PERTAINING TO STATUES

A BRIEF HISTORY

On June 7th, 2020 protestors involved in a Black Lives Matter tore down the statue of Sir Edward Colston (1636-1721) and rolled it into the harbour. The statue commemorating his life and his philanthropic contributions to the city of Bristol was erected in the city centre in 1985.

The statue and the many other buildings and streets have been the focus of controversy in Bristol for many years because of Colston’s connections with the slave trade on which his wealth was founded.

The erection and demolition of monuments, images, buildings, and books has long been part of human history. Reflecting changing attitudes and crucially the exercise of power in one form of another.

The conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity began with the accession of Constantine I in 306 AD and the campaign of destruction against pagan centres of worship intensified throughout the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries AD.

During the 8th and 9th Centuries AD images of Greek orthodox saints were destroyed during the Iconoclast controversy. A belief based on an interpretation of one of the Ten Commandments which forbade the creation of “graven images”.
During the English Reformation and the Civil War stained glass windows, statues and shrines in churches were destroyed and the walls whitewashed to obliterate paintings and texts.
In 1521 the Spanish Conquistadors destroyed the Aztec Templo Mayor and used the stones to build a Roman Catholic cathedral.

In 2001 the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed two giant statues of Buddha. During their occupation of Palmyra between 2015-2017, ISIS destroyed much that remained of the ancient city of Palmyra.
In 2020 US President Donald Trump threatened to target major Iranian cultural sites if they retaliated after the killing by the US of a top Iranian military chief.

THE OLD MAN OF KNIDOS

“ Where have you come from?” I asked the old man as we shared what bread and water I had. “ I am a stranger to these lands.” 

He looked at me with eyes clouded by age and tears and pointed along the road I planned to travel. Knidos, where once I worshipped in the temple of Aphrodite and talked with men of great learning.”

It is a place I hope to visit,” I said. “ For the beauty of Aphrodite’s statue is known far and wide. Such is her exquisite form that they say men are known to spill their seed before her? ”

He sighed: “ So the story goes but alas, no more. Like you, I travelled in my youth to see wondrous sites. But you are too late. For she has gone, gone like the great temple of Serapis in Alexandria and the statue of Athena in the desert city of Palmyra. Destroyed, defaced, and smashed beyond repair. I hear that Nike, the Goddess of Victory, has been removed from the Senate House in Rome because she offends. Even the statue of the Divine Augustus in Ephesus has been scarred with a cross.”

“ But who would do such things?” I asked.

“ Christians”, he spat the word out so vehemently that I recoiled. “Christians, worshippers of the crucified carpenter. For centuries paid homage to the goddess then one of their number, a man called Theophilus, ”Loved of God”, came and preached to the people. He told them that men and women should not look upon each other’s nakedness at the baths. He railed against all beauty and Aphrodite, in particular, calling her a temple whore. Then later came strong, young men devoted to the Christian god. In Alexandria, they were called the parabalani. They came like an avenging army and tore down our temples and statues and abused Aphrodite with their violence”

But what of the emperor’s men?”, I asked “ What did they do to stop such an outrage?”

He shook his head. “ Nothing, they just stood by. But what else are they but uncouth barbarians and Arian Christians to a man. And the Emperor is no better. But that is not the worst of it. Can you see the smoke that arises from my poor city?”

I peered hard to where his bony fingers pointed and could just make out a column of smoke in the far distance. “What is it?” I said,

Knowledge”, he said, “They are burning the books, as they did in Alexandria, as they did in Antioch. The writings of the great philosophers and poets, Thales, Zeno, Ovid, and Epicurus those lovers of pleasure. For pleasure and happiness on earth is an anathema to these zealots who claim that even sex should not be a pleasure. For the greater a man’s pain on earth the more he will welcome the thought of heaven.”

Not if it is deemed heresy. True, the Christians suffered under the old Emperors but now it is they who define the truth and there is no room for dissent.”

Then he turned to me and smiled. Except amongst themselves.”

It is not known what happened to the original statue of Aphrodite in Knidos by the great sculptor Praxiteles. In the “ The Old Man of Knidos” I have used the statue and her fate as an example of the destruction wrought by the early Christians in their campaign to eradicate paganism in the Empire.

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