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Signs of the Times: The Cleveland Marbles

Donald A. McColl, Washington College, Summer Fellow 2006

In recent years, such scholars as Paul Corby Finney, Graydon Snyder, and Wolfgang Wischmeyer have asked us to pay more attention to the material culture of early Christianity. My work at Dumbarton Oaks on the problematic group of sculptures representing Jonah and the Good Shepherd in the Cleveland Museum of Art (John L. Severance Fund. 1965.37–47), has tried to do just that.

After convincing curators at Cleveland to allow stable signature isotopic marble analyses of the works, which showed with a high degree of probability that the marble from which they were carved comes from the area around ancient Docimium, in Phrygia (a province in western Asia Minor), I went to Turkey, along with Clayton Fant (University of Akron) and Isabella Sjöström (then of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and now of the British Museum). I not only searched for comparanda in a wide array of provincial museums, but also took stock of recent work in and on the quarries themselves, especially that by Marc Waelkens, which has shown that, in addition to workshops making a wide range of products in pavonazetto for export to Rome and elsewhere, there were workshops or teams at or near Docimium that specialized in sculpture made from a lesser-known, fine-grained, high-quality white marble. In fact, recent work has suggested that such workshops were not only responsible for the vast majority of extant Asiatic columnar sarcophagi, but also that large-scale works in this same marble were exported ready-made to places as far afield as Lepcis Magna.

My working hypothesis is that the Cleveland marbles were made by a sculptor or sculptors who took advantage of the vacuum in the imperial administrative system at Docimium, evident from the time of the trailing off of inscriptions there, around the middle of the third century AD. Inscriptions speak of itinerant sculptors carrying with them slabs of marble, and there is even evidence of Christian artisans making sepulchral monuments out of Docimian marble. This physical evidence is corroborated by my research in archives and elsewhere into the circumstances of the Cleveland Marbles’ appearance on the New York art market, shortly before their purchase by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1965, most of which points to their having been found somewhere in the area around Docimium.

While at Dumbarton Oaks, I have availed myself not only of its singular library resources (I made extensive use of the Princeton Index of Christian Art, Census of Objects of Early Christian and Byzantine Art in North American Collections, and Byzantine Photograph Collection), but also close proximity to colleagues in a wide array of fields, to bring into focus a number of other questions concerning the Cleveland Marbles. These range from their possible original placement in a garden, perhaps one attached to a heröon, or tomb, the likes of which were relatively common in Asia Minor, to the nature of, and sources for, the kind of storytelling involved in the pieces representing Jonah and Good Shepherd.