Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ancient Roman eagles, and eagles with snakes.

Image from the official website for Pompeii and Naples
When attempting to find out the date of an object, one wants to find parallels, and from them you can deduce or support a dating for a piece. In my research I did not find the exact parallels I wanted but I did find a few other examples of sculptures featuring an eagle with a serpent. The photo above is of a fountain found at the House of the Faun in Pompeii. Here the eagle stands with his wings raised up but not fully outstretched. You can see a snake next to the eagle, sheltered in its raised wing as the eagle looks over at it. It is almost loving the way the eagle seems to have this snake protected under its wing as he looks back at it tenderly. The snake, whose head is missing, is coiled and almost standing on the coils. It is almost menacing, so one wonders what exactly is depicted; was the intent of the sculpture to show an eagle surprised by a dangerous snake which is one potential reading, or is it an eagle who has taken the snake under its wing literally. If one knew exactly what myth or image was being depicted one could tell.

As important as just finding a Roman eagle with a snake, even if not fully understanding their relationship, is the treatment of the feathers on the neck and body, which are the same. Neck feathers are smaller but similarly untidy in their arrangement as the body, sort of tousled, again nearly fur-like, although here due no doubt to the large scale and different medium, the feathers are distinct and clear, unlike on my bronze.

photo taken of an illustration in a book showing a statue of Zeus with his eagle.
Above is an image of a marble statue of Zeus with his eagle companion next to him. Again, like the marble above, the feathers of the neck are treated like those of the body, as found in nature, and their wavy appearance are almost fur-like.

Again taken from the web, a statue in the Vatican of Ganymede and the Eagle, who is Zeus in disguise. Here the feathers are more like fur again.

Another image taken of a book page with a photo of a relief of Ganymede and the eagle of Zeus. Here, even though a very poor resolution image, you can see a wavy fur-like pattern of the feathers as on my eagle.

Another photo from a book on Roman sarcophagi, here one found in Nikopolis, and again, even in this poor quality image you can see the wavy fur-like treatment of the body and neck feathers of the eagle. I would like to find other examples and get better quality photos of them, but even this small sampling supports that the Romans did depict eagles in the manner in my bronze.

However below you will see the exact iconography:

Taken from an article titled, Eagle and Serpent. A study in the Migration of Symbols, by Rudolf Witkower, published in the Journal of the Warburg Institute, Vol. 2, No. 4, 1939.

The photo is of a relief on the apex of the interior of a Triumphal Arch at Pola which is in Croatia. The eagle grasps the snake in his talons, and they look at each other in the same way as in my eagle. Here the snake is proportionately larger than in the bronze, and the low relief carving is not as well sculpted as the bronze or the other marble examples cited above. It is slightly provincial in the quality of its carving, as is found in the outlying areas of the Roman Empire. Wittkower interpreted the depiction on this arch to be about the triumph of Rome over its enemies, however, I am less sold on that idea. Again, the snake is hardly dead here, it is huge and quite dangerous looking. Its not even clear that the eagle intends to kill the snake, while he is holding the snake in his talons, he is also is looking at the snake as the snake looks at him, he is not rending the snake and dealing a death blow to it.

The Pola Arch may tell us the original purpose of the bronze and explain the holes in the wings and tail.  Perhaps they were for attachment in an architectural setting, the coffer of a ceiling or an arch or other structure. It does read very well from below. There is no other way of displaying it, unless you mount it on a stand as I did, otherwise it would either have to be hung as it was at Christie's.  Roman public buildings often had bronze architectural decoration. An infamous example is the Pantheon which was stripped of its bronze decoration by one of the Popes, which was melted down and cast by Bernini to make the Baldachinno over the altar at St. Peter's Cathedral. Survival of such bronze architectural decoration is rare, as it was pillaged to melt down for weapons, coins and the like.

I continue to look for parallels and evidence to support the eagle, and will report back here should something come up. If anyone can contribute reading this, please feel free to comment or email me with your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

I am wondering about your further research in light of the October 2013 find of the Roman eagle and snake in London. The only comment I've seen so far is this is representative of good and evil. I remain unconvinced.

Tom Swope said...

Dear Anonymous, I'm with you, I don't find that the eagle and serpent represents evil and good. There is a very interesting article in the ARA Bulletin 14, see the link:

This is an ancient near eastern symbol and the serpent is often seen as adoring and supplicating the eagle, as they saw both as solar deities/symbols. Very interesting article.

Coote said...

Were you aware of this eagle?
It appears to be similar in size and shape to your eagle and snake and the link on the page contains a report on the artefact giving details of the metal.

Tom Swope said...

Thank you Coote for pointing this eagle out. It is smaller than mine, mine is 43cm wide, the one you point me to just 6.8cm, but they are related. This is quite interesting.