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Image and ritual: reflections on the religious appreciation of classical art*

  • John Elsner (a1)

It is a cliché that most Greek art (indeed most ancient art) was religious in function. Yet our histories of Classical art, having acknowledged this truism, systematically ignore the religious nuances and associations of images while focusing on diverse arthistorical issues from style and form, or patronage and production, to mimesis and aesthetics. In general, the emphasis on naturalism in classical art and its reception has tended to present it as divorced from what is perceived as the overwhelmingly religious nature of post-Constantinian Christian art. The insulation of Greek and Roman art from theological and ritual concerns has been colluded in by most historians of medieval images. Take for instance Ernst Kitzinger's monographic article entitled ‘The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm’. Despite its title and despite Kitzinger's willingness to situate Christian emperor worship in an antique context, this classic paper contains nothing on the Classical ancestry of magical images, palladia and miracle-working icons in Christian art. There has been the odd valiant exception (especially in recent years), but in general it is fair to say that the religiousness of antiquity's religious art is skirted by the art historians and left to the experts on religion.

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1 See e.g.Stewart, A., Greek Sculpture (New Haven and London, 1990), pp.4351 and esp.Gordon, R., ‘The Real and the Imaginary: Production and Religion in the Graeco-Roman World’, Art History 2 (1979), 534.

2 their standard volume for art historians on ancient views of art (Pollitt, J. J., The Ancient View of Greek Art [New Haven and London, 1974]) is strikingly silent about any aspect of ritual or religion, as already pointed out by Gordon (n. 1), p.8.

3 Kitzinger, E., ‘The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers;8 (1954), 84150, reprinted in Kleinbauer, E. (ed.), The Art of Byzantium and the Medieval West. Selected Studies by Ernst Kitzinger (Bloomington, Indiana), pp.90156.

4 E.g.Barasch, M., Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea (New York and London, 1992), i whose history of medieval concepts of the image gives two chapters to antiquity (pp.2362);Belting, H., Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (Chicago, 1994 [v.o. 1990]), pp.3641 on images and religion, 78–101 on funerary and saints' portraits, 102–114 J on the imperial image.

5 See, for example, Faraone, C. A., Talismans and Trojan Horses: Guardian Statues in Ancient Greek Myth and Ritual (New York and Oxford, 1992)

6 See especially, Eisner, J..Art and the Roman Viewer: The Transformation of Art from Paganism to Christianity (Cambridge, 1995), pp.249–87.

7 For a brief discussion of the ekphrastic literature, see Anderson, G., The Second Sophistic: X A Cultural Phenomenon in the Roman Empire (London, 1993), pp.147–55. The key texts are the ekphraseis in the novels, in the collections by the Elder and Younger Philostratus and by Callistratus, and in Lucian. The latter have been conveniently collected and edited by Maffei, S., Luciano di Samosata: Descrizioni di Opere d&Arte (Turin, 1994). For discussion, see on the novels Bartsch, S., Decoding the Ancient Novel (Princeton, 1989) and Zeitlin, F. I., ‘The Poetics of Eros: Nature, Art and Imitation in Longus' Daphnis and Chloe’. in Halperin, D. M., Winkler, J. J. and Zeitlin, F. I. (eds.), Before Sexuality (Princeton, 1990), pp.417–65; and on the Elder Philostatus Bryson, N., ‘Philostratus and the Imaginary Museum’, in Goldhill, S. and Osborne, R. (eds.), Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture (Cambridge, 1994), pp.255–83, Blanchard, M. E., ‘Philostrate: Problemes du texte et du tableau’, in Cassin, B. (ed.), Leplaisir duparler (Paris, 1986), pp.131–54, Conan, M., ‘The Imagines of Philostratus’, Word and Image 3 (1987), 162–71 and Eisner, J. (n.6), pp.2339.

8 See Barasch (n. 4), pp. 32–3.

9 Oneir. 2.39: ‘Statues that are fashioned from a substance that is hard and incorruptible as, for example, those that are made of gold, silver, bronze, ivory, stone, amber or ebony, are auspicious. Statues fashioned from any other material as, for example, those that are made from terra cotta, clay, plaster, or wax, those that are painted, and the like, are less auspicious and often even inauspicious.’ See Miller, P. Cox, Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture (Princeton, 1994), pp.2931.

10 Oneir. 2.37: ‘If Asclepius is set up in a temple and stands upon a pedestal, if he is seen and adored, it means good luck for all. But if he moves and approaches or goes into a house, it prophesies sickness. For then especially do men need the god. But for those who are already sick, it signifies recovery.’

11 See the discussion of S. Bartsch, (n. 7), pp. 40–79.

12 On this passage, see Bartsch (n. 7), pp. 65–9, 72–6, and Goldhill, S., Foucault's Virginity: Ancient Erotic Fiction and the History of Sexuality (Cambridge, 1995), pp.71–2.

13 Compare Callistratus 10.1–2 where, after an elaborate opening which presents the power of Asclepius as dwelling within his statue, the orator reverses the conceit to imply that art, having the power to delineate character and to portray the god in an image of Paean ‘even passes over into the god himself. Matter though it is, it gives forth divine intelligence, and though it is a work of human hands, it succeeds in doing what handicrafts cannot accomplish.’

14 See Clerc, C., Lés theories relatives au culte des images chez les auteurs Grecs du lime siècle après J. C. (Paris, 1915), pp.985. See also Barasch (n. 4), pp. 23–49.

15 Clerc (n. 14), pp. 89–258. For the early Christian attack on idolatry, see Finney, P. C., The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (Oxford, 1994), pp.1568.

16 Some examples of continuity in the secondary literature: on pagan pilgrimage in the context of a study of Christian pilgrimage, see Kötting, B., Peregrinatio Religiosa: Wallfahrten in der Antike und das Pilgerwesen in der alten Kirche (Regensburg and Münister, 1950), pp.1279; and on the interrelations of Christian and pagan dream-visions, see Miller (n. 9).

17 On Pausanias, see Frazer, J. G., Pausanias's Description of Greece (London, 1898), 6 vols., esp. vol. 1;J., Heer, La personnalite de Pausanias (Paris, 1979);Habicht, C., Pausanias' Guide to Ancient Greece (Berkeley, 1985);Eisner, J., ‘Pausanias: A Greek Pilgrim in the Roman World’, Past and Present 135 (1992), 329, now reprinted with added discussion in J., Eisner (n.6), pp.125–55. On historical and cultural context, see Alcock, S. E. ‘Landscapes of Memory and the Authority of Pausanias’, in Pausanias Historien (Geneva, 1996;Entreiiens Fondation Hardt 41), pp.241–76.

18 On Pausanias' antiquarianism see Hunt, E. D., ‘Travel, Tourism and Piety in the Roman Empire’, Échos du monde classique 28 (1984), 391417, esp. pp.398401; and Arafat, K., ‘Pausanias' Attitude to Antiquities’, Annual of the British School at Athens 87 (1992), 387409.

19 On Pausanias' myths see Veyne, P., Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? (Chicago, 1988 [v.o. 1983]), p. 3, pp.95102.

20 For the focus on religion see esp. Heer (n. 17); Frazer (n.17), p. xxxiii; Habicht (n. 17), p. 23 (with n. 91); and Eisner (n. 6), pp. 129–31, 144–50.

21 See Miller (n. 9), pp. 29–31, 77–91, with bibliography.

22 On Aelius Aristides and Asclepius, see Behr, C. A., Aelius Aristides and the Sacred Tales (Amsterdam, 1968) and Miller (n. 9), pp.184204.

23 Some passages of Plutarch evince as much interest in ritual as Pausanias—for instance the discussion of priestly lifestyles and eating habits in De hide et Osiride 4–5, 7–8 (352C–354A), or the different kinds of offerings in the daily ritual timetable in the same text (79, 383A–384C). In the De E apud Delphos, Plutarch writes of various ritual details which need explaining (2, 385CD). The early twentieth-century French literature on Plutarch was rich on this topic (if marred by a series of perhaps inevitable Christianizing assumptions)—see Decharme, P., La critique des traditions religieuses chez les Grecs des origines au temps de Plutarche (Paris, 1904), pp.413501 and Clerc, C., ‘Plutarche et la culte des images’, Revue de Vhistoire des religions 70 (1914), 107–24.

24 On the importance of religion in Pausanias, see Frazer (n. 17), p. xxxiii, Habicht (n. 17), p. 23 (and n. 91).

25 On the ‘sacred landscape’ of Greece and Pausanias' place in helping us to reconstruct that, see Alcock, S. E., Graecia Capta: The Landscapes of Roman Greece (Cambridge, 1993), pp.172214 (esp. 173–5); see also Alcock, S. E., ‘Minding the Gap in Hellenistic and Roman Greece’, in Alcock, S. E. and Osborne, R. (eds.), Placing the Gods: Sanctuaries and Sacred Space in Ancient Greece (Oxford, 1994), pp.247–61, esp. 257–9.

26 See Eisner (n. 6), pp. 144–52.

27 On the removal of antiquities to Constantinople, see Mango, C. A., ‘Antique Statuary and the Byzantine Beholder’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 17 (1963), 5575;Bassett, S. G., ‘The Antiquities in the Hippodrome of Constantinople’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 45 (1991), 8796;Madden, T. F., ‘The Serpent Column of Delphi in Constantinople: Placement, Purposes and Mutilations’, Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 16 (1992), 111–45. On Byzantine attitudes, see Mango (above) esp. p. 56 and 59–70;H., Saradi-Mendelovici, ‘Christian Attitudes towards Pagan Monuments in Late Antiquity and Their Legacy in Later Byzantine Centuries’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 44 (1990), 4761.

28 Good contextual accounts of religion in the Roman empire are MacMullen, R., Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven, 1981) and R., Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (London, 1986), pp.27261 (pp. 159–60 on statues). Briefly on image and ritual, see Barasch (n. 4), pp. 33–6.

29 On this passage see Verrall, M. and Harrison, J. E., Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens (London, 1890), pp.423–9; Frazer (n. 17), ad loc, vol. 2, pp. 302–4;Beschi, L. and Y, D., Pausania: Guida della Grecia: Libro l: L'Attica (Milan, 1982), ad loc, p.351.

30 See Pliny, Natural History 36.30 and Vitruvius, De Architectura 7.praef. 13, with Jones, H. Stuart, Select Passages from Ancient Writers Illustrative of the History of Greek Sculpture (London, 1895), pp.172–5.

31 This ritual, the Bouphonia, is also described as length by Theophrastus, quoted by Porphyry, De Abstinentia 2.29f. There, unlike in Pausanias, the aition-myth for the cause of the ritual is given; see Bruit, Zaidman and Schmitt, Pantel, Religion in the Ancient Greek City (Cambridge, 1992), pp.169–71.

32 As a compiler of local rituals Pausanias rates quite as highly as he does in the collection of myths. On the latter theme (Pausanias as mythographer) see esp. Veyne (n. 19), p. 3, pp. 13–14. For further examples of Pausanias' ritual precision, see 1.27.2–3 (on the Arrhephoria); 2.11.7–8 and 12.1 (on the image of Coronisand sacrificial practice at the sanctuary of Asclepius at Titane); 2.35.5–8 (the festival of Chthonia at Hermione); 3.14.9–10 (comparative puppy sacrifices at Sparta and Colophon); 5.13.2–3 (sacrificial rules at the Pelopium in Olympia and a comparison with those at Pergamus on the river Caicus); 5.13.8–5.14.3 (the sacrificial rituals at the altar of Olympian Zeus); 5.15.10–11 (the monthly Elean sacrificial liturgy at all the altars at Olympia—whose order Pausanias follows in his description at 5.14.4–10); 5.16.7–8 (women's rituals at the Heraean games in Olympia); 6.20.2–4 (the rituals in honour of Eileithuia and Sosipolis at Mt Cronius); 7.18.9–13 (the Laphria festival at Patrae in honour of Artemis); 7.20.1–2 (the rituals at the Eurypylus festival, Patrae); 8.2.2–3 (comparison of human and nonanimal sacrificial practice); 8.13.1 (rituals in the life-style of the priest and priestess of Artemis Hymnia at Orchomenos, with comparanda from the cult of Artemis of Ephesus); 8.15.2–4 (rites of Demeter at Pheneus); 8.37.8 (unusual sacrificial rituals to the Mistress near Acacesium); 9.2.7–9.3.8 (the festival of Daedala at Plataea); 9.39.5–14 (rituals at the oracular shrine of Trophonius).

33 For writing as rite de passage, see Harbsmeier, M., ‘Elementary Structures of Otherness–, in J., Ceard and Margolin, J. C. (eds.), Voyager a la Renaissance (Paris, 1987), pp.337–55, p. 337. For writing as itself a form of literary pilgrimage see (on Gregory of Tours in late antique Gaul)Van, R. Dam, Saints and their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul (Princeton, 1993), pp.142–9.

34 On this passage see Verrall and Harrison (n. 29), pp. 483–96; Frazer (n. 17), ad loc, vol. 2, pp. 330–40; Beschi and Musti (n. 29), ad loc, pp. 361–2.

35 On Pausanias' interest in techniques and materials for dating objects, see Arafat (n. 18), pp. 392–7, and, on Pausanias' ‘Plinian’ view of ‘the development of sculpture as one straightforward process punctuated by [artistic] innovators’, ibid. pp. 403–6 (quotation from p. 405).

36 For example the paintings of the Stoa Poikile at Athens (1.15.1–3), Polygnotus' murals at Delphi (10.25.1–31.12) and the architectural sculpture at the temple of Zeus in Olympia (5.10.6–9).

37 The Chest of Cypselus: 5.17.5–19.10; the throne at Amyclae: 3.18.10–19.1.

38 For instance Athena Parthenos (1.24.5–7), Hera of Argos (3.17.1–3), Asclepius at Epidaurus (2.27.2), Zeus at Olympia (5.10.2 and 5.11.1–11), Aphrodite Ourania (6.25.1).

39 Some examples: 2.4.5, 2.25.10, 3.10.8, 9.40.3–5. Impressive identifications of a hand include 7.26.6 and 9.10.2.

40 On the ‘Daedalic style’ in Graeco-Roman art-writing, see Morris, S. P., Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art (Princeton, 1992), pp. 238–56 and N., Spivey, ‘Bionic Statues’, in Powell, A. (ed.), TheGreek World (London, 1995), pp.442–59, esp. pp. 446–8; on Pausanias and Daedalus, see Morris (above), pp. 246–51 and Arafat (n. 18), pp. 403–4.

41 For discussion of worship of Heracles as hero and god, see Frazer (n. 17), ad loc, vol. 3, p. 64.

42 See Stuart Jones (n. 30), pp. 168–72, pp. 177–80. On the Heracles at Sicyon, see Stewart, A., Skopas of Paros (Park Ridge, NJ, 1977), pp.9091.

43 On hero and divine sanctuaries in Greece, see Kearns, E., ‘Between God and Man: Status and Function of Heroes and Their Sanctuaries’, in Schachter, A. (ed.), Le sanctuaire Grec (Geneva, 1992;Entretiens Fondation Hardt 37), pp.6599.

44 See Beard, M., ‘Reflections on “Reflections on the Greek Revolution”’, Archaeological Review from Cambridge 4 (1985), pp.207–13, p. 211.

45 On this passage see Frazer (n. 17), ad loc, vol. 3, pp. 340–44;Musti, D. and Torelli, M., Pausania: Guida della Grecia: libro 3: La Laconia (Milan, 1991), ad loc, pp.226–7, with archaeological bibliography. Another Second Sophistic account of this image, largely in accordance with that of Pausanias, is in Philostratus, V.A. 6.20. On the Orthia festival generally, see Kennell, N. M., The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta (Chapel Hill, 1995), pp.7076.

46 See Eisner (n. 6), pp. 144–52.

47 Compare the sanctuary of Lycaean Zeus in Arcadia (8.38.6) with Eisner (n. 6), p. 147–8.

48 On this dispute, see Heer (n. 17), pp. 228–9.

49 On the occasional death of flogged youths, see Plutarch, Lycurgns 18.2, with Kennell (n. 45), pp. 73–4.

50 On this text, see Foucault, M., The History of Sexuality Vol. 3: The Care of the Self (Harmondsworth, 1990), pp.212–13;Eisner, J. and Sharrock, A., ‘Re-Viewing Pygmalion’, Ramus 20 (1991), 149–82, esp. pp. 156–7;Osborne, R., ‘Looking on Greek Style: Does the Sculpted Girl Speak to Women Too?’, in Morris, I. (ed.), Classical Greece: Ancient Histories and Modern Archaeologies (Cambridge, 1994), pp.8196 and Goldhill (n. 12), pp. 102–110 (esp. 103–4). On the statue, see Havelock, C. M., The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors: A Historical Review of the Female Nude in Greek Art (Ann Arbor, 1995).

51 An excellent modern discussion of one category of such images (apotropaic or talismanic statues) is Faraone (n. 5) with the review discussions in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal 4 (1994), 270–89.

52 On images and magic, see Clerc (n. 14), pp. 63–82.

53 See Faraone, (n.5), pp. 74–93, 136–40, idem, ‘Binding and Burying the Forces of Evil: The Defensive Use of “Voodoo” Dolls in Ancient Greece’, Classical Antiquity 10 (1991), 165205, and Barasch (n. 4), pp. 36–9.

54 On Aristides, see Lane Fox (n. 28), pp. 160–63 and Miller (n. 9), pp. 184–204; on statues and healing, see Clerc (n. 14), pp. 37–45.

55 See Frazer (n. 17), ad loc, vol. 5, p. 401.

56 On images and dreams, see Clerc (n. 14), pp. 49–54, Barasch (n. 4), pp. 31–3 and Miller (n. 9), pp. 28–35.

57 For instance the dreams Pausanias himself has at the Athenian Eleusinium (1.14.3), at Eleusis itself (1.38.7), at the Carnasian Grove outside Messene (4.33.4–5).

58 See Pliny, , Natural History 34.5465, 35.1–148; Quintilian, Insi. Or. 12.10.1–9; Cicero, Brutus 70; see also Pollitt (n. 2), pp. 73–84.

59 The sophisma is related to what Faraone (n. 5) calls ‘the ruse of the talismanic statue’, see pp. 94–112.

60 For a good survey of these aspects of ancient votives, see Linders, T. and Nordquist, G. (eds.), Gifts to the Gods (Uppsala, 1987;Boreas 15).

61 Highly relevant here are the reflections of Freedberg, D., The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago, 1989), esp. pp.6181, pp. 83–4 (mainly on ancient Classical images).

62 On this story, see Frazer (n. 17), ad loc, vol. 4, pp. 38–9.

63 This story was often repeated and referred to in antiquity, cf. Dio Chrysostom, Oration 31.95–99, and Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 5.34.

64 For the image of Theagenes as a healing statue, see also Lucian, The Parliament of the Gods 12.

65 After more than a century of discussion about the authorship of the De Dea Syria, the modern consensus has tended to assert the work as Lucian's. See Oden, R. A., Studies in the De Syria Dea (Missoula, Montana, 1977;Harvard Semitic Monographs 15), pp.446 and Jones, C. P., Culture and Society in Lucian (Cambridge, MA, 1986), pp.41–3.

66 On these two cases, see the discussion of Jones (n. 65), pp. 117–48. Generally on Lucian and religion, see ibid. pp. 33–45.

67 On the theme of antipathetical discourses of ancient art, focusing on the issue of ‘the real’, see further Eisner (n. 6), pp. 21–48, esp. 46–8.

68 For discussion of the Iconophile apology for icons, see e.g. Barasch (n. 4), pp. 185–243, esp. 192–8 and Pelikan, J., Imago Dei: The Byzantine Apologia for Icons (New Haven, 1990), esp. pp.6798. For a view of the arguments of Iconoclasm in an ancient intellectual context stretching back to Plato, see Osborne, C., ‘The Repudiation of Representation in Plato's Republic and its Repercussions’, PCPhS N.S.33 (1987), 5373.

69 At the same time, Greek Christianity retained the language and style of ancient ekphrasis (including all the tropes of mimesis) with which to celebrate its sacred images. Likeness, however, in the Byzantine context, referred to the spiritual nature of the prototype and not to a naturalistic imitation of physical presence. See James, L. and Webb, R., ‘“To Understand Ultimate Things and Enter Secret Places”: Ekphrasis and Art in Byzantium’, Art History 14 (1991), 117, esp. 12–14.

70 See the fourteenth-century description by Stephen of Novgorod in Majeska, G. P., Russian Travellers to Constantinople in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (Washington, 1984), p.36

71 See Frankfurter, D. T. M., ‘Stylites and Phallobates: Pillar Religions in Late Antique Syria’, Vigiliae Christianae 44 (1990), 168–98, esp. pp. 184–8 on the methodological problem of generalization and ‘archetypalism’.

72 On Egeria and liturgy, see Wilkinson, J., Egeria–s Travels (London, 1971), pp.5488 and J., Baldovin, The Urban Character of Christian Worship (Rome, 1987), pp.5564, 90–93.

73 For instance 25.8–9 on the decor of the churches, 36.5–37.3 on the relics at the Holy Sepulchre.

74 Such is the implication, for instance, of Gombrich's, E. H. discussion of Classical art in Art and Illusion (London, 1960), esp. pp.99125, and The Heritage of Apelles (London, 1976), pp. 3–18.

* This paper was originally written for a conference on art and ritual at the Courtauld Institute. Versions have been delivered at seminars in Bristol, Cambridge, Princeton and Reading. I am grateful to Catharine Edwards, Christopher Kelly and John Patterson, William Childs and Froma Zeitlin, and Helen Morales for their invitations to speak at these respective institutions. My thanks are due to all those who came and commented on those occasions, and i in particular to Paul Cartledge, Robin Osborne and an anonymous reader for this journal for their comments on an earlier draft.

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