Sunday, August 16, 2015

Art, Engagement and the Renaissance

I have always loved art history, for the stories a work of art can tell us of its time, place and the people who lived at that particular point in history. Although I note the formal elements of a work, I am more interested in engagement with art on a personal level- how does it make me feel, think, understand. I had a particularly profound experience in a museum this June that touched on all these elements of engagement and more...

I caught the Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from the Florence Cathedral at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York on the last day of the exhibit, the last day of the museum, as a matter of fact.  I came to the show to see masterpieces that had never before left Italy in a totally new setting (it would have been sacrilegious for me to not visit such greatness when it was at my doorstep) but left with a new awareness of the greatness of the Renaissance.

The wonders of the Renaissance are awe-inspiring, to be sure, but for people from non-Western cultures they require a certain lexicon. Even though humanism was one of the main driving forces of this period in history, the context for most commissions were embedded in the Judea-Christian culture. I remember once overhearing a young man in a museum saying "It looks beautiful to be sure, but I wish I understood what it meant..." as he gazed at a 16th century painting of the four evangelists.  Of course no one needs anything except the use of their eyes when gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the majestic sculptures of the great masters filling Florentine museums but my experience at the MOBIA exhibit was different even those moments.

Being up-close and personal with these sculptures, so far removed from their original context, I was able to engage with them as magnificent works of art that moved me. I could not only see but feel the humanism embedded in these works... the intensity, the anguish, the contemplation.  The experience was so powerful that I left with a new understanding and appreciation for the greatness of the Renaissance.

So, what was so different about the works of display on this exhibit than all those other masterpieces of the Renaissance we encounter in museums regularly? Those living outside of Italy can experience the Italian Renaissance mostly through the paintings on museum walls and encountering these monumental works, in such close proximity created a very intimate level of engagement that surpassed any type of intellectual admiration. This was a traumatic experience for someone who is a wholehearted believer in the relevance of context above all else. So, how could I be so moved by these works without any context? or was the context present in the knowledge of knowing their authentic place and purpose? Didn't we need the Cathedral with its doors and niches for which these works were created? How about the tight streets of Florence that surround the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, shaded by the Duomo? These sculptures come from the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, a museum that houses the original sculptures from the Cathedral and the Baptistry from the natural elements, but due to their close proximity to their original location (around the corner from the entrance of the Cathedral and the Baptistry) I feel it is still a vastly different experience to encounter them in a small exhibition space of a museum in New York.

I will share my photographs of the exhibit with some of the gallery labels and let you decide for yourself...

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Cybele, the Mother of the Gods

Goddess Figurine, Catalhoyuk, 5750 B.C.E.
(Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara)

Since it's mother'day today I thought it would be a great opportunity to take a look at the ancestors of what we have defined as the image of motherhood for centuries. Cybele, Magna Mater, Meter, the Mother of the Gods was an Anatolian deity with many attributes and symbolism we are still trying to figure out to this day. As Bettany Hues reveals quite dramatically in her BBC documentary Divine Women there was a time "When God was a Girl," and some of her ancestors lived in Anatolia...
There is a figurine from the sixth millenium B.C.E. excavated in Catalhoyuk at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara of the first archaeological evidence of what has been identified as a Mother Goddess. She sits enthroned between two feline figures giving birth.

Orthostat of a Mother Nursing her Child, Karatepe, 8th century B.C.E.

Another example of a Mother Goddess figure from Anatolia is Mother Nursing her Child, an orthostat from Karatepe, a late-Hittite settlement. This figure is an earlier example of the more familiar figure of Isis Nursing Horus, 664-332 B.C.E.,which is often quoted as being the ancestor of the Mother goddess figurines. Although contemporary feminists have owned these Mother Goddess images as "the force and awesome power of the virginal mother goddess, the bearer and nurturer of gods and kings, sustainer of all life," not all scholars concur with the maternal interpretation. 1 According to Brigitte Bogh, and Lynn Roller, whose research focuses on the Phrygian Mother Goddess, Meter was more a figure of power and protector than nurterer. The archaeological evidence of the Phrygian Great Mother from Gordion appear from the 8th -6th century B.C.E. She is a standing female figure, wearing a heavily draped gown and a tall headdress, holding a shallow bowl in her right hand and birds of prey in her left hand and rarely accompanied by lions.

Head of Cybele, Salmankoy, 6th century B.C.E.
(Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara)

The Lydian influenced images of the Great Mother are standing figures flanked by lions; the raptor birds and the lions, which have been associated with wild nature, are actually being read as symbols of power according to contemporary scholarship. 2 Bogh, who has researched the cult of Meter in the Western Black Sea Region, colonized by the Greeks from Asia Minor in the 7th century B.C.E,  argues that they brought the Mother with them in her role as city protector and goddess of power.3 She was also worshipped in a temple, its portico functioning as the city archive, similar to the temple of the Mother in Athens, which was also located in the city archives. 3

Mater (Cybele), Bogazkale, Middle 6th century B.C.E., Phyrigian
(Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara)
By the 3rd century, the image of the Phrygian Mother Goddess had been thoroughly Hellenized, she had garnered a new torchbearing companion, conjoined other Greek deities with similar iconograhies such as Demeter, Artemis as well as the Muses.4  She was represented sitting enthroned or on the back of a lion with her attributes of a tympanum, tapera and lions. The Berlin Cybele, from the first half of the 4th century B.C.E. is one example of the new iconography of the Mother of the Gods, who is wearing a mural crown similar to Tyche's crown of city embattlements, holding a key in her right hand, which has been identified as the key to the earth.

Cybele Enthroned, 1st half of the 4th century B.C.E., Anatolia
(Antikensammlung der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin) 

This was the iconography of Cybele that was translated into the coins of Roman empresses like Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus. In the Denarius struck for Julia Domna during her husband's reign, Cybele is seen with a mural crown, sitting on a throne with a lion by her side with the legend MATER DEVM, the Latin translation of Rhea, the daughter of earth goddess Gaia, wife and sister to Cronus and mother of the gods including Zeus.

Julia Domna, AR Denarius, 196-211, Rome, Septimius Severus
Another attribute to the image of Cybele is seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art stauette from the 2nd century A.D. In Greek mythology, Atalanta the beautiful, virgin daughter of Schoeneus who could run faster than any man, and Hippomenes who managed to win her hand in marriage after defeating her by distracting Atalanta with the three golden apples Venus had given him, were overcome with desire and had sex in Cybele's temple. The Greeks thought lions could not mate so Atalanta and Hippomenes were turned into lions and had to live side by side drawing Cybele's chariots for all eternity.

Statuette of Cybele on a chariot drawn by lions, 2nd half of 2nd century A.D.
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Whether it be the image of the fertile mother or the powerful, protector of cities, the Mother Goddess lived on in Anatolia, metamorphosing into new types according to the needs of contemporary society for centuries.  Byzantine empresses, especially Constantinian empresses, used the image of the nursing female on their coins to emphasize, fertility, security and dynastic stability.  Constantine's second wife Fausta was depicted standing nursing twins on her Solidus from 325 which was the personification of spes reipublicae (hope of the republic) and Theodora, Constantine's step-mother was shown as pietas romana (Roman piety) with an infant at her breast.5 Theodora's coin was struck during the struggle for succession after Constantine's death in which Constantine's sons were being promoted against Theodora's sons, Constantine's half-brothers.6

Solidus of Fausta, minted Thessalonica 324
(Dumbarton Oaks)

Nummus of Theodora, 337

The most lasting image of the mother and child that came out of Anatolia has to be the Virgin and Child. Mary, regarded as Theotokos, the container of the uncontainable,  has been the the icon of motherhood and feminine sanctity for the past 2000 years.

"Mother of God, dwelling place of the uncontainable." 14th century
(Chora Museum, Istanbul)
It is believed that the last great siege of antiquity, the siege of Constantinople in 626 by the Avars and the Persians was only deflected by Marian intervention. When the patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius had a procession carrying the icon of the Blachernitissa, kept at the Church of St. Mary of Blachernae, along the ramparts, the enemy, upon seeing a beautiful woman adorened with jewels scouring the walls was frightened and defeated. The Virgin was pronounced as the protector of the city from that day forward.

Blachernitissa, icon of the Theotokos
(Dormition Cathedral, Moscow)
Anatolia, which translates as Anadolu, is the land of Mother Goddesses. The tradition of the feminine as a powerful and protecting force continued  during the Ottoman Empire, an autocratic and patriarchal society, with the Valide Sultans (the queen mothers) who were the second most powerful people in the empire.  The cult of the Magna Mater was transported to Greece as well as Rome, the Mother being venerated in different ways. Over time, the iconography and the rituals differed from one society to another, the power of the Mother of the Gods always stayed constant throughout the pan-Mediterranean culture.  Happy Mother's Day.


York, Hildreth and Schlossman, Betty L."She Shall Be Called Woman": Ancient near Eastern Sources of Imagery”. Woman's Art Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2 (Autumn, 1981 - Winter, 1982), pp. 38-9

2 Bogh, Birgitte. "Mother of the Gods: Goddess of Power and Protector of Cities." NVMEN 59, no. 32-6 (2012): 34-67
Roller, Lynn E. In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele. Berkley, CA: U of          California, 1999 
Roller, Lynn E. "The Great Mother at Gordion: The Hellenization of an Anatolian Cult." The     Journal of Hellenic     Studies111 (1991): 128-43

3 Bogh, 2012

4 Roller, 1991

5 J. Kent (ed.), Roman Imperial Coinage VIII, The Family of Constantine I AD 337-364, Spink and Son, London, 1981

Leslie Brubaker and Helen Tobler, “The Gender of Money: Byzantine Empresses on Coins (324-802)” Gender and History, Vol. 12 No. 3 November 2000

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Why Art History - The Treasures of Constantinople

Pope Francis is on a three-day visit to Turkey where he is spending Saturday and Sunday in Istanbul as a guest of Patriarch Bartholomew. I thought this would be a good occasion to recall another Papal visit to Constantinople in 523 by Pope John I. Bishop Ecclesius of Ravenna (mentioned below) was part of his entourage. There is one theory that Anicia Juliana might have commissioned the Church of St. Polyeuktos in accordance with this trip.

The following is an article that was originally posted on Hasan Niyazi's website Three Pipe Problem in August 2013 as a response to the question Hasan posed "Why Art History?"

The remains of the 6th century Church of St. Polyeuktos
It all started with peacocks... those dazzling creatures that represented the eternity of the spirit and had associations with Roman empresses... There once was a church, built by a royal princess who was the noblest in the land, that had a golden dome and was lavishly decorated with the most precious marbles from the empire, colors of green, blue and gold glittering everywhere, with peacock motifs decorating column capitals and niches around the church, it was known to have been inspired from the temple of Solomon. No one knew of its existence till half a century ago when magnificent marble fragments appeared as if by magic in the middle of Istanbul... This, was the Church of St. Polyeuktos in Constantinople, built in the 6th century by Anicia Juliana, a descendant of both Eastern and Western emperors ...

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
The first time I had every heard of the Church of St Polyeuktos was when I was doing a book review for this blog on And Diverse are their Hues, exploring the significance of color in Islamic art and culture. In his article "Blue Behind Gold: Inscription of the Dome of the Rock and its Relatives" Dr. Lawrence Nees gave the example of St. Polyeuktos as being one of the fore-bearers for the color scheme and type of decoration used on Dome of the Rock. Dr. Nees painted a radiant picture of a Byzantine church with peacock blue and green used behind gold inscriptions that left me enthralled with this mysterious, magnificent structure and its founder, I had to find out more...

It was during my semester in Istanbul last fall, at a visit to Istanbul Archaeology Museum, I recalled Anicia Juliana and her church once again, upon seeing a capital with peacock motifs. I found the section set aside for the Church of St. Polyeuktos among the Istanbul galleries of the museum, identified by the name of the present day neighborhood where they had been excavated, Saraçhane. There were some beautiful, intricately carved late antique marble works, capitals and columns with a few colored glass still intact, but visualizing the splendor and comprehending the significance of this church required more research.

After inquiring, I learned that Saraçhane was the neighborhood directly across from the Istanbul municipality, near the aqueduct of Valens and the fragments leading to the discovery of this church were found during grading operations in the area in the 1960's. As a matter of fact, I had probably passed by the site, which is labeled an "Archaeological Park," thousands of times in my lifetime. It had been right there, where I took the right turn to go to the antique flea-market, Horhor, one of my favorite haunts in Istanbul. This was just another one of the remains of the Byzantine past buried beneath that great capital of Empires, Istanbul, it's fate, sadly recalling the neglected history of Byzantium.

Ruins of St. Polyeuktos with the view of Aqueduct of Valens
Ruins of St. Polyeuktos with the view of the Istanbul Municipality
So, what was so special about this church and how did we compile a whole picture from the bits of marble strewn about? And where did Solomon's temple fit into all of this? This, is the great wonder of archaeology and art historical research, they tell us the tales of the people and places of the past, bringing to life a culture, a way of life that has been long gone and sometimes even forgotten for centuries but still relevant to us today. From the myth surrounding it about being an exact replica of the Temple of Solomon to its extraordinary decoration program which appropriated distinctly Sassanian motifs next to classical Roman ones, the most ostentatious structure of it's day, Church of St. Polyeuktos, standing in the middle of the processional way, between the Forum Taori and the Church of the Holy Apostles, was waiting to tell us the story not only of its remarkable patron, who dared to challenge Justinian, but also the establishment of signs and symbols of divine and heavenly kingship in Late Antiquity.

One of the primary finds that helped to identify St. Polyeuktos was the inscriptions that were to be found around the fragmentary niches, the apse of which were filled with the outspread tail feathers of a peacock. The inscription was identified as the seventy-six line epigram recorded in a 10th century source, Palatine Anthology, which stated that it belonged to the church of the martyr Polyeuktos built by Anicia Juliana, the great-granddaughter of the empress Eudocia (wife of Theodosius II) "who built a structure to rival the temple of Solomon." Dr. Martin Harrison, who excavated the dig also discovered that the unit of measurement used in the church was the royal cubit as opposed to the Roman foot and the church measured 100 royal cubits feet square, the measurement of the Temple at Jerusalem, built by King Solomon in tenth century BCE. Princess Anicia Juliana had not only planned and executed one of the predominant signs of kingship in every detail of her church but she had also brazenly declared it like a manifesto in one of the most visible elements of the structure, the decorative inscription.

The Church of St. Polyeuktos appears in the Byzantine Book of Ceremonies, which mentions the emperor stopping here during imperial procession for Easter Mondays where he changed his candle before continuing along the Mese to the Church of the Holy Apostles. Another literary source that mentions the church of St. Polyeuktos and adds an interesting dimension to the whole construct is the sixth century story by Gregory of Tours. In this story, Juliana's confrontation with the "upstart" Justinian (he was of peasant stock while she had the blood of the Theodosian dynasty coursing through her veins) and her victory over him is told. Justinian looking for more revenue to fund his defense and building projects requests Juliana make a contribution to public funds. She humbly asks for time to gather her treasure and meanwhile instructs her workers to plate the roof of the church using all of her gold. When Justinian comes back, she takes him to the church where they kneel in prayer and when they are done, she points to their surroundings, and tells him to take what he likes. Since he is not about to take apart a house of God, Justinian is about to leave when Juliana gives him her emerald ring saying, "Accept, most sacred Emperor, this tiny gift from my hand, for it is deemed to be worth more than this gold." The passing on of the ring has been interpreted by scholars as the last member of the Theodosian dynasty passing on the right to rule to her successor. It is also assumed that Juliana was a disillusioned, old woman by now, neither her husband nor her son attaining what she deemed was rightfully theirs, the position of emperor.

From what can be gathered from the archaeological evidence and the remaining artifacts, St. Polyeuktos had been pillaged during the fourth crusade, some parts making their way to Europe and finally collapsed around the 13th century. Except for a few marble fragments in museums and the two pillars gracing the Piazzetta outside of the south walls of the San Marco under the auspices of Pillars of Acre, all that remains in place of this once magnificent church whose influence can be seen from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to the S. Vitale in Ravenna is the substructure. Some scholars believe the workers that created the splendid, marble decorations for the church were recruited by Bishop Ecclesius on his visit to Constantinople to go to work in S. Vitale in Ravenna while others probably worked on Justinian's two churches, SS. Sergius and Bachus, and Hagia Sophia, that bear a striking resemblance in the quality and type of marble sculpture to St. Polyeuktos. This is why Justinian's legendary quote upon completion of the Hagia Sophia, "Solomon I have outdone thee!" is believed actually to be addressing Juliana.

Pillars of Acre, Venice, from the Church of St. Polyeuktos, Constantinople (source)
San Marco, Venice, taken from the Church of St. Polyeuktos, Constantinople (source)
Today, when I stand in Saraçhane Square and look around me, instead of seeing another busy, Istanbul thoroughfare with a sea of bustling humanity and throngs of vehicles passing through on their way to some other destination, I imagine the imperial procession approaching St. Polyeuktos, with large tapers in their hands or members of the factions, the demarche of the Blues with the deme of the Whites receiving the emperor and the criers saying "Your divine Majesty is welcome" and the acclamations of eulogy being chanted by the criers and the people... It's almost as if a silent, black and white movie just became a technicolor movie with sound. As I venture around the ruins, I try to imagine and draw courage from Anicia Juliana, a woman who was bold enough to compare herself to King Solomon 1500 years ago. When I consider the decorative cycle with those unique Sassanian inspired plant motifs, I get a glimpse of the far-reaching interaction between the two rival courts, cultures, and can't help but wonder how much more there is to know that we still haven't discovered or been able to see through our Greco-Roman centric, point of view. I liken the site to a momento mori in the inevitable abandonment and destruction of even such a significant structure when it fulfilled its usefulness.

Standing amidst the ruins of St. Polyeuktos
Art history is the visual manifestation of the common link that connects us to the past, the present day as well as the future. Every work of art I encounter has a story to tell about the time, the people, the culture and the world at large which broadens my perspective about the world I am living in and my place in it. My journey in the world of art history is a very personal one that has given me a sense of belonging. By studying the history of art, I not only discover the details of different cultures from history, I also find the common link that bonds us all together as human beings. St. Polyeuktos was obviously not the first work of art that I encountered to get me interested in this type of study and Byzantine art is not the only concentration I am interested in, when it comes to art history, I am not discriminating, I will take it all in. I have favorite artists and favorite time periods of course but as I progress further into my research, I realize that the two fundamental aspects that has me so enthralled every single time is how each work touches my soul and my intellect. I would like to thank Hasan for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts on 3 Pipe Problem. One of the greatest benefits of blogging about art history has been the connections I have made with like minded individuals and I feel I owe a special thanks to Hasan for this as well. His generosity of spirit has been a connecting force for a lot of art history bloggers from all the corners of the world.

Marble bust of Anicia Juliana, Metropolitan Museum of Art (source)

1. Nees, Lawrence. Blue Behind Gold: Inscription of the Dome of the Rock and its Relatives. Video hosted by (link)

2. Canepa, Matthew P. Two Eyes of the Earth - Art and Ritual of Kingship between Rome and Sasanian Iran. University of California Press. 2010. Preview available at Google Books (link)

3. De Cerimoniis (ed. A. Vogt, pp. 68 and 43-4; ed. Reiske, pp. 75-6 and 50) Translated by M. Harrison. Excavations at Sarachane in Istanbul. Vol. 1. Princeton University Press. 1986. pp.9-10

4. Gregory of Tours - Glory of the Martyrs. Translated by R. Van Dam. Liverpool University Press. 1988. Preview available at Google Books (link)

5. Harrison, RM Excavations at Sarachane in Istanbul. Vol.1 The Excavations, Structures, Architectural Decorations, Small Finds, Coins, Bones, and Mollusc. Princeton University Press, 1986

6. Harrison, M. A Temple for Byzantium. University of Texas Press. 1989.

7. Mango, C and Sevcenko, I. Remains of the Church of St. Polyeuktos at Constantinople. Dumbarton Oaks Papers. Vol. 15. 1961.

8. Palatine Anthology. Book I - Christian Epigrams. pp.7-11. Available online at The Internet Archive (link)
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