(Note: I’m going through my old blog and republishing choice articles here. Eventually the old blog will be deactivated.)
Anathema is a word I’ve heard of but never knew what it meant. In Catholic and Orthodox faith it’s a word of condemnation with varying levels of complexity and negative connotations. For the Ancient Hellenics it was different, votive sacrifices dedicated to the gods often in the form of artwork.
What really caught me is this from A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities by William Smith (as quoted on the Art is Anathema website )
“DONA′RIA (ἀναθήματα or ἀνακείμενα), are names by which the ancients designated presents made to the gods, either by individuals or communities. Sometimes they are also called dona or δῶρα. The belief that the gods were pleased with costly presents was as natural to the ancients as the belief that they could be influenced in their conduct towards men by the offering of sacrifices; and, indeed, both sprang from the same feeling. Presents were mostly given as tokens of gratitude for some favour which a god had bestowed on man; but in many cases they were intended to induce the deity to grant some special favour.
At the time when the fine arts flourished in Greece the anathemata were generally works of art of exquisite workmanship, such as high tripods bearing vases, craters, cups, candelabras, pictures, statues, and various other things. The materials of which they were made differed according to circumstances; some were of bronze, others of silver or gold (Athen. VI p231, &c.), and their number is to us almost inconceivable (Demosth.Olynth. III. p35). The treasures of the temples of Delphi and Olympia, in particular, surpass all conception. Even Pausanias, at a period when numberless works of art must have perished in the various ravages and plunders to which Greece had been exposed, saw and described an astonishing number of anathemata.
Individuals who had escaped from some danger were no less anxious to show their gratitude to the gods by anathemata than communities. In all cases in which a cure was effected presents were made to the temple, and little tablets (tabulae votivae) were suspended on its walls, containing an account of the danger from which the patient had escaped, and of the manner in which he had been restored to health. Some tablets of this kind, with their inscriptions, are still extant (Wolf, l.c., p242, &c.). From some relics of ancient art we must infer, that in some cases, when a particular part of the body was attacked by disease, the person, after his recovery, dedicated an imitation of that part in gold or silver to the god to whom he owed his recovery. Persons who had escaped from shipwreck usually dedicated to Neptune the dress which they wore at the time of their danger (Hor. Carm. I.5.13;Virg. Aen. XII.768); but if they had escaped naked, they dedicated some locks of their hair (Lucian, de Merc. Cond. c1 vol. I p652, ed. Reiz.). Shipwrecked persons also suspended votive tablets in the temple of Neptune, on which their accident was described or painted. Individuals who gave up the profession or occupation by which they had gained their livelihood, frequently dedicated in a temple the instruments which they had used, as a grateful acknowledgment of the favour of the gods. The soldier thus dedicated his arms, the fishermen his net, the shepherd his flute, the poet his lyre, cithara, or harp, &c.
It would be impossible to attempt to enumerate all the occasions on which individuals, as well as communities, showed their gratefulness towards the gods by anathemata. Descriptions of the most remarkable presents in the various temples of Greece may be read in the works of Herodotus, Strabo, Pausanias, Athenaeus, and others.”
As Smith states there are many ancient examples of votive offerings dedicated to temples, including simple things like basic terracotta or bronze animals to complex protomes, sculptures of deities, tripods, tables etc. But what I wasn’t aware of is the commissioned illustration of traumatic scenes, illness, accidents. This is a particularly fascinating to me because it’s a tradition that continues today in Sicily in the form of Ex-Voto.
“Ex-votos can take a wide variety of forms. They are not only intended for the helping figure, but also as a testimony to later visitors of the received help. As such they may include texts explaining a miracle attributed to the helper, or symbols such as a painted or modeled reproduction of a miraculously healed body part, or a directly related item such as a crutch given by a person formerly lame.”
This then brings me back to my own work as a pavement artist. As this is my profession I have a keen interested in regards to the history of pavement art. It is an history obscured by a lack of interest from art historians because it deals with a subject that is usually considered lowly.
However pavement art history is extremely rich and powerful, there are even examples of it being a political movement in the late 1800’s as a preferred form of expression for the suffragettes. http://screever.org/
Asphalt Renaissance by Kurt Wenner* discusses the history of the pavement art, looking at examples found in other cultures in India and Buddhist mandalas, but Wenner’s main focus is on the Madonnari The traditional pavement artists of Italy. The Madonnari are known for drawing votive images of Madonna. In this regard, the Madonnari are considered the first pavement artists with references of their existence in the late Renaissance as maimed veterans of the Crusades.**
They were in every sense ex-voto painters, that would work outside churches, churchgoers would purchase the crude images and donate them to the church. Just like what the Greeks did. Some artists were so poor they could not afford boards to draw / paint upon so they began drawing on the street itself – giving birth to pavement art.
This discovery therefore draws a direct line from the Madonnari to the dona artists of ancient Greece and illustrates that the tradition of devotional artists goes back to ancient Hellenistic times.
*Unfortunately my book was stolen so I cannot provide quotes, however it’s highly recommended to buy this well researched, beautiful and awe inspiring book.
** This is why the crutch is a symbol of pavement artists.
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