BMCR 2016.03.31

Figures de dieux: construire le divin en image. Histoire, série Histoire ancienne

, , , , Figures de dieux: construire le divin en image. Histoire, série Histoire ancienne. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2015. 380;32 p. of plates. ISBN 9782753535220. €21.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

In the study of ancient religion, the gods have come back in fashion, after having been relegated to relative obscurity by the predominant interest in ritual. Together with the gods, their representations have moved to the centre of attention, and (cult) statues in particular have been discussed in several recent publications. The present volume is another addition to this growing body of literature.1 Its papers emanate from the fourteenth session, Paris 2011, of the international research program “FIGVRA. La representation du divin dans les mondes grec et romaine”.2 There are 16 papers: 12 in French, 4 in English, distributed across three sections: staging the divine (“mettre en scène”), visualizing the divine (in images and in the mind), and ephemeral imagery. I will here re-arrange the papers in what seem to me meaningful combinations, mostly twosomes—that is, more meaningful than the rather vague categorisations by the editors, who have forced a rather heterogeneous collection of paper into this tripartite scheme. Some of the papers, however, do not seem to belong at all: they do not, or only tangentially, deal with what according to the introduction is the subject matter of this volume: making, consecrating, manipulating, and destroying images of supernatural beings, and how in the process, people not only (de)construct a material object but also create a particular notion of the divine.

Two papers deal with the question of what actually constitutes a cult statue. Bernard Holtzmann gives us a conspectus of all Athena statues on the Athenian Acropolis and distinguishes between the true cult statue, i.e., the statue of Athena Polias, and the statues of epicleses of Athena that allow the believer to better visualize the deity, or that particular aspect of the deity that an epiclesis stands for, but do not receive public cultic attention. This spirited defense of the original communis opinio against the revisionist ideas of people, such as Gabriele Nick, who argue that the image of Athene Parthenos is a cult statue as well, is convincing. Holtzmann’s argument that a cult statue can be recognized by ascertaining whether that statue is subjected to cultic actions, is refreshingly simple and straightforward. Caroline Michel d’Annoville analyses the critique of cult statues by the Christian author Arnobius, who reduces statues to mere material objects (whereas other Christian polemicists often speak of statues as the abode of demons, thus not negating their special status as animated objects). Michel d’Annoville traces Arnobius’ line of thought to other Christian and pagan authors. Of more interest in the present context is what Arnobius tells us about the opinions that polytheists of his own time held concerning statues: some see the statue representing the god as divine in itself, while others see the statue as a symbol that functions as an intermediary between man and god. Both views imply that the statue has an important function in religious life, exactly the position that Arnobius denies.

Another two papers deal with the choices made in visualizing the divine. Emmanuelle Rosso looks at the ways in which the genius of the emperor was visualized. The traditional image of the genius (a togatus capite velato) and the representation of the individual emperor are fused within a single image. We see a development over time in this imagery: the genius of Augustus is portrayed as a Roman citizen: the pater familias who is now also the pater patriae. By the time of Nero, however, we have moved to a more divine depiction of the genius: a godlike being in a Hüftmantel, which refers back to Divus Julius, the deified Caesar. Ioannis Mylonopoulos in his excellent paper addresses the oscillation between elaboration and simplification in the portrayal of the divine. In part this might be a diachronic development, as when the smaller, more humanist imagery of the gods of the 4 th century gives rise to Hellenistic attempts to stress the supernatural aspect of the divine by introducing mechanical gimmicks, which in their turn lead to a renewed plea for more simple forms. However, we find criticism, even derision and ridicule, in almost every period, directed against elaborate portrayals of the gods, but also against simple and austere ones. So it is oscillation indeed, and we certainly should do away with an evolutionary scheme that has us move from the aniconic to ever more naturalistic and elaborate forms of portrayal. There is not so much an evolution, as competing ways of “construire le divin en images”.

Processions are the subject of again a couple of papers. Didier Viviers occupies himself with the “mis-en-scène”: the carrying of statues (and much else) in processions. This is a very rich paper looking at the routes of processions, their composition, the part played by actors or automata, joyeuses entrées, delegations, theoxenies, unique events and recurrent ritual, processions as legitimizing power relationships, and so on. This is all very useful, but it threatens to overwhelm Viviers’ main point, that the theatricalisation of a procession, as he calls it, helps to “diffuse the divine” by having the god come out amongst the people. That may seem rather obvious, but it is a point well taken. Sylvia Estienne also looks at processions, Roman ones, especially at the mis-en-scène. She gives a lively description of how a procession would have involved all the senses of participants and spectators. She stresses the ephemeral nature of the procession: the gods appear—and pass by: an “epiphanie fugace”. The editors have put this paper amongst the ones dealing with ephemeral statues (in the sense of statues that are made to last for only a particular stretch of time), but it is not about ephemerality in that way. It is the experience of the audience that is ephemeral, the statue, the same statue—and that is important, will come out again when the next procession takes place.

Another two papers address the distance between statue and believer. Youri Volokhine speaks of the tension between the statue hidden away in the holy of holies of the Egyptian temple and the wish “to see the face of the god”, that is, to behold the statue. Processions where the statue is carried round for everyone to see are one way to relieve that tension, but the tension is also solved on a more permanent basis by turning a relief on the outer wall of the naos —where one is as close to the god as is possible without entering the temple—into a “virtual statue”. Such reliefs we know to have been “enriched” by gilding or metal coverings and wooden framing. Dirk Steuernagel also discusses this tension between the wish of the believer to get close to the god (in the form of that god’s statue) and the rules and regulations of civic religion that restrict his movements. This may have been experienced strongly in Hellenistic days when many believers felt an emotional bond with the god, strengthened by epiphanies and dreams, but when visually the gods were at a remove, more so than before. More generally, believers wanted themselves and their votive offerings to be close to the statue of the god, as Steuernagel argues convincingly from the admittedly sparse evidence. It is not impossible for a believer to approach the statue, and one’s votives might be placed in the immediate vicinity of the statue, but as said above, all of this is subject to rules and regulations to which the individual must adhere.

Three authors have turned towards the systemic nature of visualizations of the divine. Valérie Huet and Stéphanie Wyler discuss the domestic altars that are known as lararia (what the Romans called an aedicula, sacellum or sacrarium), in the Vesuvian area where almost all of the evidence comes from. Their main focus is the complementarity of objects sharing the same lararium, and the complementarity of multiple lararia in the same building. They obviously find it difficult to come to any firm conclusions—so much remains unknown about these lararia, but they do argue that there is a logic to both the fixed elements (wall decorations) and the mobile apparatus (the statuettes), and they demonstrate this especially for Dionysus and the Dionysiac. Their research also confirms the supposed protective quality of lararia in general. Thomas Morard takes as his point of departure Apulian vases by the Darius Painter where gods are presented in an upper register, and mortals in a lower—as opposed to classical works of art where gods and mortals, whatever their other differences, literally operate on the same level. Morard has published at length on the highly interesting subject of the introduction of this hierarchical arrangement of gods and mortals, and on the fact that Dionysus is not included amongst the gods but operates on the mortal plane. Here, however, he concentrates on attacking the “philodramatique” interpretation of (these) vase paintings, where all or most images are supposed to illustrate some scene from tragedy. Morard argues that we should start by looking at the images and interpreting these as images, before attempting any comparison with textual evidence. Rightly so. Not all of this, however, seems to the point in the present volume.

A final pair of papers discusses ephemeral statues. Laurent Coulon’s paper is the best documented of the volume: a thorough discussion of a genre of Osiris statuettes that are made to last for a year, when they are destroyed and replaced by newly made ones. These statuettes connote the rebirth of life, linked to the yearly flood of the Nile and to pharaonic rule. Coulon also refers to statuettes that are like the Osiris ones structurally—made, destroyed, and remade—but function as their opposites: execration statuettes. Importantly, he insists that the ephemeral nature of all of these statuettes is relative: they are recreated in a cyclical process that was supposed to endure forever: they are “une materialization alternative du durable” (318). Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux returns once again to the masks of Dionysus that she has been coming back to repeatedly for at least a quarter century. She raises methodological questions about the relationship between the imagery of ritual and its performance (more questions of this nature might have been asked throughout the volume). She gives an overview of the evidence (some of it new) for a yearly (?) recurring ritual, which involves the erection of a pole on which is fixed a face mask of the god Dionysus. Against alternative interpretations, Frontisi-Ducroux argues convincingly for the ephemeral nature of this representation of Dionysus: it is set up according to the needs of the participants of the ritual, not at a fixed time or in a fixed place, and when the ritual has been performed it is taken down again. She also discusses the phallophory (for this she again includes some new evidence): a yearly ritual for which the large phallus to be carried in procession was remade—a rather different kind of ephemerality compared to that of the Dionysus mannikin, which is refashioned again and again out of components that are stored away. Also, with reference to the paper by Coulon, one might suggest that something that recurs calendrically is only ephemeral up to a point: its expected recurrence makes it something both ephemeral and permanent at the same time.

We are left with four papers that do not really address an issue that directly involves “figures de dieux”. Jean-Yves Marc and Emmanuelle Rosso touch upon the nature of cult statues in the provinces, but their main argument concerns the intricacies of identifying the image of a particular god from a few scant remains, a methodological-iconographic problem. Françoise Van Haeperen discusses the imagery of supposed galloi, which, interestingly, she re-interprets as images of priestesses, and taurobolic altars and their decoration, which refers to Magna Mater and her cult. This is not really a discussion of “figures de dieux” (though admittedly one altar shows the goddess herself) but of religious imagery in general. Peter Stewart thinks pinakes made of perishable material might have portrayed cult statues: an interesting line of thought, but here a mere afterthought in this (very fine) paper about ephemeral votive offerings to the gods, but not about ephemeral representations of the gods. Deborah Steiner discusses the dance of the Gorgons decorating the body of the famous proto-Attic amphora in the Eleusis Museum by looking at dance scenes, cauldrons, and much more, even the sound of bronze vessels, but I cannot imagine any Greek individual at any period whose interpretation of the imagery under discussion would have embraced all these bits and pieces of information lifted from sources ranging from Homer to Byzantium, from proto-Attic to classical, and which are here so cleverly, perhaps too cleverly, associated with one another. Also, this paper’s exact relationship to the main questions raised in this volume remains unclear to me.

On the whole, the volume includes a happy combination of archaeologists and historians of ancient religion (who are present in about equal numbers): a certain archaeological preponderance is to be expected as we are dealing with material objects, albeit of a very specific nature: images. The conclusion by Francis Prost tries to tie the different papers together and to assign each paper a place in his general overview. We have already noted the heterogeneity of the papers that makes this a rather thankless task. He also lists the three most important conclusions. These, I find, are not so much conclusions deriving from the volume as a whole, as in fact points made by Mylonopoulos and by Viviers and Estienne. Conclusions that involve all the papers, or all relevant papers, are more difficult to draw: the volume is not coherent enough, and the authors do not really address what shaping a god tells us about the conceptualizing of a god, and certainly not what mechanism might link the one to the other. Viviers, Rosso, Huet and Wyler, and Coulon certainly come close this, but do not get there in the end. This does not imply that this volume would be a disappointment. If one lowers one’s expectations somewhat, there are definitely important things to be learned from, or reminded of by this volume, concerning divine imagery and many other things besides. The annotation of all articles is excellent and refers one to a wealth of relevant literature and sources. It also remains to be said that this volume is very neatly produced, and very well illustrated (in addition to the black and white illustrations we also get 49 colour illustrations on 32 plates). All of this for a remarkably low price, by the Presses universitaires de Rennes, who go from strength to strength, as one may judge from their new publications and their backlist.


1. In addition to the bibliography listed in the volume under discussion, I offer the following selective list of recent works: M. Gaifman, Aniconism in Greek Antiquity, Oxford 2012; B. Madigan, The ceremonial sculptures of the Roman gods, Leiden 2013; T.M. Kristensen, Making and Breaking the Gods: Christian Responses to Pagan Sculpture in Late Antiquity, Aarhus 2013; R. Barrow, ‘The body, human and divine in Greek sculpture’, in: P. Destrée and P. Murray (edd), A Companion to Ancient Aesthetics (Oxford 2015) 94-108; G. Deligiannakis, ‘Religious Viewing of Sculptural Images of Gods in the World of Late Antiquity: From Dio Chrysostom to Damaskios’, Journal of Late Antiquity 8.1 (2015) 168-194; A. Sofroniew, Household Gods: Private Devotion in Ancient Greece and Rome, Los Angeles 2016; F. Dunand, Corps vivant des dieux, forthcoming.

2. FIGVRA. La representation du divin dans les mondes grec et romaine.