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The world the Apostles faced

10 April 2015

Nicholas Cranfield sees an exhibition of Hellenistic sculpture


Face from the ancient past: Portrait of a Man, first century BCE; on loan for the current exhibition in the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence

Face from the ancient past: Portrait of a Man, first century BCE; on loan for the current exhibition in the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence

THE names of the ancient cities of Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and Perge in Pamphylia ring out from Sunday-school memories of the Apostle Paul's inveterate missionary journeys. I gained in respect for his stamina recently when I visited the expansive plateau of Central Anatolia to follow in the footsteps of Paul and Barnabas.

Along the Silk Route into Lycaonia and through the Taurus mountains down to the safe haven of the Mediterranean shore from Konya to Antalya is some 550 kilometres. Crossing a mountain pass at 1825 metres in a blizzard, surrounded by abandoned cars and lorries, was one excitement that I could have forgone, but not a risk that Paul would ever have indulged.

The Silk Road runs west of Caesarea (modern-day Kayseri) to Konya (Iconium), but there are no remaining signs of any synagogue (Acts of the Apostles 14). Most travellers nowadays are likely to be pilgrims coming to the place where the Persian poet Rumi had taught before his death in 1273. On the Friday I was there, a steady stream poured in to pray in front of the shrine of Mevlana.

What did the first apostles encounter in the Hellenistic diaspora, and how would pagan contemporaries have imagined Zeus and Hermes, the Greek divinities for whom Paul and Barnabas were mistaken at Lystra (Acts 14.11ff.)? As a Roman citizen from Tarsus, Paul would have grown up in a world peopled with statues of the old gods as much as of civic benefactors and distant imperial administrators.

Little now survives of those ancient Anatolian cities, and indeed there is only a small museum of finds at Hatunsaray, which is thought to be the site of Lystra. The archaeological museum at Antalya, on the other hand, has extensive galleries of marble statues from Perge, many of remarkable quality.

There, a local philanthropist, Claudius Peison, dedicated a number of statues in the second century in the site's south baths complex, all of them marble copies of earlier Greek bronzes. The most famous is undoubtedly the so-called "Weary Hercules", which it has at last been possible to reassemble as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has finally surrendered the stolen torso that it had dubiously held and that completes the figure.

Other statues in Peison's gallery depicted Aphrodite holding a shield, Hygeia, hunting Artemis with a pony tail, an Apollo Kitharodos, a Marsyas, Meleager with his dog, and a copy of the "Ludovisi" Hermes.

The survival of classical statuary, whether in bronze or in marble, is at best random, as much was destroyed and re-used in an earlier period. The reported bulldozers in Nimrud lately have, sadly, antecedents the world over, as one society tears up the roots of another. Christians, too, have played more than their part in ransacking the cultural heritage of the world to impose their own ideology.

In his Natural History (xxxiv, 35-36), Pliny the Elder, writing in the lifetime of Paul and Barnabas, recounts the three thousand bronze statues on the island of Rhodes. Similar numbers defined the cityscapes of Athens and Olympia and the shrine site of Delphi. The indefatigable traveller Pausanias reached Delphi long after it had been ransacked by the Romans in 86 BC, but enough statue bases and votive tablets survived for him to write of it extensively more than two and a half centuries later (Description of Greece, Book X).

Such statuary was also widespread across Mesopotamia and Parthia (shades of Acts 2.9-11), where Alexander the Great had spread the Macedonian empire. Statues of Hercules survive from as far afield as Ai-Khanum in Afghanistan and Nigrai in the Peshawar valley. The National Museum in Kabul has a statue of a seated cavalryman from Begram, while that in Tehran holds the monumental head of a crowned ruler, which is thought to represent Antiochus VII, and, also from Shami, an imposing princely figure of the Arsacid dynasty.

The latest exhibition to grace the 15th-century Palazzo Strozzi is an extraordinarily generous display of bronzes from the fourth to the first century before Christ which suggest something of the milieu in which Christianity, an Eastern religion, first encountered the pagan West. But it begins with a puzzle.

The dominant statue in the first room is the great Etruscan lifesize statue of Aule Metele, an orator that stands 179cm. According to Giorgio Vasari, it was unearthed near Lake Trasimene and was presented to Cosimo I de'Medici in 1566. The Orator stands with his right hand raised, calling for silence before he can begin his speech. One can only imagine how Paul of Tarsus, often thought to be of short stature, might have struggled to get a hearing from the crowded Areopagus when the Epicureans and Stoics demanded that he explain his new god to them (Acts 17, 18ff).

Here the orator (National Archaeological Museum, Florence) declaims across the top of a fragmentary statue base from Corinth, on which is inscribed the name of the great classical sculptor Lysippos (390-305 BC) from Sicyon, a contemporary of Alexander the Great who is credited, by Pliny, with some 1500 statues, not one of which has survived.

This tantalising reminder of loss and of ruin leads into galleries that offer hints of a wealthy world that was confident in itself and with good reason, given the sheer brilliance of the craftsmanship on display.

The Medici Riccardi horse's head passed into the proud ownership of Lorenzo Medici and in turn inspired the Renaissance appetites of the likes of Donatello and Verrocchio. In London, Rubens came to know the so-called "Arundel head" that was thought to represent Homer, as it depicts a grizzly bearded poet. When Lord Arundel's personal agent in Italy and Asia Minor, William Petty, found it in a well, in ancient Smyrna some time between 1624 and 1629, he sent it back home.

Side by side, the bronze figure of an athlete with a strigil, discovered on the seabed off the coast of Croatia in 1996, and now in Zagreb, and the marble athlete owned by the Uffizi demonstrate the continuing popularity of a composition in which an athletic youth scrapes himself off, the so-called "Apoxymenos" of Ephesus type, known from the fifth century BC. Paul would have found any number of images readily to hand to explain his metaphor of running the race.

Several other works on show have been brought up from the waters of the Mediterranean, showing the widespread trafficking in statues, and attesting how collectors would obtain desirable objects to display. Off the eastern Tunisian coast, a winged figure of Eros was recovered in 1907 at Mahdia, and a rather more battered torso with a man's head surfaced at Brindisi in 1992.

Rather more striking is the head of a Macedonian man wearing a regal diadem and a distinctive floppy hat (a kausia) which turned up off Kalymnos in the Aegean in 1997. Two years before, a full-length female figure had also come to light (not in the exhibition), where it is the star attraction of the island's new (2009) museum at Pothia.

This is the final show that the outgoing director Dr James Bradburne has organised, and it betrays his usual stylish flair for education from first principles. Bringing together more than a fifth of the presently known surviving Hellenistic pieces, it is a remarkable tribute to his patient tenacity and to the curators from the Getty, Jens Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin. 

"Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World" is at Palazzo Strozzi, Piazza degli Strozzi, Florence, Italy, until 21 June. Phone 00 39 055 264 5155.


It will be in the US at The Getty Center, Los Angeles, from 28 July to 1 November, and then at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, from 13 December until 20 March 2016.

www.getty.edu; www.nga.gov

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