Bathed in the natural light of the Charles Engelhard Court in The Met’s American Wing, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Diana is among the most iconic works of sculpture in the Museum’s collection. Modeled after the Roman goddess of the hunt, she is depicted here with her bow poised to release her arrow. This pose, reminiscent of Cupid, along with Diana’s exquisitely modeled form and gilded surface, captures the heart and imagination of any viewer.
Diana, derived from the ancient Latin word for sky, served many roles. In addition to being the goddess of hunting, she was also associated with the moon and nature—and was capable of communicating directly with animals. Furthermore, this virgin goddess held special importance in childbirth and as a role model to all women. Praying to Diana was believed to aid in conception, and she was also regarded as the protector of slaves. As such, her mythology reflects Diana’s multifaceted personality: she was at once unpredictable, gentle, pure, virginal, vengeful, unforgiving, and bloodthirsty.
In ancient mythology, Diana resided on high mountains and in sacred woods—mystical places not accessible to ordinary humans—further enforcing her role as a divine being. Oak trees and deer, in particular, were closely associated with Diana.
In most artistic portrayals, Diana appears with her bow and quiver, accompanied by women (presumably other virgins) and animals such as hunting dogs or deer. Often depicted in a tunic and hunting boots, Diana was both strong and beautiful.
Saint-Gaudens’s depiction, however, shows Diana fully nude. Rather than sculpting her with her typical symbols, the artist chose to present only her best-known attribute, the bow and arrow, in a popular 19th-century mode of portraying classical figures unclothed. This likely also reflects the sculpture’s original purpose as a commission for the weathervane that would sit atop Madison Square Garden, until it was demolished in 1925. Knowing that the sculpture would be viewed from a distance, the artist understood that finer details would likely be indistinguishable from this vantage point.
In the 6th century B.C., Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome, was born a slave and had a special appreciation for Diana. During his reign he instituted a tradition of worshiping Diana, beginning with the dedication of her temple on the Aventine Hill. Each year the festival of Nemoralia, or Festival of Torches, was celebrated in the goddess’s honor. During the festival, worshipers would carry torches and candles to Lake Nemi (known as Diana’s Mirror), allowing the flames they carried to dazzle in the moonlight, and would make offerings to her in the hope that she would fulfill the wishes of her devotees. The festival also meant a day of rest for slaves and women.
The rich symbolism that surrounds the goddess Diana has remained fascinating since ancient times, and not just to the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. In 18th-century France, when allegorical portraits were at the height of popularity, Diana was a favorite among aristocratic ladies who wished to be associated with her powerful femininity.
Saint-Gaudens was likely exposed to these portraits in Paris when he attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the 1860s, and later to historical portrayals of Diana in Rome, where he resided during the Franco-Prussian War. Certainly, the gilded bronze from which Saint-Gaudens’s beautiful sculpture in The Met was cast would have been pleasing to the goddess.