June 19, 2024 at 9:40 am

Here’s Why So Many Ancient Statues Are Missing Their Noses

by Trisha Leigh

Source: Shutterstock

It’s kind of incredible, when you think about it, how so many works of art from thousands of years ago have managed to survive long enough to make it into modern museums.

That said, many of them aren’t exactly in pristine condition. And it seems as if their noses are the first to go – but why?

If you figured it’s simpler wear and tear – or perhaps vandalism by one conquering people or another – Brandeis University graduate student Spencer McDaniel says you’re mostly right.

“The statues we see in museums today are almost always beaten, battered, and damaged by time and exposure to elements. Parts of sculptures that stick out, such as noses, arms, heads, and other appendages are almost always the first parts to break off. Other parts that are more securely attached, such as legs and torsos, are generally more likely to remain intact.”

That said, according to Classics professor Mark Bradley, not all of the statues were defaced due to natural accidents or wear and tear.

“An overwhelming number of the noses have been deliberately targeted. A black basalt head of the emperor Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus in the British Museum shows a nose that has been clearly chiselled away, probably at the same time that early Christians carved a cross into the forehead of this pagan portrait.”

Source: Zde/Wikipedia

Okay, but what is so particularly offensive about the nose?

It could be that early civilizations believed a statue held some of the “essence” of the person or god it represented. Defacing or vandalizing the figure, then, could be to disempower the person depicted.

Bradley, though, believes the clues lead to a particular type of punishment given to those found guilty.

“Ancient iconoclasm is one thing, but this wanton destruction of ancient portraits alludes to traditions of real-life facial mutilation that is evident across the ancient world. From Homeric Greece, the Persian Empire, Classical and Hellenistic Greece, and Republican and Imperial Rome, right through to the Byzantine period.”

So, nose mutilation and removal was a common punishment. Combine that with the lingering belief that some of the entity remained present in the likeness, and you could get to “punishing” the actual person or deity by removing it’s stone cold nose.

Kenneth Lapatin, antiquities curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, agrees.

“Although I have no idea of the precise statistics, to day we have many more parts (bodiless heads & headless bodies) than complete statues. This is clear in any gallery of Greek & Roman art. Many of these decapitations were, like the lost noses, purposefully removed as a means to undermine the authority of the figure represented by the statue.”

Rachel Kousser, ancient art professor, thinks this theory holds water.

“Every culture in the ancient world seems to do it. The head is really powerful and damage to the head is seen as a particularly effective way of damaging power, whether it’s a ruler or a god or even just a private dead person.”

The “punishment” of the figure could create a symbolic break with the past.

Source: DerHexer (Talk)/Wikipedia

Jean-François Manicom, curator of transatlantic slavery and legacies at Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum, says it’s easy to understand – because we still do it today.

“Protestors in Martinique toppled two statues of the 19th-century abolitionist Victor Schoelcher last month, condemning him for authoring a decree that compensated slave owners for their losses. In Bristol, a statue of 17th-century slaver Edward Colston was dumped into the harbor. A monument in Antwerp honoring Leopold II, the Belgian king who plundered the Congo, will be relocated to a museum after it was defaced by demonstrators. And in the United States, statues honoring the explorer Christopher Columbus and the Confederate President Jefferson Davis were among those that were pulled down or, in Columbus’ case, beheaded.”

It makes sense, honestly.

Nothing is new under the sun.

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