Why Art and Religion?

I have been interested in ancient Greek religion for as long as I can remember. As an undergraduate Classics major at Davidson College it was my privilege to study with the late Stephen Lonsdale, himself a CHS fellow back in 1990. Dr Lonsdale and I shared many common interests – dance, performance, religion, ritual, funeral games, Homer, Horace, and Vergil. He was also my introduction to Greek art and archaeology, and greatly encouraged me to study in Greece and to learn both ancient and modern Greek (when he met me I was all Latin all the time!). When I began graduate studies in Classical Archaeology at Oxford, my plan was to return to the States for my Doctorate in Classics. Within a few weeks I was taken with the Oxford way of doing things, and my advisor, Sir John Boardman, helped me find a a research topic that combined my interests. Komast dancers were to become the focus of my research life for years to come. I eventually returned to the States as a fully fledged Classical Archaeologist, a specialist in vases and iconography. I have taught in both Classics and Art History departments at Virginia Tech, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Virginia.

Following the publication of my book on the subject of komasts last year, I have redirected my attention to more overtly religious matters.The goal of my current research project is to produce a book that collects images and objects pertaining to religious worship and practice during the Archaic and Classical periods. A number of articles and edited volumes, and even a few books, have been dedicated to particular aspects of this subject, but it has been many decades since any attempt was made to write a synthesis of Greek art and religion. The book will be divided into chapters on Gods, Cults and Mysteries; Festivals and Sanctuaries; Devotion, Offerings and Dedications; and, Life and Afterlife. The evidence will be drawn from the rich array of visual and material evidence available: vases, relief sculpture, terracotta and bronze figurines, gems and coins, and of course texts.

Although I am teaching full-time this semester and have only been able to spend a few days at the CHS, I have manged to make great strides with my research. Much of my time has been dominated by research on sacrifice and libation,and the role of the divine in the visual tradition. How and why are the gods shown, sometimes in the presence of mortals, performing ritual acts? What message is being sent to the ancient viewer when we witness Apollo or Nike pouring a libation? Or Athena overseeing the slaughter of an animal? Various explanations have been posited and one of the most intriguing is Kimberley Patton’s ‘divine reflexivity’. As an archaeologist, however, I have been trained to look for pattern rather than a one-to-one relationship between life and image. In that regard, there is much more work to be done on such images and the patterns they reveal.

Possible approaches to my combined to topics of art and religion are many. Anthropology, especially with its focus on ritual and performance, provides a useful lens for this complex and abundant material. The archaeology of religion and ritual also has much to add – namely, the context of objects and images, and their ancient function(s) must be brought into the conversation where possible. Recent art historical methods that highlight ‘the gaze’ and viewership are also proving fruitful. I have recently completed a chapter, co-authored by one of my graduate student, Carrie Sulsoky, on death in the Classics classroom. Carrie’s background in human osteology and mine in iconography are combined to address the problem of teaching and presenting such uncomfortable subject-matter. We hope that our dialogue between art and science will encourage other scholars to pool their knowledge and skills.