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Goddess of the Hearth

The lack of classical art history at The Courtauld is surprising to say the least. Besides the few classical lectures during Foundations, there is not one Topic Course, Constellation, or master’s programme available to study ancient Greece and Rome. This is odd as classical art has undoubtedly found a way to affect, influence, and sneak into every twist and turn of Western art since the fall of the Roman Empire. However, even I start to get sick of art history’s cyclical obsessions with classical forms. Considering this in the first few weeks of our move to Vernon Square, and in the absence of the accustomed neoclassicism of Somerset House, my mind goes to that nineteenth century drawing by George Scharf - Entrance Hall of Royal Academy - a familiar setting, but filled with an uninspiring and quite frankly nauseating selection of Greek statues and busts, along with those two centaurs we all know and debatably love.

George Scharf, Entrance Hall of Royal Academy, 1836, drawing, 30.48 x 21.16cm, British Museum, London (Photo: British Museum)

I wouldn’t be unhappy if The Courtauld’s lack of ancient studies was simply to allow, finally, a movement away from the overwrought classical tradition. Though that doesn’t mean I’m not going to force it on everyone by writing a bit about classics every fortnight for the Courtauldian this year.

January is always a horrible month. And in these aforementioned months in which we are torn from the loving womb of Mother Somerset House, and flung into the cavernous and empty rooms of a SOAS building, we need a flame with which to light the hearth. Hestia is one of those ancient goddesses we seldom hear about — she is not only the goddess of the hearth, but the goddess of architecture, the right ordering of domesticity, the family, the oikos or household, and the state. While I find my own seasonal retreat into household iconography to be a recurrent symptom of winter and homesickness (London doesn’t shine for me in winter), these domestic concepts were predominant in ancient Greek society. Hestia was always given the first offering of every sacrifice in the household. Greek tragedy never fails to enumerate the catastrophic consequences suffered when a home is broken (see: Clytemnestra), or when the household concept of xenia, hospitality towards guests, is corrupted — not to mention, Odysseus being quite determined to go home in the end, after spending a few (seven) years on an island cheating on his wife.

While Hestia was key to ancient Greek society, representations of her are few and far between. Every prytaneum, or public hearth, was marked a sanctuary to her - very few traditional sanctuaries existed for Hestia. Those that did exist were imageless; the fire in the hearth alone being an appropriate effigy of the goddess, according to Ovid. The Giustiniani Hestia is one of the few freestanding sculptural representations of the goddess (and even the identification of this attribution-less figure is shrouded in assumptions) and it is, in all honesty, one of my least favourite works of Hellenistic art.

Unknown artist, Giustiniani Hestia, c. 460 BC, marble, 1.9m, Museo Torlonia, Rome (Photo: Torlonia Collection)

She has the look of an eighteenth-century conservative perversion of what a Greek goddess should be: uninspired and modelling clothes rather than modelling divinity. However, German art historian Winckelmann cites her as an excellent example of the austere early stage of classical Greek sculpture. Austere indeed. It might be more interesting to breach the boundaries of the Western ancient world and perhaps step into Byzantium, where we can see a tapestry of Hestia, made in Egypt during the 6th century AD. Even though it is a late representation, it still keeps the image of Hestia as the domestic protector, identified as Ἑστία Πολύολβος’, or ‘Hestia Full of Blessings’.

Unknown artist, The Hestia Tapestry, 6th Century, tapestry, 44 x 53 inches, Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Washington (Photo: Wikipedia)

There’s something wonderful about Hestia, daughter of Titans, goddess of a society of hyper-imagery, not having an image attached to her — in the same way that we have such canonical images of Aphrodite or Athena. Some of her mystery may be due to confusion as to whether she was one of the twelve chief gods of the Pantheon. The altar of the gods at the agora firmly shows Hestia, yet the east frieze of the Parthenon replaces her with Dionysus. Stephen Fry’s popular ancient Greek easy-reader Mythos explains this away by suggesting she gave up her seat to Dionysus in order to be present in mortal homes, yet no ancient source suggests any such story is canonical.

We have such little emphasis on the concept of ‘home’ now, especially when living in the often cold and heartless boroughs of London. It feels almost nostalgic to reflect on the lost importance of the hearth, especially with such a nebulous figure with which to project our own comfort onto. Her Orphic description, translated from fragments of one of the few hymns we have about Hestia, still rings of a lost domestic ideal, the symbolic hearth we no longer fraternise with, a place to welcome guests, to eat, to witness and celebrate birth, life and death.

‘…..the strong support of mankind. Eternal, many-formed, beloved, and verdant. Smiling, happy one….’

-Orphic Hymn 84, To Hestia

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