Seminario MEDhis (CCHS, Madrid, 8 de octubre 2015): Paul Stephenson, The Serpent Column: A Cultural Biography

Seminario del MEDhis, o
rganizado por Therese Martin y Ana Rodríguez
12.00 del 8 de octubre de 2015

Sala 2D Juan Cabré
Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales del CSIC.
C/ Albasanz, 26-28 (Metro Suanzes)

 The Serpent Column, a bronze sculpture that has stood in Delphi and
Constantinople, today Istanbul, is a Greek representation of the Near
Eastern primordial combat myth: it is Typhon, a dragon defeated by Zeus, and
also Python slain by Apollo. The column was created after the Battle of
Plataia (479 BC), where the sky was dominated by serpentine constellations
and by the spiralling tails of the Milky Way. It was erected as a votive for
Apollo and as a monument to the victory of the united Greek poleis over the
Persians. It is as a victory monument that the column was transplanted to
Constantinople and erected in the hippodrome. The column remained a monument
to cosmic victory through centuries, but also took on other meanings.
Through the Byzantine centuries these interpretation were fundamentally
Christian, drawing upon serpentine imagery in Scripture, patristic and
homiletic writings. When Byzantines saw the monument they reflected upon
this multivalent serpentine symbolism, but also the fact that it was a
bronze column. For these observers, it evoked the Temple’s brazen pillars,
Moses’ brazen serpent, the serpentine tempter of Genesis (Satan), and the
beast of Revelation. The column was inserted into Christian sacred history,
symbolizing creation and the end times. The most enduring interpretation of
the column, which is unrelated to religion, and therefore survived the
Ottoman capture of the city, is as a talisman against snakes and
snake-bites. It is this tale that was told by travellers to Constantinople
throughout the Middle Ages, and it is this story that is told to tourists
today who visit Istanbul.

Paul Stephenson is Head of the School of History and Heritage, University of
Lincoln. In the past two decades Stephenson has been Professor of Medieval
History at Radboud University, Nijmegen, in the Netherlands; Professor of
Medieval History at Durham University; Rowe Professor of Byzantine History
at the University of Wisconsin and Dumbarton Oaks (Trustees for Harvard
University) in the USA. He has also taught for short periods at King’s
College, London, University College, Cork, and the University of California,
San Diego. Stephenson’s published work has focused on the political and
cultural history of the Roman Empire in late antiquity and the Middle Ages,
generally called Byzantium. He is author and editor of several books,
including Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier (2000), The Legend of Basil the
Bulgar-slayer (2003), and Fountains and Water Culture in Byzantium (edited
with Brooke Shilling, 2016), all with Cambridge University Press, and The
Byzantine World (Routledge, 2010). His Constantine: Unconquered Emperor,
Christian Victor (London, 2009; New York, 2010), has been translated into
several languages and appeared in a US History Book Club edition. His next
book, published by Oxford University Press, is The Serpent Column: a
cultural biography.

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