One of the challenges shared across cultures and faiths is the intangible, ineffable nature of the divine. One problematic, yet theologically productive, solution to this problem is to embody the divine in sculpture and painting; another is to seek divine aid and attest to divine presence by making votive offerings. In the absence of a sacred text, it was sculptural and graphic representation of the divine that made sanctuaries and temples in Greece and Rome theologically active places. But the need to experience god was not confined to these centers. Greek and Roman gods were everywhere—on coins, gems, drinking vessels, domestic wall paintings. Even when they were not there, their power could be felt in the representation of those who had felt their power. They were as pervasive as they were all seeing. This article examines how this material culture worked to bring gods and mortals into contact. It does so by tackling three major issues: first, it discusses how a wide range of artifacts, monumental and modest, shaped sanctuary space and guided and recorded the worshipper’s interaction with the divine; second, it looks at images of gods themselves and how these affected epiphany, while maintaining a critical gap and insisting on their strangeness; and third, it uses art to rethink the relationship of religion and myth. Although there are some continuities between cultures, the rise of Hellenistic and Roman ruler cults created a new subcategory of gods, creating additional representational challenges. Out of this came Christ, who was god incarnate. We briefly explore how early Christian artists used the problems of anthropomorphism to their spiritual advantage.
Robin Osborne and Caroline Vout
“It is impossible to imagine ancient Greece without its sanctuaries.” (J. Whitley, Archaeology of Ancient Greece [Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001], 134). The same statement could be made for the Roman world. Sacred space was a key omnipresent tenet of ancient Greek and Roman societies—the physical manifestation of the degree to which the ancients dedicated time to the wide spectrum of gods who controlled their worlds. Since the 1990s, the study of sacred space has moved from one primarily undertaken by archaeologists and architects fixated on monumental structures (with the study of religious ritual conducted by scholars of religion mainly through literary and inscriptional sources), to one in which the space is understood as a dynamic and key component in the ritual process, an equal player in the creation of the human understanding and experience of the divine. Yet alongside this reconsideration of the importance of space in the dynamics of ritual, there has also been an increasing appreciation of the multiple roles sanctuaries played, and played host to, within the wider landscape. Sacred spaces are thus key players in the ordering of landscapes, they offer the potential for the development and scope of civic and individual power, and they act as the locus for identity development, civic competition, and the articulation of changing power balances in the wider world. Sacred space has as a result shed its fixed and positivist image: we recognize sacred spaces as everything from natural groves to massive architectural complexes—as places that are constantly changing and constantly being used simultaneously for a variety of sacred and secular activities, experienced and understood simultaneously in a multitude of ways by their different users, and that engage dynamically and heterogeneously with their surrounding secular environments.