Johns Hopkins Magazine - June 1995 Issue

Classical Art for Art's Sake

By Dale Keiger

For more than a century, scholars have assumed that images found in classical art all derive from classical texts. By this assumption, Homer, Aeschylus, and other authors created the scenes that artists then rendered pictorially. One had to interpret classical images through the lens of classical texts.

Christian Aellan says this is wrong.

Aellan, visiting assistant professor of classics from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, believes that classical artists possessed a pictorial language independent of epic poetry or plays written for the stage. "Sometimes artists' images are close to what, say, Homer describes," Aellan says. "But other times the differences are so great, one has to doubt. I want to show that imagery has its own grammar, language, and syntax, and we ought to analyze this before we go on to texts. Imagery is not merely an illustration of text.

"Let's say an artist heard a recitation of Homer at the Agora. That does not mean he would compose a scene as Homer did. Artists had their own motifs, themes, and elements that were independent of texts. They did not just copy big authors."

Aellan uses an image of Achilles to make his point. Scholars know, because four commentators (including Aristophanes) mention it, that in one of a lost trilogy of plays by Aeschylus, the playwright has the character of Achilles sit mute and shrouded on the stage for nearly half the play. In a pictorial image that has survived from about 490 B.C.E., an artist also portrayed Achilles as seated, completely shrouded in cloth, grieving for his dead friend, Patroclus. Scholars, says Aellan, have assumed that the artist took the image from the Aeschylus play.

Aellan disagrees. He thinks the scholars have it backwards. "I think we can show in this case that the image of a grieving man or woman completely covered in cloth was very common, a kind of metaphor," he says. He notes, for example, that in The Odyssey, a much older work, Homer portrays a grieving Ulysses shrouding himself. "It must not be an invention of Aeschylus's. I can't prove it, because we have no sure dates [for Aeschylus's plays], but I would say that Aeschylus was influenced by this strong image used by painters." That is, the painter's image preceded, perhaps even inspired, the depiction by Aeschylus.

Scholars generally not only assume that images derive from texts, Aellan says - - they believe that by analyzing images, they can reconstruct the substance of lost texts, which they then use to "analyze" the images. "This cycle is absurd," Aellen argues. "In no way can we recompose a literary text from imagery. Imagery has its own rules."

To follow such standard reasoning, he says, one must not only accept the assumption that images derive from texts. One must also dismiss the idea that artists might have changed an image to suit their purposes. Yet artists did change images, Aellan says. He is an expert on funerary vase painting from southern Italy; he has published a book on it, Searching for the Cosmic Order (Akanthus 1994). On one of these vases, he says, an artist portrayed Leda and the swan. According to the myth (the "text" in this case), Zeus, disguised as a swan, rapes Leda. And in most images, artists portrayed Leda as the myth did - - struggling to fend off the god.

But on the funerary vase, says Aellan, the artist portrayed Leda embracing the swan. Why would the artist so change the myth?

The explanation lies in the context, says Aellan. Ancient Greeks regarded sexual unions between divine figures and humans as miracles that honored the human, and the funerary vase was meant to honor the deceased. So the artist, Aellan surmises, took a myth and remade it into an image not of a rape, but of a human honored by the sexual advance of a disguised deity. "Suddenly," says Aellan, "you realize that artists dared to invent."

If a traditional classics scholar assumed that the artist had merely executed a pictorial representation of a myth, and if that scholar then reconstructed the story of Leda from this one image, the resultant "text" would hardly match the actual myth.

Aellan attributes the emphasis on texts over images to a traditional scholarly bias in favor of philology. The disciplined study of iconography, he points out, is only about 100 years old. The study of classical texts, on the other hand, began in the Middle Ages. He notes that some scholars questioned the primacy of texts over imagery as early as the 18th century: "But they were not considered. They were against the philological point of view of the moment."

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