BMCR 2020.03.46

The ancient art of transformation: case studies from Mediterranean contexts

Renee M. Gondek, Carrie Lyn Sulosky Weaver, The ancient art of transformation: case studies from Mediterranean contexts. . Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2019. xiii, 224 p.. ISBN 9781789251043 £38.00 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This edited volume is the product of a 2016 panel presented at the College Art Association Annual Conference in Washington DC. The book is ‘diachronic and cross-cultural’ in its scope (p.3), touching upon a number of cultures (e.g., Etruscan, Roman, Egyptian) openly and in the spirit of exchange. The chapters cover visual evidence from sixth century BC pottery to fifth century AD stucco across the Mediterranean world. None of the evidence is being published for the first time, but each chapter provides an accessible presentation of the chosen examples.

In their introduction, Gondek and Weaver take Arnold van Gennep’s assertion that ‘the life of an individual in a society is a series of passages…’ (p.1), as the starting point for thinking about the role that art plays in these transformative ‘rites.’. By way of an example (p.1-2), death is taken to demonstrate how ‘each rite of passage (or series of related rites) is organised into three distinct phases: rites of separation, rites of transition…; and rites of incorporation.’ In this sequence, separation entails the preparation of a body for disposal; transition, the burial or mode of disposal; and incorporation, the deceased’s taking of place amongst the community of the dead. However, it is also suggested that members of the living community go through a similar journey: separation, the isolation or marking out of mourners through visible signs of grief; transition, their participation in funerary practices; and incorporation, their reintegration back into the community of the living.

Whilst these distinctions might aptly describe both sets of rites —for the dead and the living—their results are dramatically different: one is permanent, the other temporary. Given that rites of passage may relate to both permanent and temporary changes in a person’s circumstances, we might reasonably wonder what ‘transformation’ should imply or rather what it will imply in this volume. As a body of papers stemming from a conference, it is unsurprising that the book contains varied interpretations of the subject ‘transformation’, and indeed the inclusion of ‘less personal and more widespread transitions’ (p.3), is deliberate. However, the papers that follow diverge so significantly in terms of their media, contexts, the role that art plays in the examples under discussion, and in their understanding of what constitutes a transformation in the first place, that it is difficult to see the benefit of their existing in the same volume. Whilst one encounters several interesting approaches to ‘transformation’ and worthy presentations of interesting examples, a reader is not greatly rewarded for reading the pieces here as a collection because they rarely possess comparable qualities. Given this variety, the chapters function largely independently, and I therefore offer brief summaries of them for the remainder of this review.

Chapter 1 is a useful discussion of representations of elderly figures on Greek vases. ‘Transformation’ undoubtedly has to be read into these images that otherwise depictthe difference between age-states (i.e. young and old) without requiring the viewer to ponder the process of aging or a particular ceremony that marks the transfer from youth to old age. Whilst its relation to the overall topic is therefore dubious, as a study of iconography the theory is not without interest.

The subject matter of Chapter 2—brides—more readily anchors it to the theme of transformation. The discussion focuses on vases (especially loutrophoroi, containers of nuptial bath water) decorated with scenes of bridal preparations, representing the transformation to married status, first through examples that suggest motherhood with the presence of a suckling child, and second through those that depict the bride in a trance-like state with the presence of Erotes. Though the examples here are limited, the chapter is a provocative demonstration of visually rendered transformations.

Chapter 3 on transitory nudity in Etruscan art argues that nakedness was a part of representing transitions, specifically in relation to death, the passage from adolescence to womanhood, and childbirth. Despite a spirited attempt to demonstrate the relevance of nudity, the examples chosen suffer from a lack of clarity about the meaning of ‘transformation’ and its importance in reading the scenes. The representation of women in states of undress (p.56, 66-69) on mirrors, for example, is read as preparation for nuptial ceremonies and the transition to womanhood, but might more readily be understood in terms of a daily beauty regimen. Each is transformative, but their implications are markedly different. Equally, the representation of divine or mythological figures, especially Atlenta (Greek ‘Atalanta’, p.59), as semi-nude must surely be considered a means of ‘othering’ those depicted. Whilst the approach is therefore of interest, the specific working of the argument falls somewhat short of convincing.

Chapters 4 and 5 both deal with instances of hybridisation in the context of Egypt. Chapter 4, on elite tombs in Ptolemaic Egypt, presents interesting examples less-often cited by students of antiquity. Through succinct descriptions of the tomb contexts, the use of “Egyptian” and “Greek” motifs in the same images is used to demonstrate the transformation of the elite they honour. The significant aspect of these depictions lies particularly in the role they themselves play in the process of transformation (see further Chapter 6); they are part of how the ‘transformation’ was achieved. The discussion of the ‘Tomb of Petosiris’ (p.78-85) is an excellent example of a family’s changing view of itself between Egyptian visual traditions and Macedonian innovations. What is emphasised is not a stable or regularised transformative process, (e.g.,from life to death), but a far more fluid and ambiguous negotiation that incorporates artistic media.

Chapter 5 similarly deals with hybridisation, focusing on the temple and precinct of Amun-Ra at Karnak, and the installation of images of the emperor Augustus in the guise of an Egyptian pharaoh. The chapter concentrates on the experience of the space, and so contains detailed discussions of the temple architecture and use of the buildings throughout. It is a useful presentation of an example where the transformation can be seen as much in the appearance of the emperor as in the nature of temple complex itself.

Chapter 6 on the funerary art of Roman freedmen, is more directly focused on a problem than many of the other essays: how do we explain the lack of physiognomic variation in thosemonuments despite the well-attested ethnic diversity of slaves at Rome? The transformation, it is argued, is the result of the intimation of freed status through the adoption of Roman portrait styles and physical features that serve to play down ethnic ‘otherness’. This is undoubtedly a worthy point, and useful in the context of the larger book, but it is not the first time it has been made; the ‘nuances’ (p.136) of others arguments are subtle. Nevertheless, the examples of the monument of Rupilius Antiochus and of the Furii are of interest, as is the broader discussion.

Chapter 7 also deals with Roman funerary monuments, this time focusing on dining scenes or ‘convivial iconography’ on cineraria. Most of the chapter (p.155-72) contains a worthy description of Roman dining habits, the iconography of cineraria, and finally a brief discussion of accompanying inscriptions. The ‘transformation’ in these instances is set out on p.155: ‘…banquet scenes represent lavish events that were understood to have taken place during the lives of the deceased, who in turn are depicted in the scenes as reclining banqueters of high social status. Accompanying funeral inscriptions, however, reveal that the deceased are freedmen and thus of lower societal rank than the reclining banqueters who represent them.’ The transformation comes with the suggestion that the freedmen were claiming this ‘social privilege’ in death. This latter statement would seem to contradict the claim that these are representations of the figures in life; more serious is the rigid conflation of wealth and status (p.155; 173) that has the effect of denying freedmen the ability to have dined in such ways whilst alive. This seems to me entirely unnecessary and the product of reading transformation into these scenes that do well without it. Indeed, the chapter avoids the book’s theme almost entirely and is better off as a result.

Chapter 8 on the fourth century cubiculum Leonis, part of the Commodilla catacombs in Rome, concentrates on the representations of Peter that are the focus of the tomb. On one side, we see Peter in the process of denying Christ as part of the Passion narrative; on the other, the local miracle of Peter releasing water from the rock whilst incarcerated in Rome would be alluding to the conversion and baptism of his erstwhile guards. The chapter is an attempt to understand the images in their context, rather than as part of an abstracted group of representations of Peter in the fourth century (p.182-84). However, the chapter also aims to incorporate readings of the scenes in relation to theological discussions of the day, particularly by St. Ambrose. The interpretation of transformation in these depictions focuses on Peter, from being a denier of Christ to his status as miracle-worker in Rome, and the implications for Leo, the tomb’s patron. The reading of transformation into the images of Peter works entirely independently of the writings of St. Ambrose. Nevertheless, this discussion adds a welcome depth, helping to demonstrate the significance of the claims made beyond this distinctive context without stifling the interpretation of the images through an overreliance on textual evidence.

The final chapter looks at the Orthodox Baptistery in Ravenna, decorated in the latter half of the fifth century. The structure was designed in part to shape the nature of the transformation of baptism and complement the teachings that were such a significant part of the preparation for it. The subject of the chapter is the role played by the decoration of the space in enhancing the message that was imbued in the act of baptism. The stucco reliefs that are commonly thought to show 16 Old Testament prophets are contrasted with the glass mosaics of the 12 apostles and the baptism of Christ in the dome of the baptistery. The combination of material and subject highlights the significance of the baptismal transformation; the ‘mud’ of stucco, in appearance moulded not carved, terrestrial and primal, is contrasted with the iridescent and heavenly gold of the mosaics above, physically demonstrating the difference between the prophets of the pre-Christian era and the apostles of Christ. Through carefully chosen texts, the relationship between mud and gold, and the power of baptism to bring about the change from one substance to the other are made clear. The chapter is a well-presented demonstration of the role materiality can play in art historical studies of the wider period, and a worthy end to the volume.

Authors and Titles

Introduction: Approaching Transformation, Renee M. Gondek and Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver
1. On the Threshold of Old Age: Perceptions of the Elderly in Athenian Red-Figure Vase-Painting, Nicholas A. Harokopos
2. The Transformation of the Bride in Attic Vase-Painting, Victoria Sabetai
3. Transitory Nudity: Life Changes in Etruscan Art, Bridget Sandhoff
4. Cultural Maneuvering in the Elite Tombs of Ptolemaic Egypt, Sara E. Cole
5. Octavian Transformed as Pharaoh and as Emperor Augustus, Erin A. Peters
6. Ethnic Identity, Social Identity, and the Aesthetics of Sameness in the Funerary Monuments of Roman Freedmen, Devon Stewart
7. Greater in Death: The Transformative Effect of Convivial Iconography on Roman Cineraria, Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver
8. A Viewer Walks into a Tomb: Transformation in the Cubiculum Leonis, Ethan Gannaway
9. Protoplasts and Prophets: The Stucco Reliefs in the Orthodox Baptistery in Ravenna, Rachel Danford