Friday, June 7, 2019


Fernande Hölscher​, Die Macht der Gottheit im Bild: archäologische Studien zur griechischen Götterstatue​. Göttingen​: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2018. Pp. 581. ISBN 9783946317159. €90,00.

Reviewed by Frederick G. Naerebout, Leiden University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

In this voluminous study, Fernande Hölscher discusses Greek cult statues from the earliest examples in the 8th and 7th centuries with a preliminary paragraph on possible Minoan and Mycenaean examples—down to the 5th century BC, with a coda on the 4th. This diachronic account is laid out across five chapters (230 pages). It is preceded by seven chapters (1-7, not 1-5 as it says in the preface, 330 pages) containing a synchronic, systematic enquiry into cult statues. In these seven chapters the analysis ranges well beyond the 4th century BC. What results is a somewhat hybrid publication: one might say that we get two books for the price of one. Although the first seven chapters lay the groundwork for the last five, they do so at such length that they could easily stand on their own.

The book is very well-ordered, as one can already see from the arrangement of the text in some 80 numbered paragraphs. But also as a whole Hölscher does a methodical job. The volume begins with some conceptual clarification: there is no Greek terminology to distinguish between a cult image and other statues, especially dedications (what in English are usually called votives—but not all dedications are votives). Nevertheless, Hölscher states that we can distinguish between the two types by judging the intentions of those who produce a statue or put it to use. Briefly, a cult statue is the object of worship and the recipient of cult activity—consequently a dedication, indeed any statue, can change into a cult statue by fulfilling these criteria. Despite some recent attempts to problematize the whole concept of cult statue, Hölscher’s straightforward no-nonsense approach makes a convincing argument that it is legitimate to concentrate on the cult statue as a category different from all other kinds of statues and statuettes. And it is absolutely necessary to do so, as Hölscher states in concluding the first chapter, otherwise the whole issue of the cult statue as representing, or rather, being the living god becomes meaningless (see also p. 291). This is the subject of the second chapter, in many ways the central part of the book.

Cult images in the round, according to Hölscher, make tangible the presence of the god. The three-dimensionality is important, she argues, as there are no examples of painted cult images. For the time-frame she has chosen, she may be right—though it seems impossible to know for certain; otherwise, it is disputable: see for instance Vincent Rondot, Les derniers visages des dieux égyptiens (Paris 2013). At any rate, we need images. Humans cannot truly meet the god except in his/her anthropomorphic form, and it is this form that the cult statue embodies. Hölscher discusses at length the many examples in our sources of statues that are seen or said to act in some way, i.e., to procure something, such as healing, but also, literally, to move, cry, bleed and so on. There are also many instances of statues treated by humans as if they were sentient beings. All this goes to show that “the image is the one it represents” (“das Bild ist der Dargestellte!”: p. 49, repeated in different words on p. 561, the end of the last chapter, which functions as a very succinct summary). Hölscher offers enlightening parallels from other times and places, and has a sharp eye for recent discussions about materiality. She plausibly argues that an awareness of the materiality of the cult statue can go together with what the individual or community wants to see as the essence of the statue. It is all about a suspension of disbelief. Even loss and replacement of a cult statue need not interfere with the fact that the statue in its very materiality also is the living god. This may be the place to note that this is a book with German style footnotes. The second chapter alone has 172 of them, some fairly lengthy, which do not merely refer to much relevant literature, but contain all sorts of debates and asides. In combination, the main text (65 pages for chapter 2) and the footnotes present a very full overview of the debate on the nature of divine images in general and cult statues in particular.

In her third chapter, Hölscher addresses ritual: acts performed with a statue, not just in the presence of a statue. She does not discuss processions towards, or sacrifices in front of, statues; she does, however, include a short paragraph on prayer (which I find doubtful). Included are processions with statues (either cult statues or special agalmata pompika), their washing and dressing, feeding, praying to statues, as already mentioned, chaining or binding them, and seeking asylum near statues. Most of these rituals were already mentioned in the second chapter because in performing them people show their belief that the cult statue embodies the deity. Most attention gets paid to the chaining and binding of statues: according to Hölscher, this usually is done to ensure the continuing presence of a god (a “Bleibestrategie”, p. 163). She also notes that several often quoted examples are not relevant at all but depict goddesses fitted out in particular items of ritual attire.

The fourth chapter deals with archaism. Hölscher finds that the archaism of Roman days has led to a misinterpretation of traditional forms in use in classical Greece. The Hermes by Alkamenes serves as an example, comparable to the Panathenaic amphoras, of perpetuating a traditional idiom, “because it has always been that way” — which is traditionalism, not archaism. A new, self-conscious, aesthetic archaism arises in the later 5th century and spawns some 4th-century examples, as illustrated by the Hekate of Alkamenes. But it remains a rarity until it becomes popular in late Hellenistic times. The chapter deals at length with statues depicted on vases: here an archaic idiom is supposed to show that the images portray statues, not the deities themselves.

The fifth chapter looks at aniconic depictions and at xoana. Aniconic in fact means that there is no visualisation, but generally it is used for the non-anthropomorphic. Interestingly, Hölscher argues that stones, pillars and so on are not cult statues, and certainly not signs of an early phase in the development of cult statues. They are examples of aniconic worship, but there is no such thing as an aniconic representation of a god. The same statement applies to trees: a tree never is a god, but a tree can refer to a god, be closely associated with cult, and statues or pinakes can be hung from its branches. Xoana in fact do not belong in this chapter; but Hölscher puts them there because they are so often thought to be aniconic, or at least very simple. But a xoanon is a wooden statue, not (necessarily) an old or “primitive” one. The seventh chapter, on Dionysos masks, herms, protomes and busts, could have been included here as well: there we encounter cult statues that are in part aniconic, but only in part. These are all examples of anthropomorphy reduced to its essence.

The sixth chapter is dedicated to the setting: where is the cult statue situated? In temples, or in some open space, and maybe also in dwellings—but about statues in domestic cult we know nothing. Statues usually are on view, for all or for some restricted audience, but some are kept hidden, for part or all of the time. The main part of this chapter deals with the multiplication of statues (e.g., Athena Parthenos next to Athena Polias), with many examples of the subtly different ways in which this plays out.

With chapter eight we come to the diachronic part, or so it seems. The chapter deals with the question of the earliest cult statues of the 8th and 7th centuries and whether these had Minoan and Mycenaean forerunners. Chapter nine, however, actually belongs with the systematic part, and again ranges well into the Roman imperial period. The question how to distinguish between a dedication and a cult statue, previously discussed in the first chapter, recurs with a vengeance. Of most cult statues we do not have even an inkling of their appearance. They do not survive: sometimes we have archaeological traces, such as a base or some fragments. Thus we have to make do with descriptions, few as they are. Ancient viewers usually speak of the god encountered in the image, not of the image itself. There exist depictions of statues, especially on coins, or as terracotta miniatures, and other copies or variants. Hölscher addresses the issue of copies at length, because the copy of a cult statue does not necessarily mean that it is itself a cult statue; although it might be.

Chapters 10-12 give examples of statues attested in other sources, and of statues surviving from the 7th, 6th and 5th centuries, discussed in great detail and which cannot be discussed here. Some general remarks on the 4th century bring the book to a close.

This volume at first sight is a “tell-all-you-know-about-statues” kind of publication. But it is much more: whenever there is debate—and there is plenty of that—the author takes up position and defends it admirably by plain reasoning and a good grasp of the sources. The systematic part includes discussions, well-referenced, of individual objects: here we see the archaeologist at work. This sometimes takes some of the flow out of the text. But that might be preferable to studies where the realities of ancient society seem to have disappeared completely behind the theoretical horizon. All in all, the book is more of a guide to thinking through everything you thought you knew about cult statues.

I have three points of critique. First, the book is in places repetitive: one frequently encounters text that looks familiar. E.g., pp. 374-375 repeat p. 69 almost verbatim. Then there are some minor mistakes (e.g., pp. 14 (Joan Mikalson = Jon Mikalson), 45 n. 8, 246). Thirdly, and more seriously, the wealth of material in this book is not easy to absorb —although the Table of Contents with its breakdown of the chapters in numbered paragraphs is helpful. But a paragraph can be as long as 40-50 pages. Indices of place names, names of gods and of human individuals, museums and inventory numbers bespeak the author’s archaeological background. But what we need is a subject index. There is one, containing a mere 45 entries. For example, on the subject of the bathing and dressing of statues, “Waschen und Kleiden” is listed as the title of paragraph 3.3, pp. 130-142. But the subject also occurs on pp. 65, 119, 121, and probably elsewhere, with some interesting observations. There is no index entry to guide us there. “Plynterien” is in the index, and refers to some of the pages of paragraph 3.3. Also, there is only a very selective bibliography (of titles cited in abbreviated form). With the numerous footnotes, it is very difficult to find out whether a particular item of literature has been cited by Hölscher and in what way.

This is an important and interesting study, not just for classical archaeologists, as the subtitle seems to imply, but also for those interested in the religion(s) of the ancient world, even if there is no easy access to its riches.

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