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Zeus-Sabazios

  • Object:

    Bust

  • Place of origin:

    Rome (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 180-200 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Bronze, parcel gilt and inlaid with silver and niello

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by George Salting

  • Museum number:

    A.581:0, 1-1910

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 64, The Wolfson Gallery, case SS3 []

Ancient busts such as this one were often displayed on high shelves and formed a focal point of a scholar's study. Humanist Renaissance scholars, most so in Italy, were keen to link themsleves with the intellectual traditions of Greece and Rome, and paint themsleves as the guardians and inheritors of long-forgotten Classical schools of thought, though in fact 'the Ancients' had been always been held in the highest regard right through the entire medieval period, and right across Europe. But Classical heritage and traditions were always stronger and its influence more obviously visible in Italian art than the rest of Christendom. The influence of ancient Roman and Greek traditions on art, architecture, learning, politics and military affairs, costume and even the self-identity of scholars, noblemen and princes, grew stonger, more obvious, more a matter of imitation than homage and regard, and also more sustained and irreversable once the 'Renaissance' unfolded.
This small Roman bust represents the deity Zeus-Sabazius (or Sabazios), the centre of a mystery-cult. This bust was previously identified as a likeness of the Emperor Commodus. His head-gear is known as a Phrygian cap, which in Renaissance Italy came to symbolise people from the East.

Physical description

Bronze bust with of a bearded man, Zeus-Sabazios, attached to a decorated moulded base.

Place of Origin

Rome (made)

Date

ca. 180-200 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Bronze, parcel gilt and inlaid with silver and niello

Dimensions

Height: 33.5 cm, Width: 20.5 cm, Depth: 11 cm, Weight: 3.08 kg

Object history note

This small Roman bust represents the deity Zeus-Sabazius (or Sabazios), the centre of a mystery-cult. This bust was previously identified as a likeness of the Emperor Commodus.
From the Salting bequest.

Historical context note

This small Roman bust represents the deity Zeus-Sabazius (or Sabazios), the centre of a mystery-cult. The ram was sacred to Zeus-Sabazius as a fertility animal, just as it was to Dionysus, and a ram is depicted on the base of the bust sitting before the goat milked by Pan. Satyrs, like the one shown here, were also associated with fertility, since they were lecherous, chased nymphs, enjoyed wine, and were the attendants of Dionysus (also known as Bacchus), god of wine. Dionysus was represented in the form of a bull or goat - here he is present as the goat being milked by Pan, sandwiched between the fertility of the ram, and the mischevous excess of Pan. By the time of the Renaissance, Pan had become a symbol of evil and wrong-doing, but the ram retained its image as an allegory of manly fertile power. Because of this shared use of the ram by Zeus-Sabazius and Dionysus as an identifying motif in ancient religion, Zeus-Sabazius was sometimes called in later times Dionysus Sabazius. Some ancient authors called him a son of Dionysus, though others variously portray him as a son of Cabeirus, Cronos, Rhea or Cybele. He was also called by some a son of Zeus, by Persephone, who was then reared by the nymph Nyssa.

Zeus-Sabazius was worshipped in Phrygia, a country comprising part of the central plateau and western flank of Asia Minor. Europeans conquered Phrygia towards the close of the second millennium BC, thereby bringing the invaders into contact with Phrygian religion and culture, which was merged and absorbed into Greek paganism, and in turn the religion of the Romans, making for a rather vague god of fertility named Zeus-Sabazius. In Roman times Asian Phrygia was administered as a serparate province, and the old Anatolian Phrygian religion, but assimilating outside pagan, and then Judaic and Christian influences, survived into the Byzantine era.

The cap that this beared god wears is the classic 'Phrygian cap', more usually assoaicted with slaves, and then in medieval times, peasants and rustics, than mighty gods. It was commonly used to represent poor country folk in South European medieval manuscript illustrations, and other graphic sources. But Zeus-Sabazius also wears a toga, and his beard harks back to the Greek image of a man or god of power and strength. This combination of folk dress and Classical symbols of Olympian power accurately expresses the hybrid nature of this demi-god of fertitlity.

Ancient busts such as this one were often displayed on high shelves and formed a focal point of a scholar's study. Humanist Renaissance scholars, most so in Italy, were keen to link themsleves with the intellectual traditions of Greece and Rome, and paint themsleves as the guardians and inheritors of long-forgotten Classical schools of thought, though in fact 'the Ancients' had been always been held in the highest regard right through the entire medieval period, and right across Europe. But Classical heritage and traditions were always stronger and its influence more obviously visible in Italian art than the rest of Christendom. The influence of ancient Roman and Greek traditions on art, architecture, learning, politics and military affairs, costume and even the self-identity of scholars, noblemen and princes, grew stonger, more obvious, more a matter of imitation than homage and regard, and also more sustained and irreversable once the 'Renaissance' unfolded.

Descriptive line

Bust, ancient Roman, God Zeus-Sabazios, bronze, parcel-gilt, inlaid with silver and niello, ca. 180-200

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

'Salting Bequest (A. 70 to A. 1029-1910) / Murray Bequest (A. 1030 to A. 1096-1910)'. In: List of Works of Art Acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum (Department of Architecture and Sculpture). London: Printed under the Authority of his Majesty's Stationery Office, by Eyre and Spottiswoode, Limited, East Harding Street, EC, p. 97

Labels and date

Antique bust of Zeus-sabazios
About 180-200

Antique busts, displayed on a high shelf, would form the focal point of a Renaissance study. This one portrays an obscure deity worshipped as a god of fertility in Cappadocia and Phrygia (modern Turkey). His head-gear is known as a Phrygian cap, which in Renaissance Italy came to symbolise people from the East.

Roman

Partially gilded bronze, inlaid with silver and niello (black composition)

Museum no. A.581-1910
Salting Bequest [2008]

Materials

Bronze; Parcel gilt; Silver

Techniques

Cast; Moulding

Subjects depicted

Goats (animals); Trees; Caps (headgear); Beard; Paganism; Stars; Satyrs; Religion (concept); Devotion

Categories

Sculpture; Religion

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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