For the first time since his reign over 1,800 years ago, three bronze sculptures of the Roman emperor Hadrian — a man both revered and reviled — will go on display at the Israel Museum on Tuesday, in the final exhibit marking the institution’s 50th anniversary.
The three bronze heads — one from the Israel Museum’s collection found in northern Israel, one from the British Museum found at the bottom of the River Thames, and the third from the Louvre in Paris — differ slightly in their depiction of the emperor, and shed light on a character whose legacy is so multifaceted.
Hadrian — or Publius Aelius Hadrianus — ruled the Roman Empire at its apogee, from 117 to 138 CE, and was venerated by contemporary Roman historians as one of the Five Good Emperors: a just ruler, a peacemaker and great architect of the empire. The wall he famously constructed along the border with Scotland bears his name to this day. But in Jewish memory, Hadrian is best known as a brutal dictator who crushed the Bar Kochba revolt in 135, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Jews, rebuilt Jerusalem as a pagan city, banned circumcision, and changed the name of Judaea to Palaestina.
While there are hundreds of representations of Hadrian carved in marble, the three bronzes were the only ones to survive from antiquity. Each is unique, and the Israel Museum exhibit is offering viewers and scholars alike a chance to examine the three portraits up close and side by side for the first time.
“We used the differences in the appearance to talk about the different ways Hadrian is looked at,” said David Mevorach, senior curator of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine archaeology. “This is why we chose to use the backdrop of Hadrian’s wall, where he is admired and he’s looked upon as an ideal ruler.”
The Israel Museum’s statue, the centerpiece of the exhibit, is “absolutely stunning” and “exceptional,” and likely closest to the presumed model on which the emperor’s official likeness was based, said Thorsten Opper, curator of Greek and Roman sculpture at the British Museum. It visited the British Museum in 2008 for an exhibit, curated by Opper, titled Hadrian: Empire and Conflict.
The bust, found at Tel Shalem, near the northern Israeli city of Beit She’an, is by far the most lifelike of the three: The emperor wears a magnificent cuirass armor plate with a battle scene on the chest, his beard is fuller and tinged with verdigris, and his countenance appears softened with age and bears a philosophical air despite his martial pose. On his earlobes are two diagonal folds, creases which modern physicians suggest may be markers for coronary artery disease (which may have felled Hadrian when he was 60). The quality of the statue’s manufacture suggests it may have been crafted in Rome or another major center, but scholars aren’t certain where.
“Bronze has a different quality,” explained Opper, calling the three Hadrians “incredibly rare, precious artworks.
“It really was the most prestigious medium for this kind of statue.”
The British Museum’s Hadrian appears younger, his distinctive beard closer cropped, his gaze stern and unblinking — in part because the glass irises, which were once set in the charcoal-hued bronze, are missing. Like the Tel Shalem statue, it once stood atop a larger-than-life body.
“He looks very provincial, very alien, sometimes,” Opper said of the statue on loan from London. “It looks like it’s a different artistic language behind it.”
The head was found in 1834 during the construction of the new London Bridge on the site of an ancient Roman bridge. Hadrian’s crown is bashed in, and the statue may have been cast into the Thames as an act of defiance — a reminder that these weren’t simply works of art, but objects of propaganda and projections of state power.
“This looks to me like deliberate action,” Opper said.
The Louvre’s Hadrian bears a striking similarity to the one found at Tel Shalem, and researchers believe — based on its style — that it was also crafted somewhere in the empire’s east. The bronze is a bit larger than the other two, has a warm reddish hue, in stark contrast to the British Museum piece, and Hadrian’s nose has a peculiar, slight hook absent in the other models.
“Hadrian generally, in the rest of Europe, is the great peacemaker and is interested in architecture and culture,” Opper said.
Besides Hadrian’s visages are the two halves of a monumental inscription erected in Jerusalem by soldiers of the 10th legion Fretensis in Hadrian’s honor two years before the outbreak of the Bar Kochba revolt in 132 CE — rejoined for the first time since antiquity.
The first half was discovered in the late 19th century by French archaeologist Clermont Ganneau (also known for finding the Temple Mount Warning inscription), and is housed at the Franciscan Flagellation Monastery in Jerusalem’s Old City. The second half, found last year by Israeli archaeologists, was used as the top of a Byzantine cistern during salvage excavations in East Jerusalem.
The monument’s construction is testament to Hadrian’s legacy as Rome’s grand builder, having been erected after Jerusalem was rebuilt following its destruction in 70 CE. But ultimately his arrival helped precipitate the Bar Kochka revolt and the subsequent bloodshed.
Contrasting with the monument, a panorama of the Judean Desert — where Jewish rebels entrenched as Rome’s legions quashed the bloody uprising, with artifacts found in the caves inhabited by Bar Kochba’s fighters — offers the other side of the coin.
“This is where he crushed the rebellion… and ended up slaughtering more than half a million people and changing the face of Judea,” Mevorach explained. The rebellion was a traumatic watershed in Jewish and Roman histories alike. It took over four years and seven legions to put down.
“He ends up erasing Judea from the map,” changing the province’s name to Syria Palaestina in the wake of the revolt, Mevorach said. Hadrian also renamed Jerusalem after himself — Aelia Capitolina. Both of those changes are preserved to this day in the Arabic names for the region and for Jerusalem — Palestine and Iliya.
Pointing to Hadrian’s iconic beards — he was the first Roman emperor to sport one — Opper noted that the significance of the emperor’s facial hair has shifted along with our understanding of the man.
Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav’ring sprite,
Friend and associate of this clay!
To what unknown region borne,
Wilt thou, now, wing thy distant flight?
No more, with wonted humour gay,
But pallid, cheerless, and forlorn.
— Emperor Hadrian (138)
“Victorians stressed that he’s the man fascinated by Greek culture, and it’s the philosopher’s beard,” Opper said. On one of the gallery’s walls is Lord Byron’s 1806 translation of a poem reflective of Hadrian the thinker, Animula, vagula, blandula, written as he lay dying.
“Now we think it’s much more to do with his time in the military. In fact he looks like a seasoned tough, a hardened military guy,” Opper explained.
“Every age we find our own Hadrian,” he went on. Each of the statues on display “brings something to the table, and that’s what I like, and that’s what makes this exhibit great.
“Seeing them individually in three different museums wouldn’t give me that,” Opper added.
In addition to the display, researchers at Hebrew University made 3D scans of the three sculptures, allowing a more detailed study of the similarities and differences in the artwork and “new understandings,” Mevorach said.
The three Hadrians are the final project in the Israel Museum’s aim to pair some of its artworks with corresponding pieces from around the world. In May, the museum borrowed an illuminated manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah from the Vatican, one of two volumes separated centuries ago, the other owned by the Israel Museum. Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum also loaned Rembrandt’s “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem” for display alongside the Israel Museum’s “St. Peter in Prison,” painted a year apart and using the same model.
Israel Museum Director James Snyder said the concept was to bring “signature tribute loans from sister institutions” to demonstrate “collegiality and our museum’s relations with major museums worldwide,” as well as to “couple… or trio those loans with works in our collection.
“When you can take three things and tell a narrative, a powerful narrative, it’s the most amazing thing you can do for the general public,” he said ahead of the exhibit’s opening.
Bringing the three statues together also served to bring the three institutions together amid growing calls in Europe for a cultural boycott of Israel.
“In times of borders going up and conflict, I think collaboration between important cultural institutions is more important than ever,” Opper said.
The exhibit opens to the public on December 22, 2015, and will run until June 2016. The museum is considering sending the exhibit on tour to Paris and London afterwards, but the idea is still in the works.
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