Christ and Antinous
Pedro Azara

The fascination with classic art and its recreation did not start with the Renaissance, and neither aroused the interest in the archaic and primitive art with the new cubism of Picasso. Verily, all the cultures during all the periods look back, with nostalgia and with eagerness of recovery, at artistic expressions of other times. The Egyptian art itself, until its decline and disappearance, well into the Christian times, is nothing but a constant reinterpretation –or sometimes a repetition- of the subjects, ways of representation, materials and idioms appeared during the dawn of the ancient Empire. In the same way, at the beginning of the Roman Empire, the statues were sculpted with the decisive wish to look like the ones done at the end of the archaic Greece, while during the height of the Empire, the sculptures were formed looking at the ancient classic models, six or seven centuries before. Greece itself, did not escape from this way of conceiving art. The small archaic idols, superficially or clumsily sculpted in wood, are sometimes marked or ruined by the passing of time, really far away (still) from the naturalism of Pericles’ Athens, and were considered to be more sacred than the classic marble statuary, considered excessively decorative, unable to provoke a sensation of fear or any reverential meditative attitude. They used to think even that deities preferred the rough hieratical images, which features were barely sketched as if they were emerging with difficulty from the wrapping material, to any other statue excessively human. The toughness of the carving, still very close to the shape of a trunk where the early carvings were sculpted, fitted together very well with the distant appearance of those deities who hardly ever cared about human beings.

Within these ancient recreations of bygone forms of art, there are works made during the times of the emperor Hadrian. Among them, stand out because of its large number (despite a rather stereotyped execution of forms, more lifeless or exhausted than superhuman) the portraits of Antinous. This obscure personage, from who we know very little, maybe the emperor’s favourite, was meant to be deify after his death (In any case, an usual procedure for the members of the imperial court or close to the court), and cult statues as well as temples and even the city of Antinoe, were consecrated to him. Regardless of the artistic qualities of these effigies, they offer an interesting problem about the function of art and its connection with the world of ideas. This problem, by the way, is the reason for the strange and rather unfortunate appearance of those images, where the mimetic representation, needed to make this image recognizable as the portrait of someone of flesh and blood -in which the personal characteristics that identifies him stand out-, and the unavoidable idealization necessary to believe in his divinization and to accept it, do not fit perfectly. These effigies are at the same time an image of a human being, represented in his material and carnal reality, and the one of a hero or a god; personal portraits -which had only a full sense for its environment- and cult statues conceived for the whole world. All the effigies correspond to the same archetype: It is the image of a young man, represented standing, with the characteristic nakedness of the Greek heroes. The head turned, leaning to the bust, prevents us from seeing him. The figure shies away the gaze of the observer or the faithful. He shows himself, self-satisfied, lost into the admiring contemplation of his own figure shown without decency, offered to everyone’s gaze, we could say that turned towards his thoughts, lost in thought, if it did not happen that the classic heroes had no inner life -they lacked “inner substantial weightiness”, in Hegel’s words- and this was not the subject of symbolic representation.

The gods and heroes of classical antiquity lived among them, high up on the mountain from which they descended just to disrupt the human order. They used to eat, to drink, to celebrate and to join each other, without caring about the fate of the mortals, the “ephemera”. The gods appeared only occasionally. They used to come into sight for a moment, magnificent, in whole brightness, often in dreams, and then they vanished, leaving the humans astonished. The rest of the time they shied away from any contact with humans. The contemplation of the divine bodies was usually forbidden to them. If, by any chance, they could penetrate into a forbidden place and caught sight of a naked deity, they were instantly killed or metamorphosed into animals at the mercy of vermin. The dazzling body of the deities used to shine brightly. It was not to be seen directly because this could cause blindness -into a culture that gave consideration to the visible, to be blind was a synonym of death-. The repudiate, the plague victims were blind, as well as the inspired poets, who, in contact with the Muses that inspired them, were unable to mix with their equals.

Despite the sadness (or the coldness) that overcomes the effigies of Antinous; they go quite well with the classic cult images. The deities (and Antinous was a man turned into a god) do not look at the humans. Arrogant, self-satisfied, they have eyes just for themselves and for other gods. When they show themselves in the flesh, it is only to bestow grace on their faithful. But this body is only temporarily occupied by the deities who usually live in the highest. The sight of the divine statues was not always possible. The temples where they were kept, into a chapel situated in the deepest part of the sanctuary, were opened just for a few moments on the God’s day. The rest of the time, the priests and the monarchs could only enjoy the contemplation of the divine body, an uncertain sight, in the middle of a surrounding semidarkness. The emperors, since Hadrian considered as celestial powers, showed themselves on very few occasions, which roused the faithful and the subjects to a frenzy, for example when the monarchs appeared, from time to time, at the Circus and at the Amphitheatre, where the bloody celebrations were devoted to them, with the purpose of extending (almost eternally) their lives thanks to the animals and humans that were sacrificed there.

The effigies of Antinous, as well as the pagan deity ones, could be considered as the antithesis of the images of Christ –which were, in those years, starting to be produced from pagan models. The first representations of Christ showed an idealized human being, as if he was not a true man (and at the same time a god) but just a god disguised as a human. Nevertheless these first images already show an essential change in the conception of divinity and the function of the image. The figure, which shape still responds to a classic model, with a harmonious shape disposed following a balanced pose just to be contemplated, does not avoid a visual contact with those who surround it, but quite the opposite, the figure looks towards them honestly and frankly. Some years later, the representation of the first Christian emperors, especially Constantine, still considerate as deities, will follow the guidelines of Christian art, distancing itself from the conventional classic sacred statuary (In the same way, the Roman and Egyptian funerary portraits from Fayúm, from the middle of the II Century, started to be drawn with bulging eyes which wiped out the significance of the flesh and symbolized the everlasting life, that is, the true life reached after the death). Even before the representation of the eye pupil (until then nonexistent into classic art), the most visible change affects the spatial disposition of the face. The face does not bend or rise anymore, but instead looks towards the ones who look at it. In Orient as well as in Occident, with the passing of time, the significance of the face and, above all, the look grows to the detriment of the body. The shapes became flatter and simpler. The body acquires the unconsciousness of the shroud. The smooth volume of the flesh vanished in favour of a representation gradually evener and simpler, anti-naturalistic, in which, in contrast, the stress lays on the increasing significance of the almond shape of the eyes (the “mandorla”) entirely filled up with the black pupil staring at everyone who falls under its influence.

As early as in the VII century, the image of Christ, painted before sculpted –the two-dimensional surface of the panel or of the fresco increased the immateriality of the figure, as the sculpted image was still too much corporeal-, was reduced to a face that would occupy the most of the surface; the rest of the body was not always represented. The gigantic eyes, wide open, almost popping out of the face. The rest of his features were reduced to some strokes. These eyes, in contrast to those from the classic statuary, looked eagerly. The divinity -a whole man and not only a disguised supernatural during the time of the apparition-, was a specific being (and not an idealized figure) who was born and will die, and was addressed towards every observer, keeping an intense exchange of looks with everyone. The only thing that was offered to the eye, anyway, was his eyes. He existed just because he looked, and the faithful, welcomed by this look, saw themselves reflected and, thus, praised in and by it.

Antinous could not be a prototypical face (which defines and symbolizes a person). As every ancient deity, as every pagan god-man his face was a common one. His eyes did not look; his idealized features were necessarily impersonal. Only Christ has (and is) a true face, he is the only one to be a whole human with personal appearance. That is why the images of Galdón have recourse to fragments that form a real face -maybe alluding to the impossibility of meeting again the unity of the ancient world, with the belief in the paradigm of the Greek-Roman culture-. The result, increased with the use of light-boxes, looks like a figure cut into pieces, in a stained glass window where the light filters and illuminates the translucent matter (the no-matter of the glass). The impossible face of the classic man (which model is Antinous, according to Galdón) mingles with the one of a Pantocrator.

Pedro Azara
Teacher of Aesthetics at the High School of Architecture
of Barcelona (EISAB - UPC)