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Divine face from a horror movie

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Divine face from a horror movie
Divine face from a horror movie | Photo: Michał Kubicz

Look at that face… Disturbing, isn’t it? If it weren’t for the fact that it is an exhibit from the Vatican Museums, it could be considered a mask from some horror movie.

Meanwhile, it is a truly rare and valuable monument: a fragment of a chryselephantine sculpture. We are used to seeing Greek and Roman sculptures carved in marble or cast in bronze. Meanwhile, in ancient times, the wealth of techniques used to make sculptures was truly enormous. Unfortunately, mainly the stone ones have survived to this day. For many reasons: bronze, gold and silver were so valuable that countless and priceless works of art cast in metal were simply melted down. That is why so few of them have survived to this day. Wooden sculptures were perishable. The acrolitic statues fell apart, leaving us today with countless heads, arms and legs (as a reminder: acrolitic statues are those in which only the fragments showing exposed body parts were made of stone, and the rest consisted of scaffolding hidden under a less noble covering, e.g. made of wood, and decorated with expensive fabrics).

But of all the ancient sculptures, the most valuable were those made of chryselephantine. They were so expensive that almost exclusively sculptures of gods were made using this technique.

What are chryselephantine sculptures? These are sculptures made of various noble materials: gold (Greek: chrysos), ivory (Greek: elephàntinos), silver, precious stones and noble types of wood, for example ebony. Ivory was used to represent all exposed parts of the body: face, hands and feet, because its color was a warm shade of pale human skin.

One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the famous statue of Zeus in Olympia created by Phidias, was made using the chryselephantine technique. Also, Athena in the Athenian Parthenon was not made of marble, but a combination of ivory and gold.
It is ironic that these most valuable ancient sculptures turned out to be so delicate and susceptible to destruction. Only a few fragments of chryselephantine sculptures have survived to this day: the face in the Vatican Museums is one of them. It was most likely made in the 2nd century CE. in Hadrian’s time, when the Empire was at the height of its power. It was discovered in the 19th century. It is now believed that this ivory face was part of a statue of Minerva.

And although time has been inevitable to the delicate ivory from which the goddess’s face was made, although her smooth face is riddled with wrinkles, although she has lost part of her nose and her eye sockets are empty – her protruding chin and slightly pursed lips still exude divine majesty after almost two thousand years. Locked in a museum display case, Minerva looks down on the thousands of visitors who pass her daily in the Vatican Museums.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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