Saturday, August 17, 2013

Jesus as Roman Demi-God [Part Twenty Two]


In the end there is one more piece of evidence which brings all the points we have raised during this investigation together – the throne of St Peter. Most people are not aware that this most sacred of objects from Roman Christian antiquity features two horizontal rows depicting the deeds of Hercules. The relic is put on prominent display at the Vatican but most people can’t see is that there are also images on the back of the throne, in which “the Emperor as cosmocrator rules under the starry heaven, while at the same time he is surrounded by vicious fighting scenes, demonstrating that the Emperor, like David, is beset by threatening forces.” This surely epitomizes the very forces we have seen at work in the Roman Church in the late second and early third centuries.

It is the large relief panels with images of Hercules that decorate the lower front of the seat and, through their much larger scale, dominate the viewer's initial perception of the monument, no such broad agreement has been achieved by scholars. If the Carolingian date, production, and intellectual context of the cathedra as a whole — that is, the structure of the seat and its decoration with the strips of ivories carved in relief — have now been agreed upon by most scholars, and to the best of my knowledge have not been challenged in print during the last decade, the same cannot by any means be said for the Hercules and monster panels which form the central subject of this investigation.

The Hercules and monster ivories, which attracted the particular attention of the pre-1968 draftsmen and engravers of the cathedra, also immediately attracted and have held the attention of modern scholars. Comprising twelve actual ivory panels (six large rectangles and six smaller squares) bearing a total of eighteen nearly square formal and iconographic units disposed in three rows of six across the front of the chair, the ivories depict the twelve Labors of Hercules and six very strange fantastic creatures often unsatisfactorily termed signs of the zodiac. The ensemble is, to say the least, a peculiar choice for the throne of a great medieval Christian ruler, to say nothing of the throne of St Peter!

Although a great deal of ingenious speculation has been devoted to the task of explaining the mystery of the presence and intended meaning of these scenes, and technical studies have provided insights of value, it is certainly true that no scholar's interpretation of the problem has met with wide acceptance or has satisfactorily explained all the major stylistic, iconographic, and technical difficulties and questions posed by the extraordinary group of ivories, which thus remains highly controversial.

As reported by Margherita Guarducci, Kurt Weitzmann, and others who were part of the panel of distinguished scholars gathered together by the Vatican authorities in 1968, when the cathedra was first removed from Bernini's monument, the ivories were initially thought to have been produced in the late classical period in a pagan Roman imperial workshop. The factors contributing to the scholars' impression include the overtly and exclusively pagan iconography of the Hercules and monster ivories, the powerfully classical style of the figure carving, and the unusual technique of carving the ivories, not in relief but of incising the decoration and then inlaying the figure of Hercules and the border ornaments with gold leaf, with gold leaf, gems, and glass.

The general opinion favored the hypothesis that the Hercules ivories were created most likely at some point in the second or third century, and most probably in Egypt, since incised ivory (or more properly bone) carving was known to have been widely practiced there in late antiquity, as attested by a number of surviving examples such as an inlaid putto and a casket with assorted inlaid bone carvings. With slight modifications, this view has long been maintained by Guarducci, whose reasons for seeking to maintain an early dating and therefore save, through the understanding of a late antique Egyptian origin for the Hercules ivories despite their presence on a manifestly Carolingian object.

It has been argued in recent times that even the ivory panels might have been manufactured in the Carolingian period. Weitzmann and more recently Lawrence Nees have championed this view but these art historians have little appreciation for the in Nees holds that the Hercules cycle on the Cathedra Petri was placed there not out of reverence for the Classical past, but, on the contrary, as a negative exemplum. This theory is now the more influential interpretation yet no one until now has assembled all the Hercules references from the late second century and beyond. In light of this evidence, Guarducci’s original thesis – and the consensus of scholarship when the chair was first ‘re-discovered’ – deserves a second look.

A recent Italian study of Vatican summarizes Guarducci’s thesis as follows:

As for the popes using a “Herculean" throne, that is to say a professedly pagan one, it might be explained by recalling that for the Christians, following the line of the Stoic philosophers, Hercules was a beneficent and generous hero, who could be regarded as a model of Christian virtue. It would therefore seem that the “throne" mentioned in the sources of the 8th and 9th century was not yet that of Charles the Bald, but the imperial throne, used by Maximianus and Constantine and then given to the Popes. The identification of the Carolingian throne with the Cathedra of Peter must have happened later, and only because it was at some stage united with a much older and more significant object, the ivory panel with the Labours of Hercules. which came from the first throne of the popes.

According to Guarducci, the Constantinian throne must have undergone several transformations until when it was no longer usable, the ivory panel was finally detached and applied to a new support which would ensure its survival. The various stages in the evolution of the throne are witnessed by the mosaics in the Roman basilicas of Santa Maria Maggiore, St Peter's in the Vatican and San Paolo Fuori le Mura. In the first of these we can recognise in the centre of the triumphal arch (the decoration of which dates from around 435) a throne with a straight back-rest with a rich cornice, divided into eighteen squares in three rows of six, which Guarducci would identify with the ivory panel: so the throne in the mosaic would be a representation of the Constantinian throne given to the popes. (This identification is supported by the theological content of the mosaic, intended to celebrate the consolidation of the Roman primacy after the Council of Ephesus [431], and by the unusual position of the two lion's heads, shifted from the arms of the throne in order to make room for two clypei with portraits of Peter and Paul, which were evidently meant to “Christianise” a throne seen as being too obviously secular).

The same representation, identical in form and content, was to be found in the mosaic which adorned the apse of Old St Peter's (now lost, but dating from 342-344), witnessed by the capsella of Samagher (ca. 6th century). The mosaic in San Paolo fuori le Mura. later than the other two (1216-1226), shows a different sort of throne, without a back-rest, on the front of which we can nevertheless recognise a panel very similar to the one in the other two mosaics: this throne, too, must be the imperial throne decorated with the Hercules panel, although it has evidently been adapted, partly owing to wear and tear and partly owing to the medieval preference for thrones without back-rests.

Bearing in mind the Carolingian letters engraved on the backs of the plaques, Guarducci has proposed that around the 9th century, and perhaps on the occasion of the coronation of Charles the Bald, the ex-imperial throne was modified by removing the back-rest, transferring the panel onto a new support (and in fact dendrochronological tests support this dating) and attaching it to the front of the chair. After this date the throne would still have been used by the popes on official occasions, at least until the end of the 12th century, when the solemn election of Innocent III took place. Finally, between 1226 (when the mosaics in San Paolo were finished) and 1235 (when the external cage was applied to the Carolingian throne), the Hercules panel was detached from its original throne, which was now ruined, and fixed to the one donated by Charles the Bald. which thus became as it were a reliquary for the precious relic , allowing it to be shown to the people and carried in procession.

Guarducci’s thesis is certainly the most correct one. The fact that she modified her position to identify the development of the ivory in the late third century in the court of the emperor Maximian Hercules (286-305) only results from the fact that no comprehensive study of the influence of Hercules in the writings of Irenaeus and related authors had yet been carried out. The idea that Charles the Bald took it upon himself to introduce Hercules to the Roman Church is simply wrong. Recent advances in carbon dating mean that the ivory itself can soon be tested and dated to the era of its fabrication. At that time we will likely find it confirmed that in dates to the original period identified by scholars – that is the late second century.

If the tests confirm a Carolingian date for the panels it will only show that this detailed effort to imitate an ancient original only recreated an original relic established in the court of Commodus. It is difficult to explain the widespread acceptance of a pagan god in the Medieval period literally at the seat of European Christianity. Active efforts are being made by the author to convince Vatican authorities to test the ivory. Until then the rest of us will be forced to rely upon common sense, which clearly points to upholding the second century dating for the introduction of Hercules into Roman Christianity. It was at that time that Jesus was transformed into a tragic demigod, and with it the newly formed Catholic tradition was greatly favored in the Imperial court.  The rest, as they say, is history. 

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