Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.41
A. Trofimova (ed.), Alexandr Velikiy: Put' na Vostok = Alexander the Great. The Road to the East. Exhibition Catalogue. The State Hermitage Museum. In Russian with English summary. St. Petersburg: Hermitage Museum, 2007. Pp. 512; ills. passim. ISBN 5-93572-235-6.
Reviewed by Rossitza B. Schroeder (email@example.com)
Word count: 4381 words
Serendipitously or not, in 2007 Alexander the Great occupied an important position in the imagination of European museum curators: two exhibitions opened in Italy and Russia in the first half of the year to reveal the impact of Alexander and his military campaign on his contemporary world as well as on the world after him. The exhibition held in the Museo Civico d'Arte Antica in Turin was organized on a smaller scale and concentrated on the interactions of the Hellenic world with the cultures in the vast Seleucid empire and the region of Gandhara.1 The Hermitage orchestrated a much grander presentation of Alexander, utilizing its own collection to paint a multifaceted picture of a world, both past and present, profoundly altered by the military and political genius of this short-lived Macedonian king. A beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated catalogue accompanied the exhibition. Its fourteen sections follow in more or less chronological order the history of Alexander's campaign and its effect on neighboring and distant lands. The curators expanded the picture by following the afterlife and transformations of Alexander's image from the Hellenistic period through the Middle Ages up to the nineteenth century. However spectacular they might be, I found this dizzying array of art works and their presentation in the catalogue distracting as they frequently complicated, and even stifled, the main theme of the exhibit. All essays and catalogue entries are in Russian, yet the images are of such excellent quality that they easily transcend possible linguistic barriers.
E. D. Frolov's "Alexander the Great: the Creator of Hellenism" is the first of a series of introductory studies which initiate the presentation of Alexander the Great and his world. Frolov provides the chronology and outlines the main events that shaped what we call today the Hellenistic period. The essay is primarily concerned with the historiography of the era and its various aspects. It concludes with a generalizing picture of Alexander's military and political achievements which profoundly affected the ancient world both during and after his lifetime.
In the essay that follows, "Alexander and the East: Prehistory of a Relationship," M. M. Dandamaeva emphasizes that the Hellenistic period is really only one stage in the long history of contacts between the Greeks and the East that she traces back to the second millennium B.C.E. The author makes an important point: the exchange of literary motifs and visual modes was a two way process--the East influenced the West and vice versa.
A. A. Trofimova's "Face Turned to Heaven" discusses the ancient iconography of Alexander. The essay stands out with its thorough documentation and interpretive, rather than descriptive, approach to the visual material. Trofimova begins by briefly recounting the main characteristics of Alexander's portraits--his youthful beardless face, leonine hair, wide opened eyes upturned to heaven and the slight tilt of his head. She considers the incorporation of divine iconography in the representations of the Macedonian king a significant innovation. After Alexander this daring appropriation became a commonplace in royal imagery. At the end of the essay Trofimova notes that occasionally Alexandrian iconography could be used to represent mythological heroes and gods, indicating an intriguing and meaningful cross-fertilization of royal and divine subject matter during the Hellenistic period.
A. Alekseev, in an essay entitled "Alexander and the Northern Nomads", tackles the encounter of the Macedonians with their Northern neighbors--the Thracians, and especially the Scythians--as described in primary sources. The topic is of utmost importance given that so many of the exhibited artifacts were discovered in the Scythian tumuli in the Northern Black Sea region.
A two and a half-page essay by M. B. Piotrovskiy on the image of Alexander in the Quran and its sources follows. On one hand the essay seems entirely out of place in this part of the catalogue (it should have been, instead, the introductory material of the very brief Islamic portion of the catalogue [pp 382-85]) and on another it raises a legitimate question--why isn't there an essay on the image of Alexander in the Medieval East, which demonstrated an uninterrupted interest in Alexander's figure?
A. V. Ippolitov's study entitled "Stand out of My Sunlight" discusses the variations in Western European images of Alexander from the late Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. Ippolitov sets the beginnings of the 'romance' of Western Europe with Alexander in the tenth century when ps.-Callisthenes' work was translated into Latin by Leo, the archbishop of Naples. He indicates that the literary image of Alexander was enriched in the course of the Crusades when the West intensified its contacts with the Byzantine and Arabic worlds. Ippolitov moves on to discuss Renaissance images of Alexander, which by the end of the fifteenth century were very much influenced by ancient descriptions of the Macedonian king as well as by actual ancient statuary excavated in and near Italian cities. Charles Le Brun occupies a special place in Ippolitov's discussion of Alexander's visual incarnations. Le Brun worked for Louis XIV and produced a series of influential paintings detailing Alexander's exploits. These paintings became well-known throughout Europe as they were engraved and systematically sent off to other European courts as diplomatic gifts and as a way of promoting Louis as the new Alexander. The author goes on to outline the eighteenth-century additions to the already multilayered image of Alexander: at that time he was perceived not only as an ideal ruler, a successful general and a gallant lover, but also as a cruel, capricious and anger-prone king. Ippolitov concludes that even though in the twentieth century the interest in Alexander subsided he still had a universal appeal for polarizing figures--thus Karel Capek identified him as the first antifascist while Hitler's favorite sculptor Arno Breker made a statue of him.
The greatest contribution of this catalogue is the presentation of the Russian interpretations of Alexander. The discussion is initiated by an essay entitled "Russian Antiquity: Romance with Alexander." The authors D. A. Nikitin, Y. B. Balakhanova and M. N. Khimin begin their chapter by noting that Alexander's story was already incorporated in Russian chronicles in the twelfth century and that images of his Ascent appeared concomitantly on a golden diadem and the southern facades of three royally sponsored churches in Vladimir and Yurev Pol'skiy. In the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the translations of the Serbian Alexandria, a version of ps.-Callisthenes' life of Alexander, became especially important for the perceptions of Alexander in Russia. By the seventeenth century its stories were lavishly illustrated, but most importantly they were woven into the propaganda of the Moscovite kingdom to represent it as a natural continuation of Alexander's empire. The Alexandria was utilized in the education of Russian princes, as attested by an extant copy that might have been used by the young Peter the Great when he was learning to read. In general, Peter I was especially interested in world chronicles that recounted the life of Alexander and on a non-extant triumphal gate, built on the occasion of the victory at Poltava in 1709, he was represented in the guise of the Macedonian king. Catherine the Great, like Peter, sought comparison with Alexander which is especially meaningful when the attempts of Russia to expand to the East are taken into account. Famous works of art that represent Alexander were produced as a result of the heightened interest in his figure during Catherine's rule. Thus in 1762 the Russian artist M. I. Puchinov painted "Alexander and Diogenes" and had it shown in the first exhibition of the Imperial Art Academy. Between 1781 and 1788 M. I. Kozlovsky sculpted the famous "Vigil of Alexander." At the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, paralleling wider European trends, Alexander and his life ceased being of much interest to Russian academic artists. This was due to reforms in education and the development of ancient studies and art history. Alexander became more a subject of private intellectual musings than of public display.
A chronology by A. A. Trofimova and a map outline the main events in Alexander's eastern campaign. The catalogue follows, each section accompanied by a brief scholarly essay. The different parts of the catalogue are thematically associated with Alexander, but the connection to his figure often appears very tenuous and sometimes it is nonexistent. I frequently wondered if certain objects were included in the exhibition in order to provide a fuller picture of the perception of Alexander throughout time and space or to display the riches of the Hermitage. One way or another, I imagine the audience must have been dazzled.
The catalogue is structured chronologically and opens up with artifacts from the classical period. Some of those are tangentially associated with Alexander and could be tied to his interest in the mythological figures of the Greek heroic past, and especially in Homer's Iliad (nos. 1-10). Several impressive examples of gold jewelry variously dated from the early to the late fourth century B.C.E. are also worth mentioning (nos. 22-34). All of these were found in tumuli in the north of the Black Sea or were excavated at Chersonesus, and were made by Greek artists in the Greek Black Sea colonies. The section concludes with a series of coins of Greek city-states, most of which are published for the first time.
The second part of the catalogue is entitled "Between Greece and the Barbarians" and is dedicated to the history of Macedonia and her northern neighbors before and after Alexander's military campaigns. Most of the noteworthy artifacts were excavated in the northern Black Sea region where they were buried together with their noble owners. The famous golden gorytos with images from the life of Achilles (no. 58) and a very fragmentary one with scenes from the Trojan War (no. 67), helmets (nos. 60-63), a breastplate (no. 64), and a pair of bronze greaves (no. 65) illustrate the military ethos of the period. Of interest is an iron helmet decorated with silver (no. 60): this is one of the few iron pieces of armor dated to the early Hellenistic period. The fragments of horse bridles (nos. 68-69) bear close resemblance to Thracian and Iranian works of art and testify to the connections that the Scythians maintained with both neighboring and distant lands, as well as to the larger exchange of visual modes in the world shaped by Alexander's march east. Like the first part of the catalogue, this one similarly concludes with a lavish presentation of Macedonian and Thracian coins.
"The Mediterranean in the Hellenistic Period" is naturally the bulkiest part of the book. A. A. Trofimova's essay at the beginning of the section nicely outlines some of the main characteristics of the art of the Hellenistic period, such as its interest in allegory, in visualizing emotions and in creating monumental sculptural ensembles. Forty sculptural pieces open up this portion of the catalogue. They were carefully chosen to present the interest of Hellenistic artists and their audience in children (no. 139), in exploring facial expressions (nos. 140-42) and in the grotesque (no. 143). Some of the more intriguing ones are known only from Russian publications or have been presented here for the first time. Among these is a third to second century B.C.E. ceramic statuette of a nude youth with traces of paint imitating bronze (no. 123). This could be a miniature copy of the famous but lost statue by Lysippus of Alexander appearing as Polyclitus' Doryphorus. Newly published are an Etruscan votive head with the features of Alexander the Great (no. 126) and a female statuette stylistically related to the Tanagra figurines (no. 129). Of this latter kind several were also included in the catalogue to outline Hellenistic artists' interest in women, whether goddesses or ordinary mortals (nos. 132-38). The catalogue entries by E. N. Khodza are especially noteworthy, for they transcend mere descriptions, contain additional references, and frequently offer a deeper insight into the meaning and function of certain types of ceramic sculpture.
Several pieces of golden jewelry found mostly in the northern Black Sea region testify to the artistic interactions facilitated by Alexander's conquests. A beautiful golden diadem from a female burial displays the so-called knot of Hercules (no. 154). At its center is seen an eagle carrying a tiny Eros figure. The author of the catalogue entry did not attempt to suggest any reasons for the choice of this unusual subject matter and resorted to the generic observation that it may be an iconographic variation on the story of Zeus and Ganymede.
Pieces of monumental architecture and funerary stelae from Chersonesus were also included. These were discovered in the 1960s incorporated into a defensive tower. An antefix in the shape of a Gorgon head from the first century B.C.E. (no. 175) and a terracotta cornice fragment from the fourth century B.C.E. (no. 176) are published here for the first time. The well-known fragmentary fresco with an image of a galley named Isis from one of the rooms of the Aphrodite-Isis sanctuary in Nymphaion (no. 178) nicely complements the architectural fragments from Chersonesus and adds to the overall impression of the North Black Sea region as an integral part of the Hellenistic world.
A number of intaglios and cameos illustrate the dissemination of Alexander's iconography across time and space and its appropriation by his successors. The entries are mostly descriptive and frequently it is not apparent how their subject matter relates to Alexander and his life. Series of coins from Greek city states on the coast of Asia Minor conclude this section of the catalogue. Most of the coins are published for the first time, but it is unclear why so many of them were included here, given that they frequently predate the Hellenistic era by a century or two (nos. 199-200, 203-4, 207-9).
The essay on the Ptolemaic dynasty that initiates the Egyptian section of the catalogue is limited in scope--it does not provide any new information but instead reiterates what one could find in the introductory articles. The essay is concerned exclusively with Alexander's conquest and the first Ptolemy is barely mentioned at the end of the piece. No chronological frame is provided for the rule of the new dynasty and no attempt was made to tie the information in the essay to the art included in this section.
A series of large and small scale statues opens this part of the catalogue. Some of the pieces, such as a statuette of Harpokrates (no. 223), a bronze sculpture group of Osiris, Isis and Horus (no. 225), a statuette of Priapus (no. 229) and two children's heads made of clay (nos. 236-37) are seen for the first time. The catalogue entries by E. N. Khodza again stand out with their originality and thoughtful interest in detail and context. Series of gems engraved with the portraits of Ptolemaic rulers are also present. Among these is the famous 'Gonzaga cameo' with the portraits of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe (no. 240) which changed hands several times until in 1814 Napoleon's wife Josephine gave it as a present to the Russian emperor Alexander I. The authors of the catalogue entry do not entertain the possibility that a different gem with a similar double portrait in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna might be the actual 'Gonzaga cameo.'2 Ptolemaic coins, mummy portraits and papyri nicely round out the portion on Hellenistic Egypt. Several pieces which were intended to demonstrate the tenaciousness of the classical tradition in the art of the Coptic Christians conclude the Egyptian section. Textiles occupy a significant place and reveal the wide range of mythological subjects utilized by their makers. The catalogue entries, however, are disappointing--they are far too brief and far too descriptive to do justice to the magnificent pieces that are shown.
The art of Achaemenid Iran is presented with fourteen objects, most of which derive from the so-called Siberian collection of Peter the Great. The pieces were intended to reveal Persian influences on the artistic production of the Iranian-speaking tribes living at the outskirts of the vast Persian empire.
The section on Seleucid Syria includes only coins, all of which appear to be published for the first time. The artistic production of the city of Palmyra is briefly represented by three funerary reliefs, two of which (nos. 339-40) contain inscriptions which could have been transcribed and translated.
G. L. Semenov's essay opens up the section that illustrates the interactions of Central Asian peoples with Greek culture. A fascinating silver cup tentatively dated to the fourth century C.E. and made in Northern India presents one of the most interesting iconographic puzzles (no. 354). The catalogue entry by M. Dandamaeva is almost entirely descriptive; if nothing else she should have acknowledged that in his introductory essay Semenov attempted to identify the subject matter of the cup with an episode from an unnamed Euripidean tragedy (p. 297). The classicizing style of the figures on the bowl could have provided a meaningful point of departure to discuss the ways in which Greek imagery and ideas made its way East. Already in 1943 Kurt Weitzmann made the tantalizing suggestion that the bowl and its imagery should be related to the Hellenistic Megarian bowls, a group of which is illustrated with representations from epic poetry and drama.3
Two fresco fragments which could be associated with the penetration of Western (but not necessarily Hellenic) imagery in Central Asia--one of Aesop's fable of the goose that laid golden eggs from an aristocratic house in Pendzhikent (no. 363) and another of the she-wolf suckling the twins from the royal palace of medieval Ustrushana (no. 366)--remained entirely unexplained and their connection to a Hellenistic (or Western) source untraced.
The section of the catalogue concerned with Alexander's Indian campaign begins with an essay that outlines the influence of Indian culture on the Greeks and vice versa. But it is the syncretic art of Gandhara that is at the center of the presentation, and naturally so. In the region of Gandhara, where the contact with the Hellenic culture was intensely felt, the adherents to Buddhism commissioned artists to create anthropomorphic images of Buddha and bodhisattvas. The catalogue entries for this section of the catalogue are all well written--they are thoughtful, provide insightful details about the function of the various sculptures presented, and most importantly, tie certain stylistic features to their Greek sources and thus to the main theme of the exhibition.
Byzantium occupies a deservedly large space in the catalogue, although some of the material, among which are the coins and a sixteenth-century metal plate from Boboshevo (no. 409), do not have much to do with the main theme of the show. I found the presentation of the ways Byzantium interpreted her classical heritage in general, and the image of Alexander in particular, somewhat unsatisfactory. The introduction, for example, should have provided more detail about the Byzantine reinterpretations of Alexander that emphasize his importance as a model king.
A number of objects from the early Christian period open the Byzantine part of the catalogue. The highlight of this section are the two silver gilt cups (nos. 405-406) and a silver gilt plate (no. 404) with representations of Alexander's Ascent. The entry for the plate would have benefited from a short discussion of the fact that Alexander does not really wear the costume of a twelfth-century Byzantine emperor as he does in a roughly contemporary enamel bowl today in Innsbruck.4 In fact, comparisons with the Innsbruck plate and with the famous Darmstadt casket5 would have been especially useful, as these objects indicate the increasing importance of Alexander among Western, Byzantine and Muslim rulers. The hybrid qualities of the three pieces should have formed the focus of the catalogue entries as they clearly point to the ways in which Alexander's image transcended the constraints of time and space.
Two Byzantine icons with images of St. George (no. 407) and St. Demetrios (no. 408) were no doubt intended to illustrate the long tradition of representing horsemen. We are left with the widest possible range of associations. The question remains: in what way are we supposed to think of Alexander when viewing these two icons? As a noble horseman, or a sainted warrior? The small bronze icon of St. Demetrios is of special interest because it reveals Western influences--the saint's shield is inscribed with the letters IES which could be a Latinized abbreviation of Christ's name or of the city of Jerusalem. The author of the entry, V. N. Zalesskaya, claims that this was "the only known object in which the patron saint of the city (of Thessaloniki) is given the attributes of a crusader." But this cannot be true if one is to take into account a mid thirteenth-century icon of SS Demetrios and Theodoros on Mt Sinai, made in Acre, on which the saint sports a tunic of Western type.6
"Alexander in Western European and Russian Art" seeks to display the multifaceted image of Alexander developed over the course of seven centuries. The assortment of objects varies from a twelfth-century German game token which features Alexander's Ascent (no. 464), to engraved gems (nos. 466-72), armor with Alexandrian imagery (nos. 476-84) and a fascinating nineteenth-century Russian folk print with representations of the foreign nations encountered by Alexander in the course of his march east (no. 487). A series of engravings and wood carvings reveals the influence that Charles Le Brun's Alexandrian cycle exerted on the imagination of later artists and royal patrons (nos. 451-56, 461, 466-67). A first-century intaglio with an image of Diogenes (no. 473) somehow made it into this part of the catalogue when it could have been easily incorporated in the section about the Hellenistic Mediterranean.
Of interest to specialists may be the paintings of Alexander commissioned by the Russian imperial house. The pertinent catalogue entries are well written and offer interesting insights into the visual politics of Russian royalty. Noteworthy are Richard Brompton's portraits of Catherine the Great's grandsons Alexander and Constantine, both of whom are depicted with attributes (the Gordian knot and the True Cross) that identify them with their famous namesakes (no. 439). A pair of paintings that represent Alexander as a compassionate general and a patron of the arts (nos. 440-41) were given to Prince Alexander Pavlovich by Catherine the Great to adorn his bedroom, demonstrating that for the Russian royalty Alexander had public as well as private appeal.
Not only did episodes from the life of Alexander adorn the spaces where the Russian kings dwelled but also they were reenacted, literally, by members of the royal house. An example of these 'living paintings' is no. 486, entitled "The Family of Darius", here published for the first time. The composition is based on Pierre Mignard's seventeenth-century original and was recreated on 4 February 1822 at a party given by the empress Maria Feodorovna on the occasion of her daughter's birthday. Other paintings from the Hermitage were similarly reenacted and were later lithographed and collated in richly colored albums which were given as presents to members of the imperial family who participated in the ball. A Flemish tapestry dated to the second half of the seventeenth century that follows Le Brun's rendition of Alexander and Darius' family was later adorned with the Russian imperial coat of arms (no. 475). The tapestry could have been a diplomatic gift and indicates how Alexander's image circulated among princes in spite of their political and religious differences. It is this international princely ethos that encouraged the dissemination of Alexandrian imagery throughout time and space and the authors of the catalogue should have placed greater emphasis on this point to create a more coherent picture of Alexander's various interpretations.
The last section of the catalogue is entitled "The 'Alexander Romance' by ps.-Callisthenes and the Western European Literary Tradition." The introductory essay truly belongs to the beginning of the book and the information it provides could have easily been incorporated within Ippolitov's piece. Printed versions of ancient and medieval historians as well as of brief interpretations of Alexander's life and rule in chronicles and textbooks dominate this part of the catalogue. Worth mentioning are Quintus Curtius Rufus' (cat. nos. 493-95, 500) and Arian's (no. 503) versions of Alexander's life, as well as a Russian translation of the fifteenth-century chronicle by Dorotheus of Monembasia (no. 490) as these circulated widely amongst European and Russian intellectuals and politicians informing their knowledge of Alexander. A seventeenth-century copy of Andrea Fulvius' Illustrium imagines and a sixteenth-century version of Paolo Giovio's Novocomensis episcopi were shown to illustrate the interest in Alexandrian iconography and its ancient origins (nos. 496-97). Peter the Great commissioned a translation into Russian of Samuel von Pufendor's Introduction to European History which included a section on Alexander, revealing the tsar's fascination with the figure of the Macedonian king and his life (no. 498). Alexander takes on the center stage in one of the seven textbooks used for the education of Catherine the Great's grandsons (no. 499). A printed version of Pietro Trapassi's Alexander in India demonstrates significant interest in this Italian librettist's work, which, when turned into opera, was performed more than once in St. Petersburg for empress Elizabeth of Russia (no. 505). Interestingly, but somewhat awkwardly, the section concludes with a curious glazed-tile composition which faithfully reproduces the famous "Battle between Alexander and Darius" mosaic from Pompeii and which was discovered in 2004 during restorations in hall no. 333 of the Winter Palace. The composition may have been commissioned by the emperor Nicholas I who visited Pompeii in 1845, or may have been presented to him as a gift by the king of Naples.
The catalogue concludes with a glossary, bibliography, list of abbreviations and an English summary of the exhibition concept and a brief recount of the content of the introductory articles. The table of contents is at the end of the book, both in Russian and English, which makes it easier to navigate through its various sections.
The catalogue should be a welcome addition to any university library--the high-quality reproductions and the breadth of the scholarly essays provide a thorough picture of the influence Alexander exerted upon the world during and after his lifetime. Students of the ancient world may find it especially useful, for it nicely complements the publication of the 2007 exhibition at the Getty about Greeks in the Black Sea region, in which all artifacts similarly derived from the collections of the Hermitage.7
1. Sulla via di Alessandro da Seleucia al Gandhara (Turin: Edizioni Silvana Editoriale, 2007).
2. Nancy T. de Grummond, "The Real Gonzaga Cameo," American Journal of Archaeology 78.4 (1974): 427-29.
3. Kurt Weitzmann, "Three 'Bactrian' Silver Vessels with Illustrations from Euripides," Art Bulletin 25.4 (1943): 289-324.
4. Helen Evans and William Wixom, eds., The Glory of Byzantium. Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era A. D. 843-1261 (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997), 422-23.
5. Ibid., 227-28.
6. Jaroslav Folda, Crusader Art in the Holy Land, From the Third Crusade to the Fall of Acre, 1187-1291 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), color pl. 5.
7. Anna Trofimova (ed.), Greeks on the Black Sea: Ancient Art from the Hermitage (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007).