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Welcome to the Plaster Casts Collection
The Fairfield University Plaster Cast Collection comprises approximately one hundred historic plaster casts representing works of art from the Classical world through the Italian Renaissance. The collection emphasizes ancient Greece and the Parthenon and it has one of the largest Parthenon sculpture cast collections in the greater New York City region. A majority of the casts have been lent to the University on a long-term loan basis or gifted by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Additional gifts have been made by the Acropolis Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, the Slater Museum, and individuals.
Several casts are on view in the corridor and classroom of the Bellarmine Museum of Art complex. Casts are also displayed in various locations on campus as well as main plaster cast room in Loyola Hall 14. For further information or to make an appointment to see the casts in Loyola Hall, please contact Dr. Katherine Schwab, Curator, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (203) 254-4000, ext. 2439.
Model of Hagia Sophia Narthex
by Dr. Marice Rose, Art History Program
The ninety-year old model of the narthex of Hagia Sophia, donated to the University in 2006, is valuable not only as a teaching tool for Art History and other disciplines, but also as a historical artifact. The model reproduces a section of one of the world's most important buildings.
In 532 C.E., Byzantine emperor Justinian ordered mathematicians Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles to design a new structure to replace Constantinople's church of Hagia Sophia after the original church's destruction during a political riot. With one of history's greatest feats of engineering, the architects built a 102' diameter dome on a basilica-plan church. The resulting building with its awe-inspiring 185' high interior space was considered miraculous when it was built and inspired all subsequent Eastern churches to include domes. It was the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and a symbol of Byzantine imperial power. After the Turkish conquest in 1453, Hagia Sophia became a mosque and in 1930 Ataturk converted it into a museum, which it remains today.
Fairfield's model replicates the western narthex outside the central nave. The central door is the Imperial Gate through which the patriarch and emperor would enter together. Above this door is a painted reproduction of the church's ca. 900 mosaic depicting an emperor (possibly Leo VI) kneeling before Christ enthroned. Medallions of Mary and an archangel flank Christ. On the walls, Hagia Sophia's purple, green, and gold marble revetments have also been imitated in paint. Through the Imperial Gate one can see the trompe-l'oeil nave, including a view of the gallery and congregants. The model's builder, Dwight Franklin, performed significant research to recreate the mosaic decoration, as whitewash covered Hagia Sophia's Christian imagery from the time it was a mosque until restoration in 1935.
The model was first put on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1917. The museum commissioned New York artist Franklin to create it for approximately $1200 (in today's dollars: $21,200, according to Dr. Laurence Miners, Economics Department). As illustrated in a 1917 museum publication, the model originally featured wax figurines of Emperor Justinian, Empress Theodora, and priests dressed in colorful robes and jewelry. Although the figurines have disappeared, Treese Robb, a plaster cast restoration specialist, recently found evidence for where they were located on the model.
Franklin himself has an interesting biography. Born in New York City in 1888, he created dioramas for museums including the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Children's Museum, the Newark Museum, and the Museum of the City of New York, where he was chief curator. He left New York in the 1930s for Hollywood, where he became a set and costume designer and technical consultant for films, specializing in westerns and pirate movies (Treasure Island, Sinbad the Sailor). He died in Los Angeles in 1971.
The model therefore holds interest for the following academic programs and departments, in addition to its importance for the history of museums/collections: Art History, Engineering, Mathematics, American Studies, New Media: Film Studies, Theatre, Studio Art, History, Religious Studies, and Russian and East European Studies (compiled by Dr. Katherine Schwab, Art History Program).
Etruscan and Roman portraits form part of the plaster cast collection, including two portraits of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, as well as a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. These representative examples demonstrate a broader link to Greek precedents including a portrait of Alexander the Great, known as the Azara herm. Roman portraiture underwent a transformation, from veristic to idealistic, yet always remaining consistent in its goal of historical information and identity. Entire dynasties adopted a particular portrait style to establish its identity and authority throughout the empire.
Greek Archaic Sculpture
The Archaic Period in Greek Art (600-480 BCE) emerged out of the Geometric and Orientalizing Periods. Thus the patterns and abstract forms of earlier ages were abandoned in favor of more individualized styles. Culturally, growing personal and state wealth - and a concomitant rise in civic pride - led to the commissioning of grand temples with sculptural programs as well as individual dedications (including metalwork, sculptures, ivories, and textiles) becoming more common in sanctuaries and cemeteries.
New explorations of anatomy led to an increased mastery of the human form; an evolution that would peak in the High Classical period. Subject matter was expanded throughout the Archaic period with a clear interest in mythology, lore and legend.
Greek Classical Sculpture
These idealized reliefs and sculptures embody an ideal of physical perfection and proportional harmonies that are now regarded as the hallmarks of Classical Greek art. Similarly the Parthenon itself encapsulates, in visual form, the remarkable time and place in Greek history that was 5th-century Athens.
Greek Hellenistic Sculpture
The Hellenistic period (323 BCE-31 BCE) was one of the most fertile in Greek history. Its canonical dates stretch from the death of Alexander the Great, under whose influence Greek culture and civilization spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia, to the decisive Battle of Actium.
The nearly two centuries that comprise this remarkable era were distinguished by new patterns of migration and settlement, as native Greeks relocated to the Empire's new strongholds in Alexandria and Antioch (Egypt and Syria). These population shifts catalyzed a fusion of foreign artistic representations and techniques with indigenous traditions and practices both in Greece and abroad. It is for that reason that Hellenistic influences and vestiges of Greek culture could be found as far to the east as northern ancient India (Afganistan and northern India today).
During the Hellenistic period, artists explored human emotions and states of consciousness, with works ranging from the starkly realistic to the grandly theatrical. Large dedications, often sponsored by individuals or kings, reflect these new trends, as do masterpieces such as as the Lykosoura monument, the Great Altar at Pergamon, the Lesser Attalid Dedication, and the Nike of Samothrace; all of which are remarkable for their expressiveness and enduring fame.
Our plaster casts of Medieval art mark the transition when sculptors returned to the human figure after centuries of avoiding it in three-dimensional form. Christian themes abound, with surfaces on churches, cathedrals, and church furniture (pulpits), transformed by sculptors. Our two jamb statues from the West or Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral convey symbolic meaning while overwhelming the visitor with their over lifesize presence. The raw emotional anguish at the Crucifixion is made explicit by Pisano, foretelling the Renaissance while at the same time reflecting contemporary discoveries of ancient Etruscan sarcophagi in Tuscany.
The Italian Renaissance was an extraordinary time, when Florence was imagined as a New Athens combining Classical ideas and forms within a Christian context. Among the profound and prodigious developments in sculpture, Andrea della Robbia’s Annunciation is exquisite for its delicate and gentle forms. Equally, the Cantoria reliefs from the Duomo capture the expressive joy in music making—both in playing instruments and in singing. Ghiberti’s panel of the Story of Abraham, from the Gates of Paradise adorning the Baptistry, conveys narrative in a large field, with vegetation and rocky formations guiding the viewer’s eyes to each vignette. Perhaps most famous among these vignettes is the Sacrifice Isaac, the very moment when Abraham is about to plunge the knife into his son’s neck. At the very last moment he sees the reflection of an angel in Isaac’s eyes, thus he proved his faith and his son lived.
The practice of creating plaster casts dates to antiquity. According to Pliny the Elder (N.H. 35.153), Lystratos, brother of the Greek sculptor Lysippos, was the first artist to create "an image of a man in plaster taken from the surface (of the body) itself."(1) As early as the fourth century BCE, artists began using plaster to make realistic copies of the human body, and often to reproduce famous sculptures. By the 15th century, artists were using casts in their studios, not only as sources of inspiration but also as important pedagogical tools. Students training in these ateliers were thus able to study canonical masterworks from antiquity and, later, the "Old Masters" first-hand; even if, as some might argue, these casts were at one remove from the original and, therefore, somehow inferior.
Beginning in the 16th century, European Crowns began adding casts to their royal collections. Not surprisingly, plaster casts also grew in popularity amongst aristocrats and society's élite who, wanting to emulate wealthy heads of state, favored them as souvenirs from their travels abroad. By the 18th century, casts were increasingly common; a reflection of the raging "antico-mania" as well as the growing taste for these objects both in European museums and university collections, and, later, the United States, where institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (founded in 1870) began collecting them almost immediately for educational purposes.
In the first half of the 20th century, however, the tradition of displaying casts started to change in the America, and casts were no longer as popular as they had once been: many were relegated to warehouses or simply discarded as relics of a passing fad. Now, at the close of the first decade of the 21st century, the popularity of casts is once again ascendant, with older collections being re-evaluated in a fresh light and new collections being formed.
The renowned collection of historic casts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) has, over the years, been largely dispersed among university collections both in the U.S. and in Europe. Fairfield is among the recipients of the MMA's largesse, beginning in 1991 when the University received a number of casts from the museum on long-term renewable loan. Subsequent gifts from the MMA to Fairfield University were made in 2004 and 2009.
-Mara Giarratana Young '11, with Drs. Katherine Schwab and Jill Deupi, and Michael Keropian
(1) K.A. Schwab, Casting the Past: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Cast Collection at Fairfield University (1994), 4, quoting J.J. Pollitt, The Art of Ancient Greece: Sources and Documents (Cambridge, 1990), 104.