Image and imagination in the 'Imagines' of the Elder Philostratus

How do words relate to images, and images to words? Where are the boundaries between visual and verbal modes of representation? And in what ways can pictures evoke stories like – or indeed unlike – texts?

These questions have been at the forefront of recent research into comparative literary criticism and art history. In the western world, though, such questions find their conceptual archaeology in the intellectual cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. Classical artists and writers played with the relations between what can be seen, heard and read, and in all manner of knowing ways: this is reflected not only in Greek and Latin traditions of ‘picture-poetry’, but also in objects like the Iliac tablets, which playfully pitch visual against verbal systems of representation.

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The Axe of Simmias (Palatine Anthology 15.22), 3rd century BCE: Simmias’ poem adopts the figurative form of an axe.

This culture of intermedial play provides a backdrop for one of antiquity’s most sophisticated forays into the relationship between word and image: Philostratus the Elder’s Imagines, composed in Greek at the turn of the 2nd to 3rd centuries CE. Philostratus was writing at the height of the so-called ‘Second Sophistic’, and for an audience au fait with the history and critical reception of both literature and art. He proceeds to describe a gallery of some 65 or so panel-paintings, purportedly displayed at a villa on the bay of Naples – in a multi-level building that itself ‘looks out to sea’.

What makes this text so fascinating is Philostratus’ self-referential games with art and description. As the proem explains, Philostratus’ 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 literal vision against the figurative fantasies of the subjective imagination.

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Reconstruction of the Capitoline Iliac Tablet (Tabula Iliaca Capitolina), with scenes from the Iliad and other ‘Epic Cyclical’ poems, late 1st century BCE.

My project will result in the first monograph on the Imagines in English, co-written with Jaś Elsner (University of Oxford). On the one hand, our book will investigate the Imagines within the specific artistic, literary and intellectual horizons of the so-called ‘Second Sophistic’. On the other, we shall explain Philostratus’ importance within the broader discipline of art history: by exposing the playful interstices that bind together the visual and verbal realms, Philostratus acts out a critical rhetoric from which art historians of all ages can greatly learn.

Dr Michael Squire
King’s College London

Michael was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2012.

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Frontispiece to Blaise de Vigenère’s 1597 French edition of Philostratus’ Imagines (with engravings by Léonard Gaultier).