Dr Sabina Antonini delivered an illuminating lecture on the representation of power in Southern Arabia in the early centuries with examples from the Al Sabah Collection to show how a new power language was perfectly adapted to its political and social context. The lecture was held at the Yarmouk Cultural Center on Monday evening as part of the Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah’s 23rd cultural season.
Dr Antonini is the Director of the Italian Archaeological Mission in Yemen for Monumenta Orientalia (Rome). From 1984 to 2013, she was the archaeologist and principal art historian for the mission’s excavations. Since 2012, she has contributed to CNRS (Paris) archaeological efforts in Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia. She is the author of 9 monographs and over fifty articles on South Arabian Archaeology and Art History. Dr Antonini received her PhD from the University of Naples L’Orientale.
In her talk, she pointed out that as part of the South Arabian figurative production in the early centuries CE, few statues that belong to the Greek-Roman iconographic tradition can be considered as new examples of ‘official art’, with the intent of clear propaganda. In the broader framework of cultural exchange between the Hellenized East, of which Arabia Felix was part, and the Hellenistic-Roman Mediterranean world, she presented artworks to demonstrate the spread of new regal themes in the South Arabian society that point to how the new image of the sovereign was designed.
Dr Antonini shared that although South Arabia was never included in the empires of Alexander the Great, or his successors or in the Roman empire, Hellenistic and Roman artistic movements profoundly influenced its figurative production from the 2nd Century BC onward. She stated that Greek and Roman influences reached Southern Arabia directly through the trade of artworks and also through imitations and the local adaptation of the style and iconography.
She gave the example of the latest of three funeral statues of the King of Awsan that show a distinctive transformation in the figurative language expressing the ideology of power. By adopting the tunic and mantle of Greek and Roman origin, the King of Awsan broke with the iconographic canon of his predecessors. However, his attitude as a devotee followed Southern Arabia iconography and maintained a typical sculptural style.
The recent discovery in Yemen of a number of large bronze statues of loricate figures confirms how deeply the Hellenistic Roman influences transformed the communicative language of the elite in Southern Arabia.
South Arabia had a long tradition in the manufacture of large bronze statues, these were symbols of prestige in a broader social political and economic sense but were always votive in character. As votive statues, she shared that their natural public space was the temple. They were mainly depicted according to the typical iconography of the local style.
Of the images of cuirass figures found in the South Arabian context, only two artworks in bronze were known to date. She showed the audience a fragment of an inscribed loricate statue at the Baynun Museum which she stated is certainly part of a larger statue and the figurine of loricate person wearing a helmet and in the act of raising his hand presently at the British Museum in London. Along with these sculptures she shared an armoured god with halo represented on alabaster and found in Shabwa.
She noted that adding to this list of cuirass figures is a newly discovered large and complete bronze statue whose origin is unknown. The work is part of the Al Sabah Collection and is currently on display in the Amricani Cultural Centre.
Dr Antonini showed two types of cuirass – first, the classical cuirass depicted from the 5th – 4th century in the Greek funerary reliefs were re-adopted in the Augustan age and became the roman loricate statue par excellence during the imperial period. The cuirass has anatomical features and was usually formed by two halves joined along the sides; from the curved lower edge of the cuirass hang two or more rows of metallic lappets called ‘pteryges’ having a semi-circular or rod-like shape.
The Hellenistic cuirass used from Alexander the Great’s period onward shown in the famous mosaic of the battle between Alexander the Great and King Darius or on the statuette of Alexander the Great on horseback both at the Archaeological Museum of Naples, as adopted by the Hellenistic kings for their public images and military commanders and spread through the Hellenistic world.
It is a corset cuirass from which one to three rows of long rectangular leather lappets hang. A belt, the cingulum, was worn on the cuirass and tied at the waist. The cuirass of the new statue and the fragment from the Baynun Museum belong to the Hellenistic type. The corset cuirass is devoid of decorations, the only depictions are the shoulder straps used to securely fasten the two sides of the cuirass and the cingulum, a leather belt wrapped twice around the chest and tied at the stomach. The cingulum, she pointed out, is to be understood as a symbol of command.
Two layers of leather lappets hang from the curved lower edge of the cuirass. one series of shorter lappets protect the pelvis and the second series of longer lappets protect the legs. A tunic with sleeves, Tunica manicata, was worn underneath the cuirass and it is visible above the knee and on the sleeves on the arms. The feet are protected by the krepides, military sandals.
The figure has an active pose, the body weight resting on the right leg while the left is lightly bent and behind the body. The right arm is raised and extended forward, the palm of the open hand is also facing forward, the left arm is bent at the right angle and is lightly discarded at the side as if is supporting the chlamys, a short mantle absent in this statue. She noted that it is unclear what the statue held in the left hand and pointed out that the shape of the hand suggests a cylindrical object possibly a sword or a spear. If the object had been a long pole of a spear with a symbolic meaning of power, the arm would’ve been in a higher position like other examples of similar statues.
The gesture of the figure with arm and open hand extended forward is certainly not of a worshipper nor does it denote a person in the act of blessing as seen in Southern Arabia iconography. The arms stretch forward with extraordinary large and firm hands belongs to an appeasing commander or to a leader demanding attention and requiring silence before delivering the adlocutio, the speech consuls, generals and emperors made to troop as an encouragement before a battle or a military campaign in Republican and Imperial Roman times.
Among the most famous examples of emperors in cuirass and performing this very gesture is the marble statue of ‘Augusto di Prima Porta’ from the 1st Century AD in Musei Vaticani, Rome or that of Titus from the Late 1st Century AD in the Louvre Museum, Paris.Similar examples are found in many historical monuments such as Trajan’s column in Rome, or the bronze portrait statue of Aule Meteli called, ‘Orator’ in Florence.
The hand of the statue from the Al Sabah Collection, Dr Antonini highlighted, is disproportionately larger compared to the size of the body and provides greater emphasis to the gesture. This exaggerated perspective of the extended hand along with active advancing posture of the body is very effective in aesthetically communicating energetic power and determination.
The face of the figure is that of a young, beardless leader who still retains the delicate and refined feature of youth with a thin nose, tight lips, small ears and large eyes rendered with stone inlay and hollow iris. The hairstyle consists of compact cut of rows of regular long smooth parallel locks crowning the forehead. Two concentric rows of thicker and rounded locks cover the head, and the nape of the neck. The hair is retained by a hair band that is a regal symbol.
She remarked that with regard to the facial features of the figure, it is difficult to determine whether it is an idolised or realistic portrait of a Sabean or Emirate prince executed by an expert artisan influenced by Greek or Roman models. As for the hairstyle, large locks arranged in a band covering half the forehead it seems a generic and simplified local adaptation of Roman portraits of the post-Augustus era.
Among Julio-Claudian portraits is shown a hairstyle comparable to those of the loricate statue of South Arabia. The Julio-Claudian classicising style of both the beardless and ageless face and calm , reserved facial expression and the short and ordinary hair became in the first century AD, the hallmark of the Julio-Claudian emperors as well as kings along the empire’s peripheries.
These references of inspiring models circulated even in Southern Arabia as evidenced by a bronze coin of Seleucus II (246-226 BC) minted in Ecbatana (Western Iran), found in Tamna, Capital of the Kingdom of Qataban and the local coins of Augustus.
It is possible that in Southern Arabia that the adoption of Sabean or Emirate princes of loricate statues in commanding stances as a symbol of their military success and expression of power could be a consequence of the Aeilius Gallus expedition to the Arabia Felix besides trade and relationship with the Roman Empire.
In the Al Sabah collection, there are two other bronze loricate statues. The first unlike the other, of the same collection, wears a short chlamys and as for the gesture, the right hand is not open with the palm facing forward as in the two other statues. Although the meaning is the same, here the gesture is more delicate and natural. The slightly oblique posture directed the viewers attention to the gesture and the face of the loricate person who is an authoritative person.
The third loricate statue of the al Sabah collection unlike the other two statues with diadems has its head covered by a helmet. The iconographic scheme consisting of helmet, weapon, the spear, armour, mantle and military sandals seems to refer to the representations of Ares inspired by the imperial symbolism. Ares is the armoured god with a shield and helmet on his head. But his classical representation is of heroic and divine nudity. Ares is also represented with a cuirass but seems to exclude the possibility that this is a cult statue of Ares or of a South Arabian armoured deity.
Dr Antonini pointed out that it is rather the portrait of a South Arabian sovereign represented as the god of war, the gesture of his right arm is that of a leader addressing the troops. In this specific case for the sovereign, it was prestigious to be represented in divine aspect.
The presence of five examples of cuirass statues discovered in Yemen, three in the al Sabah collection, one Baynun and the other from the British museum, shows that the image of the armoured person was widespread in Southern Arabia and that the symbol of the royal authority inherited from the Hellenistic-roman custom was familiar to the south Arabian population.
The fact that the representations of armoured princes so far from Yemen are all made of bronze shows that they were commemorative and votive monuments and not funerary whose commission was certainly royal.
In summary during the first and second century AD, a radical change occurs in Arabia felix in the figurative language adopted by the rulers, change which breaks with local tradition by adopting the cuirass military leader and the nude hero holding the spear. While the first celebrates military duties and merits, and the second exhibits virile and heroic qualities of the leader.
Regarding the place where the statues were displayed, she informed that the three loricate statues unlike the statues at the Baynun museum, had no inscription and were probably placed onto an inscribed stone base. The statue, assertive of royal power, could’ve been displayed in a public place, such as on the facade of the prince’s palace or as part of a group of statues in the court of a temple continuing the ancient tradition of donating bronze statues to the temple.
The beautiful colored fresco found at Qaryat al faw in Saudi Arabia depicts a palace or a South Arabian tower house with figures leaning out the windows is very impressive with its decoration. The main entrance accessed via a staircase, there is a painted niche framed by serpentine columns inside which is depicted the statue of a nude figure with a right arm lifted to hold the sceptre and the left arm bent resting on the hip. This image is reproduced exactly in a mirror symmetric image.
She noted that local South Arabian elite drew on the statuary language of the victorious and valiant military leader that was created during the Hellenistic period and was later elaborated by the Romans during the late Republic period and fully impressed during the early Imperial age.
The third type of statues is devoted to the everlasting celebration of the honoured person, which is the equestrian statue represented in South Arabian culture by the bronze house found in Ghayman now found in the Dumbarton Oaks Museum. This statue presents three inscriptions that differ in style, content and technique.
She affirmed that the equestrian statue not only celebrated the wealth of the elite but also served the purpose of celebrating the athletic dexterity and military prowess of the prince. It is likely that following Aeilius Gallus expedition in Arabia Felix and the contact with the Roman eastern provinces, these powerful aesthetic models were adopted locally.
Dr Antonini concluded, were it for loyalty and friendship with the Romans who maintained a vast economical interest in the Red Sea, the local South Arabian princes adopted the iconography of the self-celebratory field commander for their official propaganda and to enhance their own qualities and social standing.
By Cinatra Fernandes – Arab Times Staff