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Attis

© 2005 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This bronze statuette, formerly in the Crown collections, represents Attis, the Phrygian god who was Cybele's lover. He is wearing an oriental costume: a tunic strewn with copper- and silver-incrusted designs, and "anaxyrides" (slashed breeches) attached to the legs by small round buckles. The unusual arrangement of the garment, which stands wide open, revealing the belly and genitals, evokes the orgiastic nature of the myth in which Attis emasculated himself in a mad frenzy.

A bronze formerly belonging to the Crown collections

According to the general inventory of the Royal Furniture Repository, where it appears as no. 64, this bronze statuette entered the Crown collection before 1684. It would seem that a modern head had already been added by that date, tilted too far back and placed too near the neck. However, no mention was made of the restoration work until 1722. Judging by the similarities in workmanship, the same bronzecaster also reinstated the right hand, which was only declared to be modern in 1802. Many classical works were restored in this way, to disguise their fragmentary state, which did not accord with the esthetic criteria of the time.

The Phrygian god Attis

The statuette, whose provenance and place of manufacture remain unknown, represents Attis, the Phrygian god in the service of Cybele, the Great Mother of the Gods, and was made in the first or second century AD. The god has the features of a young boy dancing and is dressed in oriental costume: a long-sleeved tunic made from a single piece of fabric, a belt above the abdomen, and "anaxyrides" (slashed breeches) fastened to the legs with small round buckles. The fabric of the garment is strewn with designs - croses, rosettes, quatrefoils, etc. - and incrusted with copper and silver. Originally, the boy will probably have been wearing a Phrygian cap, as seen in other representations of the god.

An orgiastic episode in the legend of Attis

The unusual arrangement of the garment, which leaves the boy's belly and genitalia exposed, recalls the orgiastic character of the myth of Attis and is a prelude to the episode of his self-mutilation. There are several versions of this act of lunacy. The most famous description of the punishment inflicted on her lover by Cybele is that given by Ovid. Attis was struck with frenzy by the goddess for having loved a nymph and thereby lost his virginity. In the grip of this torment, he mutilated himself. The legend seems to refer to the eunuchs who served as priests in the oriental cult of Cybele. This cult was widespread throughout the Greek and then the Roman world from the third century BC, and gave rise to many small effigies of Cybele and her young lover, Attis.

Bibliography

Les bronzes de la Couronne, musée du Louvre, Paris, 1999, n 64, p. 92-93.

Technical description

  • Attis

    1st-2nd century AD

  • Bronze
    Copper and silver inlays

    H. 54.2 cm; Head: 9 cm

  • Garde-Meuble de la Couronne, before 1684, no. 64

    Br 35

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    Bronzes room
    Room 32, temporarily closed to the public, works n
    Display case E1: The Crown bronzes

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Additional information about the work

"No. 64" engraved behind the tunic