Religious art and the visibility of slaves in Pompeii

Jen Trimble (Stanford)
Denny 112 and over Zoom (registration details below)
How did Roman street shrines work as religious art?  And what did this mean for the experience of the people involved?  Previous scholarship has treated images in domestic or street shrines simply as “non-elite” art or “folk art”.  What has not been considered is how the positioning, framing, and iconography of this imagery helped construct different kinds of divinities and how mortals should encounter them.  Nor do we yet have a way of assessing the very different workings of this art during rituals versus any other time.  
To address these questions, I focus on a street shrine in Pompeii (IX.11.1), which consisted of an altar and several wall-paintings.  This visual art structured the relationship between humans and the sacred.  At this shrine, as in other street and domestic shrines at Pompeii, different kinds of divinities (Olympian gods, Lares, chthonic serpents) in their respective spaces were depicted as simultaneously visible and unreachable, present and absent.  On ritual occasions, attention was focused on the altar itself; there, the burning of offerings and its attendant smoke activated the images in specific ways, connecting the lived space of the street to the religious dimensions seen in the paintings.  At other times, when people passed by along the sidewalk or fetched water at the adjacent fountain, the altar and wall-paintings were not activated or experienced in the same way, although their presence and visual reminders of that other world remained important.
Taking this art seriously as religious art matters also for understanding the depiction of the vicoministri, four enslaved officials who are seen in one of the painted panels on the wall behind the altar.  These men were depicted in mid-ritual, making offerings; their slave-names were painted on the wall above.  The evidence indicates that these men commissioned and paid for their own self-representation here.  Importantly, within this shrine, they mobilized the same artistic constructions of space, differentiation, and presence seen in the shrine’s other images.  In other words, we are seeing here a savvy and strategic agency on the part of these enslaved men to claim a measure of visibility in public space—if only on the very limited terms allowed by their roles as vicoministri.
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