Artwork of the month

August 2022 Archaeology

Divine beauty

In the autumn 2022, the first two volumes of the Classical archaeology catalogue will come out of press: a book which will enable its readers to enter the world of gods and goddesses of classical antiquity. The present artwork of the month gives us the opportunity to offer a foretaste of the appeal of Eastern deities in the Roman period, and of the iconographic codes which were in use in these ancient times.

See the artwork in the collection

Semi-column with a sad Attis
Asia Minor (Cyzicus), 2nd century AD
Proconnesian marble, in the round
108 x 44 x 40 cm

Art market, Germany, 1975
Collection Nicolas Koutoulakis, Geneva
Acquired at Christie’s New York, on 10.06.2010, lot No. 162.

Migrations divines, MUCEM, Marseille, 24 June – 15 November 2015.

Catalogue des antiquités classiques, I. Déesses et dieux, n° 61.

Semi column with sad Attis
Fig. 1: Semi column with sad Attis, 2nd C. AD, FGA-ARCH-RA-0110 © Crédit photographique Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: André Longchamp

A sorrowful angel?

This tall and attractive marble statue is one of the most inspiring pieces of the classic archaeology collection of the FGA: it depicts a winged young man with a sullen angel face, leaning against a semi-column (fig. 1-2). The sculpture, of a high plastic quality in spite of its 220 kilograms, is broken at hip height, but one can unhesitatingly imagine it with legs wrapped in long pleated trousers, as it pertains to a well-known statuary type. This statue even has a twin sister in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek of Copenhagen, as we shall see below1. When complete, it must have been about 1.60 m high, almost life-size. The figure is adorned with a pair of large wings clearly visible above the shoulders.

His slightly bent face, with round cheeks, is contemplative. From his high pointed hat appear long curls framing his face and forehead. He is wearing a long-sleeved tunic and a cloak wrapped around the neck, the collar of which is held by the fingers of his right hand. A lethargic attitude, also stressed by the position of his left arm, folded on his abdomen. But is this really a sad angel?


Semi column with sad Attis
Fig. 2 : Semi column with sad Attis, 2ndC. AD, FGA-ARCH-RA-0110 © Photographic credit Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: André Longchamp
Statuette of Ganymede
Fig. 3: Statuette of Ganymede, 3rd-Ist C. BC, FGA-ARCH-GR-0005 © Photographic credit Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Grégory Maillot

Neither an angel nor a Ganymede

Ancient iconography used codes well-known to the Ancients, which inspired one another. And we can never totally exclude a possible confusion between close-looking types, which can only be distinguished through details. This statue, for instance, was sometimes mistaken for a depiction of Ganymede, a young boy so handsome that he was abducted by the eagle of Zeus, to become the cup-bearer of the gods in Olympus. If Ganymede displays all the perfections of a young boy, he is usually depicted bare, and above all, lifted up by the raptor, whose head clearly appears behind the young boy’s shoulder, as shown on a terracotta figure of the FGA (fig. 3). Why this confusion? In fact, scholars only saw the great beauty and the wings of this young man of marble, regardless of other interesting elements.


Old clichés

Some codes reflect an origin – today, one would speak of “clichés” – : his headgear is a “Phrygian cap”, which in Greek art is a typical feature for any person coming from Asia Minor: the Amazons, Priam, Paris (fig. 4), Anchises, Mithra… His long-sleeved tunic, his short Asian coat (kandys) and his trousers (anaxyrides) are all part of the national costume which the Greeks, and later the Romans, associated with Easterners, whether they came from Asia Minor, Colchis or Persia.


Other codes reflect a nature: his thick, long and curled hair is that of a kouros, a young man who did not yet cut his hair. It is also an attribute of the young sons of Zeus, such as Apollo, Dionysus and Hermes. And this youth is naturally associated with perfect facial features.

Some gestures rather reflect a state of mind. On similar statues, the position of the right hand displays a whole series of variations: hand at cheek height, supporting the chin or folded, covering mouth and chin. These variations evoke sadness and lethargy, which can be compared with the attitude of some melancholic heroines who were unhappy to see their beloved one depart, such as Medea, neglected by Jason, or Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus.

Our figure is thus clearly characterized as a young, seducing and sad Easterner: he can only be identified as Attis, who is always depicted as a beardless young man, and sometimes even as a child, with curled hair showing under his cap.

Red-figured lekythos
Fig. 4: Red-figured lekythos, 365-350 BC, British Museum, inv. 1856,1226.44 © The Trustees of the British Museum
Lamp-stand with Attis
Fig. 5: Lamp-stand with Attis, end 1st C. BC, FGA-ARCH-GR-0045 © Photographic credit Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: André Longchamp

When he is not shown as a little boy wearing anaxyrides and a Phrygian costume showing his belly and genitals, he is wearing a kandys around his neck, above a long-sleeved tunic. An exceptional bronze statue in the collections of the FGA probably represents Alexander Helios, the young son of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, in the guise of Attis (fig. 5). A god of Anatolian origin, his cult developed from the 3rd century BC onward, to become widely spread in the Hellenistic and Imperial periods in the provinces. Gaul was especially receptive to it, even in its northernmost territories1.

The East always was a source of fascination for the classical world, as it provided it with both the most gossip-provoking deities and some reasons for casus belli with Greece.

The irresistible beauty of Easterners

The East always was a source of fascination for the classical world, as it provided it with both the most gossip-provoking deities and some reasons for casus belli with Greece. While knocking on the door of the Theban palace of Pentheus, the handsome and charming Dionysus pretends to be coming from Mount Tmolus, in Lydia2 ; Anchises, “who equalled the Immortals in beauty”, was herding his cows on Mount Ida, when he was noticed by Aphrodite. And what about Paris, son of king Priam of Troy who, with the help of Aphrodite, seduced Helen, a prelude to the endless war which opposed Greeks and Trojans? In the eyes of the Greeks, Easterners exerted an immense power of seduction which, in the case of Dionysus, was supposed to captivate Aphrodite: even gods could not resist it.

The other characteristic of several of these seducers was to be shepherds, sometimes also princes. This is the case for Anchises, or for Paris who, although of royal lineage, was herding his beasts when Hermes appeared before him. As for Attis, he is not a prince, but the epitome of the handsome Anatolian shepherd. And as the Belle Hélène of Jacques Offenbach would say when about to fall in love: “how beautiful is a beautiful shepherd!”…

Seducers who, when they are gods, use their appeal to seduce mortals or, when they are mortals, suffer the consequences of the power they accidentally exert on gods.


Fig. 6: Sarcophagus of the Seasons (detail) , 3rd-4th C. AD, Washington, Dumbarton Oaks, inv. BZ.1936.65© Dumbarton Oaks. Washington DC. Trustees for Harvard University

The wings of Eros

The particularity of the FGA Attis is the presence of wings. Even if the ancient sources do not say anything about it3, this feature is probably due to the fact that he was compared or even merged with Eros, as both could be depicted as a child, and were related to “Great goddesses”. This iconographic type seems to originate from Asia Minor, perhaps Ionia4. A Roman sarcophagus of the 4th century AD, adorned with the theme of the Seasons and where Attis represents Winter6 (fig. 6), is an example of these manifold superimpositions of divine beings related to the afterlife. The winged Attis is therefore closely related to funerary beliefs.

Attis et la dompteuse de lions

Le mythe d’Attis varie sur de nombreux points. On le résumera en disant qu’il se déroule en Anatolie –en Phrygie ou en Lydie–, et qu’il met en scène une grande déesse, Cybèle (appelée aussi la Magna Mater, la Grande Mère), représentée comme une puissante dompteuse de lions (fig. 7), et un très jeune mortel, un beau berger, Attis. Celui-ci est aimé de la déesse ; un cas de figure bien connu et qui ne laisse rien présager de bon puisque les amours entre divinités et humains sont, pour les Anciens, contre nature.

According to a late version of the myth, the young Attis promised the goddess to remain faithful to her and, if he would betray her, that his misleading love would be the last one. What comes next is easy to guess: one day, he forgot himself in the arms of the nymph Sangaris. Crazed with jealousy, Cybele killed the nymph and provoked a gruesome madness in her young lover’s mind: “He slashed his body with a sharp stone, and dragged his long hair in the filthy dust, shouting: ‘I deserved this! I pay the due punishment in blood! Let the parts that caused my ruin perish!’”5. Attis then emasculates himself and dies; his blood gives birth to violets6.

End of the story? Not quite, because from this point, the versions of the myth differ to reach a relative “happy end” which was, for the Ancients, a source of hope. According to the Lydian version, his blood gave birth to the pine, an evergreen tree. In the Phrygian tradition, his body did not putrefy and kept a minimal form of vegetative activity7. Thus the goddess granted her lover a form of survival, either under the form of an evergreen tree or by preserving his body intact8. So, although a mortal, the handsome Attis became a funerary god by reaching heroisation through his love for a goddess9.

Cybele in her temple
Fig. 7: Cybele in her temple, 2nd-3rd C. AD. FGA-ARCH-RA-0210 © Photographic credit Fondation Gandur pour l’Art. Photographer: Grégory Maillot

Pillars, columns and semi-columns

The fact that this figure is leaning against a vertical stand, pillar, column or semi-column, is also interesting. When leaning against a free pillar, usually of smaller size than the semicolumn considered here, Attis is used as a “trapezophoron” or table leg. The sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii have delivered several exemplars10. However, in these cases, Attis is not winged, and the funerary aspect is not prevailing.

The top of the semi-column, the upper part of which is slightly protruding, shows a semi-oval section. Its vertical back (fig. 3) suggests that it was embedded in a larger structure.



Yet there is another type of monument very close to the high relief of the FGA, which is mainly found in Asia Minor, more precisely in Cyzicus (present-day Bandırma), a city of Mysia in Propontis11. In ancient times, Cyzicus was an important place of worship of Cybele and Attis (their sanctuary was already mentioned by Herodotus)12, which still existed in the Imperial era: this Metroon, or “sanctuary of the Great Mother”, located on Mount Dindymon, was particularly venerable because, according to Strabo13, it had been founded by the Argonauts.

In 1917, the archaeological site and its surroundings were chosen as a gathering place by the Ottoman troops, which used it as a quarry for their barracks. In this context were found a statue of a winged Attis leaning against a column and a sculpted capital which was probably placed on top, kept today at the museum of Istanbul. The other semi-columns adorned with an Attis, “a kind of compromise between a relief and a caryatid”, nearly always winged and sculpted in a white marmor of Asia Minor, probably come from the same site14.

Charles Picard and Théodore Macridy-Bey proposed to consider these columns with an Attis as façade decorations for a portico adjacent to the Metroon, perhaps a small sanctuary devoted to Attis or Attideion15. As mentioned above, one of these pieces, preserved at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen (fig. 8), shows striking similarities with the FGA’s Attis: same material, same dimensions, same iconography and same style16. It dates back to the first half of the 2nd century AD (reign of Hadrian), like almost all other pieces of this kind. The similar treatment of the garments, and notably the folds on the belly, or the parallel folds on the collar, the ribbed decoration of the cuffs and the long chisel marks forming shallow stripes on the arms, might suggest that these two pieces were produced by the same artist for the same monument.

Although heartbroken over his lost love, the sad Attis of the FGA has at least found its original family, now spread among several museums, and its original site, the Metroon of Cyzicus: style, iconography and material all speak in favour of this hypothesis.

Dr Isabelle Tassignon
Curator of the Archaeology Collection
Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, August 2022

Notes and references

  1. Tassignon, « Les témoins des cultes romano-orientaux », p. 45-48.
  2. Euripide, Bacchantes, v. 453-460.
  3. Vermaseren, De Boer, « Attis », p. 22-44.
  4. Graillot, Le culte de Cybèle, p. 377.
  5. Ovide, Fastes, IV, v. 223-245.
  6. Arnobe, Adversus Nationes, V, 7.
  7. Lancellotti, Attis, p. 153.
  8. Lancellotti, Attis, p. 161.
  9. Vermaseren, CCCA, IV, n° 226, n° 229.
  10. Vermaseren, CCCA, IV, n° 19, n° 30 ; n° 31 ; n° 36.
  11. Vermaseren, De Boer, « Attis », p. 28, n° 104-106 (de Cyzique), n° 107-112 (autres sites micrasiatiques).
  12. Hérodote, IV, 76 et Clément d’Alexandrie, Protreptique, II, 24, I ; Graillot, Le culte de Cybèle, p. 374-377.
  13. Strabon, XII, 8, 11.
  14. Picard, Macridy-Bey, « Attis », p. 449 ; Vermaseren, De Boer, « Attis », p. 28, n° 104-106 ; Vermaseren, CCCA, I, n° 281 (pl. LIX), n° 282 (pl. LX), n° 284 (pl. LX).
  15. Picard, Macridy-Bey, « Attis », pass. ; Picard, « L’entrée de la salle absidiale », p. 142.
  16. Vermaseren, CCCA, I, p. 92, n° 282. Ht : 1,43 m. Copenhague, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, inv. 715 (= Vermaseren, De Boer, « Attis », n° 105) :


Catalogue des antiquités classiques de la Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, I. Déesses et dieux; II. Deliciae, Milan, 5 Continents éditions, 2022 (forthcoming November 2022).

GRAILLOT, Henri, Le culte de Cybèle, mère des dieux à Rome et dans l’Empire romain, Paris, 1912 (Bibliothèque des Écoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome, 107).

LANCELLOTTI, Maria G., Attis. Between Myth and History: King, Priest and God, Leiden-Boston, 2002 (Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 149).

PICARD, Charles, “L’entrée de la salle absidiale à l’Attideion d’Ostie”, Revue de l’histoire des religions, 135, 1960, p. 129-142.

PICARD, Charles, Macridy-Bey, Théodore, “Attis d’un Metrôon (?) de Cyzique”, Bulletin de correspondance hellénique, 45, 1921, p. 436-470.

TASSIGNON, Isabelle, “Les témoins des cultes romano-orientaux recueillis en Belgique et dans le Luxembourg”, Les études classiques, 60, 1992, p. 39-54.

VERMASEREN, Maarten J., Corpus Cultus Cybelae Attidisque (CCCA). I-V, Leiden-New York–Copenhagen-Cologne, 1977-1986 (Études préliminaires aux religions orientales dans l’Empire romain, 50).

VERMASEREN, Maarten J., De Boer, Margreet B., “Attis”, in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, III, 1986, p. 22-44.

See also