Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion
Reviewed by Jeremy Tanner
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.