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Terracotta Gladiators Plaque

Terracotta Gladiators Plaque

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Terracotta plaque depicting gladiators with some traces of paint. Second half of the 1st century BCE - 1st century CE, Cumae, in a tomb Musée du Cinquantenaire (Brussels, Belgium). Made with CapturingReality.

This real little terracotta picture represents two gladiators at the end of the fight. The victor, on the left, wearing a tunic and wearing a high crest and double-crested helmet, brandishes triumphantly his shield and that of his adversary. The defeated (Thracian?), Right, disarmed and left arm behind his back, turns to the audience, his thumb finger raised, to ask for his pardon. If the fight had been appreciated, the crowd shouted “stans missus!” (that he leaves standing), otherwise, it ordered the conqueror to slaughter the supplicant (“jugula!”) by inverting the thumb (pollice verso).

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Initially in the possession of a Syrian dealer, who may have acquired the plaque in southern Iraq in 1924, the relief was deposited at the British Museum in London and analysed by Dr. H.J. Plenderleith in 1933. However, the Museum declined to purchase it in 1935, whereupon the plaque passed to the London antique dealer Sidney Burney it subsequently became known as the "Burney Relief". [1] The relief was first brought to public attention with a full-page reproduction in The Illustrated London News, in 1936. [2] From Burney, it passed to the collection of Norman Colville, after whose death it was acquired at auction by the Japanese collector Goro Sakamoto. British authorities, however, denied him an export licence. The piece was loaned to the British Museum for display between 1980 and 1991, and in 2003 the relief was purchased by the Museum for the sum of £1,500,000 as part of its 250th anniversary celebrations. The Museum also renamed the plaque the "Queen of the Night Relief". [3] Since then, the object has toured museums around Britain.

Unfortunately, its original provenance remains unknown. The relief was not archaeologically excavated, and thus we have no further information where it came from, or in which context it was discovered. An interpretation of the relief thus relies on stylistic comparisons with other objects for which the date and place of origin have been established, on an analysis of the iconography, and on the interpretation of textual sources from Mesopotamian mythology and religion. [4]

Detailed descriptions were published by Henri Frankfort (1936), [1] by Pauline Albenda (2005), [5] and in a monograph by Dominique Collon, former curator at the British Museum, where the plaque is now housed. [3] The composition as a whole is unique among works of art from Mesopotamia, even though many elements have interesting counterparts in other images from that time. [6]

Physical aspect Edit

The relief is a terracotta (fired clay) plaque, 50 by 37 centimetres (20 in × 15 in) large, 2 to 3 centimetres (0.79 to 1.18 in) thick, with the head of the figure projecting 4.5 centimetres (1.8 in) from the surface. To manufacture the relief, clay with small calcareous inclusions was mixed with chaff visible folds and fissures suggest the material was quite stiff when being worked. [7] The British Museum's Department of Scientific Research reports, "it would seem likely that the whole plaque was moulded" with subsequent modelling of some details and addition of others, such as the rod-and-ring symbols, the tresses of hair and the eyes of the owls. [8] The relief was then burnished and polished, and further details were incised with a pointed tool. Firing burned out the chaff, leaving characteristic voids and the pitted surface we see now Curtis and Collon believe the surface would have appeared smoothed by ochre paint in antiquity. [9]

In its dimensions, the unique plaque is larger than the mass-produced terracotta plaques – popular art or devotional items – of which many were excavated in house ruins of the Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian periods. [nb 1]

Overall, the relief is in excellent condition. It was originally received in three pieces and some fragments by the British Museum after repair, some cracks are still apparent, in particular a triangular piece missing on the right edge, but the main features of the deity and the animals are intact. The figure's face has damage to its left side, the left side of the nose and the neck region. The headdress has some damage to its front and right hand side, but the overall shape can be inferred from symmetry. Half of the necklace is missing and the symbol of the figure held in her right hand the owls' beaks are lost and a piece of a lion's tail. A comparison of images from 1936 and 2005 shows that some modern damage has been sustained as well: the right hand side of the crown has now lost its top tier, and at the lower left corner a piece of the mountain patterning has chipped off and the owl has lost its right-side toes. [10] However, in all major aspects, the relief has survived intact for more than 3,500 years.

Traces of red pigment still remain on the figure's body that was originally painted red overall. The feathers of her wings and the owls' feathers were also colored red, alternating with black and white. By Raman spectroscopy the red pigment is identified as red ochre, the black pigment, amorphous carbon ("lamp black") and the white pigment gypsum. [11] Black pigment is also found on the background of the plaque, the hair and eyebrows, and on the lions' manes. [nb 2] The pubic triangle and the areola appear accentuated with red pigment but were not separately painted black. [11] The lions' bodies were painted white. The British Museum curators assume that the horns of the headdress and part of the necklace were originally colored yellow, just as they are on a very similar clay figure from Ur. [nb 3] They surmise that the bracelets and rod-and-ring symbols might also have been painted yellow. However, no traces of yellow pigment now remain on the relief.

The female figure Edit

The nude female figure is realistically sculpted in high-relief. Her eyes, beneath distinct, joined eyebrows, are hollow, presumably to accept some inlaying material – a feature common in stone, alabaster, and bronze sculptures of the time, [nb 4] but not seen in other Mesopotamian clay sculptures. Her full lips are slightly upturned at the corners. She is adorned with a four-tiered headdress of horns, topped by a disk. Her head is framed by two braids of hair, with the bulk of her hair in a bun in the back and two wedge-shaped braids extending onto her breasts.

The stylized treatment of her hair could represent a ceremonial wig. She wears a single broad necklace, composed of squares that are structured with horizontal and vertical lines, possibly depicting beads, four to each square. This necklace is virtually identical to the necklace of the god found at Ur, except that the latter's necklace has three lines to a square. Around both wrists she wears bracelets which appear composed of three rings. Both hands are symmetrically lifted up, palms turned towards the viewer and detailed with visible life-, head- and heart lines, holding two rod-and-ring symbols of which only the one in the left hand is well preserved. Two wings with clearly defined, stylized feathers in three registers extend down from above her shoulders. The feathers in the top register are shown as overlapping scales (coverts), the lower two registers have long, staggered flight feathers that appear drawn with a ruler and end in a convex trailing edge. The feathers have smooth surfaces no barbs were drawn. The wings are similar but not entirely symmetrical, differing both in the number of the flight feathers [nb 5] and in the details of the coloring scheme. [nb 6]

Her wings are spread to a triangular shape but not fully extended. The breasts are full and high, but without separately modelled nipples. Her body has been sculpted with attention to naturalistic detail: the deep navel, structured abdomen, "softly modeled pubic area" [nb 7] the recurve of the outline of the hips beneath the iliac crest, and the bony structure of the legs with distinct knee caps all suggest "an artistic skill that is almost certainly derived from observed study". [5] A spur-like protrusion, fold, or tuft extends from her calves just below the knee, which Collon interprets as dewclaws. Below the shin, the figure's legs change into those of a bird. The bird-feet are detailed, [nb 8] with three long, well-separated toes of approximately equal length. Lines have been scratched into the surface of the ankle and toes to depict the scutes, and all visible toes have prominent talons. Her toes are extended down, without perspective foreshortening they do not appear to rest upon a ground line and thus give the figure an impression of being dissociated from the background, as if hovering. [5]

The animals and background Edit

The two lions have a male mane, patterned with dense, short lines the manes continue beneath the body. [nb 9] Distinctly patterned tufts of hair grow from the lion's ears and on their shoulders, emanating from a central disk-shaped whorl. They lie prone their heads are sculpted with attention to detail, but with a degree of artistic liberty in their form, e.g., regarding their rounded shapes. Both lions look towards the viewer, and both have their mouths closed.

The owls shown are recognizable, but not sculpted naturalistically: the shape of the beak, the length of the legs, and details of plumage deviate from those of the owls that are indigenous to the region. [nb 10] Their plumage is colored like the deity's wings in red, black and white it is bilaterally similar but not perfectly symmetrical. Both owls have one more feather on the right-hand side of their plumage than on the left-hand side. The legs, feet and talons are red.

The group is placed on a pattern of scales, painted black. This is the way mountain ranges were commonly symbolized in Mesopotamian art.

Date and place of origin Edit

Stylistic comparisons place the relief at the earliest into the Isin-Larsa period, [12] or slightly later, to the beginning of the Old Babylonian period. [nb 11] Frankfort especially notes the stylistic similarity with the sculpted head of a male deity found at Ur, [1] [nb 3] which Collon finds to be "so close to the Queen of the Night in quality, workmanship and iconographical details, that it could well have come from the same workshop." [13] Therefore, Ur is one possible city of origin for the relief, but not the only one: Edith Porada points out the virtual identity in style that the lion's tufts of hair have with the same detail seen on two fragments of clay plaques excavated at Nippur. [14] [nb 12] And Agnès Spycket reported on a similar necklace on a fragment found in Isin. [15]

Geopolitical context Edit

A creation date at the beginning of the second millennium BCE places the relief into a region and time in which the political situation was unsteady, marked by the waxing and waning influence of the city states of Isin and Larsa, an invasion by the Elamites, and finally the conquest by Hammurabi in the unification in the Babylonian empire in 1762 BCE.

300 to 500 years earlier, the population for the whole of Mesopotamia was at its all-time high of about 300,000. Elamite invaders then toppled the third Dynasty of Ur and the population declined to about 200,000 it had stabilized at that number at the time the relief was made. [16] Cities like Nippur and Isin would have had on the order of 20,000 inhabitants and Larsa maybe 40,000 Hammurabi's Babylon grew to 60,000 by 1700 BCE. [17] A well-developed infrastructure and complex division of labour is required to sustain cities of that size. The fabrication of religious imagery might have been done by specialized artisans: large numbers of smaller, devotional plaques have been excavated that were fabricated in molds.

Even though the fertile crescent civilizations are considered the oldest in history, at the time the Burney Relief was made other late Bronze Age civilizations were equally in full bloom. Travel and cultural exchange were not commonplace, but nevertheless possible. [nb 13] To the east, Elam with its capital Susa was in frequent military conflict with Isin, Larsa and later Babylon. Even further, the Indus Valley Civilization was already past its peak, and in China, the Erlitou culture blossomed. To the southwest, Egypt was ruled by the 12th dynasty further to the west the Minoan civilization, centred on Crete with the Old Palace in Knossos, dominated the Mediterranean. To the north of Mesopotamia, the Anatolian Hittites were establishing their Old Kingdom over the Hattians they brought an end to Babylon's empire with the sack of the city in 1531 BCE. Indeed, Collon mentions this raid as possibly being the reason for the damage to the right-hand side of the relief. [18]

Religion Edit

The size of the plaque suggests it would have belonged in a shrine, possibly as an object of worship it was probably set into a mud-brick wall. [19] Such a shrine might have been a dedicated space in a large private home or other house, but not the main focus of worship in one of the cities' temples, which would have contained representations of gods sculpted in the round. Mesopotamian temples at the time had a rectangular cella often with niches to both sides. According to Thorkild Jacobsen, that shrine could have been located inside a brothel. [20]

Art history Edit

Compared with how important religious practice was in Mesopotamia, and compared to the number of temples that existed, very few cult figures at all have been preserved. This is certainly not due to a lack of artistic skill: the "Ram in a Thicket" shows how elaborate such sculptures could have been, even 600 to 800 years earlier. It is also not due to a lack of interest in religious sculpture: deities and myths are ubiquitous on cylinder seals and the few steles, kudurrus, and reliefs that have been preserved. Rather, it seems plausible that the main figures of worship in temples and shrines were made of materials so valuable they could not escape looting during the many shifts of power that the region saw. [21] The Burney Relief is comparatively plain, and so survived. In fact, the relief is one of only two existing large, figurative representations from the Old Babylonian period. The other one is the top part of the Code of Hammurabi, which was actually discovered in Elamite Susa, where it had been brought as booty.

A static, frontal image is typical of religious images intended for worship. Symmetric compositions are common in Mesopotamian art when the context is not narrative. [nb 14] Many examples have been found on cylinder seals. Three-part arrangements of a god and two other figures are common, but five-part arrangements exist as well. In this respect, the relief follows established conventions. In terms of representation, the deity is sculpted with a naturalistic but "modest" nudity, reminiscent of Egyptian goddess sculptures, which are sculpted with a well-defined navel and pubic region but no details there, the lower hemline of a dress indicates that some covering is intended, even if it does not conceal. In a typical statue of the genre, Pharaoh Menkaura and two goddesses, Hathor and Bat are shown in human form and sculpted naturalistically, just as in the Burney Relief in fact, Hathor has been given the features of Queen Khamerernebty II. Depicting an anthropomorphic god as a naturalistic human is an innovative artistic idea that may well have diffused from Egypt to Mesopotamia, just like a number of concepts of religious rites, architecture, the "banquet plaques", and other artistic innovations previously. [22] In this respect, the Burney Relief shows a clear departure from the schematic style of the worshiping men and women that were found in temples from periods about 500 years earlier. It is also distinct from the next major style in the region: Assyrian art, with its rigid, detailed representations, mostly of scenes of war and hunting.

The extraordinary survival of the figure type, though interpretations and cult context shifted over the intervening centuries, is expressed by the cast terracotta funerary figure of the 1st century BCE, from Myrina on the coast of Mysia in Asia Minor, where it was excavated by the French School at Athens, 1883 the terracotta is conserved in the Musée du Louvre (illustrated left).

An example of elaborate Sumerian sculpture: the "Ram in a Thicket", excavated in the royal cemetery of Ur by Leonard Woolley and dated to about 2600–2400 BCE. Wood, gold leaf, lapis lazuli and shell. British Museum, ME 122200.

The only other surviving large image from the time: top part of the Code of Hammurabi, c. 1760 BCE. Hammurabi before the sun-god Shamash. Note the four-tiered, horned headdress, the rod-and-ring symbol and the mountain-range pattern beneath Shamash' feet. Black basalt. Louvre, Sb 8.

Goddess representation in Egyptian monuments: in this triad the Egyptian goddess Hathor (left) and the nome goddess Bat (right) lead Pharaoh Menkaura (middle). Egypt, Fourth dynasty, about 2400 BCE. Graywacke. Cairo Museum.

A typical representation of a 3rd millennium BCE Mesopotamian worshipper, Eshnunna, about 2700 BCE. Alabaster. Metropolitan Museum of Art 40.156.

Deity representation on Assyrian relief. Blessing genie, about 716 BCE. Relief from the palace of Sargon II. Louvre AO 19865

Compared to visual artworks from the same time, the relief fits quite well with its style of representation and its rich iconography. The images below show earlier, contemporary, and somewhat later examples of woman and goddess depictions.

Woman. Ishtar temple at Mari (between 2500 BCE and 2400 BCE), Louvre AO 17563

Goddess Bau, Neo-Sumerian (c. 2100 BCE), Telloh, Louvre, AO 4572

Ishtar. Moulded plaque, Eshnunna, early 2nd. millennium. Louvre, AO 12456

Woman, from a temple. Old Babylonian period. British Museum ME 135680

Kassite period (between c. 1531 BCE to c. 1155 BCE)

Old-Babylonian plaque showing the goddess Ishtar, from Southern Mesopotamia, Iraq, on display in the Pergamon Museum

Goddess Ishtar stands on a lion and holds a bow, god Shamash symbol at the upper right corner, from Southern Mesopotamia, Iraq

Iconography Edit

Mesopotamian religion recognizes literally thousands of deities, and distinct iconographies have been identified for about a dozen. Less frequently, gods are identified by a written label or dedication such labels would only have been intended for the literate elites. In creating a religious object, the sculptor was not free to create novel images: the representation of deities, their attributes and context were as much part of the religion as the rituals and the mythology. Indeed, innovation and deviation from an accepted canon could be considered a cultic offense. [23] The large degree of similarity that is found in plaques and seals suggests that detailed iconographies could have been based on famous cult statues they established the visual tradition for such derivative works but have now been lost. [24] It appears, though, that the Burney Relief was the product of such a tradition, not its source, since its composition is unique. [6]

Frontal nudity Edit

The frontal presentation of the deity is appropriate for a plaque of worship, since it is not just a "pictorial reference to a god" but "a symbol of his presence". [1] Since the relief is the only existing plaque intended for worship, we do not know whether this is generally true. But this particular depiction of a goddess represents a specific motif: a nude goddess with wings and bird's feet. Similar images have been found on a number of plaques, on a vase from Larsa, and on at least one cylinder seal they are all from approximately the same time period. [25] In all instances but one, the frontal view, nudity, wings, and the horned crown are features that occur together thus, these images are iconographically linked in their representation of a particular goddess. Moreover, examples of this motif are the only existing examples of a nude god or goddess all other representations of gods are clothed. [26] The bird's feet have not always been well preserved, but there are no counter-examples of a nude, winged goddess with human feet.

Horned crown Edit

The horned crown – usually four-tiered– is the most general symbol of a deity in Mesopotamian art. Male and female gods alike wear it. In some instances, "lesser" gods wear crowns with only one pair of horns, but the number of horns is not generally a symbol of "rank" or importance. The form we see here is a style popular in Neo-Sumerian times and later earlier representations show horns projecting out from a conical headpiece. [27]

Wings Edit

Winged gods, other mythological creatures, and birds are frequently depicted on cylinder seals and steles from the 3rd millennium all the way to the Assyrians. Both two-winged and four-winged figures are known and the wings are most often extended to the side. Spread wings are part of one type of representation for Ishtar. [28] However, the specific depiction of the hanging wings of the nude goddess may have evolved from what was originally a cape. [29]

Rod and ring symbol Edit

This symbol may depict the measuring tools of a builder or architect or a token representation of these tools. It is frequently depicted on cylinder seals and steles, where it is always held by a god – usually either Shamash, Ishtar, and in later Babylonian images also Marduk– and often extended to a king. [27] In its totality here perhaps representing any sort of a measured act of a "weighing" event, further suggestion of an Egyptian influence.

Lions Edit

Lions are chiefly associated with Ishtar or with the male gods Shamash or Ningirsu. [20] In Mesopotamian art, lions are nearly always depicted with open jaws. H. Frankfort suggests that The Burney Relief shows a modification of the normal canon that is due to the fact that the lions are turned towards the worshipper: the lions might appear inappropriately threatening if their mouths were open. [1]

Owls Edit

No other examples of owls in an iconographic context exist in Mesopotamian art, nor are there textual references that directly associate owls with a particular god or goddess.

Mountains Edit

A god standing on or seated on a pattern of scales is a typical scenery for the depiction of a theophany. It is associated with gods who have some connection with mountains but not restricted to any one deity in particular. [20]

The figure was initially identified as a depiction of Ishtar (Inanna) [nb 15] [2] but almost immediately other arguments were put forward:

Lilitu Edit

The identification of the relief as depicting "Lilith" has become a staple of popular writing on that subject. Raphael Patai (1990) [30] believes the relief to be the only extant depiction of a Sumerian female demon called lilitu and thus to define lilitu's iconography. Citations regarding this assertion lead back to Henri Frankfort (1936). Frankfort himself based his interpretation of the deity as the demon Lilith on the presence of wings, the birds' feet and the representation of owls. He cites the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh as a source that such "creatures are inhabitants of the land of the dead". [31] In that text Enkidu's appearance is partially changed to that of a feathered being, and he is led to the nether world where creatures dwell that are "birdlike, wearing a feather garment". [1] This passage reflects the Sumerians' belief in the nether world, and Frankfort cites evidence that Nergal, the ruler of the underworld, is depicted with bird's feet and wrapped in a feathered gown.

However Frankfort did not himself make the identification of the figure with Lilith rather he cites Emil Kraeling (1937) instead. Kraeling believes that the figure "is a superhuman being of a lower order" he does not explain exactly why. He then goes on to state "Wings [. ] regularly suggest a demon associated with the wind" and "owls may well indicate the nocturnal habits of this female demon". He excludes Lamashtu and Pazuzu as candidate demons and states: "Perhaps we have here a third representation of a demon. If so, it must be Lilîtu [. ] the demon of an evil wind", named ki-sikil-lil-la [nb 16] (literally "wind-maiden" or "phantom-maiden", not "beautiful maiden", as Kraeling asserts). [32] This ki-sikil-lil is an antagonist of Inanna (Ishtar) in a brief episode of the epic of Gilgamesh, which is cited by both Kraeling and Frankfort as further evidence for the identification as Lilith, though this appendix too is now disputed. In this episode, Inanna's holy Huluppu tree is invaded by malevolent spirits. Frankfort quotes a preliminary translation by Gadd (1933): "in the midst Lilith had built a house, the shrieking maid, the joyful, the bright queen of Heaven". However modern translations have instead: "In its trunk, the phantom maid built herself a dwelling, the maid who laughs with a joyful heart. But holy Inanna cried." [33] The earlier translation implies an association of the demon Lilith with a shrieking owl and at the same time asserts her god-like nature the modern translation supports neither of these attributes. In fact, Cyril J. Gadd (1933), the first translator, writes: "ardat lili (kisikil-lil) is never associated with owls in Babylonian mythology" and "the Jewish traditions concerning Lilith in this form seem to be late and of no great authority". [34] This single line of evidence being taken as virtual proof of the identification of the Burney Relief with "Lilith" may have been motivated by later associations of "Lilith" in later Jewish sources.

The association of Lilith with owls in later Jewish literature such as the Songs of the Sage (1st century BCE) and Babylonian Talmud (5th century CE) is derived from a reference to a liliyth among a list of wilderness birds and animals in Isaiah (7th century BCE), though some scholars, such as Blair (2009) [35] [36] consider the pre-Talmudic Isaiah reference to be non-supernatural, and this is reflected in some modern Bible translations:

Isaiah 34:13 Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses. It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for ostriches. 14 And wild animals shall meet with hyenas the wild goat shall cry to his fellow indeed, there the night bird (lilit or lilith) settles and finds for herself a resting place. 15 There the owl nests and lays and hatches and gathers her young in her shadow indeed, there the hawks are gathered, each one with her mate. (ESV)

Today, the identification of the Burney Relief with Lilith is questioned, [37] and the figure is now generally identified as the goddess of love and war. [38]

Ishtar Edit

50 years later, Thorkild Jacobsen substantially revised this interpretation and identified the figure as Inanna (Akkadian: Ishtar) in an analysis that is primarily based on textual evidence. [20] According to Jacobsen:

  • The hypothesis that this tablet was created for worship makes it unlikely that a demon was depicted. Demons had no cult in Mesopotamian religious practice since demons "know no food, know no drink, eat no flour offering and drink no libation." [nb 17] Therefore, "no relationship of giving and taking could be established with them"
  • The horned crown is a symbol of divinity, and the fact that it is four-tiered suggests one of the principal gods of the Mesopotamian pantheon
  • Inanna was the only goddess that was associated with lions. For example, a hymn by En-hedu-ana specifically mentions "Inanna, seated on crossed (or harnessed) lions" [nb 18]
  • The goddess is depicted standing on mountains. According to text sources, Inanna's home was on Kur-mùsh, the mountain crests. Iconographically, other gods were depicted on mountain scales as well, but there are examples in which Inanna is shown on a mountain pattern and another god is not, i.e. the pattern was indeed sometimes used to identify Inanna. [39]
  • The rod-and-ring symbol, her necklace and her wig are all attributes that are explicitly referred to in the myth of Inanna's descent into the nether world. [40]
  • Jacobsen quotes textual evidence that the Akkadian word eššebu (owl) corresponds to the Sumerian word ninna, and that the Sumerian D nin-ninna (Divine lady ninna) corresponds to the Akkadian Ishtar. The Sumerian ninna can also be translated as the Akkadian kilili, which is also a name or epithet for Ishtar. Inanna/Ishtar as harlot or goddess of harlots was a well known theme in Mesopotamian mythology and in one text, Inanna is called kar-kid (harlot) and ab-ba-[šú]-šú, which in Akkadian would be rendered kilili. Thus there appears to be a cluster of metaphors linking prostitute and owl and the goddess Inanna/Ishtar this could match the most enigmatic component of the relief to a well known aspect of Ishtar. Jacobsen concludes that this link would be sufficient to explain talons and wings, and adds that nudity could indicate the relief was originally the house-altar of a bordello. [20]

Ereshkigal Edit

In contrast, the British Museum does acknowledge the possibility that the relief depicts either Lilith or Ishtar, but prefers a third identification: Ishtar's antagonist and sister Ereshkigal, the goddess of the underworld. [41] This interpretation is based on the fact that the wings are not outspread and that the background of the relief was originally painted black. If this were the correct identification, it would make the relief (and by implication the smaller plaques of nude, winged goddesses) the only known figurative representations of Ereshkigal. [5] Edith Porada, the first to propose this identification, associates hanging wings with demons and then states: "If the suggested provenience of the Burney Relief at Nippur proves to be correct, the imposing demonic figure depicted on it may have to be identified with the female ruler of the dead or with some other major figure of the Old Babylonian pantheon which was occasionally associated with death." [42] No further supporting evidence was given by Porada, but another analysis published in 2002 comes to the same conclusion. E. von der Osten-Sacken describes evidence for a weakly developed but nevertheless existing cult for Ereshkigal she cites aspects of similarity between the goddesses Ishtar and Ereshkigal from textual sources – for example they are called "sisters" in the myth of "Inanna's descent into the nether world" – and she finally explains the unique doubled rod-and-ring symbol in the following way: "Ereshkigal would be shown here at the peak of her power, when she had taken the divine symbols from her sister and perhaps also her identifying lions". [43]

The 1936 London Illustrated News feature had "no doubt of the authenticity" of the object which had "been subjected to exhaustive chemical examination" and showed traces of bitumen "dried out in a way which is only possible in the course of many centuries". [2] But stylistic doubts were published only a few months later by D. Opitz who noted the "absolutely unique" nature of the owls with no comparables in all of Babylonian figurative artefacts. [44] In a back-to-back article, E. Douglas Van Buren examined examples of Sumerian [sic] art, which had been excavated and provenanced and she presented examples: Ishtar with two lions, the Louvre plaque (AO 6501) of a nude, bird-footed goddess standing on two Ibexes [45] and similar plaques, and even a small haematite owl, although the owl is an isolated piece and not in an iconographical context.

A year later Frankfort (1937) acknowledged Van Buren's examples, added some of his own and concluded "that the relief is genuine". Opitz (1937) concurred with this opinion, but reasserted that the iconography is not consistent with other examples, especially regarding the rod-and-ring symbol. These symbols were the focus of a communication by Pauline Albenda (1970) who again questioned the relief's authenticity. Subsequently, the British Museum performed thermoluminescence dating which was consistent with the relief being fired in antiquity but the method is imprecise when samples of the surrounding soil are not available for estimation of background radiation levels. A rebuttal to Albenda by Curtis and Collon (1996) published the scientific analysis the British Museum was sufficiently convinced of the relief to purchase it in 2003. The discourse continued however: in her extensive reanalysis of stylistic features, Albenda once again called the relief "a pastiche of artistic features" and "continue[d] to be unconvinced of its antiquity". [46]

Her arguments were rebutted in a rejoinder by Collon (2007), noting in particular that the whole relief was created in one unit, i.e. there is no possibility that a modern figure or parts of one might have been added to an antique background she also reviewed the iconographic links to provenanced pieces. In concluding Collon states: "[Edith Porada] believed that, with time, a forgery would look worse and worse, whereas a genuine object would grow better and better. [. ] Over the years [the Queen of the Night] has indeed grown better and better, and more and more interesting. For me she is a real work of art of the Old Babylonian period."

In 2008/9 the relief was included in exhibitions on Babylon at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, the Louvre in Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. [47]


Original Number 10 Edit

Number 10 Downing Street was originally three properties: a mansion overlooking St James's Park called "the House at the Back", a town house behind it and a cottage. The town house, from which the modern building gets its name, was one of several built by Sir George Downing between 1682 and 1684.

Downing, a notorious spy for Oliver Cromwell and later Charles II, invested in property and acquired considerable wealth. [5] [6] [7] In 1654, he purchased the lease on land south of St James's Park, adjacent to the House at the Back within walking distance of parliament. Downing planned to build a row of terraced town houses "for persons of good quality to inhabit in . " [8] The street on which he built them now bears his name, and the largest became part of Number 10 Downing Street.

Straightforward as the investment seemed, it proved otherwise. The Hampden family had a lease on the land that they refused to relinquish. Downing fought their claim, but failed and had to wait 30 years before he could build. [9] When the Hampden lease expired, Downing received permission to build on land further west to take advantage of more recent property developments. The new warrant issued in 1682 reads: "Sir George Downing . [is authorised] to build new and more houses . subject to the proviso that it be not built any nearer than 14 feet of the wall of the said Park at the West end thereof". [8] Between 1682 and 1684, Downing built a cul-de-sac of two-storey town houses with coach-houses, stables and views of St James's Park. Over the years, the addresses changed several times. In 1787 Number 5 became "Number 10". [10]

Downing employed Sir Christopher Wren to design the houses. Although large, they were put up quickly and cheaply on soft soil with shallow foundations. Winston Churchill wrote that Number 10 was "shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear". [11]

The upper end of the Downing Street cul-de-sac closed off the access to St James's Park, making the street quiet and private. An advertisement in 1720 described it as "a pretty open Place, especially at the upper end, where are four or five very large and well-built Houses, fit for Persons of Honour and Quality each House having a pleasant Prospect into St James's Park, with a Tarras Walk". [12] The cul-de-sac had several distinguished residents: Elizabeth Paston lived at Number 10 between 1688 and 1689, Lord Lansdowne from 1692 to 1696 and the Earl of Grantham from 1699 to 1703. [12]

Downing did not live in Downing Street. [13] [14] In 1675 he retired to Cambridge, where he died in 1684, a few months after building was completed. In 1800 the wealth he had accumulated was used to found Downing College, Cambridge, as had been his wish should his descendants fail in the male line. Downing's portrait hangs in the entrance hall of Number 10. [15]

History of the "House at the Back" before 1733 Edit

The "House at the Back", the largest of the three houses which were combined to make Number 10, was a mansion built in about 1530 next to Whitehall Palace. Rebuilt, expanded, and renovated many times since, it was originally one of several buildings that made up the "Cockpit Lodgings", so-called because they were attached to an octagonal structure used for cock-fighting. Early in the 17th century, the Cockpit was converted to a concert hall and theatre after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, some of the first cabinet meetings were held there secretly. [16]

For many years, the "House at the Back" was the home of Thomas Knevett, Keeper of Whitehall Palace, famous for capturing Guy Fawkes in 1605 and foiling his plot to assassinate King James I. The previous year, Knevett had moved into a house next door, approximately where Number 10 is today. [17] [18]

From that time, the "House at the Back" was usually occupied by members of the royal family or the government. Princess Elizabeth, eldest daughter of King James I, lived there from 1604 until 1613 when she married Frederick V, Elector Palatine and moved to Heidelberg. She was the grandmother of King George I, the Elector of Hanover, who became King of Great Britain in 1714, and was the great-grandmother of King George II, who presented the house to Walpole in 1732. [19]

George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle, the general responsible for the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, lived there from 1660 until his death in 1671. As head of the Great Treasury Commission of 1667–1672, Albemarle transformed accounting methods and allowed the Crown greater control over expenses. His secretary, Sir George Downing, 1st Baronet, who built Downing Street, is thought to have created these changes. Albemarle is the first treasury minister to have lived in what became the home of the First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister. [20]

In 1671 George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham took possession when he joined the Cabal Ministry. At considerable expense, Buckingham rebuilt the house. The result was a spacious mansion, lying parallel to Whitehall Palace with a view of St James Park from its garden. [21]

After Buckingham retired in 1676, Lady Charlotte Fitzroy, Charles II's daughter, moved in when she married Edward Lee, 1st Earl of Lichfield. The Crown authorised extensive rebuilding which included adding a storey, thus giving it three main floors, an attic and basement. This structure can be seen today as the rear section of Number 10. [22] (See Plan of the Premises Granted to the Earl and Countess of Lichfield in 1677) [23] [24] The likely reason that repair was required is that the house had settled in the swampy ground near the Thames, causing structural damage. [25] Like Downing Street, it rested on a shallow foundation, a design error that caused problems until 1960 when the modern Number 10 was rebuilt on deep pilings. [26]

The Lichfields followed James II into exile after the Glorious Revolution. Two years later in 1690, William III and Mary II gave the "House at the Back" to Hendrik van Nassau-Ouwerkerk, a Dutch general who had assisted in securing the Crown for the Prince of Orange. Nassau, who Anglicised his name to "Overkirk", lived there until his death in 1708. [22]

The "House at the Back" reverted to the Crown when Lady Overkirk died in 1720. The Treasury issued an order "for repairing and fitting it up in the best and most substantial manner" at a cost of £2,522. The work included: "The Back passage into Downing street to be repaired and a new door a New Necessary House to be made To take down the Useless passage formerly made for the Maids of Honour to go into Downing Street, when the Queen lived at the Cockpit To New Cast a great Lead Cistern & pipes and to lay the Water into the house & a new frame for ye Cistern". [27] (See Buildings on the Site of the Cockpit and Number 10 Downing Street c1720) [24] [28]

The name of the "House at the Back" changed with the occupant, from Lichfield House to Overkirk House in 1690 to Bothmer House in 1720. [29]

First politician and "head of government" in the house Edit

Johann Caspar von Bothmer, Premier minister of the Electorate of Hanover, head of the German Chancery and adviser to George I and II, took up residency in 1720. Although Bothmer complained about "the ruinous Condition of the Premises", [30] he lived there until his death in 1732. Even though Count von Bothmer was not British, he was a subject of George I and George II and the first politician and head of a government who resided in 10 Downing Street. [ citation needed ]

First Lord's house: 1733–1735 Edit

When Count Bothmer died, ownership of the "House at the Back" reverted to the Crown. George II took this opportunity to offer it to Sir Robert Walpole, often called the first Prime Minister, as a gift for his services to the nation: stabilising its finances, keeping it at peace and securing the Hanoverian succession. Coincidentally, the King had obtained the leases on two Downing Street properties, including Number 10, and added these to his proposed gift.

Walpole did not accept the gift for himself. [31] He proposed—and the King agreed—that the Crown give the properties to the Office of First Lord of the Treasury. Walpole would live there as the incumbent First Lord, but would vacate it for the next one. [32]

To enlarge the new house, Walpole persuaded Mr Chicken, the tenant of a cottage next door, to move to another house in Downing Street. [33] This small house and the mansion at the back were then incorporated into Number 10. Walpole commissioned William Kent to convert them into one building. Kent joined the larger houses by building a two-storey structure between them, consisting of one long room on the ground floor and several above. The remaining interior space was converted into a courtyard. He connected the Downing Street houses with a corridor.

Having united the structures, Kent gutted and rebuilt the interior. He then surmounted the third storey of the house at the back with a pediment. To allow Walpole quicker access to Parliament, Kent closed the north side entrance from St James's Park, and made the door in Downing Street the main entrance.

The rebuilding took three years. On 23 September 1735, the London Daily Post announced that: "Yesterday the Right Hon. Sir Robert Walpole, with his Lady and Family, removed from their House in St James's Square, to his new House, adjoining to the Treasury in St James's Park". [34] The cost of conversion is unknown. Originally estimated at £8,000, the final cost probably exceeded £20,000. [35]

Walpole did not enter through the now-famous door that would not be installed until forty years later. Kent's door was modest, belying the spacious elegance beyond. The First Lord's new, albeit temporary, home had sixty rooms, with hardwood and marble floors, crown moulding, elegant pillars and marble mantelpieces those on the west side with views of St James's Park. One of the largest rooms was a study measuring forty feet by twenty with enormous windows overlooking St James's Park. "My Lord's Study" [36] (as Kent labelled it in his drawings) would later become the Cabinet Room where Prime Ministers meet with the Cabinet ministers. [37]

Shortly after moving in, Walpole ordered that a portion of the land outside his study be converted into a terrace and garden. Letters patent issued in April 1736 state that: ". a piece of garden ground situated in his Majesty's park of St James's, & belonging & adjoining to the house now inhabited by the Right Honourable the Chancellor of His Majesty's Exchequer, hath been lately made & fitted up at the Charge . of the Crown".

The same document confirmed that Number 10 Downing Street was: "meant to be annexed & united to the Office of his Majesty's Treasury & to be & to remain for the Use & Habitation of the first Commissioner of his Majesty's Treasury for the time being". [38]

A "vast, awkward house": 1735–1902 Edit

Walpole lived in Number 10 until 1742. Although he had accepted it on behalf of future First Lords of the Treasury, it would be 21 years before any of his successors chose to live there the five who followed Walpole preferred their own homes. This was the pattern until the beginning of the 20th century. Of the 31 First Lords from 1735 to 1902, only 16 (including Walpole) lived in Number 10. [39]

One reason many First Lords chose not to live in Number 10 was that most owned London town houses superior in size and quality. To them, Number 10 was unimpressive. Their possession of the house, albeit temporary, was a perquisite they could bestow as a political reward. Most lent it to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, others to lesser officials or to friends and relatives. [40] [41] [42] [43] [44] [note 1]

Another reason for its unpopularity was that Number 10 was a hazardous place in which to live. Prone to sinking because it was built on soft soil and a shallow foundation, floors buckled and walls and chimneys cracked. It became unsafe and frequently required repairs. In 1766, for example, Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, pointed out that the house was in a dilapidated condition. His architect's letter to the Treasury stated: ". we have caused the House in Downing Street belonging to the Treasury to be surveyed, & find the Walls of the old part of the said House next the street to be much decayed, the Floors & Chimneys much sunk from the level". [46] Townshend ordered extensive repairs, which were still incomplete eight years later. A note from Lord North to the Office of Works, dated September 1774, asks that the work on the front of the house, "which was begun by a Warrant from the Treasury dated 9 August 1766", [47] should be finished. (See Kent's Treasury and No. 10, Downing Street, circa 1754.) [24] [48]

Treasury officials complained that the building was costing too much to maintain some suggested that it should be razed and a new house constructed on the site or elsewhere. In 1782 the Board of Works reporting on "the dangerous state of the old part of the House", stated that "no time be lost in taking down said building". [49] In 1783 the Duke of Portland moved out because it was once again in need of repair. A committee found that the money spent so far was insufficient. This time the Board of Works declared that "the Repairs, Alterations & Additions at the Chancellor of the Exchequer's House will amount to the sum of £5,580, exclusive of the sum for which they already have His Majesty's Warrant. And praying a Warrant for the said sum of £5,580—and also praying an Imprest of that sum to enable them to pay the Workmen". [49] This proved to be a gross underestimate the final bill was over £11,000. The Morning Herald fumed about the expense: "£500 pounds p.a. preceding the Great Repair, and £11,000 the Great Repair itself! So much has this extraordinary edifice cost the country – For one moiety of the sum a much better dwelling might have been purchased!" [50] (See Plan of the Design for Number 10 c1781.) [51] [52]

A few prime ministers however did enjoy living in Number 10. Lord North, who conducted the war against the American Revolution, lived there happily with his family from 1767 to 1782. William Pitt the Younger, who made it his home for twenty years (longer than any First Lord before or since) from 1783 to 1801 and from 1804 to 1806, referred to it as "My vast, awkward house". [47] While there, Pitt reduced the national debt, formed the Triple Alliance against France and won passage of the Act of Union that created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Fredrick Robinson, Lord Goderich took a special liking to the house in the late 1820s and spent state funds lavishly remodelling the interior. [53]

Nevertheless, for 70 years following Pitt's death in 1806, Number 10 was rarely used as the First Lord's residence. From 1834 to 1877, it was either vacant or used only for offices and meetings. [39]

Downing Street declined at the turn of the 19th century, becoming surrounded with run-down buildings, dark alleys, the scene of crime and prostitution. Earlier, the government had taken over the other Downing Street houses: the Colonial Office occupied Number 14 in 1798 the Foreign Office was at Number 16 and the houses on either side the West India Department was in Number 18 and the Tithe Commissioners in Number 20. The houses deteriorated from neglect, became unsafe, and one by one were demolished. By 1857 Downing Street's townhouses were all gone except for Number 10, Number 11 (customarily the Chancellor of the Exchequer's residence), and Number 12 (used as offices for Government Whips). In 1879 a fire destroyed the upper floors of Number 12 it was renovated but only as a single-storey structure. [54] [55] (See Numbers 10, 11, and 12 Downing Street First Floor Plan [56] and Ground Floor Plan.) [57]

Revival and recognition: 1902–1960 Edit

When Lord Salisbury retired in 1902, his nephew, Arthur James Balfour, became Prime Minister. It was an easy transition: he was already First Lord of the Treasury and he was already living in Number 10. Balfour revived the custom that Number 10 is the First Lord and Prime Minister's official residence. It has remained the custom since.

However, there have been numerous times when prime ministers have unofficially lived elsewhere out of necessity or preference. Winston Churchill, for example, had a great affection for Number 10, but, during World War II, he grudgingly slept in the hastily converted flat on the ground floor of what was then the New Public Office building (NPO) at nearby Storey's Gate. [58] [ page needed ] The flat became known as the No.10 Annexe, and lay above the much more comprehensive underground bunker now known as the Cabinet War Rooms, and where he also had a bedroom, very rarely used. [59] To reassure the people that his government was functioning normally, he insisted on being seen entering and leaving Number 10 occasionally, and indeed, continued to use it for meetings and dinners despite being urged not to. [60] Harold Wilson, during his second ministry from 1974 to 1976, lived in his home in Lord North Street because Mary Wilson wanted "a proper home". [61] However, recognizing the symbolic importance of Number 10, he worked and held meetings there and entertained guests in the State Dining Room.

For most of his premiership, Tony Blair lived in the more spacious residence above Number 11 to accommodate his large family. In May 2010, it was reported that David Cameron would also take up actual residence above Number 11, and his Chancellor, George Osborne, above Number 10. [62]

Despite these exceptions, Number 10 has been known as the Prime Minister's official home for over one hundred years. By the turn of the 20th century, photography and the penny press had linked Number 10 in the public mind with the premiership. The introduction of films and television would strengthen this association. Pictures of prime ministers with distinguished guests at the door became commonplace. With or without the Prime Minister present, visitors had their picture taken. Suffragettes posed in front of the door when they petitioned H. H. Asquith for women's rights in 1913, a picture that became famous and was circulated around the world. In 1931, Mohandas Gandhi, wearing the traditional homespun dhoti, posed leaving Number 10 after meeting with Ramsay MacDonald to discuss India's independence. [63] This picture, too, became famous especially in India. The freedom fighters could see their leader had been received in the Prime Minister's home. Couse's elegant, understated door—stark black, framed in cream white with a bold white "10" clearly visible—was the perfect backdrop to record such events. Prime Ministers made historic announcements from the front step. Waving the Anglo-German Agreement of Friendship, Neville Chamberlain proclaimed "Peace with honour" in 1938 from Number 10 after his meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich. [64] During World War II, Churchill was photographed many times emerging confidently from Number 10 holding up two fingers in the sign for "Victory". The building itself, however, did not escape the London Blitz entirely unscathed in February 1944 a bomb fell on nearby Horse Guards Parade and some of the drawing-room windows were destroyed.

The symbol of British government, Number 10 became a gathering place for protesters. Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragette leaders stormed Downing Street in 1908 [65] anti-Vietnam War protestors marched there in the 1960s, as did anti-Iraq and Afghanistan War protestors in the 2000s. Number 10 became an obligatory stop in every tourist's sightseeing trip to London. Ordinary people, not only British but foreign tourists, posed smiling and laughing in front of its famous door.

Rebuilding: 1960–1990 Edit

By the middle of the 20th century, Number 10 was falling apart again. The deterioration had been obvious for some time. The number of people allowed in the upper floors was limited for fear the bearing walls would collapse. The staircase had sunk several inches some steps were buckled and the balustrade was out of alignment. Dry rot was widespread throughout. The interior wood in the Cabinet Room's double columns was like sawdust. Skirting boards, doors, sills and other woodwork were riddled and weakened with disease. After reconstruction had begun, miners dug down into the foundations and found that the huge wooden beams supporting the house had decayed. [66] [67]

In 1958, a committee under the chairmanship of the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres was appointed by Harold Macmillan to investigate the condition of the house and make recommendations. In the committee's report there was some discussion of tearing down the building and constructing an entirely new residence. But because the Prime Minister's home had become an icon of British architecture like Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, the committee recommended that Number 10 (and Numbers 11 and 12) should be rebuilt using as much of the original materials as possible. [66] The interior would be photographed, measured, disassembled, and restored. A new foundation with deep pilings would be laid and the original buildings reassembled on top of it, allowing for much needed expansion and modernisation. Any original materials that were beyond repair – such as the pair of double columns in the Cabinet Room – would be replicated in detail. This was a formidable undertaking: the three buildings contained over 200 rooms spread out over five floors. [68]

The architect Raymond Erith carried out the design for this painstaking work [69] and the contractor that undertook it was John Mowlem & Co. [70] The Times reported initially that the cost for the project would be £400,000. After more careful studies were completed, it was concluded that the "total cost was likely to be £1,250,000" and would take two years to complete. [71] In the end, the cost was close to £3,000,000 and took almost three years due in large part to 14 labour strikes. There were also delays when archaeological excavations uncovered important artefacts dating from Roman, Saxon and medieval times. [68] [72] Macmillan lived in Admiralty House during the reconstruction.

The new foundation was made of steel-reinforced concrete with pilings sunk 6 to 18 feet (1.8 to 5.5 m). [73] The "new" Number 10 consisted of about 60% new materials the remaining 40% was either restored or replicas of originals. Many rooms and sections of the new building were reconstructed exactly as they were in the old Number 10. These included: the garden floor, the door and entrance foyer, the stairway, the hallway to the Cabinet Room, the Cabinet Room, the garden and terrace, the Small and Large State Rooms and the three reception rooms. The staircase, however, was rebuilt and simplified. Steel was hidden inside the columns in the Pillared Drawing Room to support the floor above. The upper floors were modernised and the third floor extended over Numbers 11 and 12 to allow more living space. As many as 40 coats of paint were stripped from the elaborate cornices in the main rooms revealing details unseen for almost 200 years in some cases. [73]

When builders examined the exterior façade, they discovered that the black colour visible even in photographs from the mid-19th century was misleading the bricks were actually yellow. The black appearance was the product of two centuries of pollution. To preserve the 'traditional' look of recent times, the newly cleaned yellow bricks were painted black to resemble their well-known appearance. [74] [75] The thin tuckpointing mortar between the bricks is not painted, and so contrasts with the bricks.

Although the reconstruction was generally considered an architectural triumph, Erith was disappointed. He complained openly during and after the project that the government had altered his design to save money. Erith described the numbers on the front, intended to be based on historical models, as 'a mess' and 'completely wrong' to a fellow historian. [76] "I am heart broken by the result," he said. "The whole project has been a frightful waste of money because it just has not been done properly. The Ministry of Works has insisted on economy after economy. I am bitterly disappointed with what has happened." [77]

Erith's concerns proved justified. Within a few years, dry rot was discovered, especially in the main rooms due to inadequate waterproofing and a broken water pipe. Extensive reconstruction again had to be undertaken in the late 1960s to resolve these problems. [78] Further extensive repairs and remodelling, commissioned by Margaret Thatcher, were completed in the 1980s under the direction of Erith's associate, Quinlan Terry. [79]

1990–present Edit

The work done by Erith and Terry in the 1960s and 1980s represent the most extensive remodelling of Number 10 in recent times. Since 1990 when the Terry reconstruction was completed, repairing, redecorating, remodelling, and updating the house has been ongoing as needed. The IRA mortar attack in February 1991 led to extensive work being done to repair the damage (mostly to the garden and exterior walls) and to improve security. In the summer of 1993 windows were rebuilt and in 1995 computer cables installed. In 1997, the building was remodelled to provide extra space for the Prime Minister's greatly increased staff. [80] To accommodate their large families, both Tony Blair and David Cameron chose to live in the private residence above Number 11 rather than the smaller one above Number 10. In 2010, the Camerons completely modernised the 50-year-old private kitchen in Number 11.

The current tenants of 10 Downing Street are:

It currently houses the UK Cabinet Room in which Cabinet meetings in the UK take place, chaired by the current prime minister, Boris Johnson. It also houses the Prime Minister's executive Office which deals with logistics and diplomacy concerning the government of the United Kingdom. [81]

What Rome Learned From the Deadly Antonine Plague of 165 A.D.

Around 165 A.D., the Anatolian town of Hierapolis erected a statue to the god Apollo Alexikakos, the Averter of Evil, so that the people might be spared from a terrible new infectious disease with utterly gruesome symptoms. Victims were known to endure fever, chills, upset stomach and diarrhea that turned from red to black over the course of a week. They also developed horrible black pocks over their bodies, both inside and out, that scabbed over and left disfiguring scars.

For the worst afflicted, it was not uncommon that they would cough up or excrete scabs that had formed inside their body. Victims suffered in this way for two or even three weeks before the illness finally abated. Perhaps 10 percent of 75 million people living in the Roman Empire never recovered. “Like some beast,” a contemporary wrote, the sickness “destroyed not just a few people but rampaged across whole cities and destroyed them.”

Infectious disease was long part of Roman life. Even the richest Romans could not escape the terrors of a world without germ theory, refrigeration, or clean water. Malaria and intestinal diseases were, of course, rampant. But some of the ailments Romans suffered boggle the mind—vicious fevers, wasting diseases and worms living in putrefying wounds that refused to heal. The physician Galen would recall a member of the Roman gentry who accidentally drank a leech when his servant drew water from a public fountain. The 4th-century emperor Julian found it a particular point of pride that he had only vomited once in his entire life. By the standards of antiquity, this was a bona fide miracle.

But smallpox was different. Rome’s first smallpox epidemic began as a terrifying rumor from the east, spreading through conversations that often simultaneously transmitted both news of the disease and the virus itself. The pathogen moved stealthily at first, with people first showing symptoms two weeks or so after contracting it.

The plague waxed and waned for a generation, peaking in the year 189 when a witness recalled that 2,000 people died per day in the crowded city of Rome. Smallpox devastated much of Roman society. The plague so ravaged the empire’s professional armies that offensives were called off. It decimated the aristocracy to such a degree that town councils struggled to meet, local magistracies went unfilled and community organizations failed for lack of members. It cut such deep swaths through the peasantry that abandoned farms and depopulated towns dotted the countryside from Egypt to Germany.

The psychological effects were, if anything, even more profound. The teacher Aelius Aristides survived a nearly lethal case of the plague during its first pass through the empire in the 160s. Aristides would become convinced that he had lived only because the gods chose to take a young boy instead he could even identify the young victim. Needless to say, survivor’s guilt is not a modern phenomenon—and the late 2nd century Roman Empire must have been filled with it.

Most of all, though, the disease spread fear. Smallpox killed massively, gruesomely, and in waves. The fear among Romans was so pronounced back then that, today, archaeologists working all over the old imperial territory still find amulets and little stones carved by people desperately trying to ward off the pestilence.

In the face of smallpox’s sustained assault, the resilience of the empire amazes. Romans first responded to plagues by calling on the gods. Like Hierapolis, many cities across the Roman world sent delegations to Apollo, asking for the god’s advice about how to survive. Towns dispatched the delegates collectively, an affirmation of the power of community to stand together amidst personal horror.

And when communities began to buckle, Romans reinforced them. Emperor Marcus Aurelius responded to the deaths of so many soldiers by recruiting slaves and gladiators to the legions. He filled the abandoned farmsteads and depopulated cities by inviting migrants from outside the empire to settle within its boundaries. Cities that lost large numbers of aristocrats replaced them by various means, even filling vacancies in their councils with the sons of freed slaves. The empire kept going, despite death and terror on a scale no one had ever seen.

Roman society rebounded so well from smallpox that, more than 1,600 years later, the historian Edward Gibbon began his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire not with the plague under Marcus Aurelius but with the events after that emperor’s death. The reign of Marcus was, to Gibbon, “the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.” This historical verdict would have astounded Romans if they’d heard it back when they suffered through what came to be called the Antonine Plague. But Gibbon did not invent these sentiments. Writing after the turn of the 3rd century, the Roman senator and historian Cassius Dio called the empire under Marcus “a kingdom of Gold” that persevered admirably “amidst extraordinary difficulties.”

Cassius Dio witnessed smallpox’s effect in Rome when it killed most spectacularly. Dio knew its horrors and the devastation it produced. He also believed that the trauma of living through plague can be overcome if a well-governed society works together to recover and rebuild. And the society that emerges from those efforts can become stronger than what came before.

COVID-19 has brought about the first time that much of our world has faced the sudden, unseen, and unremitting fear of an easily spread and deadly infectious disease. Such a crisis can spur terrified citizens to blame each other for the suffering. It can exacerbate existing social and economic divisions. It can even destroy societies. But that need not be so.

The Antonine Plague was far deadlier than COVID-19, and the society it hit was far less capable of saving the sick than we are now. But Rome survived. Its communities rebuilt. And the survivors even came to look back on the time of plague with an odd nostalgia for what it showed about the strength of their society and its government.

Edward Watts holds the Alkiviadis Vassiliadis endowed chair and is professor of history at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author most recently of Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny.

4) The thumbs down indicated &ldquoto kill&rdquo

Think about an emperor&rsquos thumb pointing down. How many gladiators can actually see the thumb from clear across the arena? He&rsquod better be right or he&rsquoll kill a man by mistake. In Ancient Rome, what&rsquos believed occurred is the motion of a thumb going down represented the sheathing of the sword. The motion to kill was the raised thumb moving across the throat, a motion still used today by anyone angry enough. What sometimes happened is the crowd would yell &ldquoYOO-GHEE-LA! YOO-GHEE-LA! (JUGULAR! JUGULAR!). That&rsquos when the winner cut his throat.

Clay and Terracotta Art of India: A Few Interesting Facts

  • Terracotta art has existed in India for around 10,000 years, the oldest excavations of terracotta items being from Birhana (Haryana) site which is a pre-Harrappan site of Indus Valley Civilization.

This article was written by:
Manisha Kumar, who is a ghostwriter and copywriter with over 10 years of experience. She loves playing golf, managing her home and freelance writing. With a background in Biology she also likes researching about medical related themes. More from Manisha Kumar

Terracotta Sculpture and Mural

Terracotta Sculpture and Mural are extensively used in Bengal because it lacks stone and is covered with alluvium. Although some archaeological specimens have been found in pandu rajar dhibi and Harinarayanpur' (pre-Mauryan sites) in West Bengal, the real history of terracotta sculpture starts from the Mauryan age (324-187 BC). It is supposed that in pre-Mauryan times it was the Matrika (Mother-Goddess) statues that prevailed. From the presentation and aesthetic standard of the Mauryan sculpture it can be easily inferred that the art had a long and continuous heritage. Facial expression, hairstyle, head-ornaments, dress and jewellery of the sculpture belonging to the third century BC and found at Tamluk and chandraketugarh (both in West Bengal) are indicative of refined taste and a sense of beauty.

In terms of style it has marked kinship with contemporary stone sculpture. It is to be noted that faces of sculptures of this time were first made in moulds and then fixed on hand-made bodies.

A kind of terracotta art style was in vogue throughout the Ganga-Jamuna Valley and Central India during the Shunga and Kusana periods, spreading from the second century BC to the third Century AD. Plaque sculptures belonging to this tradition and fully made in moulds have been found at mahasthan in Bangladesh, and Tamluk, Chandraketugarh, Pokharna and other places in West Bengal. Most of these are figures of youthful men and women. Ornaments of fantastic shapes and designs are found all over the figures which also wear various styles of hairdressing.

Plaque sculptures for hanging on walls have been found which belong to the Shunga period (2nd century BC). These may be said to have been the first attempt of architectural ornamentation with the aim of putting an end to the monotonous linearity of walls.

These sculptures became much more elegant, refined, well-shaped and worldly in the Kusana period (2nd and 1st centuries BC). These were high reliefs smooth in finishing and quite developed in terms of craftsmanship. Figures have been made tri-dimensonal by using two moulds - one for the front and another for the back. Specimens of this category found at Bangarh are worth mentioning. A number of plaque sculptures belonging to the Shunga age have been discovered at Mahasthangarh after excavation. The union of thought with aesthetic quality and that of inner beauty with outward form which took place in North Indian sculpture during the gupta rule (c 300-550 AD) can be traced in the terracotta sculptures in Bengal.

The terracotta sculptures of this period found in Bengal are of better quality than stone sculpture of the same period and region. Excess of dress and ornaments that had marked the sculpture of previous ages did now disappear. An excellent example is the Bodhisattva figure with half-shut eyes and gentle meditative face found at Mahasthangarh. The classical form of Gupta sculpture can be noticed in the plaques found at the same place which feature crowned heads with smooth faces and figures of couples both executed by skilled artists. Terracotta figures of deities, representations of Puranic (mythological) legends, and ornamented plaques which had first been used to decorate the brick-built temples at Bhitargaon in North India in the fifth century AD have been extensively applied in Mahasthan, bhasu vihara, paharpur and mainamati.

Use of brick in architecture became popular in Bengal due to non-availability of stone and inconveniences in transport, and with that grew the tradition of decorating the outer surface with terracotta plaques. There are still about two thousand terracotta plaques on the sides of the very wide circumbulation path of the great somapura mahavihara at Paharpur built in the eighth and ninth centuries.

And more than eight hundred such plaques, scattered as they were around, have been collected. Daily and occasional lives as well as life's various experiences have been portrayed on the terracotta plaques that decorate the temple walls.

Among these, worth mentioning are nature, man, animals, tribal people, Kinnar-Kinnari' (semi-divine beings expert in music and dance), gandharva' (another species of similar semi-divine beings), skinny ascetic on the street and so on. Plinth of the cross-shaped principal temple of the shalvan vihara at Mainamati was once decorated with a row of terracotta plaque sculptures, like the temple of Paharpur. These are exceptional specimens of the people's art of Bengal in that age.

34 plaques belonging to a later age and found at Bhasu Vihara are much more sophisticated in aesthetic qualities and in terms of skill employed compared to those of Paharpur and Mainamati. These plaques constitute an evidence of advancement in style. Half-man, half-fish or flower, pearl string on duck's beak, elephant, and archer are among notable representations on the plaques.

Between 1300 and 1500 Muslim architectural style and craftsmanship got reconciled with this region's weather, heritage and historical experience and led to the development of Bengal's own architectural tradition. At the hands of local artists Islamic calligraphy and geometric designs got compromised with such elements of Hindu culture as lotus, bell with chain, intertwined flowers, creepers and leaves, and thus a unique tradition of architectural ornamentation developed. Examples of this tradition can be seen in Zafar Khan Ghazi's Mosque, chhota pandua minar, adina mosque, eklakhi mausoleum, tantipada mosque, bagha mosque, atiya mosque and so on.

A regeneration of Hindu culture took place in Bengal in the sixteenth century AD due to popularisation of Vaisnava religion through the influence of Sri chaitanya (1486-1533 AD). Collapse of Hindu caste system, practice of devotion to and love for Krsna opened new horizon in spiritual exercise. Most terracotta temples of Bengal were built during the period from late sixteenth through the nineteenth century. Such wide and varied use of terracotta plaques in architectural murals has never been found in the history of art in Bengal. The Vishnupur (17th century) temple of (West Bengal) and Kantanagar temple (18th century) of Dinajpur (Bangladesh) are best examples of this new spirit. Apart from these, specimens of remarkable terracotta murals are to be found on the walls of many temples at Haorah, Hughli, Midnapore, Bardhaman, Birbhum, Nadia and Baranagar in Murshidabad, West Bengal, along with those at Pabna, Jessore, Faridpur, Rajshahi, Barisal and other places in Bangladesh.

Temples of Bengal offered the artists wide walls, huge arches, fat columns, bases of altars as well as cornices, on the surfaces of which could be engraved endless number of mythological tales. Myths of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, activities of Krsna, as well as contemporary social life, men and women, animals and birds, various creatures and beasts, hunting scenes, designs of creepers and leaves have been depicted with exclusive Bengali characteristics. Apart from these, the lifestyles of Europeans in Bengal along with scenes of sensual enjoyment by the zamindar class are to be found on the murals.

If the temple plaques of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are compared with the plaques of Mahasthan, Bhasu Vihara, Paharpur and Mainamati, it is found that the latter are larger in size, of deeper reliefs, and are done in modelling method. In later times, blocks were first made with earth, and then partially sun-dried up to need, and thereafter figures were cut out with thin chisels of bamboo or iron. Of course, plaques made for the purpose of design were made in moulds. Due to limited plaque size for reason of medium, its aesthetic use has made the temple geometrical and ornamental at the same time. These temples were built at different places of rural Bengal through the patronage of zamindars and wealthy classes. After the advent of the British, European architectural techniques (use of cement and sand) and Calcutta-centred culture put an end to this tradition. After discontinuation of Indian traditional art practices, cultivation of modern art started with its centre at the Art College in Calcutta city. Although Dhaka Art College had been established back in 1948, sculpture began its journey as a separate department only after the birth of Bangladesh. In quest of heritage, terracotta art's new journey and modern experiments began in independent Bangladesh.

In post-independence period a trend is noticed for creating murals with traditional Bengal and the war of liberation as subject matter. A few other subjects have also been added to these. Major places where terracotta murals have been placed are Bangladesh Television Bhavan (BTV), Bangladesh Army Headquarters Building, Ittefaq Building, Arab-Bangladesh Bank, BCIC Building, Sonargaon Hotel, Grameen Bank, Safura Tower, Bangladesh Military Academy, Bangla Academy, Yang-Wang Corporation (EPZ Dhaka and Chittagong), Muktijoddha Memorial (Rangpur), US Embassy and British Embassy. But it must be mentioned that terracotta ornamentation have not been used in the entire building. Murals have been created in ceramics and mosaic also. [Alak Roy]

4 The Ritual For Eclipses

Of all the cosmic warnings across the sky, an eclipse was the most terrifying. The Babylonians believed they brought on catastrophes, murders, and rebellions. We&rsquove found a tablet that tells us exactly what they did during an eclipse&mdashand it was a pretty intense reaction.

First, they were to light an altar on fire. Then every Babylonian was to take off anything they might be wearing on their head and, instead, pull their clothes over their heads. With their tunics over their heads, they sang dirges, begging the gods to protect their fields and not to destroy them with floods.

At the end, they broke into tears and begged the gods to spare them. The crying was scheduled. Part of the ritual required the people to have an emotional breakdown.

Terracotta Temples of Bishnupur

Urna Mukherjee graduated from St. Stephen’s College with a B.A. Hons. in English and is currently a research scholar at Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research interests include, but are not limited to histories and narratives of sea voyages in early modern Asia.


Bishnupur, a municipal town in the modern day Bankura district in West Bengal, was a centre of music, art, and architecture for hundreds of years. Among other things, the town is well-known for its terracotta temples, extensively embellished with carved and moulded terracotta decorations made from the locally available laterite clay. These temples are associated with the Gaudiya Vaishnava faith, dating back to seventeenth century.

Apart from its temple architecture, Bishnupur is also well-known for the craftsmanship of its terracotta figurines, pottery, jewellery, and other decorative artefacts. In recent years, artisans from Panchmura, a Bankura town not too far from Bishnupur, have also been churning out thousands of terracotta panels emulating the bas-reliefs of the terracotta temples of Bishnupur. These panels not only serve as mementos and curios for tourists to carry back home, but have also been increasingly used to decorate the facades of newer constructions, both religious and secular (Dasgupta 2000).

Origin and History

The origins of Bishnupur as a settlement are somewhat shrouded in mystery. Inscriptions dating back to Samudra Gupta’s period have referred to the locale, which came to be known later in the tenth century CE as Bishnupur, a small kingdom governed by local rulers who paid tribute to the Guptas. This was followed by a long period of obscurity, when the land shifted to and fro between being a minor independent principality and a feudatory state. Bishnupur eventually became the capital of the kings of the Malla dynasty, who ruled over a region known as Mallabhum, covering modern day Bankura, Onda, Bishnupur, Kotulpur, and Indas, till the first half of the twentieth century. During the reign of the Malla kings, which can be traced back to the seventh century CE, the region known as Mallabhum stretched further north to Damin-i-Koh in the Santhal Parganas, Midnapore in the south, Bardhaman in the east, and parts of Chota Nagpur in the west. It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, during the reign of Hambir Malla Dev, also known as Bir Hambir, the 49th king of the Malla dynasty, that Bishnupur began to draw interest from its neighbouring territories, both politically and culturally.

The origins of Bishnupur as a religious and cultural hub with its distinctive temple architecture is closely tied to the Gaudiya Vaishnava devotional movement of the sixteenth century in eastern India and Bengal in particular (then known as Gaud or Gaur). The bhakti saint and social reformer, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1533), founded Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a brand of spiritualism marked by an emotive and intimate devotion to the Hindu god Krishna, the central deity of the tradition. Vrindavan—the mythical site where Krishna spent his youth, believed to be located in the woods by the river Yamuna in north India—held a profound fascination for devotees of the Vaishnava faith. Pika Ghosh argues that Bishnupur’s emergence as an important centre for Gaudiya Vaishnava is tied to the transformation of the forests of Bishnupur into a hallowed centre in an attempt to recreate a ‘Gupta Vrindavan’, that is, a hidden Vrindavan in Bishnupur (Ghosh 2002).

According to Gaudiya Vaishnava literature, Chaitanya picked six disciples who came to be called the Goswamis and established them at Vrindavan over the course of the sixteenth century. At his behest, the six Goswamis, who were the second generation of Gaudiya Vaishnava leaders, compiled the body of theological texts that had come to define their religious tradition. In the wake of Chaitanya’s demise and the waning popularity of the Gaudiya Vaishnava movement, the Goswamis chose Srinivasa Acharya, slated to become the next Gaudiya Vaishnava leader, to redeploy their energies in Bengal. He was provided a cartload of manuscripts inscribed with the essential principles of the tradition to help him accomplish this task. While travelling through Bishnupur, Srinivas lost these precious manuscripts placed under his charge. On tracing them to the local chief, Bir Hambir of the Malla dynasty, he visited Bishnupur and electrified the court by astutely narrating and elucidating on episodes from Krishna’s life. The raja was so deeply moved by Srinivas’s passion for Krishna that he fell at his feet and confessed to having arranged the theft of the manuscripts, mistaking them for worldly treasures. In a bid to make amends, Bir Hambir entreated Srinivasa and his fellow devotees to stay on and granted them the land and resources to create a sacred centre for Vaishnava devotion in the region.

This narrative, recovered from various Gaudiya Vaishnava texts, draws attention to Bishnupur’s political patronage of the Gaudiya Vaishnava faith, which helped the order flourish in this region and establish a seat of culture and religion based on the Vaishnava tradition. This alliance with the political authorities of Bishnupur meant that Gaudiya Vaishnavism would have a powerful influence on the distinctive styles of art, craftsmanship, and temple artistry that were on the verge of surfacing in the region. The consequent proliferation of temples in this region over the next century and a half, which British site surveys and administrative reports of the mid-eighteenth century estimate to be between 150 and 450 in number, is probably what gave Bishnupur its reputation as a religious centre (Ghosh 2002).

Terracotta Temples in Bishnupur

Structure and Design

Similar to the contouring of Vrindavan that had been carried out in the sixteenth century by Chaitanya and the Gaudiya Vaishnava devotees [1], temples burgeoned in Bishnupur, constructed to establish the ritual worship of images. The deities installed in these temples were named after the icons worshipped and enshrined previously at Vrindavan, notable examples being Madan Mohan, Shyam Raya, Radha Raman, Keshto Raya, Madan Gopal, Murali Mohan, Gopinath, and so forth. The narratives surrounding their miraculous discovery and revelation are also comparable to those of Vrindavan.

The temples in which these deities were installed, however, are distinctively atypical in that rather than turning to the architectural styles of Vrindavan for inspiration, they followed local architectural traditions and innovated on their own. These temples were conspicuously distinct from the Vrindavan temples—they were constructed on a new ratna style, reoriented to face south, departing from the nāgara custom of north India and the rekha style of facing east in the direction of the rising sun (Ghosh 2005). They had two storeys instead of one, with an additional shrine stacked over the conventional sanctum on the lower level. The shrine in the upper pavilion was reserved for special occasions such as festivals, leaving the lower sanctum available for daily worship. Novel also was the presentation of the dual axes of worship—these temples were provided with dual altars within the lower level sanctum itself. One altar was constructed on the traditional east-facing style of Hindu temples, and this deity would be ministered to by the priests of the temple. The other altar, which eventually came to hold greater importance, faced south towards the courtyard and nātmandir (entertainment hall), where devotees would gather to sing praises to Krishna and his heroics, and often spontaneously rise in dance during the ārati. This new temple form served the various ritual needs of the emerging Gaudiya Vaishnava community in Bengal.

The temples and monuments of Vrindavan drew heavily from the imperial Mughal style of the late sixteenth century. The architectural style of the Bishnupur temples, however, derived from the tradition that had developed under the sultanates that had ruled Bengal for the previous four centuries—interior vaulting, pointed arches with cusps, sturdy pillars with many facets, curved cornices, and terracotta decoration (McCutchion 1972). The continuities in the design style between these temples and the Islamic architecture of Qadam Rasul, a shrine constructed in 1519 in dedication to the footprints of the Prophet at Gaur, is articulated through certain shared features like the cubical base of the sanctum in temples such as the Madan Mohan temple (1694) (Fig.1), Shyam Raya temple (1643) (Fig.2), Radha Shyam temple (1658) (Fig.3), Nandalal temple (seventeenth century) (Fig.4), Radha Madhav temple (1747) (Fig.5), and so forth. Certain adaptations were introduced to tailor the structure to the needs of worship, such as the low structure with three cusped arches supported by thick faceted pillars at the entrance, rows of thin terracotta surface ornamentation, and the basic plan of a central chamber enclosed by shallow doorways.

The temples also draw inspiration from the sloping thatched huts of the region the curved cornices of these temples, a characteristic feature of this design, are derived from the bent bamboo eaves of cottages in the Bengali countryside. This feature occurs in combination with a number of basic designs. There is the char-chala design that consists of a four-sided roof coming to a point on a square base. A similar but smaller roof may be constructed on top of the char-chala like a tower to make an at-chala. There is the do-chala or ek-bangla design, which features a two-sided humped roof evocative of the curved cornice on an elongated base. The Rasamancha in Bishnupur is the earliest known temple in existence built in the ‘bangla’ do-chala style (Fig.6). When two such do-chala huts are attached one in front of the other, where the front acts as a porch and the rear as a shrine, the design is called jorbangla, as can be observed in the similarly named Jor Bangla or Keshto Raya temple (1655) (Fig.7). In the pancha ratna design, the roof is flatter than in the do-chala or char-chala, and has a tower in the centre which may be accompanied by four smaller turrets at the four corners. The number of storeys may be multiplied with the number of turrets in each corner from one (ek-ratna) to 25 (panchabingshati-ratna) (McCutchion 1972).

Fig. 7: Jor Bangla or Keshto Raya temple

Terracotta Decorations

Along with the innovations in form and structure, an exceptional feature of this kind of temple architecture is the use of terracotta facades. The temple walls are covered with terracotta panels recounting the life and exploits of Krishna, scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and stories from the Vishnupurana (Fig.8). According to David McCutchion, the Bengal temple terracotta art that developed from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, a development on the previous sultanate architecture of the region, forms a self-contained art tradition that is distinct from both the preceding styles and the succeeding ones. McCutchion says that even though terracotta decoration was in itself not a new practice, the finely chiseled carpet-like patterning of the terracotta facades of the Bishnupur temples was vastly different from the style of terracotta carving found in Buddhist monuments that used boldly carved and modeled laterite bricks. Terracotta itself ceased to be popular in the temple-building traditions of the later Pala and Sena periods: their broad brickwork acted as bases for stucco decoration alone.

Fig. 8: Panels with different carvings, Jor Bangla or Keshto Raya

Even though scenes from Krishna’s life were most commonly sculpted on the terracotta plaques, there are also depictions of scenes from other Vaishnava texts and the larger body of the Vishnupurana, as well as legends of other gods and goddesses. The terracotta work on the Shyam Raya temple (1643), one of the oldest terracotta temples in Bishnupur, is a fine example of this. This temple has been constructed in the pancha-ratna style and is the most richly decorated of all the terracotta temples to be found in the region—every inch of the temple from the interiors to the archway and from the vaulting inside to the towers on the roof are sheathed with fine terracotta work. There are innumerable small plaques embellished with images based on themes such as Krishna embracing Radha or playing his flute to her, Krishna’s battle with Indra for the parijat tree, and Krishna between two gopis under an elaborate canopy (Fig.9). These images are bordered by a profusion of small rhythmic figures and floral and vegetal motifs. Above the archways are panoramic battle scenes depicting gods, demons, warriors, and heroes. Scenes from Puranic legends, the Ramayana, and Krishnalila adorn the rows below, and the plaques at the very bottom depict more contemporary scenes of the raja going to battle or proceeding in his palanquin.

Fig. 10: Bhishma on a bed of arrows

The terracotta on the nearby Keshto Raya temple, also famously known as the Jor Bangla temple, built only 12 years after the Shyam Raya temple and with the patronage of the same raja, is just as lavish as its predecessor. The subject matter is also largely similar, but the layout is more intrepid and systematic. The different rows of illustrations depict a single, linear narrative each, with entire rows being taken up by chronological depictions of Krishna’s life from the nursing of Krishna and Balaram to Krishna and Balaram fighting the King’s wrestlers in Mathura, warriors confronting each other on chariots in the battle of Kurukshetra highlighting evocative scenes like Bhishma lying on a bed of arrows (Fig.10), scenes from the Ramlila, and so forth.

The stories surrounding Krishna’a life and the legends regarding his miraculous deeds were integral to the way the Gaudiya Vaishnava movement unfolded and proliferated in Bengal during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The artistry displayed in the terracotta temples is an indication that alongside devotional songs and dramatic performances, a visual vocabulary for communicating the episodes of Krishna’s life also emerged. Manuscript copies of the Bhagavata Purana, a text regarded as a revelation in the Vaishnava tradition, were lavishly adorned with images depicting these episodes, bringing to light the earliest efforts at establishing pictorial conventions. These depictions similarly came to adorn the brick surfaces of Krishna temples in sixteenth and seventeenth century Bishnupur—a visual narrative of the life story of the deity housed in the temple (Ghosh 2005).

The temple imagery, by showing Krishna’s miraculous feats, his dramatic and violent confrontations, and his amorous encounters, created compelling visual sequences meant for a largely illiterate audience. It may be conjectured that the terracotta panels acted as visual aids accompanying the narration of a priest or community elder. The practice still exists whereby adults and guides recount epic and Puranic tales to children and visitors, using the panels to bring alive the scenes for the listener’s imagination. Together with devotional music and drama, the terracotta panels can be seen as part of a collective artistic tradition that helped reinforce Gaudiya Vaishnava narratives and the theological messages embedded in them by evoking complete sensory participation in the form of sight, sound, action, and perhaps even smell and taste in the form of flowers and offerings. The profusion of these images and their selective deployment in the overall spread of the Gaudiya Vaishnava faith reveal both an attempt to define the texts and practices of the faith, as well as to put Bishnupur on the map as an emerging centre for pilgrimage and devotion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

[1] Pika Ghosh writes in Tales, Tanks and Temples that Gaudiya Vaishnava literature from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries credit Chaitanya with reviving Vrindavan and restoring it as the abode of Krishna’s divine play. This divine play, as described in the tenth century Bhagavata Purana, a text regarded as revelation in the tradition, is believed by Vaishnavas to be reenacted perpetually in these groves.


Dasgupta, Chittaranjan. 2000. Bharater Shilpa-Sanskritir Patabhumikay Bishnupurer Mandir-Terracotta. Bishnupur.

Ghosh, Pika. 2002. ‘Tales, Tanks, and Temples: The Creation of a Sacred Center in Seventeenth-Century Bengal’, Asian Folklore Studies Vol. 61.2: 193-222.

Ghosh, Pika. 2005. ’Narrating Kṛṣṇa’s Biography: Temple Imagery, Oral Performance, and Vaiṣṇava Mission in Seventeenth-Century Bengal’, Artibus Asiae Vol. 65. 1: 39-85.

Mallik, Abhaya Pada. 1921. History of Bishnupur Raj: An Ancient Kingdom of West Bengal. Kolkata.

McCutchion, David. 1967. The Temples of Bankura District. Kolkata: Writer’s Workshop.

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