Massa-Pairault, Françoise-Hélène: La gigantomachie de Pergame ou l’image du monde (BCH, supplément 50) 18,5 x 24 cm, XIV + 252 p., CVI planches en n et b in fine - ISBN 2-86958-201-3, 80 euros
(Ecole française d’Athènes 2007)
Compte rendu par Iphigeneia Leventi, University of Thessaly

Nombre de mots : 1896 mots
Publié en ligne le 2008-06-30
Citation: Histara les comptes rendus (ISSN 2100-0700).
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This new book by M.-P. focuses on the interpretation of the Gigantomachy on the Great Altar at Pergamon, the most splendid Hellenistic monument and subject of a scholarly debate since the late 19th century, which is treated recently in a masterly written book by Queyrel, F., L’autel de Pergame: images et pouvoir en Grèce d’Asie (Paris 2005) . The main scope of this study is to trace the cosmological, astrological and philosophical as well as the political system that pervades the great composition and reflects it as an image of the constantly changing world. Each of the components of this methodology is not a new one in the study of the frieze, since previous scholars already addressed either the astrological and cosmological or the philosophical allegorical interpretation of the gods and giants, their disposition and combination in the composition. On the other hand the recognition of political allusions is a common theme on treatises of the subject. This new study by M.-P. takes all these aspects into account and tries to prove that a coherent cosmological-astronomical and philosophical-political system dictates the old-fashioned theme of the battle between gods and giants as presented on the podium of the Great Altar.


In chapter 1. M.-P. recapitulates the main problems that remain unsolved in the research of the Great Altar and expresses her own views that introduce the interpretation of the frieze of the Gigantomachy that will follow. First she investigates the position of the Altar into the cultic topography of Pergamon, especially its relations to its immediately adjacent structures on the Acropolis, namely the Athena Polias Nikephoros Sanctuary to the North and the Upper Agora including the temple of Zeus Soter to the South. Moreover she proceeds to discuss its function and undertakes the comparison to the altar of Artemis Leukophryene at Magnesia, which is a similar religious and civic monument. She critically reviews the most recent identification of the Pergamon Altar by Queyrel (2005) as being devoted to the cult of the Dodekatheon and the heroized king Eumenes II, who died in 158 B.C. Of special meaning is for M.-P, just as for some earlier scholars, the identification of the function of the underlying structure below the Pergamene Altar. The author recognizes a Telesterion of the Kabiroi based on the existence of two rocky outcrops that were left intact and correspond to the two niches of the apsis of this earlier building. This proposal draws upon the suggestion that two Kabiroi are seated on rocks in the Telephos frieze inside the Great Altar. The interpretation of the extant rocks as a reference to the cult of Kabiroi is, however, not very persuasive, and, I am personally very skeptical that the symbolic iconography of the friezes of the later monument on the site is an adequate tool for detecting the character of the earlier construction. Nevertheless the writer draws the conclusion that the mysterious predecessor building is closely connected with the infancy of Zeus, who together with Herakles were the divine ancestors and protectors of the royal dynasty of the Telepheids-Attalids, and to whom the Great Altar was ultimately dedicated. On examining the date of the Great Altar at the end of this chapter M.-P. makes a case for its traditional early dating around 180 B.C based on the inconclusive pottery fragments from the foundations of the Altar, for which she prefers the early date proposed in the modern scholarship.


In Ch.2. M.-P. sets the basic criteria of her interpretation. Her first recognition is of course the existence of lacunae in both the names of the giants (for which the additional problem is that that they seem not to follow any given written source) and of the gods inscribed on the frieze. She underlines the lack of a coherent interpretative system in previous studies of the frieze, and makes clear her own reasoning in the allegorical interpretation of the composition. The astronomical and cosmological allegory of the scenes and symbols depicted on the four corners of the frieze and on its west side interrupted by the monumental entrance to the Altar are subsequently discussed in detail. The SE corner represents in the proposal of M.-P. the summer solstice by means of the dogs that accompany Artemis and Asteria which denote the constellations of the Great and Small Dog respectively. In the NW corner she restores the fragmentary figure of the monster that raises the giant opponent of Poseidon off the ground as the Capricorn, that is the constellation of the winter solstice, though there is hardly an iconographic clue to such a restoration. On the NE corner the author combines Aphrodite and Ares as representing antithetical forces and denoting the spring equinox. Finally, she suggests that the placement of the eagle of Zeus on his thunderbolt that resembles a balance scale near and over Rhea on the SW is a symbol of the fall equinox, represented by the constellation of Libra. This is a main argument of the author on which the overall interpretation of the Gigantomachy frieze as a composition of astronomical and cosmological allegories (referring both to gods and giants as well as their attributes or accompanying animals) is based. In the following analysis of both ends and fronts of the west frieze characteristic is the recognition of the immutable horizon and of the autumn constellation of the Hyades. These last are represented by Nymphs or Mainads depicted on the SW end of the frieze flanking the stairway, whose names, however, the author restores arbitrarily.


In the three following Chapters M.-P. analyses according to the aforementioned rules, the composition of the north (Ch. 3), south (Ch. 4)  and east friezes (Ch. 5) proceeding to partly new identifications of the most ambiguous figures of gods and giants portrayed on the Gigantomachy frieze. It is very useful for the reader that each chapter is accompanied at the end by a table that summarizes her identifications of certain figures as allegories of constellations, referring also to earlier identifications by other scholars.


In chapter 6 M.- P. proceeds to detect the political symbolism of certain figures on the Pergamene Gigantomachy in a more systematic way than hitherto done by earlier scholars. Her identifications allow her to further recognize allusions to military and political events during the late years of Attalos I and of Eumenes II, mainly on the Great frieze. She also detects a similar political symbolism in the Telephos frieze and the stylopinakia of Cyzikos as well. This analysis additionally supports the author’s proposed chronology of the Altar’s Gigantomachy frieze in the late eighties, while the inner Telephos frieze is also consequently dated at the time of the death of the queen Apollonis around 172 B.C. In this M.- P. recalls the earlier views expressed in the scholarship on the Great Altar that used to assign a different date to each of the two friezes that adorn the monument, though her assumption is based no more on stylistic analysis but on a hypothetical political symbolism.


In Ch. 7 M.-P. investigates meticulously at first the various symbolisms echoed in ancient thought on the giants, concluding with the Stoic ideas on the names of the gods as allegories of the mystical forces that constitute the moving world which is ultimately an aspect of the divine. At this point she attacks the problem of the appearance of the deities as groups distributed on a certain side of the frieze. Consequently she supports the idea that the overall compositions of the four sizes of  the Gigantomachy frieze express fully the aforementioned cosmological and astronomical as well as ultimately stoic philosophical concept of the world. By this method she additionally underpins her identifications of the individual figures of gods and giants on the frieze as cosmological, theological and meterological allegories that form the idea of the world, thus not avoiding circularity in her argumentation. On the west frieze, Altar’s antae and their returns, the main compositional allegory is the primordial element of water. The combats on the north frieze are thought to be allegories of the fatal destiny of the world, the death. The gods on the east side of the north frieze, especially Aphrodite, Eros, Dione, Enyo, Deimos, Phovos, allegorically represent the movements of the passions inside the world as well as its own movement of constitution and dissolution which is further incarnated by Ares on the east frieze denoting the ekpyrosis of the  universe; this is, however, renewed by Zeus as the spirit that governs the world. Zeus is air encircling the earth, the energy of the world is incorporated by Athena; the divine couple of Herakles and Apollo, armed with their arcs produce the harmony of the spheres and the life. Other deities on this side (Demeter, Leto, Artemis, Hekate) are interpreted as seasonal signs that mark the transition from spring to summer. The couple of Zeus and Hera represents the thunderbolt and the fire, the air and the tempest respectively. The symbolic value of the names of the deities on the south frieze culminates in Rhea in her double meteorological and cosmological value. This chapter closes with an investigation of the philosophical symbolism of the myth of the Gigantomachy in the Platonic and Stoic systems.


        In the concluding ch. 7. M.-P. develops the interesting idea that like the Gigantomachy of the Great Altar, the nineteen stylopinakia in the temple of the deified Apollonis at Cyzikos symbolize the destiny of the world as reflected in the destiny of the queen-mother herself. These paintings are thought to show an allegorical but selective presentation of the zodiac signs as well as of certain constellations, some of which denote mythical apotheoseis comparable to that of the Pergamene queen Apollonis.


        In this study M. -P. displays her deep philosophical and astronomical education. Her main contribution lies in that she makes evident the close association that exists between a major dynastic iconographic monument which represents in an extraordinary way the traditional theme of the battle of gods and giants and the philosophical and scientific doctrines cultivated in the Pergamene court. But on the other hand the strive of the author to detect the cosmological, astronomical and philosophical system underlying the composition of the Gigantomachy on the frieze of the Great Altar leads her to reconstructing a system, which is highly speculative. Not only the securely identified persons of the Gigantomachy frieze are conceived in their allegorical connotations but also arbitrarily restored names and divine personalities are thought to be extant in means of their surmised allegorical value. It should also be remarked, that the extensive drawing on iconographical parallels much later that the Altar of Pergamon, or belonging to different cultural environments (like the Etruscan sarcophagi) in order to restore and understand the program of the frieze, does not pinpoint adequately the argumentation of the author.

This book is not so much a contribution towards ultimately resolving the interpretative problems of the Gigantomachy depicted on the Great Altar of Pergamon. But instead, it makes evident, though in a stressed manner, the possible cosmological and philosophical considerations that this oeuvre may have evoked to some of those highly sophisticated citizens of the Hellenistic era. To fully reconstruct these ancient views seems, however, to be today an utopia as far as the objective identification of most of the figures portrayed still eludes us. The still missing bulk of the ancient inscriptions and some crucial gaps in the composition are our main obstacles.