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COINS THAT TESTIFY TO COLORED MATERIALS

Original Article by Patricia Lawrence

(Special thanks to Doug Smith not only for permission to illustrate his coin but for his superb photograph of it)

Ancient bronze statues usually have lost inlay from headbands and gilding on sandals and (in some cases, especially statues of deities) on accoutrements such as scepters.  Only recently have we realized how many (and how early: in the mid-fifth century at latest) statues have copper lips and silver teeth as well as colored materials for inset eyes.  Marble copies, of course, like coins are monochrome (though the statues may once have had color—not always).  Bronze had its own sun-tan color, and Greeks never covered whole areas of marble statues with paint.  But what about other materials?

Ancient sources, besides, not only speak of extraordinary images, such as the ancient cult statue of Ephesian Artemis came to be (it was doubtless originally plainer), but explicitly of a few that we should regard as quite gaudy indeed.

One of these was the image made for the Serapeion at Alexandria by Bryaxis (not, certainly, the same Bryaxis who is well attested by a statue base in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and by his working on the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos):

Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus 4.48, on this great cult statue, says, “…the sculptor Bryaxis made it, not the Athenian, but another sculptor with the same name as that Bryaxis.  He made use of mixed and varied materials for the work.  There were filings of gold on it and of silver, also of bronze iron, and lead, and in addition to that, tin; nor did it lack any of the Egyptian gems—fragments of sapphires, heaematite, and emerald, and others of topaz.  Having ground all these to a powder and mixed them together, he colored the mixture to a dark blue shade (and owing to this, the color of the image is rather dark) and, blending all these things in with the dye left over from the worship of Osiris and Apis, he modeled the Serapis.”

Clement, of course, did not care for Serapis any more than for Osiris and Apis, and, unlike Lucian of Samosata, he did not have the knowledge or the eye of a working artist.  He perhaps ought not to be taken literally in all details, since his aim is simply to show how appalling the statue was as an object of worship.

Coins do show that there was very rich decoration on the kalathos, however, as do the replicas and re-workings of the image for other Serapeia around the Hellenistic and Imperial world.  The fact that there is no tradition at all about copies in the narrowest sense also suggests that taking piece molds from this statue (as from the Athena Parthenos and the Zeus at Olympia, with all their attached gold and ivory) was impossible.

Other ancient sources are less over the top in rhetorical effects, and have no such axe to grind as Clement had, but at least one of them suggests elaborate and gaudy images by a Bryaxis.

Libanios (the rhetorician of Antioch), Orat. 61, said, “And a mental effort makes the image [of the Apollo] stand before my eyes—the gentleness of its form—the offering bowl, the kithara, the tunic reaching to the feet, the softness of the stone at the neck, the belt around the chest keeping in place the golden tunic in such a way that some of it is held in tight and some of it billows out . . . he seemed like one who was singing a melody.” (J. J. Pollitt, from whose Art of Greece: Sources and Documents, 1990, pp. 91–92, I have taken these passages, adds in a footnote that another source says that the statue was made of wood and gold).

Georgios Kedrenos, writing of Julian II, tells us that he came expressly to see it and stood in awe of Bryaxis’ work, but he does not specify materials.

From time immemorial, no later than the Egyptian Old Kingdom, wooden statues were coated with gesso and painted (wherever there was not a gold tunic) and I do not doubt that the belt around Apollo’s chest had, like a headband, as even on the old Charioteer at Delphi and the Spearbearer of Polykleitos, inlay in enamel or semi-precious stones or contrasting metals. 

Therefore, when I first saw Doug Smith’s outstanding specimen of the anonymous Antioch Genio Antiocheni / Apollini Sancto (also from one of the best officinae), the descriptions of Bryaxis’s work, and especially that of Libanios on a statue he knew firsthand, leapt to mind.

I also remembered that no one had bothered to teach me that cult images generally were not at all what Winckelmann thought Greek statuary was like.  In particular, in Asia Minor and the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms, they seem to have been richly decorated.  Pergamon, of course, tried to be more Attic than the rest.

Now, by the time of Constantine and of Maximinus II, the ‘follis’ certainly had shrunk, but it was still a larger coin than the little anonymous issue of Antioch.

No ancient author that I know of describes a statue of Sol dressed in long garments ( the Colossus of Rhodes was quite surely nude and ultimately the inspiration for the rampant nude Sol).  Therefore, on the folles of Maximinus II of Alexandria and Nikomedia, where Sol is holding the bust of Serapis, and assumes the identifying gesture of Serapis, he also, I think, is dressed like him: 

On the Nikomedia follis, in particular, the garment is very richly decorated indeed, and, though Sol wears his own rays and assumes his own gesture, it seems to me that his garment and stance as much as the bust that he holds indicate that he subsumes, or absorbs, or appropriates—syncretizes with—Serapis, every bit as surely as Alexander with a ram’s horn appropriated Ammon.

Alexandria herself issued a follis with a robe nearly as sumptuous as that which Sol Invictus wears on the Nikomedia follis, and, of course, the statue stood at Alexandria just as the Apollo Sanctus stood at Antioch, and both were by this Bryaxis who was not the Athenian Bryaxis, but a good generation later.

If I have chosen the Nikomedia to illustrate here, it is because my Alexandria one came from Forvm (and still may be seen there), and Victor Failmezger’s Alexandria specimen is illustrated by Doug Smith’s photograph in his Roman Bronze Coins, pl. 12, no. 208d.  These two obviously show the same statue, but Nikomedia’s is quite uncommonly detailed in its representation of it.

(submitted November 12, 2005 for Numuswiki)