Thoroughly modern marble

“Wow, this is cool!” exclaimed one 8-year-old critic of the San Antonio Museum of Art’s recently reopened Greek and Roman Galleries, and it’s hard to argue with either the verdict or the turn of phrase. Housed in what must have originally seemed a cathedral for beer, the Roman Gallery is cool to its core: a soaring space that’s chockablock with marble statuary, Christian sarcophagi, and even a feisty, battle-strewn mosaic of Lapiths and Centaurs. Before the exciting hand-to-hoof combat, however, there’s the imposing statue of the rather fustily named “The Lansdowne Marcus Aurelius,” best known to Americans as the emperor who ups and dies at the beginning of Gladiator. The author of Meditations, Marcus Aurelius seems suitably meditative and otherworldly — to such an emperor, we onlookers might as well be ants. It’s an impressive welcome to an equally impressive space.

In terms of curatorial choices, the newly rearranged Estelle Blackburn and Gilbert Denman galleries are now sharper in their focus and narrative; rather than gliding chronologically, groups of objects often tell a story, thus allowing for discriminating comparisons. For example, a trio of Leda statuary, depicting (as usual) the queen being tupped by a swan, receives almost demure treatment by two of the artists. The central Leda, however, features the horniest swan ever, slapping Leda’s ass with an enormous (and somehow obscene) webbed foot. Best of all, Leda might have been a table leg; what’s more appetizing than some energetic bestiality under your spinach salad?

Likewise, the Denman gallery neatly juxtaposes a magnificent 2nd-century Cybele — a Near Eastern mother goddess with a temperamental streak — with a (tentatively identified and probably later) statue of Attis, her acolyte. As Catullus narrates in one of his longest and weirdest poems, Attis, in a fit of religious ecstasy and misguided inspiration, climbs Cybele’s sacred Mt. Ida, dances hysterically, and then lops off his testicles. (Or as Catullus tastefully puts it: “With flint, he cast off from himself the weight of his groin.” It’s actually unclear in the Latin whether Attis merely chopped off his balls or went the full Bobbitt; such are the vexations of modern classical scholarship.) In any event, the two statues are a perfect pairing: Cybele impassive, enthroned, surrounded by the accoutrements of power and religion, while Attis — if Attis (s)he be — features a soft (male?) body cloaked in a now feminine, flowing garb. It’s a smart combination that makes sense of the narrative history of both figures. 

Most visitors will likely be struck by the daunting Flavian bust of a dour and imperious matrona, boasting a truly startling beehive coiffure. In Rome, hair wasn’t just a fashion statement, it was a social, political, and practically theological statement as well. A four-tiered ’do was obviously the work of a SWAT team of handmaidens and Jove knows how much ointment: It’s the Roman equivalent of wearing an ingot on your head.

On the other side of the social spectrum is the punishment of the disgraced satyr Marsyas (marble, from the first century AD), a monument to humiliation. Disciplined for challenging Apollo to a duel of their flutes (ahem), Marsyas is hung from a tree and flayed alive. However repulsive the subject matter, it’s obviously perfect fodder for a master artisan, as the sculptor locates precisely the moment before — as the poet Ovid puts it — Apollo peels away Marsyas from Marsyas.

A gem of the collection is the statue of Cupid and Psyche, recovered from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. Cute without being too rococo, the early 2nd century statue actually predates Apuleius’s famous literary treatment, though the allegorical implications are still clear (Psyche being the Greek word for “soul,” and Cupid being the Roman god of love). An unexpected pleasure is that the physical placement of the piece, far from Hadrian’s walls or alcoves, allows the museum visitor a unique 360-degree view of the entire sculpture, including what SAMA’s photos never show you: Cupid’s fleshy yet surprisingly taut derriere. No wonder Psyche was so a-flutter.

Lacking the high ceiling of the Roman gallery, the Blackburn gallery is less architecturally gripping, but it happily follows the same thematically based groupings as its neighbor. “Gender Relations: Desire, Courtship, and Domestic Life,” for instance, displays vases with a number of scenes of wooing and occasional conquest, along with an impish scene (from a classical amphora) of an octogenarian exposing himself to an obviously unimpressed lass. (Ah, plus ça change … ) A separate category on death in Ancient Greece displays the material culture of the profoundest of human rituals, including gravestones and funerary inscriptions.

Yes, I know it’s Contemporary Art Month in San Antonio, but let’s not forget that all art — even ancient art — was once contemporary, and indeed, several of the pieces in the SAMA collection would have been avant-garde. It’s a fluke of philanthropy and good fortune that San Antonio possesses the best classical collection in the Southwest; it’s hardly a fluke, however, that under the newly appointed curatorship of Jessica Powers, this marble collection is not just cold, but cool. •



San Antonio Museum of Art
Greek and Roman Galleries
10am-9pm Tue; 10am-5pm Wed-Sat; noon-6pm Sun
$3-8 general; under 3 free
Free Tue 4-9pm
200 W. Jones
(210) 978-8100


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