the mystery of origin

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Jul 15, 2018 - need for inner search: spirituality and rationalism, mysticism and materialism. This impulse is ... and the fundamental questions about the universe's characteristics, the ... the Enlightened One - was conceived through the aim of 'signs' not only ... life, and symbol of his renunciation of the world (Figs.1, 3-5).




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MYTHS TRANSFIGURATIONS Throughout History, many centuries and various geographies, man has always had a relentless need for inner search: spirituality and rationalism, mysticism and materialism. This impulse is described in the installation THE MYSTERY OF ORIGIN MYTHS TRANSFIGURATIONS. It is a tale of what the East and West, meeting together about a thousand years ago, created and elaborated in their spiritual aspirations and knowledge. A timeless cave, “an evocative metaphor of human knowledge,” hosts a series of sculptures and relief works: ancient Eastern Schists (II – IV century A.D.) from the Gandhāra region are shown side by side with classic Western statues from the Greek-Roman period. (II century A.D.) Precious meditating Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, whose countenances reveal their search for the Absolute, are placed next to mythical or idealised creatures from the Greek-Roman period, showing just how important the meeting of these two worlds has been in terms of universal heritage. Thesculptures have been lent by the former Tucci Museum – now Museo delle Civiltà di Roma – and Turin’s MAO (Museo di Arte Orientale) and by the the most prestigious Roman archeological museums: Terme di Diocleziano, Palazzo Massimo, Palazzo Altemps, Parco Archeologico del Colosseo, Centrale Montemartini. Within this tale of diverse spirituality and cultures, in contexts that are philosophically opposed, there is one single drive: Man’s constant yearning for the Truth, the Absolute.


After having clung to the stars with our every hope and trouble, we tried for millenniums to find in it shapes and creatures of a different, more powerful and better world, until, with knowledge, the cosmos began to reveal its nature, but not its secrets. They are buried deep in our hearts, and there isn’t a poet or an artist who hasn’t strived to reach the timeless beauty of those distances, of this unknown matter, which is to be found, precisely, in the heart. So, we have tried , in infinite ways, to discover the perfection and magnificence of these distant, immense or infinitesimal worlds; the aspirations and desires of the soul, its figures and images,which interwove with the comets’ trains. We are given a taste of this multi-faceted, internal cosmos, variously interpreted by the philosophies of the different civilisations, through the work of classical and Indian artists, who reveal very different, and yet, somehow, very similar worlds, where their encounter in the territories of the ancient Gandhāra generated an everlasting modernity. There, between West and East, where the countenance of Apollo is impressed on the face of Gautama Buddha, Greek thought met the ecstatic dimension of the Buddhist Sciists: Logos met Nirvana; dialectical thought met the meditative experience. Now- after the astrologists and priests obsessed with the Divine- what still clings to the stars are the mathematical observations of those who discover environments and paths. But much is still left to imagination and abstract elaboration. Because infinitude can only be of the soul: in a star-studded sky above us and in the moral law inside us all. Quirino Conti

art as a means of knowledge: the icon of the buddha in gandharan art


The most ancient form of Buddhism seems to be agnostic towards cosmology and the fundamental questions about the universe’s characteristics, the origin and the end of the world perceived, as this was not considered fundamental in terms of salvation. Nevertheless, within this religious tradition, a phantasmagoric vision of the cosmos seemed to appear - very similar to the Brahmanic one - which began to advance the existence of countless, infinite worlds, endlessly appearing and disappearing within cosmic cycles, revealing a cyclic and boundless idea of time. In those universes, corresponding with the mental state of the beings incarnating in them – in continuous homologies between macrocosm and microcosm - saṃsāra perpetuates itself. It is the eternal cycle of lives and deaths to which every sentient being - from the smallest animal, to the sovereign divinities – is chained according to the law of karma. Every birth is the result of righteous, compassionate, abominable or neutral actions performed in previous lives. Believing in a life eternally renewing itself in countless worlds, which also come into existence and then dissolve, rather than being a consolation, plunges man in a state of existential angst because sufferance permeates existence: constant rebirth is the infinite perpetuation of sufferance. The aim of this salvific cosmology is to place sentient beings before the frailty and inconsistency of their individual histories, to induce them to finally overcome their condition as ‘existents’. To face the terrible vision of a sufferance ever perpetuating itself forces them to transcend the cosmos, to leave saṃsāra, to forsake time, to attain nirvāṇa. In the Buddhist world, as in the other religious traditions of India, liberation from saṃsāra and the achievement of a status not influenced by the phenomenal world are attained in various ways, particularly through yogic techniques and meditation, which can interrupt the stream of consciousness to attain the silence and find the unity of Everything. Art also, by interrupting the mental continuum through the aesthetic experience and attaining an identification between the subject and the object perceived, can be one of these instruments. In all Indian art, and specifically in the Buddhist one, the various representations are conceived and created to support meditation and contemplation and are projections of absolute Reality.



The sculptures of Buddha and Bodhisattva exhibited here were probably conceived with this purpose, as images capable to induce the Awakening and to evoke the Sacred. These works belong to that particular figurative phenomenon known as ‘art of Gandhāra’, which originated in the regions of Northern Pakistan and Eastern Afghanistan, between the end of the 1st century B.C. and the 4th-5th century A.D. It features Indian, Iranian, Central Asian and classic (Graeco-Roman) elements and influences, - the latter ones due to the long lasting Greek presence in this crossland area - shaped in a very original synthesis of formal , symbolic and philosophical codes. The contemplation of these icons, visible evidence of the meeting of East and West, was meant to induce the worshipper to find within himself the principle of Buddhahood. In the art of Gandhāra, Buddha’s representation - one of the most ancient anthropomorphic images of the Enlightened One - was conceived through the aim of ‘signs’ not only referring to the historical figure of the Master, but also to the absolute values of Enlightenment (bodhi) and dharma, the ultimate and essential Reality. The iconographic elements characterizing this image derive from the literary Buddhistic tradition, stating the physical and mental features of the Buddha. From his birth he had shown on his body the special ‘signs’ of the cosmic man (mahāpuruṣa), the so-called lakṣaṇa. Two of these marks could be physically represented in sculpture: the uṣṇīṣa, a protuberance on the skull covered by hair arranged in a bun, sign of his wisdom, and the ūrṇā, described as a wisp of hair between the eyebrows, symbolizing the power of inner vision and represented as a protruding dot or a hollow in which to place a precious or semi-precious stone (Figs. 1, 3-5). There is another element not listed among the lakṣaṇa: the very long ear lobes, the consequence of wearing heavy earrings which Siddhārtha had stripped off together with his princely ornaments when he decided to live an ascetic life, and symbol of his renunciation of the world (Figs.1, 3-5). The image is also characterized by a halo around his head (Figs.1, 5) and at times by an almond of light around the body, both symbolizing the Master’s interior glow. A similar detail, the flames coming out from the shoulders of some Buddhas (Fig. 5), may be interpreted in two ways: either from the Indian or the Iranian stance. In the first instance it is the tejas, the luminous energy


1 | STANDING BUDDHA Schist, Northern Pakistan, 2nd -3rd cent. A.D., Museo delle Civiltà - museo d’arte orientale ‘Giuseppe Tucci’, Rome, Inv. MNAO 68. 2 | STANDING BUDDHA, Schist, Northern Pakistan, 3rd cent. A.D., Museo d’Arte Orientale, Turin, Inv. IAp/185.

3 | BUDDHA MEDITATING IN THE LOTUS POSITION Schist, northern Pakistan, 2nd -3rd cent. A.D., Museo delle Civiltà - museo d’arte orientale ‘Giuseppe Tucci’, Rome, nv. MNAO 401. 4 | HEAD OF BUDDHA, Stucco, Butkara I, Swat Valley, Pakistan, 2nd -3rd cent. A.D., Museo delle Civiltà - museo d’arte orientale ‘Giuseppe Tucci’, Rome, Inv. MNAO 1243.



coming from the ascetic heat (tapas) revealing the influence of the yogic practices in the Buddhist tradition. In the second one, it is the pharn, the ‘splendour’ that legitimates the sovereign’s power, or, at a higher level, the metaphysical light of Buddha’s cosmic sovereignty. Many of the signs of the Gandharan Buddha, the lakṣaṇa quoted in the sacred texts or other typical marks, reveal a code of symbols deriving from the yogic tradition. It appears that this implies that the Buddhistic religious speculation of this period already includes elements which will further evolve at a later stage. The vertical hole on the top of the uṣṇīṣa of some Gandharan Buddhas (Fig. 5) refers to a mystic yogic physiology, developed in later Tantrism. It probably refers to the brahmarandhra, the mystic opening through which Buddha’s light radiates (M. Taddei, “Arte del Gandhāra”, in EAACO, Roma, 1971-94, vol. II, p. 717), a center of the subtle body placed on top of the head or just above it where the yogin, having awoken the interior energy through ascetic techniques, transcends saṃsāra and time (M. Eliade, Lo Yoga. Immortalità e Libertà, Milano.1973, p. 231). Also the āsana and the mudrā, which are body positions and hand gestures, derive from the yoga tradition: they further clarify Buddha’s inner state or the specific event in the Master’s life. Buddha is represented standing (Figs. 1-2), reclined, or in the ‘lotus position’ (padmāsana) (Figs. 3, 5) and in different hand gestures: for example the ‘gesture of meditation’ (dhyānamudrā ) with hands on the lap, one palm over the other, with joint thumbs (Figs. 3, 5). The image shows not only the traditional Indian iconographic traits, but also strong classic stylistic features which are not merely aesthetic but could imply values connected to the tie of the Buddha with the logos. If indeed the Master wears a monastic robe of Indian origin, the draping of the material around the body is of western fashion (Figs. 1-2) and maybe reveals the wish to associate the image with the figure of the philosopher and the orator clad in a toga or in a Greek himation. Also the ‘exotic’ trait of the perfect oval face (Figg. 1, 3), sometimes have been described as ‘Apollonian’(see e. g. M. Bussagli, L’Arte del Gandhāra, Torino 1984, pp. 207-08). In short, it appears that the image of Buddha in Gandharan art is conceived through the use of heterogeneous elements of different origin, to express the universal value of Enlightenment. His figure has been ‘shaped’ in such a way as to allow different people, both Indians or Westerners, to comprehend it, always maintaining the original meaning of dharma and logos (M. Bussagli,cit., p.200).

5 | INDRA’S VISIT TO THE BUDDHA MEDITATING IN THE CAVE (Indraśailaguhā), Schist Northern Pakistan, 3rd– 4th cent. A.D., Museo delle Civiltà - museo d’arte orientale ‘Giuseppe Tucci’, Rome, Inv. MNAO 2016.8. 6 | STANDING BODHISATTVA Schist, northern Pakistan, 2nd -3rd cent. A.D., Museo delle Civiltà - museo d’arte orientale ‘Giuseppe Tucci’, Rome, Inv. MNAO 2016.11.

the buddha in the cave: a cosmogonic image


Among all the Gandharan sculptures exhibited here, the one of the Buddha meditating in a cave (Fig. 5) stands out for its complex meaning and set of values. This relief is the representation of an event which happened in the life of the historical Buddha and was narrated in the Sakka pañña sutta of the Dīghanikāya, when the king of the gods Indra visited the Master in the cave of Indraśaila where he had retired to meditate. At the same time this sculpture subtends cosmologic and cosmogonic meanings and, through some symbolic elements, clarifies the conception and the role of the Enlightened One in the Buddhist thought of the time. In the centre of a niche representing the cave, surrounded by a rocky landscape filled with many figures and nature, the Buddha sits meditating wrapped in the monastic robe with semi closed eyes to express a state of inner absorption and showing the ‘signs’ previously described: the uṣṇīṣa on top of his head, the ūrṇā between the eyebrows, and the long ear lobes. The image of the Blessed One is ‘glowing’, with the halo around his head and flames bursting out from his bust, a detail which prove the luminous energy (tejas) produced by ascetic practices. The flaming Buddha in the bowels of a cave comes from a very recurrent idea in Indian thought: the supreme Principle shines in the darkness of the cave, guhā in Sanskrit, ‘a secret, mysterious, hidden place’. Guhā is a very common symbol in Vedic, Brahmanic and Buddhistic literature; at the macrocosmic level it indicates the centre of the world concealed in the depths of the earth, a secret and inaccessible place for the profane, a place of initiation and rebirth potentially loaded with all the germs of the future manifestation. The cave containing the universal Principle is par excellence the place of ‘transition’ in which, leaving the experience of plurality, one attains the vision of the whole (Atharva Veda II,1, 1-2). In the darkness of this rocky womb, the renunciant, passing through a ritual death, is born again into a new life. This second birth amounts to an illumination: the darkness of the cave is in reality light, while the light of the secular world shining outside is contemplate as ‘external darkness’. The cave stands not only as the centre of the universe, it also represents the cavity of the heart, the interior space in which one experiences the absolute Reality, according to a play of equivalences and analogies which very often in India associates cosmic


7 | STANDING BODHISATTVA, POSSIBLY MAITREYA, Schist, Northern Pakistan, 2nd cent. A.D., Museo d’Arte Orientale, Turin, Inv. IAp/172.D. 8 | BUST OF A BODHISATTVA, Schist, Northern Pakistan, 2nd -3rd cent. A.D., Museo delle Civiltà - museo d’arte orientale ‘Giuseppe Tucci’, Rome, Inv. MNAO 12649.


or natural spaces with parts of the physical and subtle body. Considered the cosmological and cosmogonic meanings of this image, it is not by chance that the Buddha represented amidst the flames and meditating in the cave, has been associated with the Roman reliefs representing Mithra’s tauroctony (A.C. Soper, “Aspects of Light ymbolism in Gandhāran Sculpture, Artibus Asiae, 1949, vol 12/ 3, pp.252-83), a god whose connection with the Sun is well-known. Here again Mithra, in the act of sacrificing the cosmic bull, is represented inside a caveniche symbolizing the universe, surrounded by the conventional image of a mountain, with rocks, trees and animals (see Galli, infra, Fig. 8). Apparently these two conceptions seem incompatible: one is the violent act of Mithra that will give life to the universe, the other the unperturbed calm of the meditating Buddha; nevertheless they both refer to a shining Principle lighting the darkness. They furthermore reveal that at the time in which Gandharan art was flourishing, in the Euro-Asiatic region with its caravan routes, various religious traditions started to speculate on light.


attribute of the same god and a distinctive sign of the Brahmanic caste, to which, according to the tradition, Maitreya belongs. His personal name, Ajita, ‘the Unconquered’, is reminiscent of the Iranian Mithra, assimilated with the Roman Sol Invictus. As in the case of the ‘speculation on light’, in the first centuries of the Christian era the idea of the coming of a ‘savior’ though having different connotations - was shared by several populations of the Eurasian continent: consider the faith in the Jewish Messiah, in the Iranian Saošyant and the expectation of the last descent of Viṣṇu on earth in the shape of Kalki, according to the Brahmanic doctrine of the avatāra. The veneration of the Future Buddha, as documented in many Gandharan reliefs and statues portraying Maitreya, is perfectly integrated in this attitude of messianic expectation, a transversal religious phenomenon which pervades the ancient Eastern world. Laura Giuliano

Curator for the Indian and South-East Asian Section Museo delle Civiltà, Rome

the ideal of the bodhisattva and the waiting for the ‘savior’


If the image of the Gandharan Buddha is a symbol of Enlightenment, the figure of the Bodhisattva -one of the iconographic themes most represented by the artists of the time - reveals the means through which this status can be attained: the compassion (karuṇā) towards every living being. The Bodhisattva is the ‘one who has Enlightenment as essence’, but makes vow not to attain nirvāṇa, in order to help those on their way towards the suppression of sufferance. The ideal of the Bodhisattva spreads mostly among Buddhism of the Great Vehicle (mahāyāna). In Gandharan art this figure is depicted in princely robes (Figs. 6-13), although he is differentiated from an Indian prince, having the ūrṇā between the eyebrows and the halo around the head, signs that he shares with the Buddha. Of the many Bodhisattvas named in the texts, the art of Gandhāra attributes particular importance to Maitreya, also worshipped as the Buddha of the future age. He shows the symbol of the flask (kalaśa) filled with the elixir of immortality (amṛta) and his hair is styled in a sort of knot on the top of his head (Figs. 9, 13). The god Brahmā also shows this hairstyle and the flask is probably derived from the classic kamaṇḍalu , an


9 | STANDING MAITREYA Schist, Northern Pakistan, 2nd -3rd cent. A.D., Museo delle Civiltà - museo d’arte orientale ‘Giuseppe Tucci’, Rome, Inv. MNAO 431. 10 | STANDING BODHISATTVA, POSSIBLY MAITREYA Schist, Northern Pakistan, 2nd -3rd cent.A.D., Museo delle Civiltà - museo d’arte orientale ‘GiuseppeTucci’, Rome, Inv. MNAO 2016.9. 11 | STANDING BODHISATTVA, POSSIBLY MAITREYA, Schist, Northern Pakistan, 2nd -3rd cent. A.D., Museo delle Civiltà - museo d’arte orientale ‘Giuseppe Tucci’, Rome, Inv. MNAO 2016.10.


12 | STANDING BODHISATTVA, PADMAPĀṆI, Schist, Northern Pakistan, 2nd cent. A.D., Museo d’Arte Orientale, Turin, Inv. IAp/178. 13 | MAITREYA IN THE LOTUS POSITION, Schist, Northern Pakistan, 2nd -3rd cent. A.D., Museo delle Civiltà - museo d’arte orientale ‘Giuseppe Tucci’, Rome, Inv. MNAO 10919. 14 | HEAD OF A PRINCELY FIGURE, Painted stucco, Pakistan or Afghanistan, 4th cent. A. D. ca, Museo delle Civiltà - museo d’arte orientale ‘Giuseppe Tucci’, Rome, Inv. MNAO 435.


the mystery of origin: ancient cosmogonies compared



In the subterranean spaces of the Lucrezia Borgia Armoury (formerly the Civic Museum), the exhibition «The Mystery of Origins» evokes Plato’s timeless myth of the Cave as it is presented in the Republic (7, 514A-518B). The myth is an evocative metaphor for human knowledge. It expresses the mind’s difficulty in arriving at a true knowledge of the external world, misled as it is by sense perceptions. The mind is like a person chained to the interior of an underground cavern and forced to look at the series of shadows that a fire projects upon the back of the cavern. Within this exhibition space, there are on display sculptures and reliefs belonging to two groups of works. The first group consists of a series of sculptures in schist belonging to the early Buddhist art of Gandhara. These works come from the collections of the ‘Giuseppe Tucci’ national museum of Oriental Art (now housed at the Museum of Civilization, Rome) and the MAO (Museum of Oriental Art) of Turin. The second group consists of marble sculptures of the Classical period. Including both ideal sculptures and portraits, these come from the National Museum of Rome (Baths of Diocletian, Palazzo Massimo, and Palazzo Altemps), from the Palatine Museum (Archaeological Park of the Colosseum), and from the Capitoline Museums - Centrale Montemartini. As for the subjects on display, the first group comprises a series of images of the Buddha represented according to the different iconographic types that are most typical, e.g. Bodhisattva, “He who is destined to a Re-awakening”, or Buddha Maitreya, the Future Buddha. By contrast, the subjects represented in the ‘Classical’ sculptures evoke themes specific to the world of Graeco-Roman culture. The Dionysiac aspect and soterioriological expectations are evoked by the image of the young Dionysus (Fig. 1) and subjects associated with him, such as the archaising Herm and the head of Priapus (Figs. 2-3). Apollonian cult is evoked by a reproduction of the exquisite head of Apollo known as the Antium-type that comes from the Palatine (Fig. 4). The mystery cults are evoked by a representation of the Mithraic sacrifice with its implications of mystery and salvation. The strongly idealised portrait of Antinoös (Figs. 5-7) evokes the heroes of Greek myth. Last of all, there are images, such as the portrait of Socrates (Fig. 6), that refer to the protagonists of rational thought. Between East (Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent) and West (the world of the ancient Mediterranean), the ‘Classical’ and Gandharan images aim to present the visitor with two routes of human thought that were elaborated in two distinct and different cultural and geographical regions of the ancient world. In the Greek world, we see the first emergence of a scientific approach 1 | STATUE OF DIONYSUS Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome Inv. 77428 found in Rome, mount Esquiline 140-180 A.D. 2 | ARCHAISTIC HERMA OF DYONYSOS Lunensic marble Centrale Montemartini, Rome Inv. MC 2301 found in Rome, via dei Fori Imperiali in 1933 1st. cent. A.D.

to the Universe. Starting with myth as the original form of thought, this route leads to the idea of the universe as a Kosmos arranged in orderly fashion. But what were the routes of the mind when faced with the mystery of the celestial vault in these different worlds? What were their similarities and parallel developments? What were their divergences? What were the interactions and possible exchanges between peoples and ideas so far apart?

the hymn of creation in the vedic world



“On the other hand, viewed as a whole, the two principal currents of thoughts – European and Indian – resemble two parallel routes. Begotten and nurtured by the same mystery that man finds about himself and stimulated by the anxiety to eliminate it, those currents quite often intersect because the problems remain the same wherever a person happens to live and the same can be said of the means available to resolve them.” (G. Tucci, Storia della filosofia indiana, Bari 1957). As was rightly observed by the great Orientalist Giuseppe Tucci (1894-1984), it is wise not to allow oneself to be misled by the seeming similarities that can be discerned between the European and Indian systems of thought. Rather, even in so far as reflection on the origins of the world is concerned, it is important to take care to highlight the differences that can be seen between ancient Indian and ancient Greek cultures. First of all, the world of Vedic India possessed an extraordinary variety of cosmogonic myths, as is demonstrated by the solemn profundity of certain hymns of the Ṛg veda. In this work that constitutes the oldest assembly (Ṛg veda saṃhitā) of Indo-european texts, which are collectively known as sacred “Knowledge” (the Veda), there is enclosed a priceless patrimony that was transmitted orally from father to son by means of refined mnemonic techniques. It is a singular expression of religious memory, and the original core seems to date back to the arrival in the second millennium BCE of the Ārya (the “nobles” or the “valiant”), an Indo-Iranian term that denotes the warrior aristocracy. These settled in eastern present-day Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Around 700-600 BCE, now Indianized in form of “clans”, they penetrated into the plain of the River Ganges, where they thereby gave rise to cities and states in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. In the famous Hymn 129 of the tenth “book” of the Ṛg veda , which is named Nāsadīyasūkta (hymn of “the not non-existent”) from its opening words (nāsad), we find the first beginnings of Indian philosophical speculation as regards the origin of the world. How was the universe created? How is this creation of the world connected to the mystery of an initial lack of differentiation between 3 | HEAD OF PRIAPUS Pentelic marble Centrale Montemartini, Rome Inv. MC 980 Refined Augustan version (43 b.C. – 14 A.D.) of archaic models dating back to the late sixth century b.C.found in Rome, at the Horti Lamiani (Piazza Dante) in 1876. 4 | HEAD OF THE TYPE OF THE ANZIO APOLLO Parco Archeologico del Colosseo, Museo Palatino, Room 10 Inv. 553 found in the Stadio Palatino, Rome end of 1st. cent. A.D

being and non-being? With this perspective, the hymn commences with a sublime image of the Nothingness that came before the birth of the universe:

physical universe and spiritual universe in greek thought

«Then there was neither being nor not-being. The atmosphere was not, nor sky above it. What covered all? and where? by what protected? Was there the fathomless abyss of waters?

In the Mediterranean world instead, already as of the first centuries of the life of the polis (8th-7th cent. BCE), the speculative activity of the Greeks was intensely devoted to explaining the world upon a rational basis. In this process, the elaboration of the concepts of matter and force, of movement and becoming, as well as those – gravid with consequence for the future – of the indivisible element (atom) and space, was accompanied by a progressive definition of methods and a reflection on the nature of consciousness. Already in the Archaic period, therefore, there is visible a gradual movement of philosophical investigation away from the origin (arché) of things towards their essence. In other words, the question of “What was there at the beginning?” was abandoned for that of “What is there?”. This transition can be perceived from an examination of the first cosmogony of Greek thought, viz. that given poetic expression by Hesiod in the Theogony in the 7th cent. BCE. In this work there is an attempt to set forth a coherent vision of the physical world and that of the gods:

Then neither death nor deathless existed; Of day and night there was yet no distinction. Alone that one breathed calmly, self-supported, Other than It was none, nor aught above It. Darkness there was at first in darkness hidden; The universe was undistinguished water.»

The process by means of which That One [Tad ékam], the unnamed demiurge, creates the world is presented allusively through a series of mysterious, graded passages: «That which in void and emptiness lay hidden Alone by power of fervor was developed.




«Hail, children of Zeus, and give me lovely song; Glorify the sacred race of the immortals who always are, those who were born from Earth and starry Sky, and from dark Night, and those whom salty Pontus (Sea) nourished. Tell how in the first place gods and earth were born, and rivers and the boundless sea seething with its swell, and the shining stars and the broad sky above (…). These things tell me from the beginning, Muses who have your mansions on Olympus.» (Theogony, vv. 104-114; translated by G. W. Most, Hesiod, Cambridge (Mass.) – London 2006, pp. 12-13).

Then for the first time there arose desire, Which was the primal germ of mind, within it. And sages, searching in their heart, discovered In Nothing the connecting bond of Being.» (translated by S. Das Gupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, Cambridge 1922, pp. 64-65)»

Thanks to the transformative power of Heat (tapas), That One generates himself, and is swiftly joined by another generating element: kāma, intense Desire, an entity that is almost personified. In the manner of an Eros Protogonos, this entity constitutes the first seed of the Mind, a power linked to thought and the prime mover of the universe (M. Piantelli, Storia delle Religioni. India, Bari 2005). In this particular version of the Vedic cosmogony, the Demiurge with his ardour seems to give rise to the desire for a creation set in motion as a first manifestation of the mind. From this passage, as Richard Gombrich has perceived with insight, we see the intimate link between “existence” and “consciousness”: the question of the existence of things (ontology) is intimately linked to the question of how we know things (epistemology) (R. Gombrich, Il pensiero del Buddha, Milano 2012). As a consequence of this particular situation, ancient Indian speculation was not so much interested in formulating scientific hypotheses about the world it was in focussing on the problem of the ego and its relationship to the supreme principle of things, with a view to attaining spiritual perfection.


«From Chasm, Erebos and black night came to be; And then Aether and Day came forth from Night, who conceived and bore them after mingling in love with Erebos. Earth first of all bore starry Sky, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, so that she would be the ever immovable seat for the blessed gods (…).» (Theogony, vv. 123-128, p. 13).

In contrast with this first, evocative reconstruction of the universe by the poet Hesiod, the teachings of the thinkers of the sixth century show that the knowledge of origins did not end with a simple description of phenomena, but

9 5 | PORTRAIT OF ANTINOUS Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome Inv. 341 found in Ostia, Campo of Magna Mater late Hadrianic period (130-138 A.D.). 6 | HEAD OF SOCRATES Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome Inv. 124 487 found in Rome, in the area of Via Latina second cent. A.D.

The birth of the physical world is transformed into the creation of the divine world by means of the bond and succession of the divine genealogies:

7 | BUST OF ANTINOUS Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Altemps, Rome Inv. n. 8620 Boncompagni Ludovisi Collection late Hadrianic period (130-138 A.D.) with modern integrations. 8 | MITRAIE RELIEF Museo Nazionale Romano - Terme di Diocleziano, Rome Inv. 124668 found in Rieti, Pescorocchiano second cent. A.D. 9 | SUNDIAL WITH THE TWELVE ZODIAC SIGNS Museo Nazionale Romano - Terme di Diocleziano, Rome Inv. n. 9086 Museo Kircheriano II-III sec. A.D.

rather needed to be traced back to that same rational force and consciousness that thought had now acquired regarding itself. From this perspective, the principles of mathematics and geometry, of astronomy, and of atomism were each in turn deemed capable of translating the complex structure of the universe and its individual parts. The concepts of kosmos and logos thus shed light upon one another in turn, leading to a conception of the world as a universe that is internally ordered and subdivided. [E. Cassirer, Da Talete a Platone, Bari 1984 (orig. Berlin 1925)]. An emblematic reflection of this intense dialogue between philosophical speculation and scientific theories regarding the birth of the universe is the Timaeus of Plato (429-347 BCE), a work that takes it name from the fictitious figure of a Pythagorean from Magna Graecia. In this work composed by the philosopher late in life, the genesis of the universe is presented in the guise of a myth, that of the Demiurge – the demiourgós, the “artisan” god who creates – the Creator who shapes the real world and things according the eternal transcendent model of the Idea, “living essence that can be understood with thought”, the first element in the cosmological scheme of Plato. «The maker and father of this universe it is a hard task to find, and having found him it would be impossible to declare him to all mankind. Be that as it may, we must go back to this question about the world: After which of the two models did its builder frame it (…)? Now if this world is good and its maker is good, clearly he looked to the eternal (….). Having come to be, t hen, in this way, the world has been fashioned on the model of that which is comprehensible by rational discourse and understanding and is always in the same state.» (Timaeus 29; translated by F. MacDonald Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, London 1952, pp. 22-23).

If, especially in the Phaedo, it became evident that it is necessary to “separate” the soul from the body in order arrive at true consciousness, freeing thought from the bonds of sensorial perception (Phaedo 83A), the Timaeus seems instead to overcome the separation of body and soul, recognising the intrinsic value of humanity’s sense perceptions. «Sight, then, in my judgment is the cause of the highest benefits to us in that no word of our present discourse about the universe could ever have been spoken, had we never seen stars, Sun, and sky. But as it is, the sight of day and night, of months and the revolving years, of equinox and solstice, has caused the invention of number and bestowed on us the notion of time and the study of the nature of the world; whence we have derived all philosophy, than which no grater boon has ever come or shall come to mortal man as a gift from heaven. This, then, I call the greatest benefit of eyesight.» (Timaeus 47A; pp. 157-158).

In the complex composition of the work, numerous theories regarding physics, biology, astrononmy, and mathematics (and even medicine) are discussed in detail. Plato’s celebration of sense perception occurs in his exaltation of the powers of vision, a faculty that is felt to be capable of perceiving the affinities between the divine structure of the universe and that of our mind: «For these ends, the god invented and gave us vision in order that we might observe the circuits of intelligence in the heaven and profit by them for the revolutions of our own thought, which are akin to them, though ours be troubled and they are unperturbed; and that, by learning to know them and acquiring the power to compute them rightly according the nature, we might reproduce the perfectly unerring revolutions of the god and reduce to settled order the wandering motions in ourselves.» (Timaeus 47B; p. 158).

Reflection of a speculative nature is transformed into “a hymn to the living divine cosmos” (W. Burkert, I Greci, Milano 1984). Amongst the many influences in Antiquity of that which we can term the mystical element of the Platonic universe, particularly seminal is that of the cosmogony which we encounter in the mysteries of Mithras, the Indo-Iranian solar divinity that gradually spread throughout the Roman world as of the first century BCE and came to be widespread and much followed in the Empire in the course of the 2nd-3rdcent. CE.

cosmogony and salvation: mithras-sol and the sacrifice of bull-luna As has been observed (R. Merkelbach, Die Kosmogonie der Mithrasmysterien, in Eranos 34, 1965), the Mithraic cosmogony displays striking similarities to the myth of the Timaeus: the existence of a divine Artisan, the movement of the celestial orbits and zodiac, and the personification of Time (Chronos) through the creation of the temporal units of ‘day’, ‘month’, and ‘year’. The relief (Fig. 8) represents the best visual translation of this complicated Mithraic cosmogony. The slab carved in relief (181 x 81 x 8 cm) was dedicated by a certain Apronianus ca. CE 172. Apronianus was probably also the treasurer of the god’s sacra in the ancient municipium of Aequiculum, which was situated near the present-day city of Nesce-Rieti. At the centre of the image, within a cavern, the god Mithras can be seen wearing Oriental clothing and in the act of striking the Bull in the throat with a knife. Once vividly coloured blue, the voluminous cloak was decorated with stars so as to suggest the celestial vault. Against this cosmological-astral backdrop, Mithras-Sol performs the sacrificial killing of the Bull-Moon. From the animal thus sacrificed emerge bees, a metaphor for the birth of souls. Over the cavern, which is itself a symbol for the universe, the zodiac was often depicted. In this display it is evoked by the sun-dial (Fig. 9), today preserved in the Baths of Diocletian, which joins the marking of daily time to the indication of the signs of the zodiac. The fixed stars mark the route of the Sun around the Earth, according to the ancient conception known as the Ptolemaic system. Thanks to the power of images, the faithful saw not only an extraordinary representation of the origins of the universe, but also a promise of future salvation and rebirth. In this union of cosmological reflection and anxiety as regards salvation, the Mithraic cult offers another surprising instance of the multiple ties that were established in Antiquity between peoples and cultures seemingly far removed from one another. In fact, it is precisely the reflection on the mystery of origins in Vedic India, in the ancient Persian world, and in the Graeco-Roman Mediterranean that reveals not only the multiple parallels and analogies, but also echoes of interaction and concrete cultural exchange. If in the course of the experience of the Graeco-Roman world, from the Archaic period through to the tremendous expansion that occurred under Alexander the Great, contacts and exchanges between East and West did not fail to take place, it is in the context of the Roman Empire, with its geographical extension and thanks to the ambition and mobility of its ruling classes, that such ties between the Mediterranean and Eurasia were strengthened. In this sense, with their forms and profound content given material expression, the Classical and Gandharan images on exhibition in the symbolic Platonic cavern offer multiple points of departure for parallel readings and interpretations and invite continued comparison and dialogue between different cultures. Marco Galli

Associate Professor in Classical Archeology, Department of Antiquities Sapienza, University of Rome



Museo Nazionale Romano, Roma. Palazzo Massimo, Terme di Diocleziano, Palazzo Altemps.

Marco Galli / Sapienza Università di Roma Laura Giuliano / Museo delle Civiltà, Roma

Museo delle Civiltà, Rome.


Parco Archeologico del Colosseo, Rome. Museo Palatino.

MAO - Museo d’Arte Orientale, Turin.

Marco Biscione / Direttore del Museo d’Arte Orientale, Torino Filippo Maria Gambari / Direttore del Museo delle Civiltà, Roma Daniela Porro / Direttore del Museo Nazionale Romano, Roma Claudio Parisi Presicce / Sovrintendente ad interim e Direttore della Direzione dei Musei Archeologici e Storico-Artistici, Roma Capitale Alfonsina Russo / Direttore del Parco Archeologico del Colosseo, Roma

Department of Antiquities Sapienza, University of Rome.


Centrale Montemartini, Rome.

Anna De Santis / Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano, Roma Alessandra Capodiferro / Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Altemps, Roma Giovanna Iacono / Museo delle Civiltà, Roma Mirella Serlorenzi / Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo, Roma

Nadia Agnoli / Musei Capitolini, Centrale Montemartini, Roma Sara Colantonio / Museo Nazionale Romano, Roma Delia Malfitano / Museo d’Arte Orientale, Torino Claudia Ramasso / Museo d’Arte Orientale, Torino Federica Rinaldi / Parco Archeologico del Colosseo, Roma Daniela Tabò / Musei Capitolini, Roma


Art direction QUIRINO CONTI

Operational co-ordinator Graziano Sirci Collaborating set designer Michele Della Cioppa Light designer Vinicio Cheli Projection designer Sergio Metalli Soundtrack Giordano Corapi Stage co-ordinator Mario Scerbo Cover art Cristiano Guerri Artistic direction layout Sabina Leoni Text editing Giovanna Salvia Set design Tecnoscena, Emaki Light supply service S.P.A.N. Ensemble Audio supply service Sound Store

Special thanks to

PRESS&PR DELOS [email protected] Ph. 02 8052151 Annalisa Fattori +39 335 6769803 FONDAZIONE CARLA FENDI [email protected] Ph. 06 68307420