Sunday 17 July 2011

The Gorgon's head

Image: Temple pediment
Above and below: The Temple pediment showing the Gorgon's head, with film projections re-creating the original design and colour.

Image: Temple pediment

Image: The small owl on the pediment is a symbol of the goddess Athena/Minerva and can be seen on coins of the city of Athens dating to the 5th century BC
A carved owl on the pediment

Image: Reconstruction drawing of the temple
A drawing of the front of the Temple  

Image: Water God on a great silver dish from Mildenhall, Suffolk
The face of Oceanus on the great silver dish from Mildenhall

Image of an inscription reading: 'To Neptune and Minerva, for the welfare of the divine house by the authority of Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus, King, imperial legate in Britain; the guild of smiths and those therin gave this temple from their own resources...ens son of Pudentinus presenting the site
Copy of a Roman inscription

This is the best known object in the Roman Baths collection and has fascinated scholars and the public since its discovery during the digging of foundations for the Grand Pump Room in 1790.

A missing block was found during excavations beneath the Pump Room in 1982.  As a work of art the quality of workmanship is exceptional for Roman Britain and it is now generally recognised that it is probably the work of sculptors from Gaul (now modern France) in the later first century AD.  Its discovery confirmed that the Roman site at Bath was unusual and attracted special interest to the site.  Many other discoveries since have now confirmed this view.

The pediment was supported originally by four large, fluted columns.  The very powerful central image of the Gorgon’s head glowered down from a height of 15 metres on all who approached the temple.

The pediment is full of allusions that would have been understood by a well-educated person in the first century.  In the corners are Tritons, half men and half fish, servants of the water god Neptune.  In the lower left centre ground is a face helmet in the form of a dolphin’s head. The small owl tucked away to the lower right of the large central roundel is also almost certainly perched at the top of another helmet.

The central head is held aloft by female 'Victories', on a shield ringed with oak leaves.  The Victories stand on globes.  The great head itself has snakes entwined within its beard, wings above its ears, beetling brows and a heavy moustache.  Above all this, in the apex of the pediment, is a star.

What this collection of images means has been keenly debated for more than two hundred years.  The significance of the name – The Gorgon’s head – is linked to a particular interpretation that sees the snakes entwined within the beard and hair of the central head as indicating that it represents the head of the Gorgon, a mythical creature killed by the Greek hero Perseus with the assistance of the goddess Athena.  Perseus then gave the head to the goddess and she bore it thereafter on her breastplate.

As the Roman Minerva was the same deity as the Greek Athena, with the same powers and attributes, this interpretation seems very reasonable for a temple dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva.  Where better to place an image of the Gorgon than directly over the entrance to her temple.  A problem with this interpretation is that the Gorgon was female, and the character at the centre of this pediment is most decidedly not.  In this interpretation the gender difference is explained by suggesting that the carving of the Gorgon has been styled to reflect a combination of Celtic and classical imagery.

An alternative interpretation sees the central head as the image of a water god.  It has similarities with other depictions of water gods known from Britain, such as the image of Oceanus on the great silver dish from Mildenhall.