Janus-form herm

The herm is a Greek creation whose origins go back to the 6th century BC. It was a pillar, usually square in cross-section, sculpted from stone. A bust of the god Hermes – thus the name of the pillar – usually stood on the top of this. An erect phallus, a symbol of fertility, but also of defence and prevention, was carved on the front of the pillar. However, other theories claim that the first herm in reality represented Dionysus, god of fertility and nature, in his original form.

A herm (Greek plural- hermai) was placed in rural areas to mark and demarcate roads as well as the limits of properties. In cities it was usual to find them outside houses along with figures of the goddess Hecate, protector of crossroads. In antiquity it was believed that in border areas, places of transit also called liminal areas, malign spirits lived who could decide the destiny of anyone who dared to cross over. That is why all types of beliefs were common as well as amulets to protect travellers and traders.

The antropopaic qualities of the herms, that is, the power they had to ward off harm or the evil influences of spirits, adversaries or enemies, favoured the maintaining of the archaic style of these pillars which characterised the earliest-known examples. While the hermai, as a sculptural typology, evolved from the representation of the god Hermes to permit the addition of other divinities and representations of illustrious men, it can be affirmed that an attempt was made to maintain the primitive style. In the Roman epoch the hermai lost their original sense when they were introduced into the gardens of the great domus merely with an aesthetic function as a simple evocation of classical Hellenism. On occasions, however, the sexual organs were still sculpted on the front of the pillar in reminiscence of the archaic relationship with the cult of fertility.

This Roman example corresponds to the type known as a double herm or Janus-form herm, where two heads facing in opposite directions are joined only at the neck. (This is how the Roman god Janus was depicted). In this example the double heads represent Apollo and Dionysus as a child. The pillar has two lateral perforations which would have been made so that the piece could be inserted into a decorative balustrade or could be decorated with ornamental garlands.

Apollo was the god of oracles, hunting, poetry, music and healing, but also of sudden death and plagues. He belonged to the Greek Olympian pantheon of deities as he was the son of Zeus and Leto, who was a daughter of Titans. Apollo was also the twin brother of Artemis. In later times, he was identified with the sun/Helios, and incarnated values of justice, order, measure and reason. Both in the Greek epoch as well as the Roman, the figure of Apollo was represented as a beardless youth of great beauty. His most usual attributes included a bow and arrow, a lyre, laurel, a sacrificial tripod, a Griffin, the omphalos, etc.

Although this herm is from the period of the height of the Roman Empire, it imitates an archaic style, especially observable in the hair of the god. This frames the face with two rows of curls which fall down to both shoulders. There are also curled locks over the temples. Here the herm show similarities with that conserved in the Museos Capitolinos (inv. MC1372). In this way, the archaic figure follows the typology of Greek kouros (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, N. 03.997), although in this case in question the lines of the eyebrows and the almond eyes have been modified by the sculptor.

Dionysus, whose name means “son of Zeus”, was the Olympic god of nature, of celebrations (symposia), of wine, ecstasy, disorder and the theatre. Among his myths are voyages he undertook to distant lands (Egypt, Anatolia, India, etc.). This detail could indicate that he may have had an oriental origin.

The god was the son of Zeus and Semele, princess of Thebes. The myth around his birth portends the mysterious nature that his cult acquired. When the vindictive Hera finds out about the infidelity of her consort Zeus, she convinces Semele, with child with Dionysus, to ask Zeus to appear before her. At first Zeus resisted, but ended up by complying with the wishes of his lover. However, as she was a mere mortal, she immediately perished in lightning-ignited flames on exposure to him. Zeus, in despair, managed to save his son Dionysus by sewing him into his thigh until the time came for his birth. For this reason he is known as “the twice-born”, with the epithet dimetor, (of two mothers). Even though his mother had been a mortal, he himself was considered a god from the time of his birth. There are two versions of how he was cared for after his birth. One holds that Zeus handed the child over to Hermes, while the other narrates that he was under the protection of the rain nymphs of Nysa, who took him from the ashes of his mother and handed him over to Queen Ino.

The fact that Dionysus was able to survive the death of his mother is interpreted as a triumph of life over death, and for this he was worshipped as a mysterious divinity in Eleusis, along with Demeter and Persephone. At the same time, ancient sources claim that the god was initiated into the Phrygian mysteries by the very goddess Cybele. The Orphic tradition tells of the second resurrection of the god: The Titans, jealous of the attentions that he received from Zeus, cut him into pieces and destroyed his whole body with the exception of the heart. This was taken by Athena, given to her father Zeus to eat, from whom Dionysus emerged once more alive.

On this herm in question, Dionysus is represented as a child with chubby cheeks and a rounded face similar to the Erotes. Around his head is a richly decorated diadem made up of roses with five petals, similar to those around his neck, along with ivy leaves, the symbol of eternity and one of the usual attributes of the god of wine. While there are representations of Dionysus as a child in the paintings on Greek vases from the 5th century BC (red-figure krater, Museo Gregoriano Vaticano, N. 559), his sculptural prototype became popular a century later thanks to the sculptures produced by Praxiteles (herms with the child Dionysus, Museo Arqueológico de Olimpia). Two similar hermai (Harvard Art Museum, inv. 1920.44.222 y Sotheby’s 12/6/2017, lote 38) are examples of the success of this iconography in the first centuries of the Roman Empire.

The choice of Dionysus and Apollo to decorate this herm is not fortuitous: in Greek mythology, Dionysus embodies the savage power of nature, while Apollo is generally a divinity related to ethics. The first represents wild abandon and disorder; the second, harmony and reason. There are also, however, similarities in the powers they possess: both shared the Oracle of Delphos (Eurip. Bacch. 300); both were curative deities, receiving the name iatpos or higates (Eustath. ad Hom. p. 1624) and also protectors of the arts. In plastic arts, both are represented from classical times in both male and female forms, by which it was intended to express the two primordial forces that these deities embodied. This dichotomy would be later referred to by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), where he argues that the Apollonian is related to prudence, purity and rational thought, while the Dionysian element personifies chaos and appeals to the emotions and instincts.

We cannot, however, dismiss the possibility that in reality this piece represents Dionysus as a child and as an adult in his iconographic variant as Thebian Dionysus, a beardless youth. This typology can be seen in a double herm in the Museo del Prado (inv. E00091), and was widely found in the late Republican and Imperial epochs, combining, for example, a young Dionysus with a bearded one, or the god with Ariadne, or with maenads, satyrs or Silenus (Museo Arqueológico de Nápoles inv.5074 y 5076; Museo de las Termas de Diocleciano, inv. 614; Museos Vaticanos inv. 2874).


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