Renaissance authors attempted to comprehend what it was that had attracted the ancient Romans to Oriental religions and how the belief in Christ had eventually subdued all the other, non-monotheistic, beliefs. Concomitantly, they strove to learn more about Roman paganism as one of the components of the Classical heritage simply because they were fascinated by the many-faceted ancient lore. While they had some didactic purpose in studying the pagan religions, they also took great joy purely in the learning itself. They were curious to know about every aspect of the Classical heritage. They discovered the mutual influences of the various cults, they savored descriptions of anything that appeared to them strange and therefore appealing, and they enjoyed sensing the irrational side of the human psyche that had motivated many horrendous rites. One such fascinating Oriental religion was the cult of the Magna Mater with its accompanying fearful rites, such as taurobolium (the bull-sacrifice), as well as the ascetic tendencies that led to the establishment of galli (castrated priests) and of a kind of mendicant monasticism (the mettragyrtes). Linked with the virtues of chastity and purity and nourished on the aspirations for salvation, the cult of the Great Goddess captivated Renaissance audiences.
Several Renaissance mythographers have discussed this cult in their books on various aspects of the pagan religions. A notably detailed discussion of the image of the Great Mother is found in Vincenzo Cartari's The Images with Explanations of the Gods of the Ancients (Le imagini, con la spositione de i dei de gli antichi), published in 1556. The book summed up the thinking on pagan deities from Antiquity until the mid-sixteenth century. Written in Italian rather than Latin, the book was particularly recommended for poets as well as for painters and sculptors, as the publisher's preface notes. Cartari draws on various sources, ancient (such as Ovid, Virgil, Lucretius, as well as Pausanias and Herodotus), "medieval" (such as Macrobius and Prudentius) and those closer to him in time (Boccaccio and the nearly forgotten Alexander of Naples, whose book, published in 1522, discusses the holidays of ancient Rome) in order to present a comprehensive picture of the highly complex image of "La Gran Madre". Cartari employed not only literary but also visual sources: one embraces those works of art that had been described by ancient authors; the other includes the works of ancient art that Cartari had been able to see for himself. Among the ancient images, it was largely coins that had served him, by his own admission, as the visual source for the goddess's representation by the ancients. "I remember having seen an image of the Great Mother [...] on an antique medallion of Faustina, which I am about to describe [...]" (193).
Cartari notes that the ancients gave the Great Mother, who was identified with the Earth, "many and diverse names according to the different things they saw in nature" (194), thus being perceived as the Mother of All the Gods. According to Cartari, "One god often symbolizes many things, while many names often symbolize the same thing" (194). And the Mother Goddess "was one and the same as Ops, Cybele, Rhea, Vesta, Ceres, and others, all of these being possessors of the different virtues and qualities of the Earth" (187). He then adds: "I will explain the names of these goddesses by describing their images as I see fit to interpret them" (187). Thus, Ops could be depicted in the form of a large-bosomed matron wearing a cape woven of green herbage, surrounded by all kinds of bountiful symbols - fruits, precious metals and gems. The same goddess is also known as Proserpine, often shown being abducted by Pluto, when the depiction aims at evoking fertility. And she - the Great Mother - is also Vesta "because she clothes herself in green herbage" (188). Citing Boccaccio, Cartari states that she is portrayed wearing "on her head a towering crown because the circuit of the earth, resembling a crown, is full of cities, castles, villages, and other buildings". She is depicted holding a scepter "signifying that the earth holds the kingdoms of all and all human riches, further demonstrating the power of earthly lords" (188). "Her cart is pulled by lions" (188), and "the seats surrounding the goddess symbolize that, although everything else around her moves, she is always still" (189). The beautiful garments, the turreted crown, the scepter, the lions, and "the empty seats, " all are elements that identify such representations of a beautiful matron as the Mother Goddess, whether her name be Cybele or Rhea.
By the time Cartari was describing the poly-semantic image of the Great Mother, several works of ancient sculpture, statues and reliefs, had already been identified as representing her. Although the Mother Goddess has many names, and the other goddesses associated with her are also rendered in works of ancient art, it was Cybele rather than any other goddess who was most often represented wearing a turreted crown, holding a scepter, and seated in a cart pulled by lions. Ancient images of the Great Mother thus made a reappearance in the mid-sixteenth century, as many artists drew upon various reliefs and statues that they believed to be representations of Cybele. And, typically for the Cinquecento, these artists, learning from the ancients, also created their own images of the Great Goddess. In doing so they did not limit themselves only to the image of Cybele; rather, they created a rich imagery of the Great Mother from as many aspects as were known in their time. The above-cited passages from the chapter in Cartari's book offer some idea of the complexity of the image as it was considered and rendered in the Renaissance.
The reader will find this entire chapter from Cartari's book in Jan Vairo's translation in the appendix to Edith Balas's book. The above brief summary of the chapter gives some idea of how complex the image of the Mother Goddess is. The study undertaken by Balas reflects this complexity well. In addition to the chapter from Cartari's book, various passages from the works of other writers, both ancient and Renaissance, are thoughtfully collected in the appendices. The reader is thus provided with appropriate access to most of the sources.
The lavishly illustrated book has five chapters. Chapter One discusses representations of the Mother Goddess in Antiquity and the Renaissance. The section on Antiquity relates to literary and visual sources, whereas the section on the Renaissance relates only to the works of humanists and antiquarians, relegating the discussion of the visual sources to the following chapters. Although the artists who rendered the Mother Goddess are well known, several works that depict Ops, Rhea, Terra, or even Helen and Venus, rather than Cybele, have not been recognized in recent scholarship as manifesting aspects of the same image. It is this complexity of the imagery itself that appears to have caused Balas to focus in each chapter on the major artists and their works.
Chapter Two discusses Botticelli's Primavera. By considering the primordial image of the Mother Goddess and the ubiquity of the image of Helen in a nuptial context among the wealthy and educated Florentines, Balas argues that Botticelli's painting embodies an ambivalent perception of Helen. "The abduction of Chloris, then, underlines the mythical significance of Helen [usually interpreted as Flora] as a manifestation of the Mother Goddess, whose departure and return relate to the cyclical aspect of nature" (47). The figure usually named Venus is interpreted as "The Idean Mother Goddess" (or the tutelary deity of Mount Ida).
Chapter Three deals with "Cybele and Her Cult in Andrea Mantegna's The Triumph of Caesar and The Triumph of Scipio". These Mantegna pictures attest to the importance attached by Renaissance humanists to the significance of this Oriental cult in Rome. Cybele, so Balas concludes, "appears in all her many roles, political, military, and religious. Like Caesar himself, she is shown with a full retinue: the archigalli in their embroidered robes, the musicians with their sacred instruments, the galli with their flagellated bodies and distinctive costumes, the victimarii and sacrificial bulls, are reconstructed with the most archaeological exactitude of which Mantegna was capable. The artist indicates that the Roman victory in Gaul was due in no small part to her, and on this triumphant occasion she shares in the adulation of the citizenry" (68-69).
As the author herself notes (xviii), her interest in the Mother Goddess arose from studying Michelangelo's work (Michelangelo's Medici Chapel: A New Interpretation, 1995). She had noticed in Giorgio Vasari's Vita of the artist that a figure of Cybele, identified with Terra, was included in the first project of the ill-fated Tomb of Pope Julius II. Chapter Four examines not only the Tomb project, but also the figure of Night in the Medici Chapel and the statue of Venus in the Casa Buonarotti, as manifestations of Michelangelo's preoccupation not only with Cybele but also with the many other faces of the Mother Goddess.
Chapter Five presents an annotated list of artists whose works feature images of the Mother Goddess. The list includes Giovanni Bellini, Titian, Giulio Romano, Andrea Riccio, Pinturicchio, Baldassare Peruzzi, Rosso Fiorentino, Niccolò Tribolo, Perino del Vaga, Giorgio Vasari and Pirro Ligorio. All these artists are distinguished by their interest in the Classical heritage. The considered works represent various images of the Mother Goddess, such as the multi-breasted Diana known as Artemis of Ephesus, Cybele, Ops, Natura, and Ceres.
In summary, Edith Balas's book is a welcome contribution to the study of a hitherto neglected aspect of Italian Renaissance art, one that manifests the period's concern with Oriental cults in the religious imagery of Antiquity.
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