Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.61 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.61

Troels Myrup Kristensen, Making and Breaking the Gods: Christian Responses to Pagan Sculpture in Late Antiquity. Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity 12.   Aarhus:  Aarhus University Press, 2013.  Pp. 297.  ISBN 9788771240894.  $56.00.  

Reviewed by John Pollini, University of Southern California (


Revised from the author’s 2009 dissertation at Aarhus University, this book deals with Christian responses to non-Christian sculpture in particular areas of the Roman Empire during the late antique period, roughly between the 4th and 7th centuries. Troels Myrup Kristensen seeks to interpret the material evidence in light of the literary and epigraphical record, where available. The particular importance of this book lies in the author’s presentation of select case studies of cities and sacred shrines in Egypt and the Near East and the various and complex ways Christians came to terms with what had been a dominant polytheistic culture. By drawing upon a wide range of objects from Egypt and the Near East, together with some comparative material from other parts of the empire, Kristensen presents a fuller understanding of the often complex social and religious dynamics at work in the world of late antiquity.

Discussed in the Introduction, “Driving the Demons Away: The World of Demons,” is an inscribed marble base once topped with a cross that was set up in Ephesos by a Christian who proudly boasts of his destruction of the “deceitful form [eidos] of the demonic Artemis,” formerly the beloved patron goddess of the city. This example, which Kristensen uses to point out other issues to be discussed in subsequent chapters, testifies to the Christian belief that such images were possessed by demons, for which reason they had to be destroyed, mutilated, or somehow neutralized. A particular form of defacement was carving a cross or crosses on a work to drive out the perceived demon inhabiting it and to apotropaically keep it from returning. The author does not view Christian assaults on the material culture of polytheists as merely “mindless acts of religious violence by fanatical mobs,” but as “revelatory of contemporary conceptions of images and the different ways in which the material manifestations of the pagan past could be negotiated in Late Antiquity” (p. 17). Although Christians tended to target cult images, eventually they also attacked non-cultic statues of the gods, since they were conceived as possible recipients of veneration even in spaces not considered sacred. Moreover, Christians could not always be sure what constituted a cult image, which could be large, impressive, and made of precious materials, or small and made of non-precious media. And while, as the author points out, early Christians had images of their own at the same time that they were attacking what they considered to be the “idols” of polytheists, it is also true that Christians in time came to destroy even their own images during the so-called iconoclastic “debate,” in reality an “iconomachy,” which nearly tore the Eastern Orthodox Church apart in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Chapter 1 sets out the author’s methodological approach and terminology. As he stresses, the interpretation and dating of the archaeological evidence for destruction can be particularly difficult when information about the original context is limited or absent, as well as when there is no associated literary or epigraphic information. Kristensen provides an excellent discussion of the theological nature of divine images in Roman religion, a subject that has commonly been neglected in past scholarship (but see C. Ando, The Matter of the Gods [Berkeley 2008]). Also considered is the targeting of particular body parts, which gives us some insight into Christian thinking about the body and its function in various social contexts. A particularly important contribution of this book is its discussion of the Abodah Zarah, the part of the Talmud that deals in detail with prohibitions against what the Jews considered to be “idols,” which in turn influenced Christian thinking on this subject. Among the cult and decorative images of the gods—characterized by the author as “mythological statuary” (p. 68)—that Constantine brought back to Constantinople was Phidias’ cult image of Zeus from the Temple of that god at Olympia. Though it is the common view that Constantine did so to embellish his city, there was undoubtedly also another and arguably more insidious intent which the author does not suggest, namely, that in the case of cult images Constantine undoubtedly attempted to deprive pagan sanctuaries of their sacred statuary in the hope of stopping devout polytheists from flocking to these sites to continue their age-old religious practices. It is also worth noting that, from a polytheistic point of view , the subject matter of a cult figure is not mythological, but religious.

Kristensen suggests that the body of “anti-pagan” legislation in the Codex Theodosianus was against cult worship and sacrifice, not against the images themselves. While that is generally true, there is also the imperial mandate of 407/408 (CTh 16.10.19) that any images in temples and shrines that have received worship shall be torn from their foundations. In addition, Augustine (City of God, 5.26) praises Theodosius for having ordered (in the late 4th century) that “pagan” statues (simulacra gentilium) be everywhere overthrown. Notwithstanding imperial pronouncements and other legislation hostile to non-Christian worship, the primary instigators of destructive actions against images of the gods were bishops like Theophilus in the late 4th century and Peter Mongus a century later, though ancient accounts of the scope of the destruction they inspired may be exaggerated. Kristensen rightly points out the problems in putting too much credence in the iconoclastic deeds preserved in highly rhetorical Christian hagiographies, sometimes of even fictional saints. And while this is especially true in the case of miraculous occurrences, or reports of an extraordinary number of images destroyed or polytheists converted to Christianity, these accounts nevertheless provide clear evidence for the various forms of intentional Christian destruction and damage that we find in great abundance in the archaeological record, in part because these hagiographies served to inspire many others to destroy and desecrate images of the gods.

Chapter 2 focuses on material culture, sites, and sanctuaries in Egypt and Christian attempts to destroy or transform them in creating a new Christian identity. As we would expect to find in all such transformative social and religious situations, there will be not only change and continuity from one culture to another but also a wide range of responses to the old on the part of the new dominant and dominating culture. In his discussion of Christian reactions to bodies (179-80), the author notes the similarities between Christian attacks on the material images of the gods and on certain living individuals, most notably the brilliant Neoplatonist Hypatia of Alexandria, who was stripped naked, viciously murdered, and dragged through the streets of Alexandria by a Christian mob. Like the cult statue of Serapis from the Serapaeum, her body was also dismembered and burned. Besides Alexandria, with its separate and also mixed Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultural traditions, Kristensen looks at other more traditionally Egyptian areas of the Nile Valley (Abydos, Dendera, Luxor, Karnak, and western Thebes) to explore similar and yet somewhat different Christian responses to images of the gods, especially Christian targeting of select body parts. As the author shows, some of these Christian responses may be unique to Egypt, based in part on old traditional Egyptian beliefs about the human body in the afterlife.

Chapter 3 turns to the Near East in late antiquity, focusing again on several case studies based on the archaeological and literary record. Unlike his discussion of Egypt, which concentrates (with the exception of Alexandria) on religious shrines, most of the author’s discussion in this chapter looks at urban contexts, most notably the prosperous cities of Palmyra, Scythopolis, Caesarea Maritima, and Caesarea Philippi. One of the drawbacks of case studies in this part of the world is the dearth of archaeological publications of sites and the lack of abundant sculpture, although in the latter case this in part may be because these areas, lacking good sources of stone used bronze, which unlike stone sculpture was commonly recycled. Kristensen also discusses, on the one hand, some instances of Jewish iconoclasm in these areas in the late antique period and explores, on the other hand, how over time even Jews under the influence of Hellenism began to adopt non-cultic figural images, notwithstanding the commandment banning such representations. In these locales, the author considers Christian responses to Greco-Roman images found in both religious shrines and civic buildings. Once again there is a focus on the body and exposing the body (both sculptural as well as human), especially in the context of bathing establishments, which were taken over and used by Christians. Even in public contexts, Greco-Roman sculpture became increasingly problematic for Christians, though in other settings such images were left unmolested. Figural depictions of Greek stories of the gods were also sometimes left untouched, since these could be regarded as purely fictitious and of a non-religious nature, in that they were not objects of worship.

Caesarea Maritima provided an interesting example of purposeful display in prominent places of fragmented statues, that is, statues lacking heads, arms, and other body parts, as a means of remembering the past and possibly as part of some new late antique “aesthetic.” This interpretation reflects the author’s interest in discovering more about viewing culture in late antiquity. However, since there is no literary documentation about such usage, the evidence can be explained in different ways, making it difficult to determine the intent of those who created such assemblages. In Caesarea Philippi the author adduces some instances of Greco-Roman images being given completely new meaning. For example, he suggests that some might have been reinterpreted as figures of Christ, though again without context and documentable written confirmation, that can only be speculation. In short, we can never fully understand the true motivation for such an action or for other forms of iconoclasm.

Although this book breaks new ground in a number of ways, like many books written about late antiquity, it tends to present the evidence from a positivist Christian point of view. For example, Christian reuse, alteration, or even mutilation of images of the gods is regarded as “appropriation” (e.g., 94-96), rather than desecration, if looked at from a polytheistic point of view. Also, like many others, the author uses the derogatory term “pagan” as a “short hand” way ( 34) to distinguish between polytheism/polytheistic and Christianity/Christian. Accordingly, he speaks of “pagan gods.” Therefore, we must ask: is this to differentiate these gods from Christian gods? In short, why use loaded Judeo-Christian terminology like “pagan” and even “idol” when speaking of polytheism/polytheistic or their gods and their images (whether cultic or decorative)? Perhaps it is time to also look at late antiquity from a polytheistic point of view, especially when considering Christian acts of destruction.

Though limited geographically, this book is well balanced and draws upon comparanda from other than the principal regional areas of focus. It is well edited, with very few typos or other mistakes and with many good quality photos, a number of which are in color and were taken by the author himself.

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