Statues in situ – the Messenian Artemision

The key issues at the heart of my Monuments of Roman Greece project is how the meaning of statues and other monuments were shaped by their surroundings. Drawing on archaeological, epigraphic and literary evidence I’m trying to build up as complete a picture as possible of the spatial setting of individual monuments and types of monuments. It is very rare that the three types of evidence come together to give you the feeling that you’re able to (almost) fully reconstruct a particular monumental space but over the last few days I’ve been reading up on a fascinating set of statues for which that is the case: the statues of the Artemision at Messene.

Loyal followers of this blog might remember that I visited Messene on my trip to Greece last year. The city, in the southwest Peloponnese, was founded in the 4th Century BC when the Thebans liberated the region from the oppression of Spartan rule. That made it a relative new comer to the Greek urban scene and almost all of the visible remains date to a period of prosperity that seems to have lasted from the late Hellenistic period through to the height of the Roman Empire.

asklipio1
Areal photo of the Asklepieion (from www.ancientmessene.gr)

 

img-1
Reconstruction plan of the Messenian Asklepieion

The Artemision or “Oikos (house) of Artemis” as it is often called was a smallish room that was part of a larger religious complex dedicated to the god Asklepios (marked K on the map above). Asklepios is best known as the god of medicine but in Messene – a testament to the diversity of Greek religion – he seems to have been a more civic god. The Asklepieion, which is remarkably well preserved consisted of a central courtyard dominated by a temple to the god himself surrounded by a continuous colonnade behind which were various rooms. In the eastern wing was a small theatre-like meeting space, perhaps for political gatherings or religious performances. Inthe western wing was a row of so-called “oikoi” (plural of oikos) dedicated to various heroes and gods of local importance.

We happen to know which gods and heroes were housed where because the 2nd century AD travel writer Pausanias tells us. From south to north they were: (i) Apollo and the Muses, (ii) a personification of the city of Thebes, Herakles and Epaminondas (the Theban general who liberated the area from the Spartans), (iii) Tyche (Fortune) and (iv)Artemis. Pausanias also tells us that the artist who created most of these statues (all except that of Epaminondas) was a local man called Damophon who’s work on religious statues is known from other passages in Pausanias and from various inscriptions found at Messene and elsewhere in the Peloponnese. Damophon seems to have been active in the late 3rd/early 2nd century BC. This evidence makes him the Hellenistic author who we know most about. There are also some amazing pieces of surviving sculpture by Damophon from a sanctuary at place called Lykosoura in the Peloponnese which I (very nearly) visited on my trip last year.

Apollo
Head of Apollo by Damophon, Messenian Asklepieion

 

Herakles Messene
Head of Herakles by Damophon, Messenian Asklepieion

To return to Messene, as if Pausanias’ description weren’t interesting enough, fragments of some of Damophons statues were also found within the oikoi of the Asklepieion including some pieces of the cult statue of Artemis. By the time Pausanias saw the statue it would have been standing on the base at the back of its Oikos, which also, incredibly, survives for over three centuries. While the statues in the other oikoi might not have been the focus of religious worship it’s clear that the statue of Artemis was what we can conveniently call a cult statue because outside the oikos in the central open space of the square was an altar on which sacrifices would have been made to it. Pausanias refers to the statue of Artemis Phosphoros (Light Bearing) so even though not enough of the statue survives to be completely sure what she looked it is probably reasonable to imagine her holding aloft a torch. The chamber itself would probably have been fairly dark and may well have been illuminated by torchlight, perhaps only at times of cultic significance.

This already brings us spine-tinglingly close to the experience an ancient worshipper would have had when worshipping the goddess but there is more. For a start there’s an older temple of Artemis just outside the main square so we know that the cult must be one of the oldest and most important in the city. We also know that for some reason that the Hellenistic Messenians were keen to integrate the cult within their new Asklepieion complex so as to give the goddess a place alongside the other heroes and gods considered to be of particularly local significance; the entire complex is generally seen as a programmatic expression of Messenian identity during a period of political and cultural ascendance.

The most remarkable thing about the Artemision, however, is that within it several monument bases were discovered (!) bearing inscriptions (!) together with no less than 8 (!) of the statues that once stood on them. The statues are all headless – presumably vandalised like the statue of Artemis itself by the Christians of a later era – but are otherwise very well preserved. Five are of young girls, three of older priestess, all of whom served the goddess in some aspect of her cult. Together the inscriptions and pieces of sculpture provide some tantalising insights into the nature of the worship of Artemis in the building as well as into the way in which statues were used to make religious and political statements and to shape the cultic experience. But more on these statues next time…..

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