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Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion

July 2012 (116.3)

Book Review

Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion

By Verity Platt (Greek Culture in the Roman World). Pp. xviii + 482, figs. 51. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2011. $130. ISBN 978-0-521-86171-7 (cloth).

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The subject of epiphany raises central concerns in the study of ancient art bearing on visions and depictions of the gods and their role in ritual and society. Statues of the gods were once less attractive as objects of study, as they appeared to change little over time and were deemed highly derivative of earlier models, in particular in Roman art and archaeology. In more recent years, the questioning of categories of the original and copy in ancient sculpture has reinvigorated the field with an awareness of the creative act of borrowing and the intellectual task of adapting earlier works of art. Other developments in social and cultural history have also restored the sacred to its central place. The votive relief or cult statue, for example, can indicate political shifts in patronage, as well as the spectacular realm of religious ritual that made the work come alive to worshipers. In producing works that served as vessels for divinity, artists procured luxurious materials to shine brilliantly, dazzle with color, and appear monumental. The styles that art historians analyze with subtlety seemed to have been of lesser import than bold effects to evoke radiance, for instance. Divine depictions required the utmost in material goods to produce a beautiful and awe-inspiring presence. Some may find this contradictory, a point to which the author returns.

A book on the representation of gods comes at a significant moment in classical studies. Platt’s volume got its start as an Oxford doctoral dissertation, and it exhibits a breadth of learning across a wide chronological and geographic span (from classical Athens to Rome in the third century C.E. as well as cities in Asia Minor in between), and across disciplines (e.g., art history and archaeology, literature, religion, critical theory). The book is organized into three parts (classical–Hellenistic Greece, the period of the Second Sophistic, and imperial Rome) subdivided into eight chapters within this broad chronological scheme. The first chapters are devoted to works of art: chapter 1 is on votive reliefs and the Homeric Hymns, chapter 2 is on Pheidias’ cult images, and chapter 3 deals with Hellenistic cult images of the Peloponnese. The book then turns to the literary record, with chapter 4 on ekphrastic epigrams, chapter 5 on the rhetoric of Dio Chrysostom, chapter 6 on dream visions and cult images in the Second Sophistic, and chapter 7 on Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Chapter 8 explores mythological sarcophagi from imperial Rome. Black-and-white illustrations of varying quality appear at moderate intervals throughout the text.

The book takes its argument at a basic level about the problems inherent in the act of making the gods visible and depicting them in corporeal forms in mere material. The “epiphanic encounter” is by its very nature “unmediated,” but its retelling in literature or its artistic representation transforms the experience of wonder into permanent monuments marked by “cultural artifice” (54). The quickly vanishing vision of a goddess is commemorated by a hymn or statue that “repeats or instantiates the event,” the importance of which is marked by the ritual calendar and cycle of worship (73). Sacred images, such as cult statues, served as vessels or receptacles of the divine presence (104). Human intervention, from the recognition of the divine to the preservation of the moment through various cultural media, alters the experience by casting it into memory via the epigram or the gleaming bronze. Culture gives divinity a shape, and the process doubles on itself with epigrams on statues (the Knidia) and a statue of the goddess (193). The poems call attention to their literary status, and the art emphasizes the artists’ skill, which undermines the “epiphanic enterprise” by calling attention to the “artificial nature of representation” (193–96).

Platt brings the method and vocabulary of critical theory to bear on this problem in a serious, sustained argument. The language, however, may be ponderous and dense for those unfamiliar with this genre of analysis. Ideal readers for this volume are most likely those well versed in the literature of the periods under consideration, as well as archaeologists and art historians influenced by the embrace of literary theory in the last decade. Furthermore, discussions of various phenomena throughout the book are frequently reduced to the same interpretive bind polarizing the sacred and the real, the immaterial and the material worlds. One may wonder if statues of gods were really problematic for the ancients. Given their popularity and their conservative looks that changed little over centuries, I would say not. Intellectuals may have smirked, but many more summoned gods through their images without a worry about the source of artistic inspiration in the traditional repertory. The ancient literary and archaeological record attests to the great authority of sacred images. Representations gave worshipers access to the divine. Most ancients were eager to recognize their gods through their regular and uniform appearances, and they were impressed by the resplendent array of brilliant effects that made some deities beautiful and others awesome.

Eve D’Ambra
Vassar College
Poughkeepsie, New York 12604-0249

Book Review of Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion, by Verity Platt

Reviewed by Eve D’Ambra

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 3 (July 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1163.DAmbra


This book is one of the most important contributions to our understanding of ancient thought and religion. While doubtless there were many, especially amongst the uneducated, who did not worry about theological niceties, for very many others there was a spiritual, emotional and intellectual dimension. Dr Platt enters as few others have done recently into the mind of Antiquity.
This is not only a major contribution to Classical Archaeology but also to Theology and I hope it will receive the wide publicity it deserves.

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