Blog Week 9: Style and Message in Pergamene Art

After you’ve done the reading, look at the images here of the Gigantomachy (Battle of the Olympic gods vs. the Giants) from the Great Altar at Pergamon, as well as statues of the Celts (thought to be later Roman copies of Pergamene victory monuments).  Write a brief response regarding the effectiveness of style and composition to communicate a political/philosophical message in either the Gigantomachy or the two statues of the Celts.

Gigantomachy on the Great Altar: The frieze running around the Great Altar at Pergamon depicts the epic mythological battle between the Olympian gods and the Titans/Giants (“Gigantomachy”). As noted by Gruen, “the Gigantomachy carries clear echoes of the Parthenon friezes [i.e. the metopes], thus associating the Attalid achievement with that of classical Athens, standard-bearer of order against chaos, of Hellenic civilization against barbarism.”  How do the sculptors of the Gigantomachy achieve this stylistically?  Look at the manner of composition, relationships between figures, expressions, textures, sense of movement, and the techniques used to achieve these.

The “Suicidal Gaul” (currently housed in the Palazzo Altemps, Rome) and the “Trumpeter/Dying Gaul” (currently housed in the Capitoline Museum, Rome):  These two statues are believed to be Roman-era copies of figures that formed part of a Pergamene victory monument.  The Celts are the barbaroi par excellence (worse than the Persians!), feared and loathed by Greeks and Romans alike (at least in the literature of this period). How do we know just from looking that these figures are Celts/Gauls?  How have the sculptures used style to present a narrative/commentary on these Celts?  Pay attention to the physique – what does it mean that these Celts are shown with such impressive physiques?  What is the Pergamene (or Roman) viewer meant to feel when viewing these statues?

Note:  The labels “Celt” and “Gaul” are used interchangeably to refer to these invaders from the North who settled in Greece and Asia Minor.

**Due by 10 pm, Wednesday March 16**

“Dying Gaul (Trumpeter)” (first 5 images) & “Suicidal Gaul” (last three images):

The Gigantomachy Frieze from the Great Altar:

Download images here: Great Altar – Gigantomachy

For more information about the Gigantomachy frieze and the Great Altar more generally, go here:

I don’t normally recommend wikipedia articles, but this one is is unusually well researched and cited, and is probably the best thing available on the web.

Here’s a translation of the relevant section of Hesiod’s Theogony, which describes the battle between the Gods and the Giants/Titans:


6 responses to “Blog Week 9: Style and Message in Pergamene Art

  • Lili Dodderidge

    The Gigantomachy images on the Great Altar at Pergamon have been suggested to represent the achievements of the Attalids over the Celts, an enemy who was seen as savage and unnatural (Strootman 118, 131). These achievements did not purely relate to the actual historical victory, but reflected a triumph of ideals—civilized society over barbaric behaviors. To show this on the altar, the artists focused on contrasting the inhumanity of the Giants with the godly nature of the Olympians, as well as emphasizing the relationship of feet and the ground.

    The disparity between the barbaric inhumanity of the Giants and the civilized deities can be epitomized in the image of Athena separating Alkyoneus from the Earth, this Giant’s source of power. Here, Athena is beautifully and ornately dressed, controlling the situation with a steady hand and acting as the central figure in the scene. Moving, then, to the Giant, a very different characterization exists. Alkyoneus wears a frightened, helpless look on his face; he is powerless to the strong and dominating grace of the goddess. Besides this emasculation, the Giants are the antithesis of the gods they battle. With the torso and head of a man, the Giants diverge in human features with the addition of wings and snake-like leg appendages. These attributes, revealing the ancestry of the Giants, connote animalistic and uncivilized behavior; birds and snakes hold no fight in intelligence, strength, society, or passion against gods and goddesses. This inferior nature of the Giants is emphasized in each depiction of this breed, while the deified power of the Olympians is concurrently stressed throughout the altar as well.

    Another tool the artist uses to suggest the Attalid victory for Hellenic civilization is the depiction of the foot. A most clear example of this design can be seen in the image of Aphrodite. Here, she squashes the head of a Giant with her well-adorned, sandaled foot, pushing the Giant closer to its roots of the earth. This scene reveals a few different ideas for interpreting the superiority of the Olympians. First, and most obviously, the goddess is the dominatrix of the situation—she stands tall and strong, as the Giant crumbles beneath her to the ground. This idea of the gods’ preeminence is further emphasized through the beautiful detail on the sandals of the Olympians. The ornate style signifies a higher class and a more civilized way of living that trumps the cultureless society of the Giants. Looking further into the scene, however, reveals the artist’s degradation of the Giant’s whole entity. The ground on which a pair of feet stands is most often a primarily dirt-based substance. This association with the sole of the sandal to a ground of dirt, something unclean and savage, can be translated to the relationship between the foot of Aphrodite and the head of the Giant: the Giant breed is a soiled, barbaric race, worth being walked upon by the civilized gods.

    The artist clearly has a specific motive in the stylistic design of the altar—to “associate the Attalid achievement with that of classical Athens, standard-bearer of order against chaos, of Hellenic civilization against barbarism” (Gruen 17). Through the contrasting characterizations of the Giants and the gods, as well as the emphasis on the gods’ feet and their relationship to a redefined idea of dirt, the artist creates a general sense of chaos within the Giants, yet stabilizes the scene with the strong and graceful presence of the Olympians. This overall depiction would resonate with citizens of this era, reminding them that the triumph over the Celts not only saved them from a beastly enemy’s wrath, but saved them from a loss of civilization and reversion to savage barbarism.

  • Ena Dekanic

    “In Classical and Hellenistic art, intense pathos was an unmistakable part of the visual language of defeat,” writes Smith (48). Like the Dying Alexander in Florence that Smith mentions, the “Suicidal Gaul” and the “Trumpeter/Dying Gaul” express, in Smith’s words, “overt suffering” (48). As part of a Pergamene victory monument, the statues present a narrative of Pergamene (or Roman) superiority over the defeated Celts.

    The statues, especially the “Trumpeter/Dying Gaul,” evoke a particularly pathetic effect from the viewer. The Dying Gaul is obviously wounded, barely able to hold his body upright even with his hand. Notably, his head is down, expressing a sense of submission and of downtrodden defeat. By depicting the enemy in such a sorry state, on the brink of death, the Pergamenes and Romans are able to visually assert their superiority and dominance over the barbaric Celts.

    Interestingly, even as the artists simultaneously emphasize their demise, the Gauls are rendered with impressive physiques. I believe that the purpose is twofold. First, I think that the intense, almost inhuman musculature of the figures serves to identify them as Gauls. As Strootman discusses, the Celts, often compared to Titans and Giants, were conceived as fierce, beastly warriors, surely befitting such a formidable physique. Other aspects of the statues also identify the figures as Gauls. Livy, as Strootman notes, described the Celts as having “flowing red hair,” and the figures certainly have longer, shaggier hair than most other portraits we have seen. Additionally, Livy and Pausanias both commented on the Celts’ shields, and there seem to be shields near the bottom of both the “Suicidal Gaul” and the “Trumpeter/Dying Gaul.”

    The primary reason, however, that the Celts are portrayed with such impressive physiques is once again to emphasize the superiority of the victorious Pergamenes; after all, the more impressive the enemy, the more impressive the victory over them. The jarring visual contrast between a well-muscled, once formidable enemy now lying in defeat, near death, created a powerful victory narrative for the Pergamene or Roman viewer.

  • Sarah Murphy

    The two statues of Celts depict these dying soldiers from the perspective of the Pergamene viewer. According to Strootman, Greeks viewed Celts as “bloodthirsty savages from the barbarous world border who threatened to destroy the ordered world of the poleis (Strootman 120-121). Celts were uncivilized and irrational, lacking self-control. As a result, Pergamene depictions presented the Celts as barbaric and overly violent. The sculptor of “Suicidal Gaul” and “Trumpeter” gave his figures specific details to ensure that they would be easily recognized as Celts. All figures have very shaggy hair and tall bodies, attributes mentioned in Manlius Vulso’s speech; the modern viewer can guess that, since these statues were probably painted, the figures’ hair was red. Both statues include a long shield, another identifying characteristic of Celts. The nudity of both male figures does not signify their heroic status; instead, the bulging muscles and lack of clothing of both males show that these Celtic warriors are primitive, almost bestial in their thirst for physical violence. The almost hyper-idealization of the male bodies also shows that the Celts were formidable enemies; whoever could defeat them, in this case the Pergamenes, must be even more formidable.
    By depicting both male soldiers as about to die, the artist is asserting the Pergamenes’ power over these savage forces. The “Trumpeter” indicates his extreme pain by his twisted body, downcast head, and inward gaze; the viewer can clearly see the wound in his chest. The Celt appears to be submissive and helpless. Nonetheless, the Trumpeter is still refusing to give up, recalling Pausanias’ description that Celts “were carried on by sheer spirit while their life lasted” (qtd. in Strootman 119). The viewer recognizes that this attempt is fruitless, making the dying Celt appear foolish and pathetic. The “Suicidal Gaul” also appears foolish and out of control. His twisted body and wide eyes show his panic and fear. Because he is holding up a female figure who appears to be dead, the viewer assumes that he has killed her just before committing suicide, perhaps to prevent her capture by the enemy. This violence seems unnecessary, furthering the idea that Celts were insanely brutal. Although one could argue that the Celt has retained control by committing suicide, his fearful posture suggests not deliberation but panic. This act of desperation further demonstrates how uncivilized the Celts were. Pergamene viewers of these statues recognize the differences inherent in their own society and that of the Celts. By depicting the Celts as primitive and violent, Pergamenes are asserting their own superiority in both battle and civic life.

  • Danielle Lee

    The sculptor of the Dying Gaul portrayed the defeat of the Celts through the heaviness of the figure’s body language. It seems as if the wounded soldier with a bleeding laceration to his right rib is attempting to raise himself from the ground. He is almost in that position to bend his currently extended left leg so that he can push his weight upon it as he stands up while at the same time pushing himself up with his left hand which currently rests on his other leg. However, the soldier’s bowed head that holds a grimacing face indicates that he has lost the zealous frenzy that is so characteristic of the Celtic warriors. Additionally, trapped forever in the position created by the sculptor, he will never be able to do so.

    Another aspect of the sculpture that indicates the Attalid victory over the barbaric Celtics is the soldier’s total nakedness. Perhaps the barbaric Celts were indeed more comfortable in their naturally endowed forms. However, at this moment and in this particular position, the nudity of the soldier seems to represent his total vulnerability and lack of defense against any and all attacks. There is hopelessness in the fact that he does not even try to protect his body in anyway. He does not even try to dress the wound on his body that continues to gush forth blood.

    To further emphasize the soldier’s vulnerability is his lack of weapon or shield. It seems that he has lost all care for self preservation that the soldier has completely collapsed on top of his shield. And the sword with which he had once fought and killed so fiercely lays idly and futile by his side. A soldier with true conviction and grit would not let defeat crush his spirit so.

    The depicted moment is reminiscent of the article by Strootman who comically told of Attalid generals encouraging their men to simply withstand the first charge in order to win the battle. Thought the Celt soldiers came with the strongest passion and arms they had yet faced, they were easily burnt out. By withstanding that first wave of attacks, the military leader encouraged his men that they wouldn’t even have to raise their swords against the enemy for their own lack of willpower to fight. Additionally, this defeated moment of the dying Gaul could also be interpreted as the Celtic fall into despair. While no article mentions this explicitly, it may be suggested that the high waves of emotions in the barbaric Celts (spurred on by their general lack of rationality) would be followed by deep falls into despair or depression. No one could continually be high on passion and fire for fighting all the time. And the Celts as much as they sometimes reverted to inward focused chaos and self-destruction, as humans, should also have fallen into deep pits of gloominess. This would, in a way, make more sense with the sculpted image because the soldier does not have any fatal injuries or wounds. Though he has a cut on his right side, there is no indication that he is really dying. Unless, the name of the sculpture was given for the soldier’s dying spirit. That would make more sense for the death being depicted in the sculpture does not necessarily seem to be one of a physical nature but of a spiritual and emotional one.

    Though the Gallic soldier is still in pristine shape, except for his abdominal wound, there is no hope for him. To demonstrate the greatness of the victory, the sculptor maintained the physical prowess of the defeated enemy to show exactly what the Attalids had conquered. In the end, however, the Celts known for their military skill and competency could not compete with the civilized and philosophically well grounded Greeks.

  • Ryan Day

    When looking at the statues of the “gauls” I noticed two things in particular about how these people were portrayed. The statues are muscular and impressive to the point of being somewhat ridiculous. I feel it would be difficult for the average gaulish man to become that muscular considering how he probably suffered from a lack of adequate food for most of his life. Nevertheless, this depiction of your enemies as being overly muscular is an effective way of making yourself look greater and more powerful. The greater the perceived strength of your enemy, the better you look by defeating that enemy.

    The second thing I noticed while looking at the statues is that they seem rather barbaric. One of the “gauls” is committing suicide by stabbing himself in the chest with his right hand while holding what appears to be the body of a fallen enemy in his left hand. The “gaul” seems a bit like a wild animal. He may be refusing to be captured by whichever “civilized” people seem to be attacking him. The idea seems to be that of a wild man choosing death over captivity. This animalistic, inhuman appearance makes it very difficult to feel sympathetic for the gauls. The United states used the same propaganda tactics during World War 2 when describing the Japanese. When you’re enemy is portrayed as being less than human, you feel no remorse when you kill them.

  • Brendan Dorsey

    The statues of the Dying Gaul and of the Suicidal Gaul are immediately identifiable as Gauls by their mustaches and their hair. The Gauls were known throughout the Mediterranean for their mustaches, and their hair is too long and unkempt for the statues to be representations of Greeks. The necklace worn by the Dying Gaul and the Suicidal Gaul’s sword also seem distinctively Celtic. What is most interesting, however, is the power of the figures depicted. Both are strong, well-muscled, tall, well equipped, and fearsome. Their perceived size is partly a result of the size of the statues, but also a result of the proportions of their limbs. Their legs and arms are long in relation to the rest of their bodies, which increases their stature. While they are both naked, or almost naked, they are both surrounded by military equipment of seemingly relatively high quality. Both have swords (the Dying Gaul’s is on the ground next to him)that are unbroken even after a fatal or lost combat, and the Suicidal Gaul’s weapon is sharp enough penetrate his ribcage even from an extreme downward angle (probably the hardest way to cut through the ribcage). The Dying Gaul also has a rather nice looking trumpet at his feet, which together with his necklace indicates a high level of workmanship and the high quality of the items he has. The Dying Gaul isn’t exactly ferocious-looking in the moment depicted, though he was clearly a formidable enemy. The Suicidal Gaul, on the other hand, is a striking figure to say the least. His pose is dramatic, almost impossible to imagine occurring in real life, and he holds what appears to me to be a dead woman in his left hand while he kills himself with his right. Though he is dying, his last act is one of defiance (he won’t be captured) and indomitable strength (he is strong enough to stab himself through the heart with one hand in a very awkward way, while still holding another person). These figures convey the power of the Gauls quite clearly and would have capitalized on the fear of the Gauls that was common in the Greek and Roman world at the time. The imposing figures would also have highlighted the greatness and significance of Pergamon’s victory over the Gauls and the danger that had been averted.

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