Ancient Beauty

Severus Alexander (Museum of Dion)

The photo to the right is a bust of Severus Alexander, found in Ryakia, just north of Mount Olympus, and now in the Museum of Dion. I think it is beautiful and I posted it on RAT, introducing it with a remark that it’s not very often that I am impressed by the beauty of ancient art. I was surprised by the first response: how much sarcasm was there in that phrase?

A very good question that deserves a serious answer.

I was not sarcastic. I like ancient history and I feel fortunate that it has become my job, but that does not mean that I think that the ancient civilizations are the only ones that have produced exceptionally beautiful art. Of course there are things that appeal to my aesthetic sense, but if I visit, say, the Louvre, I will just as often recognize beauty in a Renaissance painting, a statue by Rodin, or the tomb of a Burgundian courtier. If I have a preference (I am not sure), it may turn out to be contemporary art.

When I visited Berlin this Summer, I liked some of the sculpture in the Altes Museum; but the object that really fascinated me was Newman’s Broken Obelisk. Or to move to the field of literature: I have seen my Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, but the play that left me shattered was Sarah Kane‘s Blasted. I have read a lot of ancient sources, and I liked many of them, but the books that changed my life were Heart of Darkness and Doctor Faustus.

All this does not mean that I don’t see beauty when I am studying Antiquity. I find the Venus of Kortrijk very attractive. I just read a fine poem by Gregory of Nazianzus. I love the somewhat clumsy sculpture on the mausoleums of ancient Ghirza. I greatly admire Euclid‘s proof that √2 cannot be expressed as a fraction of two natural numbers. I love the Pantheon. And I was impressed by that bust of Severus Alexander. I don’t deny they’re beautiful, but my passion for Antiquity is a historical one, not an aesthetic one.

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