Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Sarcophagus "Industry" in Antioch

Antioch was way more than just an Eastern outpost or some staging post on the way to campaigns against the Parthians. As the former capital of the Seleucid Empire for centuries it was where the wealth of that empire gravitated attracting the "big spenders" on not only its own area of dominion but from a broader region (as evidenced by Herod's gift of the Colonnaded Street). It was plugged into various strands of the Silk Road and the Red Sea trade as well as connections through to Palmyra providing interaction with that entrepôt.

So jewellery, textiles and perfumes were the prime stock in trade of the merchants and craftsmen dealing with the Syrian "carriage trade". All of these involved conversion of inputs from distant lands into products for local consumption or export to points west in the Roman Empire.

However, one range of products has received less focus mainly because it is so difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of where work was undertaken. This subset of the city's production was its carved output. With so little in situ to be seen at the site of ancient Antioch and the excavations in the 1930s throwing up little in the way of statuary it has fallen to scholars to see commonality in widely dispersed objects and using the style similarities to source them back to workshops in Antioch. This has resulted in a typology for work of this nature originating in the Syrian metropolis.

Most prominent in cultivating this view was the prominent (and controversial) art historian Josef Strzygowski who in his paper entitled "A Sarcophagus of the Sidamara type in the collection of Sir Frederick Cook, and the influence of stage architecture upon the art of Antioch" (published in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. XXVII 1907, p. 99-122, planches V-XII) launched his thesis upon the art world.

In this article he posits: "It now remains to prove that the Asia Minor sarcophagi also belong to this school of plastic art, and depend from a centre of which till now we knew very little, namely Antioch. For to the sphere of influence of this Syrian metropolis belongs also the region on this side of the Taurus whence the art tendency noticeable in the Richmond fragments may have travelled to the west of Asia Minor just as well as to Macedonia, Greece, Italy and Rome. For the present nothing can be determined with certainty, but it is my firm conviction that the Asia Minor type of sarcophagus had its origin neither at Ephesus nor in any other district of western Asia Minor, neither in Greece nor Rome, but in the angle which lay nearest to Mesopotamia, and had Antioch as centre of culture".  

Here can be seen a few of the pieces of the sarcophagus that prompted this theory: 

A French review of the book at the time sums it up well as: "L'étude du sarcophage conservé dans la collection de sir Frederick Cook, à Richmond, amène M. Strzygowski à établir que les sarcophages de type dit d'Asie Mineure proviennent d'une école de sculpture d'Antioche qui chercha à combiner les motifs de l'ornement impressionniste venu de Mésopotamie avec les plus belles formes plastiques de l'art grec. Parmi les huit figures en haut relief qui ont été conservées (trois adolescents nus du type des Dioscures, deux figures masculines aux draperies flottantes, trois figures féminines également drapées), les trois premières semblent dériver de l'Hermès de Praxitèle; les figures drapées présentent des analogies avec la Muse de Praxitèle de la base de Mantinée et la matrone d'Herculanum du musée de Dresde; les deux dernières se rattachent à la même inspiration que les « pleureuses » du sarcophage de Sidon. L'élégante coquille qui encadre les figures comme une niche trahit l'influence mésopotamienne. Enfin le décor même du sarcophage de Richmond, qui se retrouve sur tous les sarcophages d'Asie Mineure, ne serait, avec ses trois portes surmontées d'un fronton, qu'une copie du « proskenion » des théâtres antiques dont la restitution a pu être tentée grâce aux peintures du quatrième style de Pompeï. L'influence de ce style d'Antioche se retrouve dans le panneau central du trône d'ivoire de Maximien, archevêque de Ravenne, et dans le bel ivoire du Musée Britanique qui représente un archange porteur du sceptre et du globe crucigère. En réunissant ces monuments si éloignés en apparence les uns des autres, on peut donc arriver à reconstituer le mouvement de syncrétisme artistique dont la façade de Mschatta reste la manifestation la plus éclatante".

Strzygowski's thesis could be summed up as that the artists in Antioch took the proscenium of the theatre as their mise en scene for all manner of relief carving but most particularly with regard to sarcophagi. It would seem that Antioch had established quite a niche (excuse the pun) in this type of product and that marble from very distant quarries (as far away as Prokenessos in the Sea of Marmara) was shipped to Antioch to be transformed and then re-exported to a wealthy costumer base across the Empire. 

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