BMCR 2016.02.15

The Cesnola Collection of Cypriot Art: Stone Sculpture

, , The Cesnola Collection of Cypriot Art: Stone Sculpture. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Print-On-Demand Edition Distributed by Yale University Press, 2014. 436. ISBN 9780300206715. $175.00. (pb).

Full Text (open access)

This book by Antoine Hermary, an authority on Cypriot sculpture, and Joan Mertens, curator in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Greek and Roman Art is the first comprehensive catalogue of this collection, and as such will be regarded as a handbook for generations to come. The collection was amassed by Luigi Palma di Cesnola as a result of his energetic looting efforts on Cyprus in the 1860s and formed the core of the earliest holdings of the Metropolitan Museum. He himself was the first director of the Museum. However, until this publication, no one has been able to deal with the entire corpus of the sculpture in the collection. The entire book is available for free online.

The organization of the work is eminently usable. There are two forewords, by Thomas Campbell, director of the Museum, and by Vassos Karageorghis. Within the introduction and the catalogue the division into chapters makes the entire work instantly accessible to those with specific research interests, as well as to anyone browsing through the catalogue at leisure.

The Introduction, by Antoine Hermary, consists of 1) the building of the collection, 2) the sculptures themselves, and 3) a discussion of the chronology of Cypriot sculpture. Hermary wisely refrains from reprising published biographies of Cesnola himself, but alerts the reader to appropriate sources. There follows a helpful discussion of excavations that produced sculpture in the collection. This section provides a valuable discourse on both the excavations undertaken in the nineteenth century on Cyprus and of the sources available to us in tracking down those enterprises. This treatment provides the reader with clear evidence of nineteenth century disputes about excavations (particularly those of Cesnola). He was accused of falsifying his results, and the author evaluates the evidence for the reader. There is an important discussion of inscriptions on votives, both in Greek and Eteo-Cypriot.

It is rather surprising that in discussing the 19th century account of Max Ohnefalsch-Richter of the second “temple” site near Golgoi (p. 16) the author does not advance the suggestion that since the second “temple” site had no visible architecture it was likely a sacred grove or some kind of outdoor temenos, precisely what one would expect in the center of the island in this period. A second caveat is the absence of discussion of the fact that in groups of items sold from the Cesnola collection during the Anderson sale of 1928, such as those now in the Royal Ontario Museum and the Ringling Museum of Art, it is quite common for pieces ascribed to Golgoi to have other designations pencilled on them reading ‘Salamis’ or ‘Idalium.’ One wonders whether this was true of the Metropolitan collection as well.1The authors do, however, make it clear that exact provenance is impossible to pin down for many of the pieces, although they seem to accept the attribution to Golgoi by and large.

The discussion of the chronology of Cypriot sculpture is a bit more problematic. It is thorough, and conscientious, but relies almost entirely upon evidence from sites in Greece, with the sole exceptions of Kouklia and Vouni on Cyprus. In fact, the authors state categorically (p. 24) that “to establish a chronology for Cypriot sculpture, the only reliable reference points are those emanating from the discoveries at the Heraion at Samos, Cnidus, Miletus, and for a much smaller number of objects, Chios, old Smyrna and Ephesus.” There are two problems with this approach. First, there are those who have maintained since the 1970s that Greek-influenced traits in Cypriot sculpture appear perhaps twenty years later on Cyprus than their appearance in Greek art.2 (Similarly, there appears little cognizance of long-recognized issues with the stratigraphy of some of these sites. Samos is a case in point. G. Schmidt’s important volume on the Cypriot sculptures from Samos. Schmidt states that almost all of the sculptures were found below a floor dating to 600 BCE. However, since they were all found in a pit cut from that very floor, they therefore cannot have been deposited before 600 BCE. In the stylistic discussion of the earliest works in the collection, however, the authors concede that stylistically none appears to pre-date 600.3

The catalogue itself is divided in so useful and rational a way as to make it usable by anyone interested in the subject. It is organized from the largest group to the smallest, with less complete and varied categories left to the end. It is easy to locate any type of work in the groupings, and the usual stellar Metropolitan Museum presentation makes the enterprise a visual pleasure. Most important for scholars and students are the introductions to each chapter. The catalogue entries themselves include instructive descriptions and valuable references. The organization of objects by dress type and chronological style is clear and easy to use.

Chapter 1 on male statues introduces the largest group of stone sculptures, from about 600 BCE to about 525 BCE. The author points out in this introduction that terracotta figures of the types represented in limestone examples were produced in the seventh century and continued in use into the Hellenistic age. New here is the contention that those represented are “dignitaries” (p. 28). A comprehensive discussion of costume and headdress with instructive comparanda follows. The discussion of other works probably from Golgoi in other museums is valuable for scholars and students. In comparing sculptures from sanctuaries other than Golgoi on Cyprus, the choice of sources consulted is a little idiosyncratic, referring often to secondary sources rather than excavation reports. In addition, the contention that stone sculptures represent “dignitaries” raises the question, why are hundreds of tiny stone sculptures (most of them 7-20 cm. in height) found all over the island?

Chapter 2 on female figures has a smaller introduction, and does not delve into the possible meaning and use of female figures in what the author assumes is a single sanctuary dedicated to a male deity at Golgoi- Ayios Photios. The special group of seated women holding children treated in Chapter 3 has a fuller introduction, although the variation in headgear found on the children in kourotrophoi from elsewhere on the island is not mentioned. This does not affect discussion of the examples in the Metropolitan collection, but scholars and students should be aware if they are using this volume as a primary reference (as I assume they will for years to come). Chapter 3 also includes musician figures, horses, horsemen and banquettes.

Chapter 4 presents masked votaries, and is informative and well-organized. Chapter 5 on “Temple Boys” and “Temple Girls” is a welcome addition to the literature on these types of figures. The purpose of these figures, and the author’s refutation of Cecilia Beer’s contention that they represent circumcision commemorations.4 is an important contribution to our knowledge of the subject. There is no mention of comparable coeval examples from Italy that would, perhaps, make their argument even stronger.

Chapter 6 on “Varia” includes votive figures holding snakes, fighting figures (male and female), scenes of childbirth, and animals and votive offerings, both animal and vegetal. In each entry the descriptions of each piece are full and so informative. The wide variation in types of offerings would make such an introduction difficult in any case. Since so many of the examples in this chapter are offerings in the hands of votaries, however, a general discussion of the grains, animals, and possible purposes and/or contents of the pyxides represented might have been helpful. Chapter 7, dedicated to “Gods and Mythological Figures” is more problematic. Although the author refers to the work of Derek Counts. the now generally accepted view of Herakles as “Master of Animals” along with Pan and other such representations seems not to be accepted here.5 Although the chapter includes 64 entries, the presentation only discusses Counts’ later “Master of Lions” treatment in the few examples to which that applies. In addition, the many published accounts of the Sanctuary of Adonis at Idalion are simply ignored, and the author relies upon an out-dated treatment by Reinhardt Senff that still refers to the 6-hectare outdoor sacred grove as a “Temple of Apollo” in presenting comparanda from Idalion.

Chapter 8, “Votive Animals, Anatomical Reliefs, and Various Offerings” returns to the thorough, measured, and informative treatments encountered in earlier chapters. There are numerous examples of unusual offerings in this chapter, many of them never before illustrated in compendia of the Cesnola collection. This alone would be an important contribution to our sources on Cypriot sculpture. It is a little unclear why Chapter 9, “Various Offerings” was separated from the material in Chapter 6, but both treatments are fascinating and helpful in any case, particularly the examples with inscriptions. The brief Chapter 10 deals informatively with architectural offerings, and leads naturally into Chapter 11, “Sculptured Reliefs on Votive Monuments,” which covers stelai of various kinds.

Chapter 12, “Funerary Monuments,” treats perhaps the most famous objects in the Cesnola Collection, the sarcophagi and funerary stelai. The introduction to this chapter could serve as a concise overview of what we know to date on the subject. The exhaustive treatment of Cat. 490, the Amathus sarcophagus, serves as a complete essay of everything known about the subject: the preservation, the technique, including colors used, the subject matter, and the style. It is a tour de force.

The Final Chapter on “Other Stone Objects” is a workmanlike presentation of a variety of objects, both carved and ground, and is a useful compendium of elite objects found in cult settings. These include mainly vessels, but also beads, mace heads, mortars and pestles and tools and implements of various sorts.

With such a large and varied book, it can be difficult to make general statements. However, in the case of The Cesnola Collection of Cypriot Art: Stone Sculpture, it is easy to say that anyone who consults this work stands to learn something. It is thorough, careful, and complete, so that everyone will come away with something of value. Only the section on male deities is deficient. Any other oversights are minor. No one will be able to write on Cypriot sculpture without consulting this work.


1. Indeed there were lawsuits dealing with this subject during the nineteenth century: Clarence Cook “Transformations and Migration of Certain Statues in the Cesnola Collection” New York 1882 p. 36 nos. 10, 11, 12.

2. E.g., P. Gaber Saletan Regional Styles in Cypriote Sculpture: The Sculpture from Idalion. New York 1986, 57-69; N. Kourou Limestone Statuettes of Cypriote Type Found in the Aegean. Nicosia 2002, 73ff.).

3. Kyprische Bildwerke aus dem Heraion von Samos, Volume 7. Bonn, Habelt, 1968: 98.

4. C. Beer, Temple-Boys: A Study of Cypriote Votive Sculpture. Part I. Catalogue. Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology Vol. CXIII. Jonsered. 1994.

5. D. Counts, “Art and Religion in the Cypriote Mesaoria: The View from Athienou-Malloura” Cahier du Centre D’Études Cypriotes 34 (2004): 173-90.