The Israel Museum in Jerusalem held until the end of June 2016 an exhibition dedicated to Hadrian: ‘Hadrian: An Emperor Cast in Bronze’. The exhibition was curated by David Merovah (Curator of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Archaeology) and Rachel Caine Kreinin (Associate Curator) from the Israel Museum together with Thorsten Opper (Curator of the Department of Greece and Rome) from the British Museum. The exhibition concluded the Israel Museum’s celebrations of its 50th anniversary which was held throughout 2015.
Official website of the exhibition: http://www.imj.org.il/en/exhibitions/2016/hadrian/
Of the many bronze portraits of Hadrian that are known to have existed, only three have survived from antiquity. This significant exhibition brought together, for the first time, these three extant bronze portraits, marking a symbolic return of the Emperor to Jerusalem, whose last visit to the city was in 130 AD.
Of these three portraits, one belongs to the Israel Museum and was found in a Roman camp near in Tel Shalem (northern Israel) not far from Beit Shean, the ancient Scythopolis. The second, found in the River Thames in 1834 and belonging to the British Museum, was probably made to commemorate Hadrian’s visit to Britain in 122 AD. The last portrait, on loan from the Louvre, came from Egypt or Asia Minor.
All three bronze heads were originally part of a full body statue of Hadrian intended to glorify the imperial authority in the provinces and to be venerated in dedicated shrines. These statues, which were sent throughout the provinces as a demonstration of Rome’s imperial power, possessed political as well as cultic significance.
The bronze head recovered from the River Thames in London, near the remains of an ancient bridge, belonged to a larger than life-size statue that may have been erected on the bridge itself or in a public space such as a forum. It may have been created to commemorate Hadrian’s visit to Britain in 122 AD. This portrait gives insight into Hadrian’s leadership and the use of the imperial image as propaganda.
The Thames head differs from Hadrian’s official portrait types and was probably made in a local workshop. The artist might have used a two-dimensional model, possibly a coin. The eyes may originally have been enamelled.
Another significant exhibit connected to the province of Britannia was a coin commemorating Hadrian’s visit to Britain. The Emperor appears on horseback before a parade of soldiers. The inscription below reads EXERC(ITUS) BRITANNICUS, that is [The Roman] army of Britain.
The wall he famously constructed in the north of England was used as the backdrop image to the Israel Museum’s statue so as to highlight the multifaceted and contradictory character of Hadrian. Hadrian is considered to be one of the most enlightened and important Roman rulers but he is also inextricably linked with the brutal suppression of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, for which he earned the sobriquet “the bone-grinder”, the destroyer of Judea.
The magnificent bust from Tel Shalem was the centerpiece of the exhibition and is considered the most lifelike of the three exhibited portraits. Unlike the London’s head, the Israel Museum’s bust is likely to have been crafted in Rome, probably using the official representation of the Emperor as a model.
This remarkable bust was found by chance by an American tourist in Tel Shalem (Beth Shean Valley, Israel) on 25th July 1975 while searching for ancient coins with a metal detector. Tel Shalem was once occupied by a detachment of the Sixth Roman Legion (Legio VI Ferrata). The 50 fragments of this bust were found in a building which stood at the center of the camp, perhaps in the principia (the headquarters tent or building).
The head, cast in one piece and found intact, is one of the finest extant portraits of the Emperor and is of a type popular in the provinces; the Rollockenfrisur type. Probably cast in an imperial workshop in Rome, the statue features the standardized likeness of the Emperor, down to the unique shape of his earlobe, a symptom of the heart disease that eventually caused his death.
The cuirass is decorated with an enigmatic depiction of six nude warriors. It has been suggested that the scene depicts a duel between Aeneas, wearing a Phrygian cap, and Turnus, the king of the Rutuli. The scene may be seen as an allegory of the triumph of Hadrian over the Bar Kokhba revolt.
The third bronze portrait of Hadrian came from an imposing, full-length, larger-than-life statue of the Emperor. The head was probably produced in the eastern part of the empire, perhaps in Asia Minor or Egypt. This portrait differs slightly from the Tel Shalem bronze and does not correspond to any of the imperial portrait types defined for Hadrian. The face is longer than usual, the eyes are wider than was customary and the hooked, crooked nose is unique.
These characteristics were long thought to indicate that it was a posthumous portrait made to resemble the Hadrian’s successor, Antonius Pius. A more recent study questions this theory and prefers to see this Louvre head as a variant of the type developed in the first years of Hadrian’s reign, in the period 118-121 AD.
Each portrait had its unique characteristics and differed slightly in their depiction of the Emperor. Two of them clearly depict a surprising anatomical detail, a deep diagonal crease in both earlobes. Such creases have been on observed on patients suffering from heart disease and medical studies have established a connection between earlobe creases and this condition.
The exhibition was an opportunity to shed light on how these portraits were manufactured in antiquity. As was typical for large-scale bronze statuary, these bronzes were fashioned using the lost-wax casting technique. The ingenious ancient technique is beautifully illustrated in a video made to accompany the exhibition that combined stop-motion and 2D animation. The animators visited a bronze casting workshop and collaborated with the curator and the restoration department of the museum. The head used in the film was a plaster replica of the original Hadrian’s bronze statue found in Tel-Shalem.
The exhibition also presented the two parts of an inscription that adorned a monumental arch dedicated to Hadrian by the 10th Legion stationed in Jerusalem during his visit in 130 AD. The two parts were joined together for the first time since antiquity.
The first fragment of the inscription was unearthed in 1903 and has been preserved by the Franciscan Studium Biblicum in Jerusalem.
The second fragment was discovered in 2014 during excavations near the Damascus Gate, in the Old City of Jerusalem, by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Putting the two slabs together, the complete inscription reads (translation by Avner Ecker and Hannah Cotton of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem):
”To the Imperator Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, son of the deified Traianus Parthicus, grandson of the deified Nerva, high priest, invested with the tribunician power for the fourteen-time, consul for the third time, father of the country [dedicated by] the Tenth Legion Fretensis (second hand) Antoniniana”
The word “Antoniniana” was added later on, during the reign of emperor Caracalla, proving that the original monument and inscription survived at least 100 years.
The other exhibits on show were found in caves in the Judaean Desert where some of the Jewish rebels hid in an unsuccessful attempt to evade Hadrian’s legions. They locked their houses and sought refuge in the desert until it was safe to go back home. Among the objects found in the caves and put on show were sandals, iron house keys, a knife, and a letter written by Bar Kokhba himselft to this subordinates.
The caves were excavated in the 1960s. Alongside remains of human skeletons, they revealed a host of archaeological treasures, many of them are part of the Israel Museum’s permanent collection. Due to the arid climate, organic finds such as textiles, documents written on papyrus, garment and shoes, fruits, olive pits and grain kernels were also preserved.
A unique source of information about the Bar Kokhba Revolt are the letters written on papyrus in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Most were written by Bar Kokhba himself and addressed to his subordinates. The texts show their author as a skilled commander who was often harsh and ruthless.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank David Mevorah, the curator of the exhibition, for the guiding tour he kindly gave me. This exhibition was of particular interest to me as it was a unique opportunity to see the only three surviving bronze portraits of Hadrian all at once.
The inscription also had a very special meaning for me since I was in Jerusalem in October 2014 when the newly discovered fragment was presented to the public for the first time. I was told that the fragments would go separate ways again once the exhibition was over, making this trip to Jerusalem the only opportunity to see the inscription as it was 1900 years ago.