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Divine Interiors: Mural Paintings in Greek and Roman Sanctuaries

Divine Interiors: Mural Paintings in Greek and Roman Sanctuaries

By Eric M. Moormann (Amsterdam Archaeological Studies 16). Pp. vii + 259, b&w figs. 115, color pls. 53. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam 2011. $69.95. ISBN 978-90-8964-261-5 (cloth).

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Amid the ongoing emergence of studies that treat the overall phenomena of ancient wall painting, and especially that of the Campanian regions and Rome, there is good reason for a scholar well versed in the subject and its literature to investigate a specific repertoire concerned with the interior painting of temples. Abundant literary and material evidence testifies to its importance, but, as Moormann rightly claims in Divine Interiors, its survival has never been investigated as a separate category of work. Perhaps the major question with which one approaches such a study concerns the interrelationship of “private” and “public” spheres. Given, in fact, that most public buildings with identifiable civic functions, such as comitia or curiae, survive either with bare walls or only as foundations, temples are the only architectural category of which this question can be asked. Addressing this issue in his introduction, Moormann promises a comprehensive approach covering large portions of the Mediterranean world and over a long stretch of time, with a combination of well known and less familiar facts. He proposes to study the subject as a genre, only forecasting a distinction between temples, properly speaking, and cult locations, which his study reveals as an effective genre distinction insofar as the relationship of decorative content to function can be discerned.

This distinction structures Moormann’s nine chapters. Following a review of literary descriptions as evidence for painting in temples, chapters 2–5 present a survey of visible or once-visible remains from temple buildings in Greece, Roman Italy, the northern provinces, and the East. Chapters 6–8 deal with shrines and cult places, several enjoying a fuller state of preservation, with imperial dedications as the topic of chapter 6. Chapter 7 focuses on shrines housing non-Roman cults, primarily Isis and Mithras, and chapter 8 offers a special case study of the well-preserved paintings of Dura Europos according to their several religious venues. Within each chapter, the combination of familiar and unfamiliar facts creates an intermingling of densely detailed reportage of often fragmentary vestiges from excavation sites along with more extensive analysis of substantial bodies of material. Because of the predominance of place and theme in the book’s organization, each chapter has its own chronological sequence and geographical spread (e.g., in the imperial cult chapter, which ranges from Flavian Campania to Severan North Africa). A brief conclusion draws the disparate materials together within Moormann’s own answers to the initial questions.

The chapter on literary sources as enriched by extensive ekphrastic citations stands apart as witness to the original richness and cultural significance of temple painting. Testimony from Pausanias, Pliny the Elder, and a few others reveals cultural differences between Greece and Rome. Whereas the subjects in Greek sanctuaries are mythological, their artists renowned and their sponsorship civic, private patronage underlies the Roman installations, whose topics are primarily military victory, and whose painters (except for Pacuvius) go unnamed. Moormann concludes the chapter with imagined sequences of paintings, whose descriptions exemplify both narrative focalization and viewer response: for example, the well-known decorations of the Trojan War seen by Aeneas at Juno’s Carthaginian temple, and, in Silius Italicus’ epic of the Second Punic War, a sequence of scenes celebrating the great Roman heroes of the first war displayed in a fictive temple at Liternum that serve to reinvigorate Hannibal’s hatred and his determination to see Rome in flames.

The four chapters that focus on temple painting tell us succinctly where paintings have been found, how many, and what kind they are, with documentation that serves as an index to further information in excavation reports. Whereas the remains in Greece and within the city of Rome are scant, temples in Italian municipalities yield more substantial discoveries that, in the Republican period, are for the most part paratactic decorations imitating either masonry blocks or veneers, as in the Republican wall at Brescia. Moormann stresses the investment of civic pride in making temples prestigious by their decoration as well as the participation of such patterns within the general aesthetic of Mediterranean koine. Such schemes are not, in fact, confined to a single period. Although the author characterizes decorations in northern Europe as belonging to what is commonly called Pompeian Third and Fourth Styles, paratactic paneling maintains a strong presence in the empire in buildings of the East. One welcome inclusion Moormann retrieves from archives is the reports and drawings from the porticus of the Pompeian Temple of Apollo. This manifestly Fourth Style redecoration featured large panel scenes of the Trojan War. Although Moormann is no doubt correct in pronouncing the topics themselves unrelated to Apollo, the relationship of these compositions as shown by sketches to preserved paintings in houses does give a quite productive connection with public and private spheres.

Relevance comes to the forefront of discussion in the three chapters dedicated to the extant decoration of shrines, including some of the best-preserved findings in Campania whose associations with the Augustales, Isis, and Mithra have made them of particular interest within the growing tendency of Roman scholarship to look at nonelite culture through art. At Herculaneum, the Aedes Augustalium, with its interior shrine paintings of the city’s eponymous hero, is the only securely identified member of a complex of three buildings rich both in wall decoration and in statuary. In a critical conspectus of recent scholarly dialogue on the complex, which includes the well-known heroic imagery of Hercules, Theseus, and Achilles, Moormann opts for a Flavian dating and sensibly resists any imposition of allegorical meaning. While the iconic tauroctomy of the Mithraic shrines and meeting places is standard and the grades of initiation are also fixed, the walls do have some alternatives, as shown by garden paintings on the walls of one Ostian Mithraeum and a very vigorous hunt scene in Dura Europos.

Moorman’s overall conclusion that neither the style nor the subjects of temple decorations place them apart from contemporaneous painting styles as known in the domestic sphere will not surprise any reader who has followed the discussion, but it is important to our understanding of the decorative industry in general and holds possibilities for further thinking on patronage. Abundant black-and-white figures clarify the descriptions, while the 53 color plates are of a remarkably high quality. The book will be of interest primarily to scholars concerned with Roman art and/or Roman culture in general.

Eleanor Winsor Leach
Department of Classical Studies
Indiana University
Bloomington, Indiana 47405

Book Review of Divine Interiors: Mural Paintings in Greek and Roman Sanctuaries, by Eric M. Moormann

Reviewed by Eleanor Winsor Leach

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 1 (January 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1171.Leach

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