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  • Apparitions Apparent:Ekphrasis and the Parameters of Vision in the Elder Philostratus’s Imagines
  • Michael Squire (bio)

sed quemadmodum si litteras pulchras alicubi inspiceremus, non nobis suffice-ret laudare scriptoris articulum, quoniam eas pariles, aequales decorasque fecit, nisi etiam legeremus quid nobis per illas indicaverit: ita factum hoc qui tantum inspicit, delectatur pulchritudine facti ut admiretur artificem; qui autem intel-legit, quasi legit. aliter enim videtur pictura, aliter videntur litterae. picturam cum videris, hoc est totum vidisse, laudasse: litteras cum videris, non hoc est totum; quoniam commoneris et legere.

But if we were looking at beautifully written letters somewhere, it would not suffice for us to praise the hand of the writer—the fact that he has made them uniform, symmetrical, and elegant—unless we were also reading what, through them, he has conveyed to us. In the same way, the person who views this deed [Christ’s miracle of the loaves and fishes] might be so pleased with the deed’s beauty as to admire the person performing it. Yet the person who understands it is, as it were, the person who reads. For a picture is looked at in one way, and letters are looked at in another. When you have seen a picture, the activity is complete: to have seen is to have praised. When you have seen letters, the thing is not complete, for you are reminded also to read.

Augustine, In Evang. Iohan. (Tractatus 24), 2

This volume investigates the many ways in which modes and practices of viewing were conceptualized in the ancient Greek world. The contributors have turned to both archaeological and literary products, and have used these various ‘traces’ to excavate a lost discourse of seeing, while formulating (according to the conventions of twenty-first-century academic prose) the social, political, and intellectual parameters of viewing in cultural historical perspective. But ancient Greek authors were themselves acutely sensitive to the stakes of theorizing sight in language—of translating visual stimuli, and the act of critically responding to them into spoken or written discourse. How, if at all, can words mediate sight? In what ways do texts function like images, and images like texts? And which medium better represents the hermeneutics of perception: pictures for viewing, or words for reading?

Such questions stretch back to the very beginnings of the Greek literary [End Page 97] tradition. Indeed, they might be said to have their conceptual origins in the Homeric description of the shield of Achilles (Book 18 of the Iliad). To my mind, Homer was the first to probe, and indeed contest, the respective limits of words and pictures. At the same time, Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield also laid the ground for critical conventions of analogizing visual and verbal modes of representation: by orally invoking pictures that paradoxically talk, sound, and sing, the shield forged by the Homeric Hephaestus itself forged a tradition of theorizing vision in terms of voice, and vice versa.1 According to Plutarch, it was Simonides who coined the subsequent aphorism that “painting is silent poetry and poetry is talking painting.”2 But this framework for coming to terms with vision remained a literary critical mainstay. If, as Michael Baxandall (1985, 107) diagnosed, viewing is always a “theory-laden” activity, Greek discourses of vision were loaded with an associated ideology of voice: in the Greek cultural imaginary, and across a remarkably long timespan, theorizing viewing meant relating it to the parallel processes of hearing and reading.3

While this tradition of conceptualizing sight stretches back to the beginnings of Greek literature, it also stretches forwards to the murky transition from late antique to early medieval intellectual thinking. As the opening epigraph wonderfully attests, Augustine (writing between the late fourth and early fifth centuries CE) also theorized the act of seeing in terms of reading. Where classical forebears tended to champion the parallels between words and pictures, however, Augustine exploited the analogy in order to champion the supremacy of language. According to this new, theologically-informed paradigm of the Word (and of the “Word Made Flesh”), the comparison between viewing and reading only underscored the phenomenological superiority of the latter over the former. For Augustine, forging an analogy...


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pp. 97-140
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