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Isis, Images and Agency. The Creation, Use and Perception of Religious Iconography Concerning the Egyptian Gods in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - IsImAg (Isis, Images and Agency. The Creation, Use and Perception of Religious Iconography Concerning the Egyptian Gods in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds)

Reporting period: 2017-02-01 to 2019-01-31

What is the issue being addressed?

My research in Humanities are dedicated to the study of material (visual) culture and its impact on ancient societies. My approach is therefore anthropological; if offers a new perspective on evidence traditionally examined from an art historical point of view – one that focuses on the individual objects, their iconography, style and beauty. But images are in fact fundamental communication tools; they need to be studied like any foreign language. It’s necessary to reintegrate them within their context, in order to address new questions: What do they mean for the Ancients? How do they interact with their environment? Answering these questions allow us to retrace the socio-cultural biography of an object: for instance, an obelisk transported by Augustus from Egypt to Rome and reused fifteen centuries later by successive Popes (image 1). From this vantage point, by focussing on contextualisation, art history can redefine itself in dialogue with Social and Natural Sciences.

The strategy of my MC project was to choose the best body of evidence to shed light on the ways of creating, perceiving and using images – in short, on the way they function in their socio-cultural world. I found the ideal repository in the tens of thousands of objects that drove one of the most significant, dynamic and popular religious phenomena of Antiquity: the diffusion and reception of the cults of Isis and other Egyptian deities for more than seven centuries across the Hellenistic and Roman worlds (image 2). This Isiac imagery, because of its vast geographic spread, developed throughout various cultural spheres; it was to some extent consistent, but also subject to various formal and semantic changes.

Why is it important for society?

With such a rich set of material, my MC project analyzes the role of visual culture within the processes of culture-contact, mobility and transference in the globalized worlds in Antiquity. In this respect, it perfectly fulfils the current criteria of European research by providing concrete answers to several major societal challenges and developments, for instance increasing multiculturalism and the transformations that result from it. Isis studies are an excellent starting point for the study of the East-West interactions that have forged European cultural identity and its heritage for thousands of years, a process in which Egypt served as a major catalyst.

See this press review (announcing my fellowship):
https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/news/2016/03/“should-we-close-our-borders-not-according-to-the-classical-world

What are the overall objectives?

In order to achieve these goals, I have grounded my MC project in a rigorous methodology to be carried out in concrete steps (image 3). First, it is necessary to compile an overview of this transcultural imagery by focusing on its materiality and context. This evidentiary basis shows us how all these objects and their figurative systems were constantly interacting and evolving during Antiquity. So the second step is to confront them from a geographic and chronologic perspective in order to retrace the living history of this visual culture and ultimately demonstrate the essential role of these media in ancient, and even modern societies.

By means of a multi-disciplinary approach, this project aspires to make significant contributions to a variety of fields: history of religion, art history, archaeology, anthropology, among others. Its breakthroughs are manifested in different kinds of deliverables at each step of the research (see the section 1.2 of the report). The project will continue to generate new research results beyond the end of the fellowship (to which I put an end on August 31, 2018, after having been appointed as Director of the Royal Museum of Mariemont).
WP 1 (see the section 1.2 of the report) concern the research project and include several top deliverables.

One is a thesaurus (the “ThICIS”) to provide a much-needed reference point for all future studies of this material (image 4). The “ThICIS” is a collective undertaking monitored by self-reflective workshops and supported by a database (to be edited online). The ThICIS has been generating catalogues by Ausonius in the “Bibliotheca Isiaca” series and in a new international series, the “Supplements to the Bibliotheca Isiaca” (of which I am co-director as well; see image 5).
This exceptional tool has enabled many exciting new studies presented through lectures and published (or accepted for publications) in international peer-reviewed journals or major volumes of collected papers (see image 6). For instance, the article published in the “Revue Archéologique” 2018.1 a leading international journal based at Paris, retraces the socio-cultural biography of an astonishing Roman bas-relief which was drawn and misrepresented by Pirro Ligorio around the middle of the 16th cent.
A major book compiling 26 contributions, divided into 3 sections devoted to the “agents”, their “images” and their “practices”, has been published in 2018 by Brill after a peer review deeming it as “one of the top 5% in the field (see image 7). As the principal editor, I wrote a substantial introduction proposing a first synthesis reflection on all the questions addressed by the MC project.

WP 2-3 (see the section 1.2 of the report) concern:

* the training and teaching
The research group of my MC supervisor, M.J. Versluys, invited me to take part to many lectures, seminars, conferences related to their VICI-program “Innovating Objects”. My full commitment can be attested by my integration into the PhD committee of a member of the team, S. Müskens. I also participated in trans-faculty frameworks, esp. the lectures of the Material Agency Forum organized by M.J. Versluys, C. Van Eck and P. ter Kreus. All these activities immersed me into a new academic and scientific tradition, enhancing my skills in applications management and Academic English. I have therefore performed as a lecturer in a Research Course Module on “Archaeology of the Mediterranean”.

* the public engagement strategy
Other activities supported a public engagement strategy. I have been contributing to the development of some interactive and collaborative platforms on the web, that could serve as a showcase for current research (such as the “RICIS” online or the “Bibliotheca Isiaca” website). The public was also involved through activities developed in the framework of a major Getty exhibition “Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World” (March 27-September 9, 2018) (see image 8).

See this press review:
https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/news/2018/08/leiden-contribution-to-getty-museum-exhibition
Through this project, a truly remarkable part of European cultural heritage is not only disseminated in scientific communities with an open access policy (see the DMP), but also valorised and communicated to the society at large. In terms of impact, the Getty exhibition was the best example of outreach, a means of bringing scientific knowledge to the general public. The measures for optimizing the impact of the MC project (described in the section 2 of the DoA) are still relevant, even beyond the end of the fellowship. This MC action has significantly furthered to develop, consolidate and disseminate the long standing European research tradition of Isis studies for the scholarly world as well as the general public.