Temple pediment and Gorgon's head

This is the best known object in the Roman Baths collection and has fascinated scholars and the public since its discovery in 1790.  As a work of art the quality of workmanship is exceptional for Roman Britain and it is now generally recognised that it is probably the work of sculptors from Gaul in the later first century AD.

The pediment was supported originally by four large, fluted columns.  The very powerful central image of the Gorgon’s head glowered down from a height of 15 metres on all who approached the temple. The pediment is full of allusions.  In the corners are Tritons, half men and half fish servants of the water god Neptune.  In the lower left centre ground is a face helmet in the form of a dolphin’s head. The small owl tucked away to the lower right of the large central roundel is also almost certainly perched at the top of another helmet.

The central head is held aloft by female 'Victories', on a shield ringed with oak leaves, and the Victories stand on globes.  The great head itself has snakes entwined within its beard, wings above its ears, beetling brows and a heavy moustache.  Above all this, in the apex of the pediment, is a star.

What this collection of images means has been keenly debated for more than two hundred years.  The significance of the name – The Gorgon’s head – is linked to a particular interpretation that sees the snakes entwined within the beard and hair of the central head as indicating that it represents the head of the Gorgon, a mythical creature killed by the Greek hero Perseus with the assistance of the goddess Athena.  Perseus then gave the head to the goddess and she bore it thereafter on her breastplate.

As the Roman Minerva was the same deity as the Greek Athena, with the same powers and attributes, this interpretation seems very reasonable.  Where better to place an image of the Gorgon than directly over the entrance to her temple.  A problem with this interpretation is that the Gorgon was female, and the character at the centre of this pediment is most decidedly not.  In this interpretation the gender difference is explained by suggesting that the carving of the Gorgon has been styled to reflect a combination of Celtic and classical imagery.

An alternative interpretation sees the central head as the image of a water god.  It has similarities with other depictions of water gods known from Britain, such as the image of Oceanus on the great silver dish from Mildenhall.


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