Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Contexts for the Display of Statues in Classical Antiquity

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In the classical world, large-scale, freestanding statues were among the most highly valued and thoughtfully positioned works of art. Sculpted in the round, and commonly made of bronze or stone, statues embodied human, divine, and mythological beings, as well as animals. Our understanding of where and how they were displayed relies on references in ancient texts and inscriptions, and images on coins, reliefs, vases (08.258.25; 06.1021.230), and wall paintings (03.14.13), as well as on the archaeological remains of monuments and sites. Even in the most carefully excavated and well-preserved locations, bases usually survive without their corresponding statues; dispersed fragments of heads and bodies provide little indication of the visual spectacle of which they once formed a part. Numerous statues exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum, for example, have known histories of display in old European collections, but their ancient contexts can only be conjectured (03.12.13; 03.12.14).


Few statues from antiquity have survived both in situ and intact, but the evidence suggests an ever-changing and expanding range of contexts for their display.

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Cited Works of Art or Images (3)

  • Athens, Greece, view of the Classical Greek Acropolis (5th century B.C.)
  • Façade of the Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey (2nd century A.D.)

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Among the earliest Greek statues were images of divinities housed in temples, settings well suited to communicate their religious potency. The Greeks situated these standing or seated figures, which often wore real clothing and held objects associated with their unique powers, on axis with temple entrances for maximum visual impact. By the mid-seventh century B.C., rigidly upright statues in stone, referred to as kouroi (youths) and korai (maidens), marked gravesites and were dedicated to the gods as votive offerings in sanctuaries (32.11.1). Greek sanctuaries were sacred, bounded areas, typically encompassing an altar and one or more temples. Evidence for a range of display contexts for statues is more extensive for the Classical period. Public spaces ornamented with statues included open places of assembly like the Athenian agora (06.311; 26.60.1), temples, altars, gateways, and cemeteries (44.11.2,3). Statues of athletic contest winners were often erected at large sanctuaries such as Olympia and Delphi, or sometimes in the victors' hometowns (25.78.56).

Throughout the Archaic and Classical periods, however, the focus of statue production and display remained the representation and veneration of the gods. From the sixth to fifth centuries B.C., hundreds of statues were erected in honor of Athena on the Athenian Akropolis. Whether in a shrine or temple, or in a public space less overtly religious, such as the Athenian agora, statues of deities were reminders of the influence and special protection of the gods, which permeated all aspects of Greek life. By the end of the fifth century B.C., a few wealthy patrons began to exhibit panel paintings, murals, wall hangings, and mosaics in their houses. Ancient authors are vocal in their condemnation of the private ownership and display of such art objects as inappropriate luxuries (for example, Plato's Republic, 372 D–373 A), yet pass no judgment on the statuettes these patrons also exhibited at home. The difference in attitude suggests that even in private space, statues retained religious significance.

The ideas and conventions governing the exhibition of statues were as reliant on political affairs as they were on religion. Thus the changes in state formation set in motion by Alexander the Great's conquest of the eastern Mediterranean brought about new and important developments in statue display. During the Hellenistic period, portrait statuary provided a means of communicating across great distances both the concept of government by a single ruler and the particular identities of Hellenistic dynasts. These portraits, which blend together traditional, idealized features with particularized details that promote individual recognition, were a prominent feature of sanctuaries dedicated to ruler cults (2002.66). Elaborate victory monuments showcased statues of both triumphant (2003.407.7) and defeated warriors. Well-preserved examples of such monuments have been discovered at Pergamon, in the northwestern region of modern-day Turkey. For the first time, nonidealized human forms, including the elderly and infirm, became popular subjects for large-scale sculptures. Statues of this kind were offered as votives in temples and sanctuaries (09.39). The extensive collections housed within the palaces of Hellenistic dynasts became influential models for generals and politicians in far-away Rome, who coveted such displays of power, prestige, and cultural sophistication.

During the early Roman Republic, the principal types of statue display were divinities enshrined in temples and other images of gods taken as spoils of war from the neighboring communities that Rome fought in battle. The latter were exhibited in public spaces alongside commemorative portraits. Roman portraiture yielded two major sculptural innovations: "verism" and the portrait bust. Both probably had their origins in the funerary practices of the Roman nobility, who displayed death masks of their ancestors at home in their atria and paraded them through the city on holidays. Initially, only elected officials and former elected officials were allowed the honor of having their portrait statues occupy public spaces. As is clear from many of the inscriptions accompanying portrait statues, which assert that they should be erected in prominent places, location was of crucial importance. Civic buildings such as council houses and public libraries were enviable locations for display. Statues of the most esteemed individuals were on view by the rostra or speaker's platform in the Roman Forum. In addition to contemporary statesmen, the subjects of Roman portraiture also included great men of the past, philosophers and writers, and mythological figures associated with particular sites.

Beginning in the third century B.C., victorious Roman generals during the conquest of Magna Graecia (present-day southern Italy and Sicily) and the Greek East brought back with them not just works of art, but also exposure to elaborate Hellenistic architectural environments, which they desired to emulate. If granted a triumph by the senate, generals constructed and consecrated public buildings to commemorate their conquests and house the spoils. By the late Republic, statues adorned basilicas, sanctuaries and shrines, temples, theaters, and baths. As individuals became increasingly enriched through the process of conquest and empire, statues also became an important means of conveying wealth and sophistication in the private sphere: sculptural displays filled the gardens and porticoes of urban houses and country villas (09.39; 1992.11.71). The fantastical vistas depicted in luxurious domestic wall paintings included images of statues as well (03.14.13).

After the transition from republic to empire, the opportunity to undertake large-scale public building projects in the city of Rome was all but limited to members of the imperial family. Augustus, however, initiated a program of construction that created many more locations for the display of statues. In the Forum of Augustus, the historical heroes of the Republic appeared alongside representations of Augustus (07.286.115) and his human, legendary, and divine ancestors. Augustus publicized his own image to an extent previously unimaginable, through official portrait statues and busts, as well as images on coins. Statues of Augustus and the subsequent emperors were copied and exhibited throughout the empire. Wealthy citizens incorporated features of imperial portraiture into statues of themselves (14.130.1). Roman governors were honored by portrait statues in provincial cities and sanctuaries. The most numerous and finely crafted portraits that survive from the imperial period, however, portray the emperors and their families (26.229).

Summoning up the image of a "forest" of statues or a second "population" within the city, the sheer number of statues on display in imperial Rome dwarfs anything seen before or since. Many of the types of statues used in Roman decoration are familiar from the Greek and Hellenistic past: these include portraits of Hellenistic kings and Greek intellectuals, as well as so-called ideal or idealizing figures that represent divinities, mythological figures, heroes, and athletes. The relationship of such statues to Greek models varies from work to work. A number of those displayed in prestigious locations in Rome were transplanted Greek masterpieces, such as the Venus sculpted by Praxiteles in the fourth century B.C. for the inhabitants of the Greek island of Cos, which was set up in Rome's Temple of Peace, a museumlike structure set aside for the display of art. More often, however, the relationship to an original is one of either close copying or eclectic and inventive adaptation. Some of these copies and adaptations were genuine imports, but many others were made locally by foreign, mainly Greek, craftsmen. A means of display highly characteristic of the Roman empire was the arrangement of statues in tiers of niches adorning public buildings, including baths (03.12.13; 03.12.14), theaters, and amphitheaters. Several of the most impressive surviving statuary displays come from ornamental facades constructed in the Eastern provinces (Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey). Bolstered by wealth drawn from around the Mediterranean, the imperial families established their own palace culture that was later emulated by kings and emperors throughout Europe. Exemplary of the lavish sculptural displays that decorated imperial residences is the statuary spectacle inside a cave employed as a summer dining room of the palace of Tiberius at Sperlonga, on the southern coast of Italy. Visitors to this cave were confronted with a panoramic view of groups of full-scale statues reenacting episodes from Odysseus' legendary travels.

Few statues from antiquity have survived both in situ and intact, but the evidence suggests an ever-changing and expanding range of contexts for their display. The exhibition of statues in the Greek and Roman Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum allows them to be seen in close proximity to one another and exploits the capacity of natural light to reveal varying aspects of their beauty over the course of each day.

Marden Nichols
Sylvan C. Coleman and Pamela Coleman Memorial Fund Art History Fellow, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View of the Classical Greek Acropolis, Athens, Greece (5th century B.C.). Colosseum, Rome, Italy. Extension Detail.

Façade of the Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey (2nd century A.D.)