear that this is not a singularly Roman god, but a blending of two cultures in one art form.
An Egyptian Golden Age king
As seen here, a portrait of a pharaoh in Egyptian art was sculpted as a status symbol and to portray power. These images would be displayed for his subjects to honor him in a religious context, as a representative of the gods on earth.
There was a standard uniform in each period in Egyptian art, and during the New Kingdom, it was fashionable for the pharaoh to be depicted in his striped nemes-headcloth, fronted by an uraeus, the royal cobra. He also donned a false beard, which is missing from this portrait but thankfully the chinstraps are still visible along the cheeks.
Based on a surviving example now in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, it’s clear that this head belonged to a Pharaoh who knelt before the god Amun, who was endowing the leader with the Kingship. This composition is undeniable, as the remains of both of Amun’s hands are preserved on the back of the nemes headcloth. This is a lucky detail to survive, and it allows us to imagine the importance that it would have had when originally created.
Through its style and a comparison to the example in Cairo, it’s certain that our portrait dates to the early years of the 19th Dynasty, and thus depicts either Sety I or, more likely, his son Ramesses II (the Great). They reigned from 1294-1213 B.C. during what is considered the Golden Age of ancient Egyptian art. Ramesses reign was one of the longest in Egyptian history and many scholars believe that the Biblical Exodus took place while he was pharaoh.
The god of the party
As the god of drinking and revelry, Dionysus was a popular subject for sculpture among wine-loving cultures like ancient Greece and Rome, just like his companions: satyrs and maenads. The large number of examples that survive from antiquity indicate just how popular they were with the nobility, who commissioned sculptures of them to decorate their gardens — think of the villas at Pompeii and Herculaneum, as recreated at the gardens at the Getty Villa.
He was usually inebriated, and as a result frequently appears wearing nothing but his nebris — an animal pelt — knotted over his shoulder. His relationship with animals comes from the festivals of Dionysus, known as bacchanals, which took place deep in nature where partygoers could dissociate from city life. In ancient plays such as The Bacchae, this balance between work and play was seen as essential to the health of common people and noblemen alike.
Here the remains of wavy locks fall onto his shoulders, allowing one to imagine how Dionysus’ carefree attitude was mirrored in his clothing, hairstyle and attitude.
For the people of Rome, a statue of Dionysus was a reminder of the need to let loose, but it was also a beautiful artwork which showed off the sculptor’s mastery in depicting an idealized human body.
Dionysus’ drinking buddy
Satyrs were companions of Dionysus. Half-man and half-beast, they are easily identified by the presence of a tail. Like the god, they frequently wear an animal skin draped over their bodies. They’re often more casual figures, portrayed playing a musical instrument, dancing or, as in this figure, leaning against a tree. Though more explicitly bawdy and humorous than the god they, like him, represent a love of pleasure, and an understanding of the hidden knowledge that comes from taking a break to have fun.
This satyr would most likely have been used in a garden where its owners would have hosted drinking parties. The guests no doubt would have raised a glass in thanks to gifts of Dionysus.
An unidentified beauty
Sometimes, despite our efforts, the identity of a subject can continue to remain elusive. It can be too hard to pin down exactly who it is because too many of his identifying attributes are missing. This is the case with this gorgeous head of a deity, but thankfully his beauty transcends his lack of a name.
We know that this androgynous male head dates to either the Hadrianic or Antonine period of Rome, based on the carving style and the gorgeous lux surface polish. His luscious curls cascade over his forehead and are secured with a wheat-and-laurel wreath. While a wreath would typically help identify the god, this one is a bit of mystery.
Theories have varied widely as to its identity. The moon face and dreamy expression strongly resemble a head of Helios in the Museo Gregoriano Profano in the Vatican, however that example is missing the wreath present here. Others have suggested it could be a less commonly depicted god, such as the household god Lares, or a personification such as the Genius of the Roman people.
As scholarship is constantly evolving and with new discoveries popping up all the time, it is possible that the identity of this subject may someday be revealed, but for now, at least, one can still appreciate the superb value of his ephemeral beauty.
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