A Masterpiece in Marble: Glencairn's Minerva-Victoria

Glencairn Museum News | Number 8, 2013


Statue of the Roman goddess Minerva-Victoria in Glencairn's Roman and Early Christian Gallery.


Figure 1: Full View of Statue.

Glencairn Museum’s Roman and Early Christian Gallery features an eye-catching and well-preserved Roman statue of the goddess Minerva in the guise of Victory (a concept that ancient Greeks and Romans deified) (Figure 1). Images of gods and goddesses like this one pervaded both public and private spaces in the ancient Roman world. In addition to cult statues inside temple buildings, Romans saw depictions of deities decorating temple exteriors, public monuments, currency, the walls and floors of houses, and everyday objects like pottery, lamps, personal items, and garden decor. Glencairn’s Minerva-Victoria illustrates ways that such a proliferation of divine images functioned in the Roman world. Depending on the viewer and the context, these images might evoke a variety of ideas in the minds of the people who saw them: the nature of a deity’s power, traditional tales, enduring life concepts, and connections between divine forces and human endeavors.

Glencairn’s statue was likely made in the 2nd century CE. The appearance of this Roman statue, though, was heavily influenced by the artistic style of fifth-century BCE Athens and Greek divine imagery. Numerous interactions between Greek and Roman culture took place throughout Roman history, particularly in the realms of art and religion, and many Romans were familiar with Greek culture. Because Glencairn’s statue deliberately evoked a Greek artistic and religious milieu, the discussion that follows often refers to Greek religion as well as Roman.


Figure 2: Back View of Statue.


Artistic details helped the ancient viewer (and help us) identify what deity a piece of art portrayed. They also emphasized particular aspects of a deity’s personality and power. Some of the clothing features on Glencairn’s statue make clear that the sculpture depicts Minerva, a goddess the Romans equated with the Greek Athena. Draped over the goddess’s shoulders like a cape is a tasseled, goat-skin shield called an aegis (Figure 2). The snaky-haired head of the gorgon Medusa, positioned on the goddess’s chest, acts as if it is a clasp holding the aegis in place (Figure 3). In both Greek and Roman art, the aegis and gorgon head evoked Athena’s and Minerva’s military skills.


Figure 3: Clasp in Shape of Medusa's Head.


The aegis was a divine shield that brought victory in battle, instilled fear in the enemy, and offered protection from attack. In Greek myth, Athena was not born from a mother, but emerged straight from the head of Zeus, the king of the gods, fully armed and ready for war. She later successfully fought for the gods against the Titans in the front line of battle. The aegis was a potent symbol of her military capacity. The head of Medusa further enhanced this concept. Medusa, like her gorgon sisters, was a monster who had snakes in place of hair. Because her hideous appearance caused anyone who looked at her to turn to stone, soldiers frequently painted a gorgon’s head on their shields. In myth, the hero Perseus, aided by Athena, beheaded Medusa. The Medusa head, then, alludes to both terror-inspiring military aggression, as well as the help Athena frequently gave to mortal heroes.


Figure 4: Reconstruction Drawing by Martha Gyllenhaal.


We don’t know what the head of Glencairn’s statue looked like. Originally worked as a separate piece of marble and attached to the statue’s body, it is now missing. The helmet in the reconstruction drawing is a conjecture based on other types of Athena statues that were frequently helmeted (Figure 4).

In addition to the aegis, Glencairn’s statue wears a traditional Greek wool garment for women called a peplos. The peplos, though worn by other deities and humans, had a particular association with Athena, especially in Athens. Athena frequently wore a peplos in artistic portrayals, and the Athenians dressed her cult statue on the Acropolis with a ritually woven peplos. Athena was herself adept at weaving, a quintessential female skill that offered a counterpoint to Athena’s masculine expertise in war, the more dominant concept in this portrayal of the goddess.

The nature of Minerva’s martial aspects are further delineated by other artistic details that associate this statue with the goddess Victory (called Victoria by the Romans and Nike by the Greeks). Greeks and Romans frequently portrayed Victory winged and holding a wreath or garland, items that were typically awarded to victors in Greek and Roman culture. Glencairn’s statue, however, did not originally have wings. Instead, like other wingless images of Victory, the pose and clothing gave the appearance of flight.


Figure 5: Side View Showing Drapery.


The statue originally had a piece of marble attached to the lower back that would have extended the peplos out behind the statue, enhancing the appearance that the clothing was blown back by the wind (Figures 2 and 5). The front also shows the illusion of wind. The sculptor made the drapery crinkle and cling to the front of the statue’s legs, creating an effect that would not have actually occurred with Athena’s wool peplos, but instead evoked the look of a chiton, clothing made of lighter material that Nike often wore. In addition to having a wind-blown appearance, the statue was probably originally mounted leaning forward, as if in motion.


Figure 6: Discloration (Perhaps from Metal Object).


The statue also likely once held an object or objects associated with Victory. The cuttings for the arms, which were originally attached separately, indicate that the right arm was lowered and the left raised. Because of two traces of discoloration on the marble (Figure 6), perhaps from metal, scholars have proposed that the statue originally held some sort of metal object, such as a garland (shown in the reconstruction drawing; Figure 4).

Figure 7: Denarius of Trajan with Seated Victoria.

Figure 8: Coin with Valentinian Holding Victoria.

Greeks and Romans conceptualized the goddess Victory both as an independent deity and as a divine force associated with other deities, as in Glencairn’s statue. The goddess Victoria embodied the concept of divinely-granted victory in any area of human life. As an independent deity, the winged Victory was ubiquitous in Roman public art. She appears, for example, on two coins minted by Roman emperors on exhibit in Glencairn’s Roman and Early Christian Gallery, one from the end of the 1st century and one from the 4th century CE (Figures 7 and 8). On one level, Victoria served as short-hand for the concept of victory in any sort of contest—whether military, athletic, or some other form of competition—and so was a desirable image to associate with Roman emperors. Even Christian emperors might appear with the goddess, as Valentinian does on a coin in Glencairn’s collection (Figure 8). On another level, the Greek and Roman practice of deifying concepts reveals an important aspect of how these people understood their world. For ancient Greeks and Romans, divine forces were not separate from the physical world, but were very active in the human realm. In fact, Greeks and Romans believed that earthly events were a direct result and reflection of divine-human relations. For the Romans, their military victories—and thus the existence of their empire—were an outcome of divine will and testified to the positive relationship the Romans cultivated with the gods.

The Greeks and Romans frequently associated the goddess Victory with Athena/Minerva, calling this divine manifestation Athena Nike or Minerva-Victoria. Perhaps most famously, Athena Nike was prominently worshipped on the Acropolis in Athens, but artistic representations of her, like Glencairn’s statue, indicate that she was also recognized elsewhere in the Greek and Roman worlds. This combination of goddesses particularly embodied the divine force that brings military victory, a power that was relevant and important to the lives of the Greeks and Romans.


Figure 9: Map Showing Cyrene, Athens, and Rome.


Where was Glencairn’s statue originally from? In what context might Romans have encountered this Minerva-Victoria? Raymond Pitcairn purchased the Minerva-Victoria in 1935 from the art dealers Demotte, Incorporated (New York and Paris), who reported that the statue came from Cyrene, an ancient city on the north coast of Africa in modern-day Libya (Figure 9). Although it is impossible to know with certainty, this location is likely correct. Glencairn’s Minerva-Victoria shares similarities with sculpture known to be from Cyrene in the 2nd century CE, such as the type of marble, the size of the original block, the practice of piecing elements together, and the use of fifth-century Athenian style. Further, scholars have identified statues from Cyrene and elsewhere in North Africa that parallel specific features of the Minerva-Victoria’s imagery, such as the appearance of the Medusa head and the presentation of Victoria without wings.

In the Roman era, the city of Cyrene showed a strong mix of Greek and Roman culture. Cyrene began its existence in the 7th century BCE as a Greek city, and the Romans incorporated it into their empire in the 1st century BCE. Cyrene’s connections with Greek culture continued, however, especially in the 2nd century CE when Cyrene joined a political and religious coalition centered in Athens called the Panhellenion, whose purpose was to recreate the Greek achievements of the 5th century. It is conceivable that Glencairn’s Minerva-Victoria may have been one of the sculptures set up in Cyrene at this time.

Scholars have conjectured about plausible contexts for the sculpture based on what we know of Minerva-Victoria’s nature, the pose of the statue, and its level of preservation. Although the best view of this statue may be from the lower left side, the statue is fully sculpted all the way around and so could have been positioned where it might be seen from all sides. One feasible location for the statue, then, is on the roof of a temple. The statue’s well-preserved surfaces raise the possibility it may have originally stood where it was somewhat sheltered and not fully exposed to the elements. Therefore, another hypothesis is that Glencairn’s Minerva-Victoria was originally part of a public monument, perhaps commemorating a battle.

Just published this year is a previously unknown statue whose appearance is surprisingly similar to Glencairn’s Minerva-Victoria, with the exception that it had wings. The publication proposes that this intriguing sister statue was a fifth-century BCE Athenian sculpture, an original that Glencairn’s Minerva-Victoria copied. Unfortunately, because the statue was recently purchased on the Italian art market and we know nothing of its original location, the light this tantalizing clue can shed on the original context and meaning of Glencairn’s Minerva-Victoria is limited. Perhaps future excavations at Cyrene will one day help us to fill in more of the blanks.

Although the original setting of Glencairn’s Minerva-Victoria must remain very conjectural, the nature of the goddess herself is much more certain. The extent to which ancient viewers would have actively contemplated the nuances of the different religious and cultural allusions in this statue would have varied from individual to individual. All Romans, however, would have immediately recognized that this statue portrayed the goddess Minerva-Victoria, that is, Minerva who brings military victory.

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