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Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Four Seasons Altar


This round altar (of white marble and 73 cm tall by 57 cm in diameter) adorned the Horti Sallustiani, the Gardens of Sallust between the Pincian and Quirinal hills.  Found in 1886, it is one of many sculptures found there, including the famous Dying Gaul (a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original) and the Ludovisi Throne (long regarded as an early classical masterpiece but now controversial).  On stylistic grounds the altar has been dated to the early years of Claudius’s reign, at about the time when the Horti Sallustiani became imperial property in AD 41.  It was then that the adopted grandson of the historian C. Sallustius Crispus (86-34 BC), the early developer and eponym of the gardens, married Agrippina the Younger at Claudius’ behest.

Decorating this altar are four winged putti (cherubic boys), each representing a season.  They are separated by tall vase-shaped cultic pillars embellished with acanthus leaves and blossoms.  Atop the pillars are grooved amphorae with pointed covers, suggesting vessels for burning incense.  From the handles of the amphorae hang draperies like baldachins, like heaven’s vault above the head of the each putto.

Winter (above) wears a short tunic that leaves one shoulder bare.  In his lowered left hand he holds an object left unfinished by the sculptor, probably a goose.  With his right hand he shoulders a water pitcher.  The reference is to the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis, whose rites were celebrated in January under the Roman Empire.  The putto’s tunic refers to the white linen shirts worn by the Isiac celebrants.  The goose refers to the one slaughtered at the festival of Isis and whose liver was offered to the goddess.  Ritual ablutions belonged to the cult, too, and the water pitcher alludes to them.

The naked figure of Spring recalls the festival of Magna Mater or Cybele.  At her festival simple country foods were eaten, such as cheese, herb dumplings, and fruit; the participants were bedecked in garlands of flowers.  In his right hand Spring holds such a garland, while on his left arm he balances a tray of first fruits.

Winter and Spring face one another, heads lowered and with a melancholy expression.


With his back to Spring stands Summer, naked, like Spring, and with a small cloak draped over his left forearm.  In his right hand he holds a sickle for reaping grain.  In his left hand he holds a stalk with a poppy seed capsule.  These are the attributes of Demeter-Ceres, goddess of agriculture, honored especially in Eleusis, to the west of Athens.  Her mysteries were celebrated in late summer.


Finally, Autumn.  On a pedestal to his left stands a basket full of grapes. In his right hand he holds a knotty shepherd’s crook.  An animal skin is draped over his shoulder: the nebris, also worn by followers of Dionysus.  Dionysus’ most important festival took place at the time of the autumn grape harvest.  This putto has the largest wings.  He looks back at Summer, who, like him, has a cheerful expression.

On this altar it is the mystery religions, not the official Roman state cults, that mark the seasons.

Most Roman altars are rectangular, but this round one follows the Archaic East Greek tradition, which came to Rome via Pergamum.  The round form corresponds to the cyclical nature of seasons.

This altar is the earliest specimen of putti representing the seasons.  Male Seasons are attested on sculpture from the first century AD, as, for example, on the Tomb of the Haterii.  They are also found on the Arch of Trajan at Beneventum and on the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum.  Under the Severans they begin to appear on sarcophagi.  Indeed, the “season sarcophagus” constitutes a type.

The example pictured above is the Season Sarcophagus from Rome.  It dates to ca. AD 330.  The four winged figures (youths, not cherubs) represent Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn.  Spring and Summer hold a roundel whose rim is decorated with the signs of the zodiac and which contains the portraits (unfinished) of the deceased husband and wife.  Supporting the roundel are putti harvesting grapes; to the left, between Winter and Spring, another little figure milks a goat, while to the right, between Summer and Autumn, there is yet another one harvesting wheat.

George Hanfmann showed that it was the Romans who invented the representation of the seasons as putti and first used them in funerary sculpture.  The Greeks of the Archaic and Classical periods had their Horae (they are already on the François vase), but it was not until the Hellenistic period that they came to represent the Four Seasons personified and began to stand for cyclic regularity, cosmic order, and earthly prosperity.  On Roman sarcophagi they came to represent eternal happiness for the deceased.  And the use of male Seasons was indeed Roman: they appear for the most part in art produced in and around the city of Rome.  Specimens outside Rome and Italy are few and far between.

Hanfmann says that the first representation of the Seasons as boys occurred on the Arch of Trajan at Beneventum (built AD 114-117).  It seems that he forgot about the Four Seasons Altar from the Horti Sallustiani produced over a half century earlier!

Hanfmann, George.  The Season Sarcophagus in Dumbarton Oaks.  1951.
Kleiner, Diana.  Roman Sculpture.  1992.  458-459.
Knauf-Museum Iphofen.  Reliefsammlung der grossen Kulturepochen.  2005.  182-183.
Simon, Erika.  Der Vierjahreszeiten-Altar in Würzburg.  1967.

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