The Sculptures of Gods

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The Sculptures of Gods

An ongoing exhibition of Greek and Roman sculpture in the Getty Villa provides a splendid selection for the formal analysis. Among the particular objects of interest is The Lansdowne Dionysos, A.D. 1-200 (see Appendix A). It is a curious example of the Roman copies of the Greek original statues. Another item from the Roman collection is the Herm of Hermes, second half of the 1st century A.D (see Appendix B), created in the image of Hermes Propylaios authored by the Greek sculptor Alkamenes around 430–420 B.C. Both artworks belong to the same art canon and share the cultural origin. Both are Roman imitations of the Greek tradition. Both are made of marble. Yet, the two art objects under analysis differ between one another considerably in terms of their sculptural formal aspects, as well as both diverge from the Greek canons they imitate in terms of functional purpose and symbolic meaning.

Seeming to a contemporary’s eye as fractured body fragments or unfinished works, the items under consideration are, in fact, canonical artistic renditions of the divine image within the succession of two cultures, the Roman one adopting the shapes of and being evidently inspired by the preceding Greek heritage. The sculptures on display – lacking limbs and being decapitated, as exemplified by the Dionysos, or being represented by a sole head, like Hermes – are the body parts and shapes as originally intended by their creators and not the result of being age-worn and subject to breakage accidents. A headless statue (torso) is an interesting feature of the Greek tradition and its Roman rendition, since the identity of the art character is supposedly guessed rather than recognized. A face is typically considered the foremost important part for observation, recognition and art focus overall. Contrary to this human logic yet typical of the Greek art, the headless and faceless Roman Dionysos is “guessed” by the animal skin half-covering his body, being yet another reference to a canonical, generally recognized image from the past art tradition of portrayal. In contrast, god Hermes is performed in the form of a head mounted on a pillar in the shape of a vertically standing cuboid. This combination forms a typical Greek architectural ensemble called the herm. In fact, the art term itself was derived from the cult of Hermes. This logically leads the analysis to further considering subject and content in more detail.

In terms of subject and content matter, the two statues do not differ among each other as much as they differ from the Greek origin after which they were created. For example, the original Hermes herm was positioned near the entrance of the Athenian Acropolis, thus, guarding it and forming a symbolic threshold at the sacred zone. Yet, its Roman rendition already lost its sacred functional purpose, being reported to serve as a decoration for the Roman villa gardens, turning into a mere ornament. It is not clear what purpose the Dionysos statue served in the time of its creation in the Roman epoch. In the Greek times, the statues of gods were considered the cult objects not aesthetically admired but rather worshipped. Yet, it is known that in the twentieth century the given torso of Dionysos adorned the garden of Montecito. Thus, both are examples of the symbolic and functional rethinking, reimaging and re-imagining, whereby the original religious essence transformed into a matter of outdoors decorum.

The artworks display cardinally different features when it comes to line and balance, one being more dynamic and asymmetrical compared to the other. The statue of Dionysos has a relaxed, fluid posture of the young body, suggesting the mild state of drunken euphoria that was often attributed to Dionysos as the God of wine and festivity. Respectively, the statue’s lines form a slightly tilted diagonal axis running from the raised non-existent right arm through the body and to the left leg off which the figure’s balance is shifted. His nudity is both a tribute to the Greek and, later, Roman tradition of body worship as well as an extra clue to indicate the frivolous, uncovered and uncensored sexuality of the God of corporal pleasures. Allegedly, Hermes also had its genitalia on display, as a separate element attached to the pedestal pillar on the front (where currently the distinctive hole is). The exposure of the genitals is explainable both by the Greek tradition and by Hermes being the god of fertility. Nowadays, these additional elements are lost. Thus, unlike the half-bare Dionysos torso crafted in much realistic detail, Hermes has a marble pillar as a substitute for his body, making the artwork look more static, symmetrical, and even geometric. His face also bears the evident traces of intended symmetry in all the manifestations, for symmetry allegedly equaled beauty and perfection. All in all, both being the typical Roman copies of the Greek sculptural canons, the art objects differ in terms of the body part chosen for portrayal and the way they are rendered through line and balance.

The medium in both cases is marble, yet the artistic representation differs cardinally. The entire piece of Dionysos is a human torso performed with much attention to detail. The marble is polished to the point it resembles the smooth human (or godly) skin as it covers the muscles and bones underneath. The work is so precise and masterful that stone gains its perceived soft texture. It seems to be yielding and flexible like the actual human body. The piece of animal skin that is used as an element of an outfit for the god also looks extremely realistic as it hangs from Dionysos’ shoulder, either half-hiding or half-exposing his torso. Hence, in these two instances the skin – the living human and dead animal – looks different, giving an illusion of the two corresponding states: the inertness of the dead flesh and the lively rigor of the young body. Contrastingly, the herm rendition of Hermes gives the feeling of stone-hard firmness and immobility. The strict geometrical shape makes marble seem hyper-hard and rogue. This way, a noble material gains the quality of a rough building block, even though it is still used as an obelisk. As for the role of such effects on the human perception of the statue, one may assume that the use of a schematic pedestal for the head of the god is aimed at giving grandeur to the persona portrayed. Pedestal per se has always been regarded as an element that elevates whatever or whoever is seated atop of it. The sculptural portrait of Hermes per se is performed in a manner similar to the one described for Dionysos, with the effect of a smooth skin and lively hair arranged in half-natural half-geometrical wavelike patterns. The duality of the realistic head attached to an inanimate cuboid arouses a strange feeling of the pompous grandeur.

One particular strange similarity between the objects is the hair – an element almost identical per se when viewed separately yet being embedded into cardinally different contexts. Carved in very similar patterns in terms of texture, shape and even length, both art works’ hair strands fall on the characters’ shoulders. The point of oddity is the fact that while Hermes does not have actual shoulders portrayed as his head is basically attached to the pillar to form a herm, Dionysos does have shoulders naturalistically and fully cut in marble yet does not have the head. As a result, the two strands of curly hair grow out of thin air, being cut roughly where the neck cut is. Thus, this single element unites the two art objects under the umbrella tradition of the Greek sculpture and its later Roman adoption, making them recognizable and easily attributed to the corresponding epochs. Interestingly, the mentioned difference distinguishes the artworks from one another as different types of sculpture within the Roman and Greek cultures, yet not between these cultures. Indeed, it is impossible and erroneous to say that one is more typical of the Greek or Roman culture than the other. They are both sculptural forms that ran continuously like a red thread through two subsequent cultures, both surviving side by side and being popular among the Romans just as well as they originally were among the Greeks.

The effect of both works is overall realistic and at the same time otherworldly. Both statues are portrayals of the Greek gods. Dionysos has a distinctively human body with all its biological male attributes. The human likeness is an ambiguous form for depicting the creatures of the higher standing than humans. Another interesting aspect is the human worship of the godly bodies that are imprinted in marble in the ultimately perfect physiological shapes (or at least the shapes people considered perfect). In contrast, Hermes has a form of a head mounted on the schematic representation of a body. It is noteworthy that while other bodily features are ignored, the pillar had the genitalia exquisitely carved and attached to it. The resulting shape is a chimerical symbiosis of the human body parts and three-dimensional geometrical figures altogether representing a god. Overall, such a relationship between human physiology, art, and myth as religion is multifaceted and complex. In essence, gods are believed to have the human corporeal form that literally brings the divine down to earth, to the material world. At the same time, depicting these forms in art and worshipping them brings the gods back to the ethereal realm of the divine.

In conclusion, The Lansdowne Dionysos and Herm of Hermes are curious examples of the longevity of the Greek tradition through its imitation in the Roman times. Nevertheless, while being the examples of inter-cultural heredity in terms of visual representation canons, both pieces diverge from the Greek tradition they imitate in functional purpose as they have lost their initial religious meaning. To top it all, the two art objects differ from each other in their sculptural forms, portraying different bodily parts and doing it through diverging architectural means.

Comment: In your paper, I think that you argued that the sculptures show the importance of divine images in Greek and Roman culture, but your thesis was not totally clear. The strongest section of the paper was your discussion of line and balance as static vs active. In this section, I got the sense that you spend time looking at the works, Overall, however, you relied too much on historical context to make your argument. I would have liked you to think more about the overall effect of the two pieces when crafting your thesis rather than using historical context to make your argument. The paper relied too much on narrative and iconography. When you did describe a visual effect, you didn’t adequately use visual evidence to explain how that effect was produced. C+


Appendix A

The Lansdowne Dionysos



Appendix B

Herm of Hermes

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