On a cold, autumnal evening in November, Dr Peter Stewart from Oxford University’s Classical Art Research Centre transported us from the classical centre of the World, (Lytham St Annes of course!), closer to the geographic centre of the world, Gandhara. He provided us with a refreshing take on classical art and how it disseminated to every corner of the empire and beyond.
Dr Stewart opened the evening by taking us to Yingpan in China and shared with us the Yingpan man. Discovered in 1995, this mummy was a thirty year old man, in distinctive clothing, a white mask, and very Clark Gable-esque moustache! Despite being very oriental in appearance and style with local dyes being used, Dr Stewart drew our attention to the design on the drapery. This was not oriental at all but instead drew from many classical themes.
For example, it depicts a repeating pattern of prancing goats, pomegranate trees, hunters and bulls with laurel wreaths around their waists. The hunters look like little cupids just like the Great Palace Mosaic in Istanbul which also depicts cupids, pomegranate trees and goats. Moreover, the crouching figures look like they are defending themselves like typical Classical Greek battle scenes as seen on a frieze at the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. Bulls were often depicted with laurel wreaths around their waist when they were being led for sacrifice, in Roman art, but here they are prancing and free. Dr Stewart illustrated how the images on this drapery were not coherent as it seems to be taking bits from different places which may make you think that there was a breakup of Roman imagery the further it travelled from the empire. However, he highlighted that there are other pieces of Chinese art that depict classical themes in a more coherent manner so perhaps it was because depicting art on drapery had different rules to that on a temple for example.
Dr Stewart then swept us away from China and moved us towards the fringes of the Roman Empire itself to Gandhara. Around the time of the second century AD, Gandhara was a part of the Kushan empire with a large population of Buddhists. A lot of these Buddhists were wealthy and, in order to commemorate the Buddha, they spent large amounts of money on stupas. Dr Stewart pointed out to us that during the nineteenth century, Europeans, (at this point Gandhara was under the thumb of British India), started noticing that the sculptures on the stupas had uncanny echoes to European classical sculptures. Although we don’t know how these two worlds were connected, there was a definite Greek legacy in Gandhara as a coin has been found in Gandhara which has both the Gandharan local language and Greek on it, demonstrating how Gandhara catered for different audiences.
Many of the Greco-Buddhist parallels can be found on Roman sarcophagi and Dr Stewart showed us countless parallels including: a scene depicting the first bath of the Buddha and, very similarly, on a Roman sarcophagus depicting Prometheus creating the first man.
Another example is a scene where the Buddha sacrifices his flesh for a dove which is incredibly similar to a scene on a Roman sarcophagus which shows a satyr, Marsyas, being flayed for the hubris of challenging Apollo to a musical competition that he lost. The connections between these two worlds are uncanny and largely unexplained. Dr Stewart highlighted how artists must have travelled from Rome to share their techniques because there are no mistakes or obvious inconsistencies in this Gandharan art. He also explained that there are so many similarities with Roman sarcophagi, in particular, and plaster casts help to explain how these images moved around.
We then ended up on the other side of the Roman empire as the same thing was happening in Roman Britain. A Roman sarcophagus was found, dating from around the third to fourth century AD, which also had crude cupids carved on, very similar to what was happening all the way over in China. And possibly, even more striking, a Roman sarcophagus was found in Spitalfields, London and the woman inside was wearing Chinese silk. Dr Stewart had managed to successfully challenge our perception of Roman art and made us realise how interconnected the ancient world must have been.
Dr Stewart ended his thought-provoking lecture by making us realise how there was a vast amount of evidence to suggest in good confidence that the ancient world was connected, but there is nothing written about this. There are just glimpses of classical traditions used in different times and different cultures, each echoing one another but never quite grasping one another.” ©SamuelHolden
Thanks so much to Dr Stewart for delivering such a thought-provoking talk, to all of our hard working volunteers and classics ambassadors for their help on the evening, and to the audience of 215 people who came to learn more about the art of the Roman Empire!