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Naamani Lecturer Posits Ancient Statues Originally Had Color

[by Dr. Edwin Segal]
Professor Emeritus

Department of Anthropology, University of Louisville

On April 1, Dr. Steven Fine presented the Naamani Memorial Lecture. Dr. Fine is professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, head of the Department of Jewish History at Yeshiva College, and director of Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies. His most recent book is Art and Judaism in the Greco Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology.

The Naamani Memorial Lecture is named for Israel T. Naamani, who was a much loved and admired professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Louisville and, who was also active in the Jewish community, especially the Louisville Bureau of Jewish Education. Professor Naamani died in 1979 and a memorial lecture has been presented since then, sponsored by both UofL and the Jewish Community of Louisville.

For the first time, the lecture was presented at the Jewish Community Center, instead of on the UofL campus. An audience of about 50 heard Dr. Fine speak about ancient Greek, Roman and Jewish sculpture. His talk centered on the use of color in ancient stone carvings and our contemporary tendency to see those works in black and white.

Part of this, he asserted, is the result of photographic presentations in various art history books and part comes from the fact that for most of the stone works we see, the color elements have worn away. In his talk, Dr. Fine invited us to use our imaginations and “see” the sculptures, friezes and other carved items with their color restored. He also demonstrated that this endeavor is not simply a flight of imagination, as most of the art works still have bits of color adhering to them.

While Dr. Fine had a large number of examples at hand, he illustrated his thesis most completely with an examination of two works. One was a statue of the Roman Emperor Caligula (emperor from 37-41 C.E.). Here his point was well taken. The recolored statue indeed restores the humanity of Caligula’s appearance, and in so doing makes this emperor look like someone whose anger should be avoided (a picture of this statue can be found on Wikipedia in the article on Caligula). This point about the appearance of the statue becomes even more relevant when we remember that Caligula had such a statue placed in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Then, Dr. Fine turned to a carved menorah. Its branches were made of carved pomegranates, which, in nature, are a bright red. Again, there were some traces of color, and he speculated about the background and the possibility of some painted decorations. In part his speculations were based on other menorah images that often included some traces of color. He contrasted this version of the menorah with one that had been found in the early part of the 20th century and scrubbed and “cleaned up” after it was found.

His current project is a study restoring the colors to the Arch of Titus, which depicts the sacking of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. In more general terms, the ancient producers and viewers of carved stonework probably lived in a more garishly colored world than our images of it allow.

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