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Aniconism in Greek Antiquity, by Milette Gaifman

Reviewed by Daniel Barbu

“At a more remote period all the Greeks alike worshipped uncarved stones instead of images of the gods.” This well-known statement by Pausanias, quoted in the opening chapter of Winckelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764), is often still read as a witness to an evolutionary model of Greek art, which pictures an “aniconic phase” preceding the acme of religious art in the classical period. Milette Gaifman’s book (originally a dissertation) invites us to revise our assumptions about Greek aniconism. Her meticulous study offers the first comprehensive survey of the phenomenon of aniconism in ancient Greece, and should prove of great interest not only to classicists and classical archaeologists but especially to any scholar concerned with religious art, representation of the divine, or ancient and modern theories on art and religion, because the notion of “aniconism” has been so pervasive in scholarly fields not directly concerned with the ancient Greek world.

The work, empirically well-documented and theoretically sharp, explores both the literary and material data pertaining to ancient Greek “aniconism.” (For lack of space and competence, the present reviewer will not deal in detail with the archaeological evidence). The first part traces the genealogy of the term in modern scholarship, and scrutinizes the ways the notion was articulated, both in ancient and modern times, through notions of otherness and identity, and perceptions of the primitive and/or the barbarian (otherness in time and otherness in space). Its second part provides us with a series of case studies, investigating various material instances— rough rocks (e.g., the Paphian stone of Aphrodite; ch. 4) and empty thrones (e.g., the double rock-cut seat of Zeus and Hekate, at Chalke, which we see on the front cover of the book), standing stelai (chapter 5) and their depictions I on classical vases (chapter 6), pillars, e.g., Apollo’s column, or agyeus, and the Spartan Dioskouroi’s beams (chapter 7). Such objects, Gaifman suggests, should be considered a legitimate choice in representation, alongside the figural. “Aniconism,” she argues, must be located “within the broader map of Greek art, religion, and visual culture,” and assessed as a “visual statement on the nature of the divine” in its own right (p. 4). One of the strong points of Gaifman’s study is to show how different strategies could coexist as integral parts of the same system of religious art. Greek visual culture was not bound by a binary opposition between the figural and the non-figural, the iconic and the aniconic, one being the norm and the other the anomaly.

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