artemision bronze

Bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon, found at the bottom of the sea off cape Artemision, in north Euboea (ca. 460 BC).

Χάλκινο άγαλμα του Δία ή του Ποσειδώνα, που βρέθηκε στο βυθό της θάλασσας κοντά στο ακρωτήριο Αρτεμίσιο, στη βόρεια Εύβοια (περίπου 460 π.Χ.)

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The Artemision Bronze (often called the God from the Sea) is an ancient Greek sculpture that was recovered from the sea off Cape Artemision, in northern Euboea. It represents either Zeus or Poseidon, is slightly over lifesize at 209 cm, and would have held either a thunderbolt, if Zeus, or a trident if Poseidon.

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“It seems at first that the Zeus is meant to be seen from the side… But as one moves around it, the seemingly self-contained, instantly comprehensible pose breaks up into a series of subtly divergent trajectories: a spatial rhythm to which the subtle contrapposto is a sort of syncopation. The result is a play between the ‘eloquent profile’– a body that presents itself as immediately intelligible– and a confusing, even threatening godhead. The logic of early Greek sculpture virtually dictates that a moment of clarity inevitably should find a corresponding moment of opacity. Presence requires its antithesis; and a sema, be it a statue or a thunderbolt, is always predicated on the absence of its referent… Zeus is the god of brilliant lightning, but also of the ‘black-bearing cloud.’“

– Richard Neer, The Emergence of the Classical Style in Greek Sculpture, ch. 2 “The Speed of Light”

Zeus of Artemision, 470-440 BCE, Classical Greek

The Artemesion Bronze, right? The God from the Sea? Poseidon? Uh. Well. I have my doubts, and here’s why. Some visionary cast this glorious bronze during the high Classical period, around 460 BCE, and sometime after that the sculpture fell into the sea off Cape Artemision. Oops! Except wait, that means that unlike almost every other bronze sculpture from antiquity, the Artemision Bronze never fell into the money-grubbing hands of conquerors, despoilers, and the bankrupt, so it was saved from being melted down and turned into other bronze things.

Great! So what is the problem!

Some people say this fellow is Poseidon, because Poseidon was the sea-god and the sculpture was in the sea, so he’s missing his trident. Some people say this fellow is Zeus, because there exist about one billion bronze figurines and vase paintings that depict Zeus in the same posture, holding a fistful of fury. I mean, thunderbolts.

Well it seems like it’s pretty hard to tell which one of these possibilities makes more sense! Is he Poseidon, because he was found in the sea, sans trident? Or is he Zeus, because he looks the same as all these other Zeuses, lacking his thunderbolts? Man, I don’t know.

But come on, if he was Poseidon the trident would be covering up his face. Also, there is not a whole lot of evidence for Greeks throwing expensive sculptures into the sea except by accident. I think we have gotten to the bottom of this. Either we have a very demure Poseidon, covering up his face and hiding far away from his worshippers, or we have a Zeus that fell into the Mediterranean during a shipwreck.

I think we all know what the answer is.