BMCR 2004.04.18

The Parallel Worlds of Classical Art and Text

, The parallel worlds of classical art and text. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. xv, 253 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 0521815223 $75.00.

Like the tropics that circle the globe, parallel lines extend infinitely without intersection. So suggests Jocelyn Penny S[mall] about ancient literature and images in The Parallel Worlds of Classical Art and Text. The book’s overall lessons should be of interest to classicists, archaeologists, and art historians who seek interdisciplinarity: that the pictures produced by ancient artists reflect oral traditions rather than texts, that images cannot be used to reconstruct lost texts, and that illustration as we understand it today is a relatively late phenomenon. What distinguishes S’s book from a number of other works on the topics of art and text is the author’s insistence on the distinct lack of clear intersections between the written and painted image.1 The book’s primary question serves as the title of the first chapter: “What does it mean to illustrate a text?” Citing Kurt Weitzmann’s claim that “Illustrations are physically bound to the text whose content the illustrator wants to clarify by pictorial means…” (2), S questions whether ancient artists were illustrators at all and whether literary texts provide an archetype for classical images.

S casts her net admirably broadly. Chapters 2-4 proceed chronologically from Archaic and early Classical painting (Chapter 2), to Classical imagery (Chapter 3), to Hellenistic and Roman art (Chapter 4).2 As S herself explains, “I do not propose new interpretations of objects, since I might be thought to have skewed individual interpretations to fit my theories. I focus narrowly on the issue of whether artists were dependent on texts for their scenes and, if so, how dependent?” (4). For the media S explores in these first chapters, the answer is a resounding no. Instead, S proposes a model of oral transmission with her claim that artists throughout antiquity were illustrating stories not texts. In Chapter 5, S provides a chronological overview of true illustrated texts from antiquity, which include technical illustrations (maps, plans, diagrams, scientific drawings), compendia of portraits, and the pictures that accompany literary works. Technical drawings and portraits, however, differ from complex illustrations of narrative, which score on the test of textual exegesis as poorly in Late Antiquity as they did in the Archaic period. Chapter 6 serves as the book’s capstone with its exclamatory title, “There is no original!” Here S explores the preferential status of variants over mimetic fidelity, noting how the combination of sources (oral, visual, mnemonic) offers a rich palette for the ancient artist, much as texts provide the tools for authors. These non-textual sources become prime currency for painters to whom S ascribes limited access to written material. Inspired by the orally transmitted story, artists create variants, which approach but rarely touch the parallel literary realm.

In Chapters 2-4, S provides a number of case studies that support her “new model” (7) of oral transmission as she debunks one-to-one comparisons between images and the texts to which we might otherwise be tempted to draw associations. S’s second chapter, “The Evidence from Archaic and Early Classical Greek Art,” has its roots in Homeric epic and the mythic tradition. Through the examination of painted scenes, such as Sophilos’ depiction of the Games of Patroklos or the dragging of Hektor on a black-figure hydria from the Leagros Group, S concludes that Archaic artists aim to depict plausible stories, not accurate illustration. Inscribed names rescue stock scenes from obscurity and allow modern readers to associate parole and image, but this does not correspond to ancient illustration. An image cannot match a text, S asserts, if it contains elements that contradict the literary plot or fails to include those salient details that mark an episode as distinctive for its reader. For the Homeric corpus in particular, where virtually all addressed images fail the test of verisimilitude, S’s oral model comes as news to few scholars of ancient epic, many of whom might argue that the beauty of orality lies in the freedom it gives a composer (poet or artist) to personalize the traditional story, and that variants were still performed after the codification of the poems.3

S continues her oral approach in Chapter 3, “The Evidence from Greek Plays,” warning of the circularity and erroneous nature of attempts to use vase-painting for the reconstruction of lost dramatic works. By S’s reckoning, no certain representations of extant plays survive on Attic vases, and the number increases only marginally with the inclusion of the South Italian corpus. The scene of Telephos threatening Orestes on an Apulian bell-krater by the Schiller Painter, ca. 370 B.C. — a representation of Ar. Thesm. 704-56 — stands as a lone example. Painted appearances of Andromeda, Medea, Helen, Oedipus, etc. all fail to exhibit pictorial dependency on texts or dramatic performances, argues S, critiquing the interpretations of Green, Taplin, Shapiro, and others who suggest overlap.4 S forcefully proclaims that the beauty of classical myth lies in its flexibility. As she later notes (159), we should be no more surprised by the notion that Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides all wrote contradicting plays about the house of Atreus than by the fact that artists followed similarly separate paths. And yet, few scholars of ancient drama would argue that the differences between, for example, the anagnorisis scenes of Aeschylus’ Choephoroi and Euripides’ Elektra fail to exhibit conscious interplay. S ably demonstrates that we cannot seek one-to-one correspondences between text and art according to her rigorous standards, but leaves the floor open for explanation. Did some conscious interplay lead to the development of the two traditions and dare we seek moments of exchange across the ‘parallel’ worlds?

Only in the Hellenistic period does S begin to entertain the possibility of crossover, as we learn in Chapter 4, “The Evidence from Hellenistic and Roman Art”. Terracotta relief bowls with inscribed excerpts and titles provide for S “the first direct evidence that artists knew specific texts and were interested not just in depicting stories but specific versions of those specific stories told by specific writers” (79). Yet even here, when the conscious attention to word and image cannot be ignored, S is able to point out inconsistencies: in an Odyssean scene, Athena, named as Mentor in the Homeric text, is figured as female; an inscribed Elektra stands near her sacrificial sister and the young Orestes, but is mentioned nowhere in Euripides’ play, despite the bowl’s title ΕΥΡΙΠΙΔΟΥ ΙΦΙΓΕΝΕΙΑΣ. In sculpture, wall painting, historical relief, and coinage, S seeks and finds discrepancies between text and depiction in support of her claim for the ambiguous usage of literary sources, confirming once again that, while labels and excerpts might be used to give a “patina of literacy” (93) to scenes designed to appeal to the literati of the early Roman Empire, these labels ensure no more faith to the text than did the nonsense inscriptions of Archaic vase-painting. For the Romans as well as the Greeks, however, the reader might wonder about questions of conscious allusion and ask what forms of intertext or perhaps “interart” are at work in the reinterpretation of stories by painters and sculptors. How do the creators of visual culture work within a discursive framework that allows for both appropriation and innovation of the textual and artistic traditions?

“Yes, Virginia,” opens S in Chapter 5, “there are illustrated texts from classical antiquity” (118), ranging from technical illustrations to compendia of portraits to true illustrated literary works in the form of the Late Antique codex, the Vatican Vergil. For technical drawings, by far the earliest type of true accompanying ‘illustration’, S collects much of the literary evidence for the maps, plans, diagrams, and figures that might have accompanied written treatises, verbal descriptions of where in the text these illustrations would appear, as well as the earliest evidence for manuscripts that survive with their associated drawings. Interesting tidbits arise here, including a note to the recent discovery of a fragmentary papyrus of the Geographoumena of Artemidorus of Ephesus from ca. 50 B.C. with an outline map (121). Varro’s De viris illustribus presents something of a watershed in the world of illustration with its 700 portraits integrated with the text. For S, illustrations beyond simple diagrams begin in the second half of the first century B.C. and gradually develop over subsequent centuries. Nonetheless, S’s careful comparisons between text and picture in the illuminated Vatican Vergil lead her to suggest that there are few substantive changes in the representation of complex narrative between the Archaic period and Late Antiquity: “Artist and writer go their own ways. Each tells his own tales” (154).

With her sixth and concluding chapter, S helpfully summarizes much of the information presented earlier, reiterating her notion of the variant that privileges artistic license over imitative fidelity to a particular text or earlier work of art. S applies her warning against using pictures to reconstruct lost texts to the frequent scholarly game of using Roman copies to reconstruct Greek originals. It is futile, S argues contra Weitzmann, to set as one’s analytic goal discovery of the “iconographically purest version of the archetype” (156). In S’s world of oral transmission, where writers and artists pursue independent and parallel paths, “the variant is king and there is no original!” (176).

In the end, S leaves her readers to pursue two avenues of thought. The first is a practical lesson from which all might profit: think twice before assuming that ancient art equals ancient illustration, and make no assumptions that a picture must have any connection to a thousand words. At the same time, the work opens the stage for a number of promising avenues of investigation, particularly when we remember that although parallel lines never cross, they may run less than a hair’s width apart. If ancient art is not illustration, what is it? What social, political, psychoanalytical, gendered, or other factors lead to the production of visual culture alongside oral and literary culture? An example S provides in her final chapter is telling. What happened, she explains, when students drew an illustration of the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood”? (157-8). S uses the anecdote to highlight her point that without consulting a text, each student created an image from which the story was recognizable to external observers. Therefore, Classical artists did not depend on texts, S concludes. But S’s characterization of the exercise makes me wonder: Does the fact that the students drew without consulting a text mean that they were never exposed to one? How do S’s individual students interpret the remembered story differently in their art? S gives tantalizing hints of some of the issues at stake in her concluding ruminations, “How do you depict understanding? How do you depict the fact that an elephant is not standing next to me as I write…? How do you depict action in a single frame?” (173). And how do social factors inspire both the visual and literary cultures that survive as our primary records? The questions have been quite recently addressed by contemporary scholars who puzzle through interconnections between images and the theoretical or ideological concerns of their creators.5 Such explorations too raise perhaps as many questions as they answer, but this productive ambiguity may be what S’s cautious warnings invite, as she offers a useful preface for informed new approaches to the visual culture that transcends illustration.


1. These include: T.H. Carpenter, Art and Myth in Ancient Greece (London 1991); H.A. Shapiro, Myth into Art: Poet and Painter in Classical Greece (London 1994); and most recently S. Woodford, Images of Myth in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge 2003).

2. S omits only Geometric art and the “muddying” Etruscan evidence. The Geometric corpus, as S points out, has been recently explored by A. Snodgrass, Homer and the Artists: Text and Picture in Early Greek Art (Cambridge 1998).

3. Philological scholarship on oral epic, ranging from Milman Parry to John Miles Foley, is cited nowhere in cited in S’s bibliography, the balance of which leans rather heavily toward the visual end of the spectrum. And if orality is at the center of the argument, why not engage with scholars such as E.A. Mackay (e.g. Oral Tradition 10 (1995) 282-303), whose work on iconography sets up parallels between the very modes of composition utilized by painters and poets? On the topic of bibliography, there is also the curious editorial practice of listing all entries with an ‘a’ after the date, regardless of whether there is also a ‘b’ or ‘c’.

4. J.R. Green, “On Seeing and Depicting the Theater in Classical Athens,” GRBS 32 (1991) 15-50; O. Taplin, Comic Angels and Other Approaches to Greek Drama Through Vase Painting (Oxford 1993); H.A. Shapiro (1994).

5. Including, but by no means limited to the recent publication of G. Ferrari, Figures of Speech: Men and Maidens in Ancient Greece (Chicago 2002); R.T. Neer, Style and Politics in Athenian Vase-Painting: The Craft of Democracy, ca. 530-460 B.C.E. (Cambridge 2002); the forthcoming T. Hölscher, The Language of Images in Roman Art: Art as a Semantic System in the Roman World (Cambridge 2004); and others in the excellent series Cambridge Studies in Classical Art and Iconography. These books follow nicely on the heels of collections such as S. Goldhill and R. Osborne, eds. Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture (Cambridge 1994) and its sister work, J. Elsner, ed. Art and Text in Roman Culture (Cambridge 1996), which look far beyond illustration in their explorations.