Art of War Paper Abstracts

Session 1: Evolving Iconographies and Questions of Viewership 
  1. Jacob Butera (University of North Carolina Asheville)
    ‘The Many Things Fit To Be Seen:’ Architecture and Naval Representation in Classical Athens

Images of ships and sailing occupied a prominent place in the iconography of Attic black-figure pottery of the Archaic period. The subsequent disappearance of naval iconography from Athenian vase painting in the 5th century has commonly been attributed to a disdain on the part of the elite for the “riff-raff and low-class laborers” who manned the fleet (Neer 2002), and a desire on the part of the poor to emulate and “respect the hoplite” (Strauss 1996). Such interpretations have led to the widespread assumption that naval iconography was absent from the imagery of classical Athens, but these interpretations do not take into account the considerable number of public monuments that commemorated the navy in the 5th century polis. The monumental building program in the Piraeus and the construction of the Long Walls, for example, highlighted the city’s reliance on naval supremacy while dramatically altering its physical landscape. In addition, the state casualty lists, which included rowers, and the Temple of Boreas, which celebrated the Athenian naval victories against the Persians, reinforced Athens’ commitment to the sea. I argue that these prominent commemorations transformed the visual landscape of the city and served as constant reminders of Athens’ newly acquired military and political identity. While naval imagery indeed seems to have mostly disappeared from art of the private sphere, such public displays of Athens’ naval supremacy reinforced the increased wealth and power of the polis, which was largely created and maintained through the city’s control of the seas.

  1. Anne Hunnell Chen (Brown University)
    A War of Images: Battle Iconography Between East and West in Late Antiquity

It is well known that the third century CE saw intense and prolonged conflict between the Romans and their eastern neighbors, the Sasanian Persians.  A series of battlefield wins and losses on both sides, territorial dispossessions and repossessions, and heightened competition for lucrative trade routes firmly established an energetic rivalry between the Roman emperor and Sasanian King of Kings. Unrecognized, however, is the ideological war fought in tandem with the military conflicts of the period. This paper will argue that Sasanian anti-Roman propaganda in the form of strategically placed and circulated war imagery demanded Roman response, and that the introduction of a new battle iconography into the western repertoire was an effort to counter Persian ideological claims and ultimately reassert Roman hegemony on the world stage.

  1. Andrew Finegold (New York University)
    Battle Murals: Violence, Representation, and Time in Epiclassic Mesoamerica

Mesoamerican bellicose imagery, notable for the stability of its forms over two millennia and across the distinct yet interrelated cultures of the region, was almost universally iconic and allusive, comprised of emblematic iconography connoting militarism generally or synecdochic depictions of solitary triumphant warriors and debased captives indicating specific conquests. A handful of unrelated but roughly contemporaneous wall paintings depicting battle scenes from the sites of Cacaxtla, Bonampak, Chichén Itzá, and Mulchic are exceptional for presenting crowded and complex compositions. Placing emphasis on the immediacy of combat rather than on the resulting condition of subjugation, these paintings feature a chaotic realism, emotional intensity, and profusion of graphic details that is unprecedented in Mesoamerican art. Such radical pictorial innovation was likely spurred by the specific socio-political circumstances of the Epiclassic period, a time associated with a major, pan-Mesoamerican realignment of power relations. Depicted as participants in these narrative battle scenes, rulers were able to demonstrate a broad base of local and regional support for their actions while publicly honoring the martial accomplishments of important members of an increasingly powerful class of second-tier elites. However, this new pictorial format required rulers to cede claims to a unique relationship to time, including their previously central role with regard to its marking and possibly even its creation.

Session 2: Ambiguities: Ethnic and Otherwise 
  1. Laurel Bestock (Brown University)
    Who Won? Victory, Defeat, and Their Absence in Egyptian Art

The classic image of Egyptian violence is one of unambiguous domination: the king smiting a prone captive on the head with a mace.  This image was repeated over 3000 years and in a variety of settings, from cultic objects in temples to the walls of the king’s pyramid complex to rock carvings outside Egypt proper.  In all these contexts the absolute victory of the king makes sense as part of the process by which the order of the universe is maintained, and in many cases details of the victims make historically specific points, thus tying together the timeless nature of kingship and particular events.  But what of images that depict violence and warfare with no clear victor, even without a clear distinction in “sides”? The particular focus of this talk will be on the best preserved context for such ambiguous images: private elite tombs of the Middle Kingdom.  While warfare is a relatively rare motif in such tombs, when it is present there is never a means of distinguishing between winners and losers; of particular note is that people represented as stereotypical Egyptians can be shown in opposing factions.  An examination of this phenomenon helps to illuminate the purposes of depicting violence in Egypt and to complicate our sometimes simplistic notion of order vs. chaos in the Egyptian worldview.

  1. Kimberly Cassibry (Wellesley College)
    Gauls Dying and Victorious:  Confronting Ethnic Stereotypes in the Ancient Arts of Empire

The Dying Gaul in Rome’s Capitoline Museum is one of the great masterpieces of Greek and Roman art.  Sculpted in marble, the nude and wounded warrior collapses slowly in inevitable death.  The torque encircling his neck and his thick mustache mark him as the kind of northern “barbarian” foe alternately called Celt, Gaul, or Galatian by authors writing in Greek and Latin.  This static ethnic stereotype originated in Greek lands during the 3rd century BCE and persisted unaltered in Rome’s own victory monuments centuries later, when almost all Gallic territories had been incorporated into the empire.  Even today, the stereotype lives on in illustrations that accompany any mention of these groups in modern scholarship.  Yet these same peoples, known more for their exquisite portable metalwork like torques, did occasionally portray themselves in victorious poses in their own paintings, statues, and coins.  Through a series of counterpoints, this paper reconsiders the emergence and development of opposed images of the Gallic warrior in the context of colonial and imperial networks of cultural exchange.  The paper concludes by asking why scholars, in a post-colonial era of inquiry, continue to privilege the victors’ vision over ample evidence for the conquered’s own.

  1. Matthew Canepa (University of Minnesota)
    The Persian Art of War

The Sasanian Empire could absorb reverses in battle, but a loss of their ability to demonstrate cosmological centrality was deeply disturbing. After his first campaign against the Hephthalites ended in defeat, Pērōz attempted to recoup both his pride and the empire’s preeminent status in 484. This ended in the near total annihilation of his army and the king’s own death. When the Hephthalites killed him it no doubt seemed that the Iranian Royal Glory had indeed departed from Iran and settled on the king of the Hephthalites, who now portrayed himself with the crown of Pērōz on his coins. It is not surprising therefore, that at the same time as they were losing the military and symbolic advantage in eastern Iran, the Sasanians embarked on a massive campaign of building to provide a more stable foundation for their claims of the empire’s cosmological centrality and the primordial roots of the dynasty’s divine favor. The Sasanians were not alone in the history of Persia and the ancient Iranian world. This paper explores how royal visual, expressive and spatial cultures articulated Iranian imperial cosmologies, contextualizing both victories and defeats.

Session 3: The Performance Art of War 
  1. Rod Campbell (New York University)
    Pacifying Patterns: Invocative Representation and Shang Practices of Violence

One of the most striking things about Shang art is the near absence of human representation. Despite the fact that elite Shang material culture is dominated by implements of war and sacrifice, there is no representation of violence as such. Indeed, I would argue that Shang representation was not primarily mimetic but rather “invocative”. By invoking powerful semantic or phonological correspondences, the Shang attempted to enhance the efficacy of their implements of pacification – primarily bronze and jade weapons and ritual vessels. These implements in turn were the material and symbolic prostheses of a complex of pacifying violence that sought to maintain the precarious balance of the Shang world.

  1. Sonja Drimmer (University of Massachusetts Amherst)
    The Severed Head as Public Sculpture in Late Medieval England

Severed heads were a familiar sight in the urban landscape of late medieval England. During the Wars of the Roses (1450-85), heads appeared with regularity over city walls and gates, a near-permanent fixture that accumulated with every passing year: at one point, twenty-three heads were said to festoon London Bridge Gate. The visibility of these human remains was higher even than the visibility of the executions that created them, often carried out immediately after a skirmish, away from the public, and without the ceremony of the eighteenth-century guillotine. In this environment, the head was not the ugly collateral of execution’s spectacle; the head was the spectacle. The head’s exhibition was far more than evidentiary of death; rather, recontextualized, adorned, curated even, and displayed, the severed head operated much like public sculpture, writing history’s script and shaping public memory of a war in progress.

Like public sculpture, the spiked heads of internecine England demand consideration from an art historical perspective. And it is a basic premise of this paper that such an analysis can be carried out in the absence of the heads themselves but with the aid of textual description and visual depictions created in the aftermath of these events. The central query of this paper is: what is the rhetoric of the severed head? How does it address its audience? Like a quotation, the severed head is extracted from its native habitat and installed into a new one. Heads have no voice, yet their nature conjures the expectation that they have something to say. In what ways were they made to speak against their will, advocate even, for the cause that produced them? How did the public at large respond to their horrible display and make efforts to neutralize it through their own acts of dismemberment and exhibition? In asking these questions, my aim will be to argue that the spiked head was the paradigmatic object of political expression during the Wars of the Roses.