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Work Grotesque in the Pose of the Thorn-Puller

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Hellenistic Art (3rd-1st centuries BC)

Grotesque figure in the pose of someone removing a thorn

© 2004 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Hellenistic Art (3rd-1st centuries BC)

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This bronze figurine is a grotesque adaptation of the thorn-puller, a statuary type that has fascinated artists over the centuries. The deformity of the figure was inspired by the picturesque works produced in Alexandria during the Hellenistic period, which were widely imitated during the Roman period. The work attests to the success of pathological figures, which were probably endowed with protective virtues, and genre scenes, where realism and caricature were deliberately combined.

A caricature of the thorn-puller

This small bronze figurine is an unusual and humorous interpretation of the thorn-puller, a well-known type in Greek statuary that has fascinated and inspired artists across the centuries: Brunelleschi used it for the competition for the doors of Florence's baptistery in 1402. In accordance with its illustrious model, the figure is seated, bent over, concentrating on the thorn he is pulling from his foot; however, his limbs are long and slender, his features emaciated, his musculature knotty, his ribcage hypertrophied, and his back incredibly hunched. Now lost, the original caricature is thought to have been made during the Hellenistic period (second century BC?), borrowing certain features from the figures of the fifth century BC. The popularity of the work seems to have emerged very early on, judging by the number of small-scale replicas produced, which were either faithful to the original type or treated as grotesques, like this one. Alternatively, the opposite could be true: the thorn-puller may have been the classicistic echo of small statuary, with artists trying to outdo each other by creating a wide variety of genre subjects.

Grotesques and deformed figures

During the Hellenistic period, sculptors were particularly interested in picturesque subjects and genre scenes where caricature and exaggerated realism sit side by side. Representations of the man in the street, old men, traveling salesmen, beggars, dwarves, hunchbacks, and other deformed or sick people were highly prized by clients, and remained so during the Roman period, when these figurines were still produced in abundance. There are numerous pathological figures comparable to this one, presenting various defects, such as exaggerated rickets or gibbosity. Some display symptoms of Pott's disease, a tubercular condition that affects the bones. These grotesques were probably endowed with protective virtues: they may have been designed to safeguard their owner against these deformities - good luck charms like hunchbacks who, according to popular belief, could ward off the evil eye. Moreover, hunchbacks were frequently depicted with oversized genitalia, which probably reinforced their apotropaic function.

An Egyptian work?

Alexandria is considered the artistic center for these bronze grotesques, especially as third-century BC Roman writings describe the town as an insalubrious place inhabited by sick people. The attribution of this statuette to a workshop in Lower Egypt is, however, hypothetical, because the fashion for these figurines extended over a large part of the Mediterranean basin. Several Greek cities in Asia Minor, notably Smyrna, also produced deformed figures in bronze and terra-cotta.

Bibliography

D'après l'antique, musée du Louvre, Paris, 2000, p. 209-210, n 51. S. Boucher, Recherches sur les bronzes figurés de Gaule pré-romaine et romaine, Bibliothèque des Ecoles Françaises d'Athènes et de Rome 228, 1976, p.188.C. Devès, "Nouvelles acquisitions. Musée du Louvre, département des antiquités grecques et romaines", La Revue des Arts, 1959, p. 87.

Technical description

  • Grotesque figure in the pose of someone removing a thorn

  • Bronze

    H. 7 cm

  • Koutoulakis gift, 1958 , 1958

    Br 4382

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    Bronzes room
    Room 663
    Display case C3: Classical and Hellenistic Greece (4th–1st century BC)

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