Home > Byzantium, Late Antiquity > More on Christian and Pagan Statues

More on Christian and Pagan Statues

A few months ago a thought-provoking article on the destruction of pagan statues and sanctuaries in Egypt by Troels Myrup Kristensen appeared in the Journal of Late Antiquity. Now, less than a year later, another thoughtful and extensive article on the topic has appeared in the august pages of the American Journal of Archaeology: “Production to Destruction? Pagan and Mythological Statuary in Asia Minor” by Ine Jacobs.

The article is a sweeping study of the production, re-use, and destruction of pagan statuary in Late Antique Asia Minor. Jacobs brings to light particularly important issues regarding the declining production of statuary over the course of Late Antiquity particularly at traditional production centers in Asia Minor. She also touched in useful ways on issues regarding the context is which a statue was displayed (pp. 288-289) Statues that appear to have come from a cultic context or with close associations with local cult activities (for example, isolated statues of Artemis found at Ephesos) were more likely to be destroyed or damaged than statues in more secular settings or in groups depicting mythological or literary events. This resonates, in particular, with the work of Glen Bowersock (and others) who have shown that emergence of Christianity did not suppress the importance of pagan literary motifs in Late Antique culture. In fact, he, Peter Brown, and others have shown that references to pagan gods in literary texts was inseparable from the demonstration of Late Antique paideia, the elite discourse of both pagans and Christians.

At the same time, Jones introduces the idea of statuary as decoration particularly in so-called “secular” contexts. Pagan statues, for example, could stand in baths, fountains, theaters, and even gates without offering a sustained threat to the increasingly Christianity community. The incidents of violence toward statues — ranging from ritual and systematic destruction to the incising of crosses on the heads of pagan statues — appears to have been sporadic and, in most cases, random. And this likely reflects the nature of most anti-pagan (and indeed anti-Christian) sentiments in antiquity.

The article concludes with a nice catalogue of “Pagan and Mythological Statue Remains in Late Antiquity” which should be a nice guide for anyone looking to do some work on this topic.

Whenever I read any article on the destruction of pagan statues in Late Antiquity (or their preservation in increasingly “decorative” contexts), I begin to consider the relationship between Christian attitudes toward pagan statuary and the emergence of the iconoclastic movement at the very end of Late Antiquity. I can’t help but think whether the changing attitudes toward statues and images more generally tell us less about the end of antiquity and more about the emergence of Byzantine attitudes towards images. The creation of secular art (following R. A. Markus’s idea that the discourse of Christianity, in effect, created the secular out of the remaining fragments of the pagan world in Late Antiquity) must have put particular pressure on its opposite, religious, and in the Late Antique world, Christian art. The surplus meaning generated from the secularization of pagan art created a new set of expectation for Christian art and these new expectations met their challenge in the iconoclastic controversies at the very end of antiquity.

Categories: Byzantium, Late Antiquity
  1. April 8, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Bill, good to see you promoting Ine’s AJA paper! I think you’re quite right about the need to re-think “destruction” (as well as “conservation”) as the guiding principle(s) to understand the role of “pagan” statuary in LA. It’s important to see these phenomena as part of a change in what may be termed visual practices rather than as a confrontation with a pagan past. As I argue in my dissertation, production and destruction are indeed often complementary processes rather than opposites, when we think more broadly about the impact that these images had on ancient viewers and what they did to and with them.

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