Of Gods and Elephant Tusks


But though I see his point I disagree;
For man, to me, is fabric of the gods,
One stuff with them, potentially themselves;
Less in degree, less purified, less free,
But of their being, one at heart with them;
Descended from them, seeking them up again
To shed this close-constricting shell, and rise
To the intensity and freedom of their power.[1. Pheidias, John Galen Howard, p. 150]

Awhile ago I was reading Pheidias, a poetic adaptation of the life of the great classical Greek sculptor Phidias. (Most remember him as the genius behind the construction of the Parthenon) As I was reading I was struck by a particular passage that dealt with the way in which an artist envisions that which is not yet within his or her chosen medium, and marked it for later. A couple months went by, and I was thinking about it again and decided to look up the passage again. It is as follows:

To Athens for the cutters; which indeed
Explains the choice of our old olive farm,
Hardly worth while to cultivate, but near
And most convenient to the working-ground
Of my great-grandsire, who laid out the place.
He had some great commission to fulfil
That took him often there to supervise
The roughing of his marble. And to me
It was a place of visions. Where the scurf
And lichen of untouched grey ledges broke
Into the chiseled snow, began a realm
Of mystic wonders. Gods and heroes there
Had secret being, ready to be called
To visibility. I saw their forms
Out of the mass emerging. All day long
I asked no better than to linger there
Creating my companions, edging round,
As sunshine swept a wing of shadow round,
To shun the heat and dazzle.[2. ibid, p. 18]

This passage sets the stage for the remainder of the book, which describes a man in conflict with both himself and the culture around him. He had been taught to make each work a bit of his own, and, at least in this adaptation, Phidias takes this advice to heart, which will frame the source of the drama that unfolds. The Greeks inextricably blended religion and architecture and sculpture[3. Michael Grant, The Classical Greeks, p. 91]- for the Greeks of the Classical period, art was not something pursued for its own sake, but had behind it, however subtle it may be, a religious motivation, for there was no modern compartmentalizing of spheres of life.

In this story, Phidias senses within his art a way to reach the gods, if not to bring them down to earth then to raise humanity to heaven. This created friction with the religious/artistic establishment. The depiction of a god was to be, for the most part, idealized- artists often employed human forms but in their idealistic state. The facial expressions were to be serene and austere; the depiction of the gods was to communicate aloofness and impassibility. To the modern the gods may appear dead and cold and empty, but to the ancients this indicated that the gods were not subject to the vicissitude of mortal existence, but stood above- immortal, powerful, unmovable. For civilizations that had a deeper sense of their own continuity and connectedness to the past and into the future, this kind of solidity was what one would want from the patron god of one’s homeland.

In our story, Phidias departs from this convention and gives character and emotion, poignancy and feeling to his sculptures of the gods. He has arrived back in Athens and has completed the Miltiades Group depicting the victory at the Battle of Marathon. In this sculpture the heroes of renown are not carved in the serenity of great deeds, but full of the pathos of humanity. Not everyone is pleased:

Menon, as representative of school,
Was shocked and scandalized by the offense
I flung so cavalierly in the face
Of old tradition; most of all, condemned
The touch of humour in the attributes
With which I pricked into the consciousness
Of the spectator personality
In the supporting mass of demigods.
He even talked of blasphemy- in jest,
No doubt, although he seemed quite serious.[4. Pheidias, John Galen Howard, p. 149]

Menon’s jest was, in reality, a veiled threat, and Menon would turn out to be be Phidias’ undoing. Years later, upon the completion of the Parthenon, Phidias once again roused the ire of the establishment with his Athena. Upon the unveiling, the crowd could not help but be drawn to the exquisite reliefs on the Athenan shield. On it, Plutarch informs us, was a picture of the artist himself:

But the excellence of his work, and the envy arising thence, was the thing that ruined Phidias; and it was particularly insisted upon, that in his representation of the battle with the Amazons upon Minerva’s shield, he had introduced his own effigies as a bald old man taking up a great stone with both hands, and a high-finished picture of Pericles fighting with an Amazon. The last was contrived with so much art, that the hand, which, in lifting up the spear, partly covered the face, seemed to be intended to conceal the likeness, which yet was very striking on both sides. Phidias, therefore, was thrown into prison, where he died a natural death; though some say, poison was given him by his enemies, who were desirous of causing Pericles to be suspected.[5. Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives]

As I was re-reading this passage, I was struck by the conflict, whether or not it has any actual historical merit. On the one hand is the notion that the gods are too remote to be depicted in the full visage of what makes humans human, as if even the remote touching of divine to mortal through an image could somehow degrade divinity. On the other hand, Phidias wishes to bring the gods down to earth. For the Phidias in our story, the gods are no less divine for their association with mortals. In fact, there is an attempt to express the ineffable, to touch the unreachable.

But Myron’s taste confirmed in me my own;
It brings the heroes nearer to the heart
To give a homeliness like that to them;
Their godhead is no less for humanness.[6. Pheidias, John Galen Howard, p. 149]

In the ancient world, whether for the pagan cults or the philosophers, there was a clear cut distinction between the mortal and the divine. The distinction was not necessarily ontological, as mortals for their virtue or beauty could become godlike and the gods could take on mortal appearance. Rather, the distinction was moral. The divine was associated with virtue and purity, the mortal with sin and impurity. The reason for this was, at least philosophically, related to change. Divinity was impassible and static, unchanging and unwavering, while creation (that which wasn’t divine) was base and full of vice because of its mutability. The body was often perceived as a prison for the soul, the impure clothing of a pristine spirit. Phidias senses this metaphysical approach:

I can see Menon’s point; for man, to him,
Is a degraded being, other kind,
And baser stuff, than gods and heroes are.
It is a sort of qualm, one must suppose,
That cannot tolerate a kindredness
Between immortal gods and mortal men.[7. ibid.]

In Christianity’s nascent period, there were no lack of threats to the fundamental understanding of what humanity was in light of creation. The Jewish Scriptures described creation as a gratuitous act of divine love, which was counter-intuitive within the ancient world that nearly always described creation as the result of conflict between the gods. Christianity carried within itself this primordial notion of creation- including humanity- as being good. Thus, as with many others of its doctrines, it found itself categorically in opposition to modes of thinking that characterized both paganism and pagan philosophy. Gnosticism, which was one of Christianity’s earliest internal threats, in all its myriad modes and forms nearly always conceived of the mortal nature of humanity- the flesh- as evil and base; as with Plato, the body was a prison to escape, an essence to transcend. This conception led to many conclusions that undermined the starting point of understanding creation as good, no more so than the ultimate denial of the Christian starting point for reality, the Incarnation. For, if the body is evil, how could God have become man? How could Jesus really have a body? (Docetism was one of the earliest manifestations of this conclusion, and we are given a glimpse into how it was combated in 1 John) Either the body of Jesus was denied, or multiple levels of intervening beings (Aeons) of varying divinity were posited as existing between God and man, anything to make sure the two can never touch, can never embrace.

As I was reading Phidias, I was reminded of a passage from Tertullian that immediately followed the one I paraphrased. In this passage Tertullian is examining the arguments of Marcion, an early Gnostic, whose difficulty is nearly the same as that voiced by Menon in Pheidias- how can there be a kindredness between God and man?

To what purpose is it to bandy about the name earth, as that of a sordid and grovelling element, with the view of tarnishing the origin of the flesh, when, even if any other material had been available for forming man, it would be requisite that the dignity of the Maker should be taken into consideration, who even by His selection of His material deemed it, and by His management made it, worthy? The hand of Phidias forms the Olympian Jupiter of ivory; worship is given to the statue, and it is no longer regarded as a god formed out of a most silly animal, but as the world’s supreme Deity— not because of the bulk of the elephant, but on account of the renown of Phidias. Could not therefore the living God, the true God, purge away by His own operation whatever vileness might have accrued to His material, and heal it of all infirmity? Or must this remain to show how much more nobly man could fabricate a god, than God could form a man? Now, although the clay is offensive (for its poorness), it is now something else. What I possess is flesh, not earth, even although of the flesh it is said: “Dust you are, and unto dust shall you return.” In these words there is the mention of the origin, not a recalling of the substance. The privilege has been granted to the flesh to be nobler than its origin, and to have happiness aggrandized by the change wrought in it. Now, even gold is earth, because of the earth; but it remains earth no longer after it becomes gold, but is a far different substance, more splendid and more noble, though coming from a source which is comparatively faded and obscure. In like manner, it was quite allowable for God that He should clear the gold of our flesh from all the taints, as you deem them, of its native clay, by purging the original substance of its dross.[8. Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter 6]

Tertullian’s point is this: The statue is deemed to be a god not because it is made of the tusks of elephants, but because the greatest sculptor in the world employed all his skill to fashion something sublime. Elephant tusks are not a noble thing in and of themselves, let alone divine, yet by Phidias’ hand they are transformed into something greater, and that work’s origin in the mundane is not counted against it. If this could be conceived of a mortal man in regards to elephant tusks, then surely the God who is omnipotent could take something from the material world, cleanse it of its supposed deficiency, and transform it into something nobler.

It is important to note that Tertullian is not necessarily conceding the point that the material world is evil or that the dust is something ignoble from which to fashion humankind (as he would perceive creation as fundamentally good). Rather, he is turning Marcion’s argument against him- the reverse implication is this: for if God cannot do for dust (create humanity) what the man Phidias could do for tusks (supposedly fabricate divinity), then God would ipso facto not be God. Rather, Tertullian concludes with the example that both humanity and gold share a common origin. Gold (which, he reminds his opponent, must be refined) is not diminished for its humble origin in the dirt and rocks, but rather, by the refining wrought upon it, transcends its origins. In the same way our bodies, though compositionally made of base elements, transcend their origin by the handiwork of God. As Tertullian argues beforehand, they are afforded an even greater dignity through the Incarnation, as he perceives the Incarnation being in view with humanity’s original creation. Thus, rather than a prison to be escaped, our bodies are meant to be a home.

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Jason Watson

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