Roman, Artemis of Ephesus, early second century. Alabaster, bronze, 203 cm.
Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Among the pantheon of deities worshipped by the ancient Greeks, Artemis of Ephesus stands out as one of the most enigmatic. Her cult arose during the early first millennium B.C., when the city of Ephesus was founded on the shores of Asia Minor by colonists journeying east from the Greek mainland. There she took on the hybrid form of the native Greek goddess Artemis, the sylvan patron of the hunt, and the hallowed Near Eastern maternal deity Magna Mater, or Great Mother.

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Made at the height of the Roman Empire, this elegantly crafted work is generally thought to reproduce a Greek original of the second century B.C. The bronze elements representing the head, hands and feet were restored in the early 19th century but are based on the equivalent features of a closely related example now in Rome. This and other contemporary images of the famous Artemis of Ephesus were made not for the veneration of the goddess but as objects meant to stir the aesthetic sensibilities of wealthy Roman collectors, perhaps even the emperor himself.

Set above several rows of mythical beasts adorning her elaborate vestment, the most evident, and often discussed, feature of this work consists of the cluster of ovoid shapes hanging from her chest. Recent scholarship generally rejects the interpretation of these forms as breasts or bull scrota, arguing instead for the compact, fecund symbol of the egg. Beyond the attraction of its unusual iconographic elements, this particular embodiment of the goddess captivates the viewer by the stunning contrast between the light-colored marble and the black patina of the exposed parts of her body.

Despite their dark color, the facial features and hair of the goddess embody the classical Greek ideal of beauty. There are no traces of black physiognomic traits, as might be expected. The paradoxical concept of a light-skinned face cloaked in darkness, on the other hand, provides an ideal opportunity for the investigation of the nature of blackness in the ancient Greco-Roman world.

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The importance of the black face to the Greco-Roman world is evocatively illustrated by the itinerant career of a voyager from the heavens. A small meteorite found in the area of Mount Ida, a rugged area north of Ephesus, had long been venerated as a divinely sent manifestation of Magna Mater. Pious legend held that the dark object had come from the planet Jupiter and therefore had been sent by the king of the gods himself. Facing defeat by the Carthaginian General Hannibal and guided by the advice of omens, the Romans transferred it to their capital.

Later references to the meteorite suggest that it served as the unformed face of a statue of Magna Mater, kept in her sacred precinct in Rome. This remarkable association of the divine countenance with blackness may have entered the Roman collective consciousness, to return centuries later in the marble-and-bronze sculpture of Artemis of Ephesus.

The choice of dark skin for the statue of Artemis may also reflect a broader, positive response to blackness in the ancient world. In Greek, the concept of black or darkness is signified by melas, as opposed to leukos, meaning light or whiteness. Unlike the dire moral encumbrances later placed on these distinctions by Christian theology, to the Greeks they connoted the extremes of primary experiences such as good or ill fortune, life or death, and triumph or defeat. Blackness could symbolize courage, characterized by the martial prowess of dark-skinned Nubians. In a similar vein, the term “blackness of heart” served as a metaphor for compassion and warm feelings.

The cult statue of Artemis in her home temple at Ephesus apparently survived until late antiquity, when Greco-Roman deities were eclipsed by Christianity. During the long medieval period that followed, the concept of blackness came to be associated not with beneficial forces but with the demonic threat to the faithful. Agents of evil, such as executioners, were often depicted as physiognomically black.

With the advent of the Renaissance in the 15th century, a more positive characterization of blackness re-emerged as part of a general revival of ancient Greek and Roman culture and its values. Among other notable artifacts of the antique world, the novel cult image of Artemis of Ephesus recovered something of its original meaning.

The exotic character of Artemis of Ephesus was often conflated with the Egyptian goddess Isis. In at least one image, she appears with exactly the same attributes as Artemis, including the multiple oval forms protruding from her chest. Though the face of Isis is not dark, her cult did include black priests. Her association with the Ephesian Artemis highlights the fluid nature of ancient divinity, at least in the mind of the Renaissance and its consolidation of the character of the exotic “other” lying just outside the traditional bounds of Greco-Roman religion.

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Artemis of Ephesus mediates between two ancient cultures, harmonizing key aspects of race, color and divine agency. More than just the catalyst of a stunningly powerful visual effect, the dark head of the goddess presents an ideal, all-embracing view of blackness. In her rigid but welcoming stance, she challenges those living in today’s greatly changed world to heed her message of acceptance and unity. 

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.