Byzantine Gilt Bronze Appliqué with Venus and Triton
Byzantine · 5th century A.D.
H: 20 cm (7.8 in)
The applique was wrought in a number of pieces which were then modeled, soldered and finished by a craftsman expert in cold work (the merman was made in two parts, the torso and tail, which were fixed to the left and right of Venus’ hips, explaining the elongated form of his body). The back of the piece is completely hollow and still has traces of nails, which were used to attach the applique to its ancient support. The two figures are not sculpted in the same plane: in fact, Venus’ body is slightly turned towards the merman so that their eyes meet in the distance.
The original use of this object is unknown, but is comparable with bronze ornaments which decorated Roman funeral chariots, which, after the funerary ceremonies, were buried with the deceased in the tomb. The subject of the piece offers some evidence in favor of this hypothesis: Venus and her acolyte were believed to accompany the soul of the deceased to the underworld.
The group is composed of two figures: a merman with a nude, human torso and the tail of a fish, who holds in his arms a young woman with her arms covered by a large cloak. The two objects she holds in her hands (in her right, a heart-shaped fan, in her left, a round mirror) allow us to identify her as Aphrodite (or Venus), the Greco-Roman goddess of love. The treatment of her body, with soft, slender proportions, is not without sensuality. This sensuality is present in the soft, rounded rendering of the torso and neck, the transparency of her cloak, which allows us to see the thighs and knees of the goddess. She has long hair, arranged in thick locks around her hair with the exception of two locks which fall down on her neck. Her facial features are young and fine, but are also a bit stereotypical and cold.
The sea monster, with his muscular, masculine torso, holds a dolphin in his raised right hand; in his long curly hair, two small bull’s horns are visible. Incised chevrons, indicating scales, decorate the sinuous curve of his body, his tail ends in a tri-point fin.
In Greek mythology, Triton is a marine god, son of Poseidon and Amphitrite; known for his contest with Heracles (the hero’s twelfth labor); he often accompanied his father in depictions of battle. The iconography of tritons (mermen), the male equivalent of the nereids, are derived from that of Triton: these tritons are young creatures depicted with serpentine tails and wild expressions, who hold conchs, fish or oars as attributes; they are sea-dwelling and often accompany other divinities and sea-dwellers (Poseidon, Thetis, Erotes, Nereids, etc). Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who, according to Greek myth, was born from the sea foam on Cyprus, is depicted, when she is shown in the sea, carried on the back of one or many tritons. This scene, Aphrodite borne on the backs of tritons, enjoyed a long period of popularity in ancient art – predominantly on fl oors (mosaics) or as in fresco panels – and in Byzantine art (in metal work).
Even during a period when Christianity was becoming the predominant religion throughout the Mediterranean basin, certain subjects from the polytheistic tradition remained popular in art and in iconography (both for public and private works): in early Christian art, images of Heracles and Aphrodite are prevalent. In the 4th century A.D., for example, this subject appears on the cover of a silver box from the Esquiline, as well as on three of the appliques decorating a silver tripod from Polgárdi (Hungary).
The state of preservation of this applique is remarkable; the surface, with its traces of brown patina, is still partially covered with an ochre-bronze substance which served to prepare the surface of the piece for gilding. Despite its artistic finesse, the piece is heavy and imposing.
Ex- European private collection, acquired on the German art market in 2000; Ex- Maître J.C. private collection, acquired in Geneva, 2009
FABULOUS MONSTERS, New York, Summer 2021, no. 50
On tritons and Aphrodite:
Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC), Vol. VIII, Zurich – Düsseldorf, 1997, s.v. Tritones, pp. 82-83.
For 4th century examples:
PIRZIO BIROLI STEFANELLI L. (ed.), L’argento dei Romani, Vasellame de tavola e d’apparato, Rome, 1991, pp. 104-105, fi g. 78-79 (Esquiline treasure). THOMAS E.B. in F. BARATTE, Argenterie romaine et byzantine, Actes de la Table ronde, Paris 11-13.10.1983, Paris,
1988, pp. 138-140, pl. IV (tripod from Polgárdi).