Public Statues Across Time and Cultures

Throughout history and in many different cultures, people have set up sculpted monuments that it seems possible to recognise as statues, in places that it seems useful to label as public. Yet there is great diversity in the reasons these monuments were erected, in the ways in which people have responded and interacted with them and in the relationship between their spatial setting and their meaning. The goal of the conference, ‘Public Statues Across Time and Cultures’, held at Lincoln College, Oxford on 28-29th September 2016 was to bring together leading art-historians, historians and archaeologists working on different past cultures, in order to explore potential parallels and differences in the use of public statues throughout history and in different parts of the world. In the course of the two days, 10 leading scholars from Europe and the United States presented work on public statues in cultures ranging from Ancient Egypt to Georgian Britain, from the China of the first emperor to the Turkey of Atatürk. The diverse background of the speakers and other participants generated much stimulating discussion in which several key themes kept resurfacing.

One of the overarching themes was the relationship between statues and power. In the very first paper by Dr. Matthew Craske, we learned how public statues in Great Britain began to appear in the Georgian period and were at first a privilege jealously reserved for the king. Statues of the monarch in public squares across England created a shared sense of nationhood, while at the same time the debates and negotiations that lay behind the erection of these monuments, as well as the efforts to raise subscriptions to fund them, were bound up with the power of local elites. Dr Craske discussed in detail how one urban community, Oxford, was able to deploy public statuary to subtly contest the authority of the ruling house: rather than setting up statues of the ruling Hannoverians, the city showed a firm and subversive predilection for setting up statues of the Stuarts. The final paper of the event by Dr. Faik Gür examined a much more effective monopolization of the right to public statues by Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of modern Turkey. The proliferation of sculpted images of Atatürk, carefully orchestrated by the man himself, played a crucially important role in cementing the identity of the emergent nation state.

For the other cultures discussed, political power was nearly always implied in the setting up of public statues. In the moderate democracy of Hellenistic Athens (paper by Prof. Sheila Dillon) and in Palmyra, the oligarchic oasis town on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire (paper by Prof. Rubina Raja), public statues were set up in large numbers to honour members of the local elites. Cellini’s statue of Perseus and Medusa installed on the Piazza della Signoria in Florence in the sixteenthth century (paper by Dr. Peter Dent) spoke of the power of the artist’s patron Cosimo de Medici; just as local elites in Rome in the same period advertised their status by displaying their collections of antique statuary temporarily on the streets that were passed through by the processions marking the accession of a new Pope (paper by Dr. Kathleen Christian). In the China of the first Emperor (paper by Prof. Lukas Nickel), the only public statues known to have existed were a mysterious set of twelve colossal bronze seated men, set up by the ruler at one of the entrances to his palace. These were melted down in antiquity, but are known from written sources, 

Another prominent theme touched upon by several of the contributions was the connection between public statues and religion. In her paper on the statues of Athens, Sheila Dillon took a sanctuary near the city’s agora, the so-called City Eleusinion, dedicated to the goddess Demeter and her daughter Kore, as a case study. Epigraphic and sculptural evidence attests to the setting up of portrait statues in the sanctuary over a period of some 700 years from the fourth century BC to the fourth century AD, most of them of local elite women, all of them intended both to commemorate their subjects and to act as as gifts to the goddesses. These statues thus blurred the lines between honorific and votive objects and may even have bestowed some semi-divine connotations on their subjects by representing them in the same materials that were used for statues of the gods. In ancient Egypt, statues were perhaps even more closely entwined with the realms of the sacred and were thought to contain something of the life essence of the person they portrayed. In his paper on the subject Dr. Campbell Price explored the rich evidence for the great diversity of ritual interactions between the people of this ancient kingdom and their statuary monuments.

If the Egyptians, of all the cultures discussed over the two days, took the cult of the statue to its most extreme, the uncanny ability of statues to suggest a living presence meant that in many of the other cultures, statues were also associated with a magical or supernatural power. In China in the first century AD, a ruler had a terrifying nightmare in which he saw one of the colossal seated statues, erected three centuries earlier by the first emperor, stand up and approach him. He responded by effacing an inscription on the base, presumably in the belief that that would destroy the statue’s power. Yet the Byzantine Empire is arguably the source of the richest and most fascinating stories of statues having supernatural power. The people of medieval Constantinople no longer erected public statues of their own, as their Roman ancestors had, but they were surrounded by a vast array of ancient statues brought to Constantinople by the first Christian emperors in the fourth century. Separated from their original context by both space and time, the Christian Byzantines reinterpreted these statues as possessing dark and magical powers. Through examination of two particularly revealing texts of the eighth and nineth centuries, Dr. Paroma Chatterjee explored the Byzantine attitude to these monuments, introducing us to stories of screaming statues, statues falling and killing people and statues uttering prophecies about the downfall of emperors. Perhaps the most striking of Dr Chatterjee’s conclusions was that, in spite of the fear that these statues could inspire, in spite of the culture’s deep religiosity and its often problematic attitude to imagery (witness the epsiodes of iconoclasm), the statues were revered with a sense of awe and admiration.

The attitude to ancient statues in the Byzantine Empire leads us to another important theme of the conference: just how much the traditions of erecting public statues with which we are still familiar owe to Greek and Roman practice. Statues stood in vast numbers in Greek and Roman cities. Statues of gods and heroes were the focus of worship and statues of mortal men and women clustered in squares, streets and sanctuaries either as offerings to the gods or, more often, to honour local benefactors and politicians. Rubina Raja explored the ways in which the spread of this statuary culture to the oasis city of Palmyra, a city better known for its celebrated sculpted tomb portraits, which survive in their thousands, than its public statues. Assembling the much more fragmentary evidence for this type of monument – the statues have mainly disappeared, some of the inscribed bases survive – Professor Raja showed us how the Palmyrenes developed a statuary culture that was a distinct blend of Roman and local influence. Perhaps most striking was the local practice of setting up statues of benefactors on platforms inserted in the sides of the columns that lined the main streets of the city (main image). Raised high above passersby, the details of these statues would have been hard to make out, their inscriptions illegible, yet the cumulative effect of these rows of stone or bronze benefactors would have been striking indeed.

In ancient societies outside the Graeco-Roman world, public statues were virtually unknown. As mentioned, in ancient China the only public statues known to have been erected were the 12 set up by the first emperor in front of his palace in the late third century BC. One of the central arguments of Lukas Nickel’s paper was that these monuments were directly influenced by contacts with the Hellenistic world (an argument that he has also made for the famous terracotta warriors, which were not, of course, public but buried in the emperor’s tomb complex). If Professor Nickel is right, then without Greek influence there would have been no public statues in China at all. For Egypt, Campbell Price concluded that the spaces where statues were set up were not public, in the full sense of the word, but spaces to which only particular groups had access. Statues were common enough in the religious and funerary spheres to have been well-known throughout society and might therefore be thought of as public, but they were not public in the same sense as the statues of the Greeks and Romans, or the more recent cultures that have been influenced by them, which stand in streets and squares.

Matthew Craske argued that, in Georgian England, there was a clear desire to emulate ancient Roman statues in setting up public royal statues. Similarly, Atatürk’s many equestrian statues followed a Roman precedent and in the seventeenth-century Town Hall of Amsterdam, richly adorned with sculpture (paper by Dr. Stijn Bussels), ancient themes such as caryatids played a prominent role. In a striking contrast to the situation in Byzantium, Kathleen Christian showed us that the people of Renaissance Rome had a very different attitude to the ancient statues that still stood, and were at that time being unearthed, in the city. For all their interest in ancient culture and the earnestness with which the local elite collected Roman sculpture, the practice of displaying these collections along the roadside during the possessi (triumphal marches) of new Popes was characterized by playfulness and a sense of irreverence toward these monuments. With none of the superstition of the Byzantines, the Romans dressed their statues up, sometimes making them look rather silly, and on one occasion even contrived a means of making one urinate on the passing procession. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this practice, however, is the way that statues, which we usually think of as fixed and immobile objects, were transformed into pieces of ephemeral street architecture and made to ‘participate’ in the carnival like proceedings. The moving of the Roman collections from private space out into the streets blurred the lines between public and private which leads to our final theme – the ways in which statues could shape the spaces in which they stood.

The sculptural programme of the seventeenth-century Tribunal in the Town Hall of Amsterdam, with its weeping caryatids and reliefs of biblical horrors, created a suitably chilling and intimidating atmosphere for pronouncing of death sentences, the room’s main function. Stijn Bussels, through a close reading of a contemporary poem that discusses these sculptures, demonstrated just how sophisticated attitudes to viewing such sculptures were. While the sculptor strove to achieve an uncanny lifelike presence through his art, the connoisseur was allowed to revel in the illusion only to a point, never losing appreciation of the skill through which the trick had been achieved.

Equally sophisticated modes of viewing statues were at work in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, even if the evidence is less explicit. Using photographs that powerfully demonstrated his argument, Peter Dent showed us how the life-size crucifixes that hung in churches encouraged viewing from a particular angle. Seen from below and to the left, the face of Christ and his wounds of such statues were often aligned so that theological message of the monument suddenly became clear – the viewer was, in a sense, manoeuvered into that position by the statue. In his statue of Perseus and Medusa, Benvenuto Cellini skillfully exploited the tradition of the ‘view from below’, aligning the face of the hero, the blood spurting from the decapitated gorgon’s neck and – as if revelling in his own skill – his own signature across Perseus’ sash. If the Medieval crucifixes, worked to create a sense of awe in God, Cellini’s statue was designed to inspire awe in the power of the artist, a message in tune with the growing secularism of the age and the more public context of the monument in a loggia on the edge of a town square.

If an overarching conclusion should be drawn from the conference, it is perhaps that space not only gives meaning to statues, but that statues in turn can give meaning to space. The Eleusinion at Athens blurred the lines between public and private, by having areas that were only open to initiates in the cult and more public areas, probably where most of the statues Dillon discussed could be seen. As such, the presence of statues helped define those areas as more or less public. In Georgian England statues of monarchs marked squares as public in much the way that crosses had done in earlier periods. The Chinese Emperor’s statues marked the transition from outside to inside his palace. In Egypt, conversely, large numbers of statues seem to have been a hallmark of sacred space to which access was restricted. The presence, or absence, of statues has thus throughout history and, in diverse ways that vary from culture to culture, served to shape publicness itself.

Main image: View of a colonnade at Palmyra showing columns with bases for inserted statues (photo: © Prof. Rubina Raja, produced with kind permission).

Full conference programme. 
It is intention to publish the papers as an edited volume.

The conference, ‘Public Statues Across Time and Culture’ took place on 28 & 29 September 2016 at Lincoln College, Oxford.

Aurora Corio