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"Janus Agri Altar" Maquette

Who Am I? Exhibition

Published onAug 24, 2020
"Janus Agri Altar" Maquette

Janus Agri Altar Maquette, 1986
Beverly Pepper (American, 1922–2020)
Bronze with wood base
Commissioned from the artist by University Museums, Iowa Art in State Buildings Project for Agronomy Building. In the Art on Campus Preparatory Studies and Maquette Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

Artist’s Statement

When Iowa State University asked me to do a work on the site of the Agricultural Building [now Agronomy Hall], they suggested that the sculpture reflect the agricultural business in some way. Using the iconography of farm tools, Janus Agri Altar evolved into what I consider to be a seminal piece.

Today’s tools are too sophisticated to engender any visual dialogue in the context of my work. For this reason, I researched antique farm tools common to the area. I focused on a farmer’s spade, and taking this simple form to its furthest extreme, the imagery was transformed. One could not identify the sculpture as a farmer’s spade without some knowledge of this process.

Janus, one of the principal Roman gods, is typically represented with two bearded heads placed back to back so that he might look in all directions at once. While representations of Janus are usually horizontal, I felt this altar had to be vertical – as if it was a mirror image created by standing in a still pool of water. An altar is a place where one refreshes the spirit and looks inside oneself. I wanted to create a peaceful symbol. The Janus Agri Altar is self-reflective in this sense – both looking inward and focusing outward.

Beverly Pepper
Artist, 1986

Interpretation 1

For the past 21 years I have walked past the Janus Agri Altar sculpture by Beverly Pepper in the Agronomy Courtyard twice per day, once on my way to my office and once as I am leaving to go home. I can see the sculpture from my office suite. It is always present in my life.

The description of the sculpture on the University Museums’ webpage, notes that, “While representations of Janus are typically horizontal, Pepper created the sculpture on a vertical plane, reminiscent of an image reflected in a pool of water.”

When I look at the Janus Agri Altar, what I see is not a reflection in a pool, but a reflection of above and below the soil surface. The two anvils in the vertical plane represent crop production that we see above ground and crop production that is occurring below the soil surface.

The above-the-soil production is easy to see: it is the shades of green in the field, it is the growth of more and bigger leaves, it is the flowers that are pollinated and fertilized in order to produce fruit, and it is the harvest that feeds us, feeds animals, feeds our cars, and shelters and clothes us. Although in agronomy we often think about the harvestable yield in pounds, bushels, or tons, we should remember that the crop production can give us beauty. In my career some of my favorite highlights are watching amber waves of grains (wheat) in the breeze of the Palouse Hills of Washington, the beauty of white flowers in a large field of potatoes in Maine, the beauty of white puffs of cotton in the fields of North Carolina, and the beauty of blue flowers of flax and the yellow flowers of canola in my research plots in Iowa. Crop production above the soil is ubiquitous, known, and admired.

As much as I love and understand production above the soil surface, the activity below the soil surface is what truly fascinates me, in part because I am still learning about it – and learning is exciting – and because what is hidden below is manifested in what we see and harvest. It is the soil that anchors the plant, that stores the water for plant growth and photosynthesis.  Soil is more than the mineral soil particles, it is an entity that is alive, a living ecosystem. Soil microorganisms in a healthy habitat decompose organic matter, cycle nutrients which reduces the need for applied fertilizers, and provide soil aggregate stability, which reduces soil erosion. The earthworms and other macroorganisms aerate the soil increasing the health of roots and plants.

Healthy soil is the real wealth of Iowa, not the harvested bushels of corn and soybeans. Soil health is what determines our success in the future; it is a gauge of environmental health. Some people go so far as to say that soil health is the indicator of the health of civilization.

Dr. Mary Wiedenhoeft
Morrill Professor, Agronomy

Interpretation 2

The Janus Agri Altar is not the most “classical” looking sculpture on campus, at least according to the common understanding of the term. It lacks the columns and inscriptions of Beardshear or Curtiss Hall, or the ideally proportioned sculptural Muses on Marston. Nevertheless, it does communicate what has always been to me the most compelling aspect of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds: the foreignness, even the strangeness, of them. While we are accustomed to think of the Greeks and Romans as our intellectual ancestors, and while their influence is to be found all over the university (everywhere from the architecture to the very names of the disciplines we study and teach), the truth is that we are separated from them by a span of thousands of years, a distance in time which is itself dwarfed by the many differences in worldview that it engenders. To get to know the Greeks and the Romans is a difficult task. They saw the world so differently than we do. And yet, it is also possible to find some kinship, some similarity between them and ourselves. Some of that similarity is the result of influence.  Some, however, is an outgrowth of our shared humanity. To come to know these ancient peoples is a way to meet a complete other, but also to meet ourselves.  

In the Aeneid of Vergil, the hero Aeneas visits the site where the city of Rome will one day stand. The poet blends the description of the rustic village Aeneas saw in the ancient past with the imperial metropolis it would one day become, the city Vergil and his first readers inhabited. But another city is there as well. High on the hills, Aeneas’ guide points out to him the ruins, ancient even in the ancient past, of the fortresses of the kings Saturn and Janus, the very same Janus in fact after whom this sculpture is named. This scene beautifully demonstrates the ways in which the past is both deeply strange - was Janus a god or a human? - and also an abiding part of the present. It is this duality which the Altar conjures for me, and I am glad to encounter it as I walk the campus.

Dr. Alexander Hall
Assistant Teaching Professor of Classical Studies and Latin

Interpretation 3

Beverly Pepper’s sculpture Janus Agri Altar stands tall in the courtyard of Agronomy Hall. Similar to the mysterious black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it has a foreboding presence. As I sit on the circular bench to the south of the sculpture, it appears to float above the ground despite its robust and top-heavy bronze frame.

As an altar, I take the sculpture as a site to be engaged. Ancient Romans went to altars to offer animal sacrifices to the gods, but I don’t want to ask Iowa State groundskeepers to clean up such a mess. Thankfully, altars can also be sites of reflection and communion with gods and goddesses. I commune, so to speak, with the deity Janus.

Romans associated Janus with transitions and gateways. They depicted him as two-faced, looking backwards and forwards. The sculpture, in an abstract fashion, represents Janus through its symmetrical design. The rounded notches on the right and left appear to me as mouths. The sculpture looks to the past and to the future. The sculpture itself marks the moment and psychology of transition.

Janus is an apt god for summer, 2020.

Our society is in a moment of transition. Most obviously this is because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted life in Ames and around the world. Being in this moment—looking backwards at the world that used to be and looking forward to the world that is coming but not yet arrived—feels less like a process and more like we are stuck in the in-between.

Iowan farmers are feeling this. The sculpture’s relationship with agriculture is evident in its name (agri). Like Janus, farmers, dependent as they are on the seasons, are always looking backwards and forwards, constantly gauging past and future crop yields, the rhythms of nature, and the ebbs and flows of markets. The pandemic has made the relationship between past and future especially murky. Some farmers have had to kill livestock they previously thought would be purchased. The cost to grow corn and soybeans might be more than their market price this fall. Some Iowans could lose their farms. It is not their fault. They didn’t—couldn’t—see what was coming. Now farmers, like everyone, are stuck waiting to see what happens.

It is not just COVID-19. We face multiple and intersecting crises. The pandemic has underlined existing flaws in our culture, government, and economy. The US is not quite the global superpower it used to be, for better or worse. We have hollowed out many of our government institutions. Our responsibility to each other is clashing with our worship of individuality. We have imperiled basic democratic virtues and mechanisms. Black Lives Matter is an inspiring new movement in response to an old problem.

My point is that, even more than usual, we don’t know the future, except that it will be different from what my friends call the “Before Times,” our lives before the pandemic. Ancient Romans, who often adorned important gates with the figure of Janus, believed that these moments of being in-between were powerful, full of possibility and danger. Beverly Pepper’s sculpture embodies this dynamic. It is mysterious, threatening, and, through the simplicity of its form, latent with potential.

It’s an altar for our times.

Jeffrey Wheatley
Lecturer, Philosophy and Religious Studies


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