Project (2018)

Sight, Description, and Knowledge in Imagines of the Elder Philostratus

My research at MPIWG forms part of a larger project on a Greek text of the early third century AD: the Imagines (Eikones–‘images’) composed by the Elder Philostratus. The Imagines purports to describe a gallery of some 65 or so panel paintings, displayed in a private collection on the bay of Naples. Philostratus was writing at the height of the so-called “Second Sophistic,” and for an audience as au fait with the history and critical reception of classical literature as they were with ancient art.

The project centers around a specific text, and reflects my “classicist” and “art historical” training. But the questions with which Philostratus has us grapple, I want to suggest, have a transferable relevance for the MPIWG. How do we “describe” what we see (or for that matter, what we do not)? What cultural parameters are at work here? Likewise, in what ways do images represent things in ways that are like—or unlike—words? Indeed, what is the precise relationship between knowing, seeing, and describing?

What makes the Imagines so rich are Philostratus’ self-referential games. As the Imagines proem explains, the text is presented as a series of speeches; it addresses a young boy and a crowd of youths, imagined as inspecting each painting alongside our speaking author. At the same time, Philostratus explicitly plays with that fiction: the text knows full well that, despite all its invitations for readers to “see” the paintings, our only access to this gallery comes through the verbal lens of his intricately crafted text. The result is a work that interrogates not only the relations between words and pictures, but also the mechanics of “seeing”: Philostratus pitches the imagined resources of vision against the figurative fantasies of the subjective imagination.

My research in Berlin forms part of a monograph on the Imagines, co-written with Jaś Elsner (Oxford/Chicago). On the one hand, our book will investigate the Imagines within its specific artistic, literary, and intellectual context. On the other, we explain the importance of this text within the broader disciplinary parameters of visual culture studies—as indeed intellectual history at large.