COLLOQUIUM: Ioannis Mylonopoulos, Columbia University, "When the Gods Became Objects: The Materiality of the Divine Image in Ancient Greece"

Thursday, September 10, 2015 - 4:30pm to 6:00pm

402 Cohen Hall 

In ancient Greek society, the concept of the Divine could be constructed and communicated through rituals, narratives, cult epithets, philosophical discourses, ritual performative texts, or hieroi logoi. The visualization and materialization of the Invisible in the form of (cult) statues and images on vases and other media played, however, an equally crucial role in the construction of the Divine. This fact leads, however, to the center of a paradoxical situation that has rarely – if ever – been discussed in scholarship: Greeks were not supposed to encounter the true nature, the actual physique of their gods! The famous myth of Semele’s death, a result of her seeing Zeus in all his glory, reveals that gods appeared to human beings in a rather “reduced” form. How then are we to explain the countless representations of gods in Greek art? What or which part of a god’s nature are they visualizing? And how straightforward was the visualization process of the Divine anyway?

The impression that emerges from both iconographic evidence and literary sources is that the visualization of the Divine was a never-ending process of adaptation and reinvention of visual signs and concepts. The physical realization of divine imagery, especially in the form of sculpture in-the-round, as well as the qualities of the various materials used in Greek antiquity have been recognized as significant parameters for the construction of the Divine already by ancient authors. In addition, literary sources praise artists, such as Pheidias, Praxiteles or Lysippos for their ability to capture the essence of the gods that they portrayed. Certainly the material, the size, the style of an individual painter or sculptor, and the ontological characterization of a figure through attributes played a role in the process of visual construction. At a further stage, a specific architectural setting and the embedment of an image in a concrete ritual context enhanced the materialization of the Divine.


The paper will examine the above-mentioned parameters and ask on a more general level the following: How is an abstract idea (the notion of the Divine) visually construed into a concrete vision (the divine image),andhow does the concrete vision (the divine image) affect the original abstract idea (the notion of the Divine) by becoming part of visual memory?