The answer is iconography, or rather, the language of images. As a Masters student within the Classics and Ancient History department here at Warwick, I spend a lot of my time looking at images that frankly make little sense and don’t resemble much to the modern eye…
However, iconography, specifically attributes allow me to easily identify key figures within ancient Greek and Roman myth as well as more recent representations of those figures with ease. The ancient Greeks devised a way for their gods and goddesses to be easily identifiable, a sort of language in images. What I aim to do is simply give two examples in ancient and more modern examples (provided to me by the MRC and their exciting collection) so that the next time you go to a museum you can show off a bit, something I enjoy doing greatly.
Athena and her Roman equivalent Minerva is one of the most ubiquitous characters in ancient Greek and Roman myth, both in the cultures’ stories and their visual representations. Because of this she is a very easy character to identify. As a goddess of war and wisdom, Athena was born from the forehead of her father Zeus fully armed with crested helmet and spear. These two attributes are often her most easily spotted and defining features, if you find a woman wearing a helmet and holding a spear and shield, you have Athena. Of course there are exceptions to this rule (Armed Aphrodite, for one) but they are pretty rare and are often under-displayed by museums. Just to prove it, the pedimental sculpture of Athena on a temple from the island of Aegina from c.500BC (Figure 1) is quite easily reconcilable with a pencil and watercolour drawing of her in 1923(Figure 2). Her crested helmet easily identifies her as the warrior goddess.
Zeus, the king of the Greek pantheon or Jupiter, his Roman counterpart, is also similarly identifiable by his appearance. Whether it be in the 5th century BC or the 21st, we can still recognise Zeus by the fact that he is often presented as an older man with a full beard, holding a lightning bolt. The lightning bolt is the symbol of his power as god of thunder and the weather generally. He has also been depicted holding a staff rather than a lightning bolt, a symbol of his pre-eminence among the gods as king, an attribute he shares with his sister-wife Hera. Below is a photo of a ceramic figurine of Zeus abducting his young lover and soon-to be cup-bearer on Mount Olympus, Ganymede.
As you can see, we have an example of Zeus as an older gentleman in comparison to his beloved, with a full beard, bearing the staff, his symbol of power (Fig.3). In Fig. 4 there is clear evidence that the animators at Disney have used the attributes and iconography of the ancient word in their representation of Zeus, here showing his again as a man of age with beard, but this time combining the lightning bolt and staff attributes into one nifty device. You have my approval, animators!
Similarly, the pencil and watercolour “Jupiter” (Fig. 5) is also recognisable as a representation of Zeus, although a potentially uncomplimentary version. This truly ancient version of Zeus still sports the full beard with his thunderbolt under his arm, if only to make room for the tissue with which he is about to blow his nose…
Looking at images of classical subjects is often a process of identifying individual clues that come together to give you the identity of the individuals. Whether they be half man, half horse, or turning into a tree, all subjects have specific attributes that the Greeks and Romans often standardised over time, which then the Renaissance and more recent periods have picked up and used within their own works. Give it a go yourself!
By Nick Brown, MA student in the Classics Department, University of Warwick
Figures 2 & 5 are taken from a printed book in Warwick Library’s Special Collections, held at the MRC:
Honoré Daumier : catalogue raisonné of the paintings watercolours and drawings, ND 553.D2 V.2