Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 10, 1995

Exhibit Lets Classical Images Speak For Themselves

By Lisa Mastny

     It seems like everywhere we turn these days, we are
bombarded by images.

     And we have come to rely on images to comprehend our world,
to help us make sense of the larger issues surrounding our lives. 

     But images haven't always had so much hype. They weren't
always considered open windows to a society's culture and

     Twelve years ago, a group of French and Swiss archaeologists
rocked the community of classical scholars when they developed a
purely image-based approach to the study of ancient Greece.
Instead of focusing on the literary achievements of the
Hellenistic era--the historic texts and time-worn characters
carved in stone--they hoped to get a sense of the ancient Greek
world through its imagery alone, through the elaborate art
adorning otherwise simple storage urns and drinking vessels.  
     Drawing on the vast resources of archaeological collections
worldwide, these scholars compiled a book of these images with a
single premise in mind: let the images speak for themselves, with
their own language and voice, as documents of an extinct culture.

     Despite grumbling from more conventional classicists, the
book, "A City of Images: Religion and Society in Ancient Greece,"
proved a great success. Detailed enlargements of the photographs
began to grace exhibition halls throughout Europe, and visitors
were able to observe first-hand and interpret for themselves the
frenzied wine festivals and sacrificial rites of the ancient

     But although the book was published in the United States in
1989 by the Princeton University Press and translated into
English, the exhibit had never been displayed outside Europe.
Until now.

     Last week, several of the panels appeared on the walls of
the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, bringing the otherwise vacant
hallway outside the Garrett Room alive with large photos of Greek

     The exhibit, "Bodies, Faces, Gestures," was arranged by the
Classics Department in collaboration with the authors of the
original book of vase images. Several of these authors joined
Hopkins faculty and visiting scholars at a conference at Homewood
last week to discuss whether their research and methodology is
still valid more than a decade after the first compilation of the

     "A progressive criticism is under way right now, with the
very people who did the research continually challenging their
own premises about the role of imagery in classical studies,"
said Giulia Sissa, chairwoman of the Classics Department and
university coordinator of the display. "With both the exhibit and
the conference at Hopkins, we are really right at the heart of
this debate right now."

     Dr. Sissa was delighted when the library agreed to show the
display for one month in a hallway not usually reserved for such

     "It is a very visible American premiere of this unique
exhibit," she said. "The posters are extremely beautiful, large
and readable, and they reproduce the Greek vase paintings in
great detail."

     The displayed images come from archaeological collections
all over the world, including those of the British Museum, the
Louvre, the Athens National Museum and other renowned museums in
Italy and Great Britain.

     Dr. Sissa pursued the idea of the exhibit because she felt
it would introduce to scholars the unique, non-textual approach
to the study of the ancient world.

     "No one before had really ever tried to approach the images
in Greek art completely independently from other texts," she
said.  "But these art historians think that they have rules and
specificities of their own, just like any verbal language, and
can be interpreted in their own right."

     While the images of hunting practices or mythological beings
painted on the vases may seem unrealistic, they provide great
insight into the cultural ideas of civilizations we otherwise
know very little about, Dr. Sissa said.

     "The main philosophy behind the book and the exhibit is to
learn to be cautious when you see 'realistic' images," she said.
"Because they are not realistic. They are constructs, illustrated
ideas, and not necessarily reflections of what actually happened
in Greek society. What we learn from them are certain main ideas
the society had about humanity, life and death, civilization and
nature, men and gods."

     Greek attitudes toward murder, for example, can be inferred
by studying and comparing certain images of sacrifice and
offering, Dr. Sissa said.

     "In almost all the paintings of banquets and rituals, you
find that the artists avoided showing the actual violence of
sacrifice," she said. "You see the procession and the moments
leading up to it, and you see the offering at the altar
afterwards, but you never see the specific moment of violence,
the killing of the animal. The Greeks didn't view 'good'
sacrifice as murder, so by not showing the knife they avoided the
ambiguity and associations with murder that might otherwise

     Similarly, unrealistic images of mythical beings such as
satyrs playing with wine, but not drinking it, may reflect
ancient attitudes toward alcohol consumption, Dr. Sissa said.

     In addition to images of wine, ritual and sacrifice, the
exhibit illustrates eroticism, war, the hunt and warrior

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