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Making and Breaking the Gods: Christian Responses to Pagan Sculpture in Late Antiquity

Making and Breaking the Gods: Christian Responses to Pagan Sculpture in Late Antiquity

By Troels Myrup Kristensen (Aarhus Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity 12). Pp. 297, figs. 100, table 1. Aarhus University Press, Aarhus 2013. $56. ISBN 978-87-7124-089-4 (cloth).

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Since the beginning of modern archaeology, late antiquity has found itself relegated to the status of foundling child, neither belonging truly to antiquity nor quite yet the Medieval period. It suffers another substantial setback with this study, which proposes to address head-on the defining character of the culture of late antiquity, the collision between an entrenched past and a new religious orientation. Specifically, the author takes up here the critical issue of the Christian response to the sculptured images of the polytheistic world and what place such images would have in a Roman empire with a Christian orientation. In the introduction’s characterization of Christianity as anti-idolic rather than aniconic (19) lies both the appeal of the author’s approach as well as an area where there might be some challenges, as it broaches the issue of how images are used in cult and the definition of such statues.

The introduction lays out the state of textual and material evidence and the complex of possible interpretations this evidence might elicit. Few will object to or even find surprise in the author’s proposal that both textual and material evidence will need to be used in symphony to arrive at viable conclusions. In addition to this statement of general methodological approach, a section is included of the type that seems now a convention in academic writing: a survey of the sweep of theoretical literature that addresses the themes the book will pursue (i.e., responses to images and their destruction), both within antiquity and more broadly in history. While these studies may form the intellectual background to the author’s preparation for the book, most are not cited further in the following chapters.

The first chapter sets the approach to understanding the background of Roman images in their functional mode, as part of the ritual actions, apparatus, and setting needed in the practice of Roman religion. In these discussions, the term “cult image” is employed, a term whose accuracy is now disputed with the observation that it does not translate any ancient term in Greek or Latin for a statue. The author does acknowledge that any image might function for worship at some level (49), but he seems to use “cult image” to refer to a temple’s principal statue(s). The absence of a clear statement of how the phrase “cult image” should be understood does allow for a degree of uncertainty. For example, the author describes the reliefs from the first-century C.E. funeral monument at Amiternum as depicting a circus procession “in which cult images were carried through the city” (44). He cites no primary source in support of this, but scale, materials, construction, wear, and iconography all militate against the likelihood that this is true.

That the damaging of statues was not random but with purpose and pattern is brought forth ably in a number of examples. However, to argue the case in the context of a specific site, the author examines extensively the images in two sanctuaries in Rome, both dedicated to imported Asian gods. The author concludes that the highly ritualized actions and spaces in conjunction with images at these sites should not be understood as a phenomenon exclusive to such Asian cults. But since imported cults experienced varying degrees of acceptance or suspicion at different levels of Roman society, it may be unwarranted to assume that their practices and those of indigenous cults were equivalent.

The importance of the issue of the equivalence of ritual actions and spaces between indigenous and foreign cults is demonstrated in chapters 2 and 3, the real core of the book, where more extended consideration of the texts and archaeological evidence focuses on Egypt and southwestern Asia. The sites discussed provide a compelling case for the various ways the newly powerful Christians handled existing divine and imperial images from the polytheistic past (and present). The author rightly points out the perils of interpretations based on the highly charged Christian descriptions of their destruction of polytheistic sculptures and religious sites, and the less-than-complete record of the Late Antique phase of many sites. The question remains open as to what extent the evidence of destruction by Christians at sites in southwestern Asia and Egypt typifies their responses across the empire and with respect to indigenous Roman cults as well.

Even the image of Serapis at Alexandria, for which the most abundant textual evidence of Christian destruction exists, was itself an amalgamation of Greek and indigenous Egyptian traditions, potentially complicating any interpretation of the statue and its function. And while the author makes a very good case that the dismemberment of that statue follows conventions for dismembering real bodies, if it were an acrolith as the cited evidence implies (122–23), the removal of the (stone) head, arms, and feet from the wooden body would be the easiest and most natural way to disassemble it.

An indication of the book’s quality is that even in those cases where the conclusions seem at first the most doubtful, the evidence and argumentation are so effectively presented that it is difficult not to accept that the author has got it right. An example is the display of damaged statues of a god and an emperor from the polytheistic period in the Byzantine Esplanade at Caesarea Maritima as demonstrations of Christian triumph (235–38).

That objects with the same features can deliver diametrically opposed messages (i.e., the Caesarea Maritima vandalized god and emperor as Christian triumph on the one hand and the vandalized Christ statue at Caesarea Philippi [246–47] as evidence of polytheistic outrage on the other) begs for explanatory context (231). For the destruction of divine statues from the theater at Scythopolis, the author places an emphasis on the Christian response to theatrical performances (229–31). But the use of theaters for temporary display during spectacles of divine and imperial images (Ephesos, Merida, Rome) suggests that these demonstrations of the traditional political power had as much or more effect on Christian attitudes toward the architectural setting.

Special praise should be recorded for the extensive use of color photographs. In contrast, the provided plans, because they are taken from sources whose concern lay with the periods prior to late antiquity, sometimes fall short. Thus, neither the Karnak nor the Abydos plans indicate the Christian presence discussed in the text.

Brian Madigan
Department of Art and Art History
Wayne State University

Book Review of Making and Breaking the Gods: Christian Responses to Pagan Sculpture in Late Antiquity, by Troels Myrup Kristensen

Reviewed by Brian Madigan

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1191.Madigan

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