Written by Francisco Rivera
The figure of Antinous has long been considered a standard of ancient beauty and perfection in the field of art history. This status was first endowed by the father of art history, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, in 1756, when he began to explore and categorize the differences in Greek, Greco-Roman, and Roman art. In the current artistic world, statues of Antinous are greatly sought out the world over by collectors and exhibitors, a trend which is also a result of the elevation of Antinous to the level of a beauty standard. It was Antinous’s demure, downward look, tranquil elegance, and anatomical perfection in accordance with the artistic canon which granted the sculptures this rank among ancient art. The establishment of this standard began in ancient times and remained largely unchallenged until even after the time of Winckelmann.
Antinous was a consort of the Roman Emperor Hadrian from around year 120 to 130. The type of relationship between Hadrian and Antinous was common in higher society Rome, as bisexuality was considered to be normal and accepted at the time. The relationship between Hadrian and Antinous is confirmed to have been sexual, and upon Antinous’s death in 130, Hadrian deified Antinous. The practice of deification of dead emperors and their families was common in imperial Rome, but this was more unusual. Hadrian also began to commission many works of art featuring Antinous as the sole subject. The role sexuality plays in Antinous’s identity was instrumental in his establishment as both an art historical “pretty boy” and a character with which homosexuality became synonymous: these associations began in the 18th century with Winckelmann’s work and continue even today.
The ambiguity surrounding the representations of Antinous in art points towards the idea of identity in art. Sculptures of Antinous portray the Bithynian youth in a multitude of guises, as incarnations of different Roman gods. Some frame him as Apollo or Bacchus, which hearkens back to the homoerotic nature of his relationship with Hadrian through full or partial nudity, softened skin, well-defined musculature, and relaxed, languid posing. The same is accomplished by the Antinous Mondragone, which evokes the image of Athena, further feminizing the image of Antinous through sensual curls of long hair, full lips, and a mournful and downcast expression. Other sculptures depict Antinous through the filter of the Egyptian god Osiris, which points towards his Bithynian (as opposed to Roman) roots. His depiction in the guise of Sylvanus, a Roman god of the forest, alludes to Antinous’s proclivity for hunting, which he often participated in alongside Hadrian. The presentation of Antinous as all these deities resulted in the creation of a complex and multifaceted perception of the youth himself. The nuanced character of Antinous as seen in Roman art history illustrates the mutable nature of identity, as well as the difference between identity and the perception of identity. In the case of Antinous, his perceived identity is something of a fusion of different Roman gods, and yet the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The same, I believe, can be said for our own identities. We are not defined by any one trait of our identities, nor are we simply the collection of all those traits, but we are each something more than that entirety. We are not our thoughts nor our bodies, but the awareness of both. We are not the voice inside our heads, but we are instead that which hears it. The many and varied aspects of our identities are all but tools for the manifestation of the inner self, and because of human nature, the tools we use can change. Thus, as time passes and experiences accumulate, the ways in which our identity is expressed change as well. We become more comfortable with and grow into who we are, how we emit that persona into the world, and how that persona is received. At the same time, we are different people to different people. Perception is a reality, and because each individual’s perception is infinitely unique, no two people share the exact same perception of you. Somewhere between expression and perception, parts of identity are lost in translation, and new parts of identity are constructed. The ways in which we are perceived do not define our identities, who we are; rather, the power of defining one’s identity lies only with oneself, through such means as a realization of and connection with the inner self.
The Roman Emperor Hadrian once said that the multitude of representations of Antinous was not emblematic of Antinous being expressed as multiple gods, but rather that all of the gods had come into the figure of Antinous and were each showing through. The varied expressions of our own identity work in much the same way.