Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.04

Verity J. Platt, Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion. Greek culture in the Roman world.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. xviii, 482.  ISBN 9780521861717.  $130.00.  

Reviewed by Jeremy Tanner, University College London (


Epiphany is clearly a topic which ought to be central to both the history of ancient art and the history of Greek and Roman religion, and it is a topic on which both art historians and historians of religion have touched in each generation since the nineteenth century. But no one before Verity Platt has had the courage – or I suspect the breadth of view and range of analytical skills – to take on such a huge subject, extending from Archaic Greece to Late Antiquity, and requiring engagement with such key cultural figures as Phidias, Callimachus, and Philostratus in between. The most impressive feature of this book is that Platt seems to be equally at home as an art historian - engaged in sophisticated and close visual analysis, as a literary critic – explicating the kind of verbal pyrotechnics characteristic of ekphrastic epigrams and the rhetorical texts of the Second Sophistic, and as a historian of religion - grounding a range of epiphanic representations in the contexts of contemporary religious culture and institutions from classical Greece to late antiquity.

In an introductory chapter, Platt sets up the key issues of the book with a close reading of an ekphrasis by Philostratus (Imagines 2.1) describing a painting of an ivory Aphrodite, who is the focus of ritual performance by a chorus of young women: how can a ‘real’ experience of the divine presence be achieved, when such experience is inevitably mediated by human representation? Indeed, in the case of Philostratus, whose ekphrasis echoes the poetry of Sappho amongst others, it is mediated through a deeply layered history of such representations of unmediated presence. As Platt argues, the history of Greek art and thought offers an extraordinarily rich tradition of reflections on this issue. Sometimes these are implicit, encoded in the conventions of votive reliefs and vase-paintings, depicting gods and their images; sometimes they are more explicit and self-conscious, systematic philosophical and theological discussions of how, if at all, transcendent gods might be made manifest to human perception.

The book is divided into three parts. The first focusses on Archaic to Hellenistic Greece; the second on the Second Sophistic; and the third, a kind of epilogue, explores representations of epiphany in Roman sarcophagi, as a material counterpoint to the primarily textual focus of part 2. Platt is throughout particularly concerned to avoid what she sees as a set of false polarities, which have informed recent accounts of Greek art and religion, where a contrast – either temporal or sociological – is drawn between popular and intellectual, sacred and aesthetic, ritual and naturalistic modes of viewing representations of gods. On the contrary, she argues that the contradiction between epiphanic experience as a real contact with the divine, and epiphanic experience as a human cultural construct, is a “cognitive dilemma” intrinsic to Greek religion, and one which is as much at the center of ‘popular’ artefacts, like classical Greek votive reliefs, as of elite texts, such as Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana. The history of the changing discourses, representations and practices of epiphanic experience may be seen as a continually evolving exploration of this dilemma, taking place against the background of changing definitions of exactly what the character of divine beings is, and in the context of changing social, political, and cultural contexts for such reflections. These contexts range from the largely autonomous democratic cities of classical Greece, through those of the Hellenistic world, with their autonomy bounded by the emergence of the Hellenistic kingdoms and the new forms of learning patronised by the Hellenistic kings, to the Roman Greece of the Second Sophistic, characterised by a profound nostalgia for the classical past, and elaborate practices of elite paideia, which sought to bridge the gap between this illustrious past and the disenchanted present. Platt’s general line of argument is to show how texts and images of all these periods open up the cognitive dilemmas of epiphany in ways specific to each period, but resolve them, again in differing and temporally specific ways. Drawing on the theories of anthropologist Catherine Bell, Platt focuses upon processes of ‘ritualization’, which reaffirm the ‘cognitive reliability’ of the cultural representations in question as authentic embodiments of divine presence.

Chapter 1 showcases the different modes of analysis Platt employs throughout the book, treating visual and verbal representations in their own terms, and then using each to interrogate the cognitive dilemmas implicit in the other – in this case votive reliefs and hymns, both presenting epiphanies. Her discussion of classical votive reliefs is the most engaging and intellectually subtle I have read, making particularly good use of marginal images in non-naturalistic modes – generally ignored in earlier discussions – to show how the varieties of epiphanic presence are explicitly thematised in the “multi-stable” (37) representational formulae of such objects. Chapter 2 focuses on the different kinds of epiphanies realised by different types of images in classical Greece, from xoana and aniconic images to the naturalistic cult statues produced by Phidias and his successors. In addition to an innovative reading of the base of the Athena Parthenos cult statue, Platt breaks new ground in her argument about the cognitive contradictions inherent in classical naturalism, and puts this idea to particularly interesting use in an analysis of the use of schematic and naturalistic modes of representation in late fifth century and fourth century relief sculpture (in particular the frieze of the temple of Apollo at Bassai) and vase-painting (images of Palladia in late archaic depictions of the sack of Troy, and the interesting images juxtaposing cult statue and ‘real god’ on South Italian vases).

Chapters 3 and 4, focussing on the Hellenistic period, include some of the most original and important contributions of the book. Previous approaches to Hellenistic artistic culture have drawn a strong opposition between the sophisticated historically self-conscious modes of engagement characteristic of ekphrastic epigram and art history writing, and more specifically religious modes inherited from the classical period. Platt completely rethinks this line of argument and demonstrates the important interactions between inherited religiously-embedded concepts and practices of epiphany, and the highly intellectualised discourses of art history writing and ekphrastic epigram. Particularly innovative and illuminating is her discussion of Damophon of Messene, and his sculptures at Lykosoura. Here Platt draws on an important corpus of inscriptions, hitherto largely ignored in discussions of Damophon, to show that the tension between techne and epiphanic experience, which developed as a result of classical naturalism, was in part resolved by reformulating the role of the artist in terms of a discourse of theosebeia, and alongside sculptural practices that entailed historically self-conscious allusions to exemplary epiphanic images of the classical period. These chapters are a major contribution to our understanding of Hellenistic religious art and will be required reading for all students of the period.

Chapters 5 to 7 take us to the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries, and the cultural phenomenon generally termed ‘the Second Sophistic’. In these chapters, Platt engages with a series of authors who have been the focus of intensive research in the last decade or so – Pausanias, Plutarch, Artemidorus, Aelius Aristeides, Dio Chrysostom and Philostratus. Much has been written on these texts from the point of view of their relevance to art history and issues of visual culture, but Platt is able to bring an original perspective by virtue of her focus on epiphany. Particularly fruitful here is Platt’s ability to place the texts with which she is concerned, and the developments and transformations in discourses of epiphany, in the context of the long term history of Greek art, religion and intellectual culture. This does much to sharpen the reader’s sense of how phenomena characteristic of the Second Sophistic need to be understood against the background of the social and cultural transformations taking place in this crucial transitional period, from the classical world to late antiquity. Platt shows how Second Sophistic writers move from the demonstration of a rather narrowly intellectual paideia - manifested in knowledge and citation of the literary and visual canons, and characteristic of the late Hellenistic period and early Roman empire - to a more intensive engagement with the content of canonical culture, whether the texts of Homer or the statues of Phidias. What she reveals is a kind of re-enchantment industry, in which literary production, reflecting above all on the images and monuments inherited from the classical past, creates a new sense of engagement with the gods and heroes of the Homeric age. As she shows in a series of brilliant readings of specific texts, epiphany is central to this engagement: Athena appearing to Aelius Aristeides as at once the Pheidian Parthenos and the goddess herself, an allegorical clue to the medication he requires, Attic honey; Artemidorus, for whom familiarity with statue iconography provides the key to decoding dreams; Philostratus, for whom Pheidias’ Zeus offers an object lesson in the intuition of true wisdom. But in returning to the icons of traditional religion, the thinkers of the Second Sophistic reframe the character of epiphany, emphasizing the verbally mediated visualisation in the mind over the practical ritual encounter with material objects.

In a book that explores such a wide range of materials, it is inevitable that specialists in particular areas will find details, specific interpretations, or some lines of argument which they find less compelling than others, or perhaps insufficiently developed. In emphasizing the role that epiphany played in providing “cognitive reliability”, both for the existence of the gods and “also for the traditions of representation by which they were known to their worshippers” (12), Platt perhaps plays down too much secular rationalist criticism of epiphanic claims. Platt is clearly aware of cynicism aroused by the political manipulation of epiphany – in the context of Peisistratos return to Athens, accompanied by [a girl dressed as] Athena, for example - but she attributes this to “the continual slippage between presentation and representation”, and “the difficulty of distinguishing between real and mediated presence” characteristic of Greek religious culture (16). Her emphasis, in choice of incidents, texts, and style of analysis is very much on the self-aware “celebration” of these “enduring problems of cognition, interpretation and mediation”, intrinsic to the tradition (13) and the reconciliation of the tension between “analytical” and “devotional attitudes”. The social and cultural conditions under which these intrinsic tensions might be opened up and elaborated are consequently rather underplayed, as also the straightforward application of social power as a means of ‘resolving’ contradictions: for example the expulsion of the philosopher Stilpon from Athens, at the instigation of the Areopagus, after he had used syllogistic argument as a means to force the distinction between the analytical and the devotional attitudes towards Athena Parthenos as either the work of Pheidias or the daughter of Zeus (Diogenes Laertius II.116).

Similarly, I would be less inclined than Platt to read the Hellenistic ekphrastic epigrams on the Aphrodite of Knidos as articulations of a religious experience as real as, for example, the epiphanies evoked in the Homeric hymns. She argues very persuasively that the rhetorically self-conscious and ironic poetic stance of these epigrams neutralises their specifically religious force, in favour of an emphasis on the human artistic techne of Praxiteles – part of the larger project of Hellenistic art historical discourse. Platt, however, then qualifies this argument by suggesting that such ekphrastic poems do “allow the goddess herself to enter the reader’s experience”, through the constitutive literary trope of ekphrasis, seeking to make vividly present an absent object (the statue), a trope “that performs the ever unrequited nature of desire” (209). This claim seems to me only to work by blurring the boundaries between the logic of the ancient critical discourses, which Platt is seeking to analyse, and the implicit broadly Lacanian account of cultural representation, which she brings into play here. Exactly the same logic – “the eternal play of desire and denial, of presence and absence, that characterises representation” – would equally be true in a (Lacanian) reading of any ekphrastic epigram, for example of the mooing of Myron’s cow, which we would, I assume, be less inclined to experience as a manifestation of the power of Aphrodite.

Platt’s book is nothing if not interdisciplinary in its critical engagement with materials and perspectives proper to literary criticism, history of religion and art history. In that respect it represents a real challenge to all these fields: to art historians who use texts merely as sources to illuminate images, rather than as cultural representations that need reading in their own right; to historians of Greek religion for whom images serve merely as illustrations of texts; and for scholars of literature for whom the contexts of texts are simply more texts, eschewing serious engagement with visual representations and broader systems of material cultural practice. But if Platt has not had the last word on epiphany, it is perhaps because one might wish for an even more interdisciplinary approach, framing textual and visual analysis within a stronger sociology or anthropology of cultural representation. That said, any future progress in our understanding of Graeco-Roman epiphany will certainly presuppose detailed engagement with Platt’s path-breaking contribution.

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