What’s in a Face? Rethinking the Greek Portrait through Hellenistic Glyptic
In Poetics (1448b), Aristotle describes two kinds of pleasure drawn from contemplating portraits. The viewer can either enjoy the image (the mental representation of something else) or the picture (the object of contemplation in itself). Two millennia later, the dichotomy still resonates in the study of ancient Greek portraiture and its origins. Scholars have often been more interested in the “who” (the image) rather than in the “what is in a face” (the picture). Instead of focusing on the traditional, well-studied corpora of marble and bronze sculpture and coins, the present study uses glyptic (the art of gem carving) to challenge the current understanding of Hellenistic portraiture.
The idiosyncrasies of engraved portraits, particularly their focus on the face and absence of identifying inscriptions, problematize the methods of traditional scholarship. Indeed, the modern obsession with recognizing historical figures, often through empirical—and unsystematic—comparison with identified portraits and biographical readings, risks a potentially anachronistic understanding of Greek portraiture, centered on the mimetic and psychological preoccupations of the genre in Western art. Rather the ancient practice should be understood as a complex cultural phenomenon deeply informed by context. The first step towards a better understanding is to embrace the entirety of the corpus of material evidence with an awareness of historiographical biases that do not mirror ancient thought.
The present study adopts new approaches from a variety of disciplines from cultural anthropology to cognitive neuroscience and proposes a new set of methods to study Hellenistic engraved portraits. First, the thorny question of identification and its methods is tackled with a re-evaluation of the use of coins as comparanda to identify engraved portraits of rulers. Proposed guidelines, tested on a case study, are based on a better understanding of numismatic practices and the concept of typology and its applicability across periods and media.
The subsequent three chapters shift the focus from the image to the picture. The first addresses three formal characteristics of engraved portraiture, ie., its scale, format, and perspective, to shed light on the Greek conception of the face as it relates to the individual. The next chapter opens with a discussion of the emergence of cameo carving as a sign of growing interest in the materiality and visibility of engraved portraits in the Hellenistic period. It illustrates how an embodied approach to miniatures as objects of personal adornment unveils strategies of identity construction. The final chapter looks at the socio-economic use of seals. The agentive role of engraved portraits is reconstructed through a study and network analysis of sealings discovered in Egypt and Iraq.