BMCR 2012.11.02

Divine Interiors: Mural Paintings in Greek and Roman Sanctuaries. Amsterdam Archaeological Studies, 16

, Divine Interiors: Mural Paintings in Greek and Roman Sanctuaries. Amsterdam Archaeological Studies, 16. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012. 296. ISBN 9789089642615. $69.95.

The study of Greek and Roman painting has traditionally focused on extant works and ancient literary accounts. For Greek painting, writers like Pliny the Elder are referenced to reconstruct the careers of renowned masters, along with paintings like those in Macedonian tombs and on funerary stelai. Examples of Roman painting are more numerous and include domestic decoration, as well as paintings in tombs and public structures. Literary sources provide information about lost monuments, such as pictorial representations in triumphal parades and panel paintings taken from Greece and displayed in buildings throughout Rome.

This publication addresses a topic that has heretofore been overlooked: mural decoration in Greek and Roman temples. Moormann provides a detailed examination of the extant evidence across a wide geographical spectrum, from Greece to the eastern Roman Empire. The often fragmentary remains are presented in roughly chronological order, the earliest from 7 th century BCE Greece and the latest from the later 3 rd century CE Near East. While painted panels are excluded, floor mosaics are noted as part of temple décor. Also considered are paintings in temple porticoes, as well as those in colonnades enclosing sacred precincts.

The parameters of the study are explained in the Introduction (1-5) where Moormann asks if the iconography of the paintings in temples is related to the specific deities and if temple paintings are comparable to those found in the private sphere. What the evidence will demonstrate is that, for the most part, there does not seem to have been a unified iconographic program in temple paintings except in shrines of the emperor and those related to mystery cults. Instead, paintings in Greek and Roman temples echoed the “decorative language of the time” (110). Temple paintings enhanced the solemnity of the space and focused attention on the sacred image and objects displayed around it. At the same time, paintings in temple porticoes and precinct colonnades could include figural compositions which were often related to the deity.

Chapter I (“Paintings Described in Ancient Texts”) considers literary accounts of Greek and Roman artists and of shrine paintings. Moormann begins by acknowledging that ancient authors do not provide lengthy descriptions of painted decoration inside shrines, focusing instead on works by noted masters. In the 5 th century BCE Theseion at Athens, for example, Pausanias states that Mikon and Polygnotos painted large figurative scenes about Theseus on three (naos?) walls (1.17.2-3); in this instance there was a connection between the shrine’s visual imagery and the object of veneration. In Republican Rome the decoration was different, with temples containing battle scenes. Pliny remarks that the paintings in the late 4 th century BC Temple of Salus on the Quirinal were signed by Fabius Pictor ( NH 35.19) and Valerius Maximus notes that C. Iunius Bubulcus (8.14.6) was their dedicator. While they are not described, Moormann suggests that these paintings depicted Bubulcus’ military exploits in the Third Samnite War and were akin to triumphal representations. If true, it appears to have been considered appropriate for paintings in Republican temples to promote the military achievements of their donors.

Associated with the tradition of battle scenes in temples are literary descriptions, the best known being the passage in Vergil’s Aeneid (1.453-493) where Aeneas views episodes from the Trojan War at Juno’s temple in Carthage. The poet does not say what these paintings looked like but states that they were chronological, culminating in the sack of Troy. Further, Aeneas views them in the lower part of the exterior of the shrine ( sub ingenti…templo, 1.453). While the paintings could have been located on the facade of the cella, they more likely were along the exterior walls of the portico. Clearly, Vergil was more concerned with describing Aeneas’ reaction to the paintings than offering details on their iconography and location. Moormann concludes the chapter by comparing the descriptions of war scenes in Roman temples with the Etruscan paintings from the François Tomb at Vulci and with the representations of war in triumphs. The interiors of Roman temples, then, were public spaces where paintings promoted the careers of ambitious men. By placing these types of paintings in temples, Roman benefactors secured the gods’ favor.

In Chapter 2 (“Paintings Found in Public Temples of the Greek World”) Moormann considers the scanty evidence for paintings in Greek temples, and in Chapter 3 (“Paintings Found in Public Temples in Roman Italy”) the more extensive Italian remains are examined. Greek examples range from the 7 th century BCE Temple of Poseidon in Isthmia to the 2 nd and 1 st century BCE temples in Nea Paphos (Cyprus). At Isthmia, the earliest extant example of temple painting, the middle and upper parts of the interior naos walls were decorated with warriors, a horse, and a meander pattern, and the lower zone with a revetment of stucco relief imitating masonry. By the Late Classical and Hellenistic periods the interiors of Greek temples, like those on Cyprus, had imitation painted stucco masonry with architectural details in relief, a type of temple décor referred to as the “international koiné”.

In the 1 st century BCE, the Romans decorated temples with First Style paintings and black and white three-dimensional floor mosaics. The early 1 st century BCE Temple of Diana at Nemi, for example, had painted columns (pilasters?) along the exterior walls of the cella, corresponding to the peristyle columns; fragments (Fig. 7) show a red background and foreshortened white bases. In the imperial period temple paintings were less prevalent, presumably because of the growing taste for marble revetment. While the list of imperial temple paintings is short, the evidence suggests that the decoration resembled Third and Fourth Style murals in houses and had little, if any, iconographic relationship to the deities honored in the temples. This is borne out by paintings in the cella of Temple A at Herculaneum, whose garden features are similar to the Third Style paintings in the House of the Orchard at Pompeii (Figs. 18, 19). In this instance, however, the paintings could be related to the deity, variously identified as Venus, Fortuna or Isis, all of whom were associated with nature. The inner and outer cella walls of the Temple of Apollo at Pompeii, built in the 2 nd century BCE and restored after the earthquake of 62 CE, were covered with stucco revetments imitating marble. In the quadriporticus surrounding the precinct, however, there were large Fourth Style panels of episodes from the Trojan War (Figs. 25-35). Like the scenes from the Iliad in domestic painting and on Juno’s temple in the Aeneid, the murals in the quadriporticus of Apollo’s Sanctuary were meant to inspire contemplation.

In Chapter 4 (“Paintings in Provincial Roman Temples Across the Alps”) Moormann presents a wide range of material, most of it poorly preserved. The remains are similar to the decoration in Italian temples, suggesting that local benefactors showed their allegiance to the Empire by commissioning temple paintings with Roman motifs in the tradition of the Third and Fourth Styles, but normally without figural scenes. An exception is found in the cella of the 1 st century CE temple at Gironde (France) where figures were set in panels (Figs. 40, 41). These may include Theseus, Apollo, and Diana-Luna but are much too fragmentary to identify or relate to a cult. The evidence suggests that, as in Italy, figural compositions in the provincial west were deemed appropriate for pictorial decoration in porticoes but not necessarily inside temples.

The material in Chapter 5 (“The Eastern Half of the Empire and North Africa”) reveals that in the eastern Empire, for the most part, the Hellenistic painting koiné predominated. Beginning in the 2 nd century BCE, the decorative scheme of painted stucco slabs imitating marble spread across the region, to be replaced in the early 1 st century BCE by Second Style paintings. In Egypt, however, there was a different “decorative language” (118) where temple paintings were a mixture of native figural compositions and Roman motifs. The 2 nd century CE Temple of Tutu at the Dakhleh Oasis illustrates this composite style (Figs. 50, 51). Inside the vaulted chamber known as Shrine I, the walls are decorated with a green dado and a main zone of alternating yellow and red panels framed in black. Above is a white zone with four registers of Egyptian gods and priests, all with hieroglyphic labels. This combination of indigenous and Greco-Roman elements is also seen in contemporaneous Alexandrian tomb paintings.

Chapter 6 (“Painted Shrines Dedicated to the Emperor”) focuses on paintings related to emperor worship. In early Imperial complexes dedicated to the cult of the emperor there are often murals with mythological themes associated with apotheosis. The chapel in the Aedes Augustalium at Herculaneum, the seat of the Augustales in the 70s CE, for example, is richly decorated with marble revetments and Fourth Style compositions related to Hercules, one of them showing the apotheosized hero on Mt. Olympus (Figs. 52-55). By the late Empire, shrines associated with the emperor cult contained paintings more directly linked to emperor worship, as the paintings in the Temple of Amun at Luxor demonstrate. By the late 3 rd century CE this temple had been converted into a military base, with paintings including a procession of dignitaries and images of the Tetrarchs (Figs. 72, 73). It is likely that the images of the four dynasts were objects of veneration for the soldiers stationed there.

In Chapter 7 (“Roman Shrines Housing Non-Roman Cults”) Moormann continues the theme of temple paintings and cult worship by discussing shrines of Isis and Mithras. The primary example of the former is the Sanctuary of Isis at Pompeii where paintings included both typical Fourth Style motifs and images of cult ministers, Egyptian gods, and myths of Isis (Figs. 74-88). This combination of Roman and Egyptian elements is characteristic of Egyptian shrine painting, as evidenced by the paintings in Alexandrian tombs and the Temple of Tutu at the Dakhleh Oasis. Similarly, grottoes of Mithras contained paintings of the life of Mithras, processions of believers, and Mithraic rituals. One example is the 4 th century CE Mithraeum in Huarte (Syria) where there are paintings of a taurobolium, banquet, and Helios worshipping Mithras (Figs. 103-105). Moormann proposes that, because of the secretive nature of the cult, painters of Mithraea were initiates and that the paintings both brightened the grottoes and promised a blissful afterlife. One suspects that Mithraic and Isaic shrine paintings also served a didactic purpose.

Chapter 8 (“Dura Europos: A Case Study”) focuses on the 3 rd century CE paintings in the Temple of Bel (Allat?), the Synagogue, and the Church. Executed by local artists familiar with the iconography of each religion, the figures are similarly arranged in panels within registers. Like the paintings in shrines dedicated to the emperor, Isis, and Mithras, those at Dura Europos were directly related to the cult and served to enhance the spiritual experience of the worshippers.

In Chapter 9 (“Final Remarks”), Moormann concisely summarizes the evidence and reiterates the close connection between Greek and Roman temple paintings and contemporaneous domestic decoration. This relationship begs the question of whether or not domestic painters were the same individuals who were commissioned to paint temples. Further, if temples and homes were decorated with similar motifs, was home décor intended to resemble that of temples or were temple paintings intentionally reminiscent of domestic interiors? Either way, homes and temples were both performance spaces where viewer engagement was essential. Given the current interest in reconstructing the ancient viewing experience, Moormann might have taken into account the visual impact of temple paintings. Nevertheless, this publication is a welcome addition to the field of Greek and Roman painting. The black and white illustrations and color plates are of high quality and, aside from a few minor typographical errors, the text is clearly written. Since it is addressed to an informed reader, this publication will undoubtedly prove valuable as a reference source for advanced students and specialists alike.