AIA-1B: The Portrait in the Sanctuary (Colloquium)

  In-Person   AIA Session   Colloquium


Patricia Kim, New York University; and Lindsey A. Mazurek, Indiana University, Bloomington


Caitlín E. Barrett, Cornell University

Overview Statement

What kinds of work could portraits do in a ritual or sacred context? This session bridges conversations in classical archaeology, art history, and religious studies to reconsider the role of portraits in religious settings. Scholars like John Ma, R.R.R. Smith, and Michael Scott see portraits as an instantiation of relationships (political, societal, and familial) within a spatial context, exploring their role in creating a civic culture. Such scholarly focus on the politics of portrait statues in public spaces, however, leaves open the problem of interpreting portraits displayed in sacred contexts. Even though Cathy Keesling argued convincingly that portraits in the Greek and Roman world originated as votives, most have been reluctant to see them as religious. If archaeological and display context matters, why is a portrait in an agora serving a social and political function, but a portrait in a sanctuary not serving a religious one?

This reinterpretation is especially important as scholars like Jörg Rüpke consider material agency to better understand the phenomenological world of ancient religion. These models, including the Lived Ancient Religion Project and material religion approaches, as well as a growing interest in affect and belief, have been productively applied to the analysis of Greek and Roman texts. But the opportunity remains to integrate these approaches with the study of ancient portraiture.

This session includes case studies from multiple historical and geographic contexts; considers portraits in multiple media and sizes; and engages with the various temporalities of portraiture, from ephemerality to permanence. The first two papers examine the agency of portraiture within the sanctuary, nuancing how we might understand its role in facilitating ritual experiences. Each focuses on sculpted portraits that function as both honorific and ritual objects, enhancing communication between human and divine within sanctuary contexts. The last three papers expand traditional ideas of portraiture by considering images of deities and divinized mortals as portraits. In doing so, they illuminate the relationship between portraits and the objects on which they are represented, expanding how we think about worshippers encountering deities through material culture. Altogether, this session advances the idea of portraits’ power and agency in sacred contexts while also interrogating the blurred boundaries between the “divine” and “portraiture.”