IMAGES: SIGNS AND PHENOMENA OF TIME

A trans- and interdisciplinary conference at the University of Hamburg

12—14 November 2015

Signs of (the) time(s) in the Paintings of Philostratus the Elder


Pictures cannot represent time. They are stable and immutable while time can be perceived only in connection with change and motion. Already in antiquity, however, we encounter the phenomenon of narrative pictures, which generate a course of action and therefore a course of time. The specific narrative mechanisms of ancient vase paintings and wall paintings, i.e. the techniques employed by painters to create the illusion of chronological progress, have been carefully analysed by modern scholars. Yet very little research has been done so far into the question of whether antiquity developed a theoretical approach to the issue of signs of time within pictures.
The most important evidence on this matter comes from the Eikones (“paintings”) by Philostratus the Elder. Here, the Greek author, an art critic of the 3rd cent. AD, imagines 65 panel paintings which look like specimens of painting his contemporaries could have seen. Using these fictional paintings as his examples, he discusses theoretical questions of art, paying a lot of attention to the question of how time can be implemented and recognized in a painting. Being one of the most famous rhetoricians of his time, he presents his thoughts on this issue in an engaging way. For what distinguishes the Eikones from both ancient and modern treatises on art is the way in which they communicate with the reader: Philostratus interacts with his audience not from the position of the teacher of art, but from the perspective of the co-viewer, albeit a highly educated one. He does not patronize his audience by telling them what they should see on the painting, but illustrates what one does actually see and how this is to be interpreted.
On the basis of six examples, I would like to present in my paper the most important phenomena of time discussed in the Eikones: among them are the different types of the so-called continuous narrative representation which are being treated in the paintings called Cupids (I 5) and Thessaly (II 14). The “pregnant moment” (Lessing) is examined in Komos (I 2) and The Swamp (I 9). How suspense is created by expanding the course of action on a picture into the future shows Meles (II 8), while in Palaemon (II 16), the past is being tied back to the moment of viewing.
Although the Eikones refer to ancient art and reflect the expectations and viewing patterns of ancient viewers, Philostratus’ analysis appears to be surprisingly modern, given that we experience the same tension he describes between chronologically extended course of action and chronologically fixed sight when we look at a representational painting.


Cordula Bachmann, PhD, studied Greek and Latin philology, ancient history, archaeology, and ancient philosophy (classics) at the University of Oxford (2004–2008). In 2013, she successfully defended her dissertation at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München where she worked as a scientific assistant (2008–2014). In her dissertation on the Eikones by Philostratus the Elder (3rd cent. AD), she examines the way in which ancient imperial aesthetics of painting and rhetoric are being employed and discussed in a contemporary text. In 2013, she joined the academic advisory council of the exhibition Bauen und Zeigen at Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe where frescoes inspired by the Eikones are on display. Since September 2014, she has been a scientific assistant at Erfurt University while working on her second book concerned with historical issues in the mimiambi of the Hellenistic poet Herodas.

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