Monday, November 27, 2017
Go to Room 18 in the British Museum in London and you will find yourself in front of the Parthenon Marbles, taken from Greece by Lord Elgin in the nineteenth century. The astonishingly lifelike statues are, today, in a sorry state: many are mutilated or missing limbs. This, it is often assumed, was the fault of Lord Elgin's clumsy workmen or fighting during the Ottoman occupation. And indeed some of this was — but not all. Much was the work of zealous Christians who set about the temple with blunt instruments, attacking the 'demonic' gods, mutilating some of the finest statuary Greece had ever produced.1References in notes 1-2 are to:
The East Pediment fared particularly badly. Hands, feet, even whole limbs have gone — almost certainly smashed off by Christians trying to incapacitate the demons within. The vast majority of the gods have been decapitated — again, almost certainly the work of Christians. The great central figures of the Pediment, that would have shown the birth of Athena, were the most sacred — and thus to the Christians the most demonic. They therefore suffered most: it is likely that they were pushed off the Pediment and smashed on the ground below, their fragmented remains ground down and used for mortar for a Christian church.
The same tale is told by objects in museums and archaeological sites across the world. Near the Marbles in the same museum is a basalt bust of Germanicus. Two blows have hacked off his nose and a cross has been cut in his forehead. In Athens, a larger-than-life statue of Aphrodite has been disfigured by a crude cross carved on her brow; her eyes have been defaced and her nose is missing.2 In Cyrene, the eyes have been gouged out of a life-sized bust in a sanctuary of Demeter, and the nose removed; in Tuscany a slender statue of Bacchus has been decapitated. In the Sparta Archaeological Museum, a colossal statue of the goddess Hera looks blindly out, her eyes disfigured by crosses. A beautiful statue of Apollo from Salamis has been castrated and then struck, hard, in the face, shearing off the god's nose. Across his neck are scars indicating that Christians attempted to decapitate him but failed. In Palmyra Museum there stood, at least until the city's recent occupation by Islamic State, the mutilated and reconstructed figure of the once-great figure of Athena that had dominated a temple there. A huge dent in her once-handsome face was all that remained when her nose was smashed off. A recent book on the Christian destruction of statues focussing just on Egypt and the Near East runs to almost three hundred pages, dense with pictures of mutilation.3
1. Pollini (2007), 212ff.
2. Trombley (2008), 152; Kaltsas (2002), [fig.] 510.
3. It is Troels Myrup Kristensen's brilliant Making and Breaking the Gods: Christian Responses to Pagan Sculpture in Late Antiquity (2013).
- John Pollini, "Christian Destruction and Mutilation of the Parthenon," Mitteilungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts, Athenische Abteilung 122 (2007) 207–228
- Frank R. Trombley, "The Destruction of Pagan Statuary and Christianization (Fourth–Sixth Century CE)," in The Sculptural Environment of the Roman Near East: Reflections on Culture, Ideology, and Power, edd. Y.Z. Eliav et al. (Leuven: Peeters, 2008), pp. 143–164
- Nikolaos Kaltsas, Ancient Greek and Roman Sculpture in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, tr. D. Hardy (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002)
forehead and chin, eyes gouged, and nose smashed
(National Archaeological Museum, Athens, inv. 1762)
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.