Narrative and Event in Ancient Art

By Webb, Ruth | The Art Bulletin, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Narrative and Event in Ancient Art

Webb, Ruth, The Art Bulletin

PETER HOLLIDAY, ed. Narrative and Event in Ancient Art New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 368 pp.; 95 b/w ills. $70.00

This collection of articles grew out of a CAA session held in 1988, although the focus has been broadened from Greece and Rome to include the Ancient Near East. With one (partial) exception the contributions take their starting point from specific objects or monuments so that the result is a series of individual studies rather than a synthetic treatment of "narrative and event." But as the editor points out in his introduction, the various contributions are unified by the common concerns which run throughout, such as the relationship between visual narratives and linguistic structures or the role of the viewer in "reading" a temporal sequence into an image or series of images. The relevance of contemporary texts to the decoding of a culture's images is a question which arises, explicitly or implicitly, throughout the volume, as do the related problems involved in the enterprise of reconstructing contexts for viewing. Indeed, the construction of historical context provides an additional narrative thread running through the volume.

Whitney Davis's study of the Narmer Palette--appropriately for the opening essay--includes the only full-scale discussion of narrative theory (in a lengthy note). Faced with the problems of reconstructing contexts for viewing a "prehistoric" object, Davis concentrates on reinventing the dynamic interaction between viewer and representation, suggesting various paths by which the viewer's eye might travel over the discrete emblems of conquest represented on both sides of the palette to construct a narrative sequence.

John Malcolm Russell discusses the representation of the siege and capture of Lachish in relief panels from Nineveh (an event recounted in the Old Testament, but seen here from a different point of view--that of the victorious Assyrian Sennacherib). Russell discusses the innovative use of spatial arrangement to depict a sequence of events. The textual account inscribed on the same monument provides the opportunity for reflection on the telling differences between the visual and written versions, differences which are identified as a function both of the medium and the intended audience. Where the text conveys the full extent of Sennacherib's military campaign in a few words, the image allows for detailed treatment of episodes, such as Lachish, while concealing the failure of the ultimate aim, the capture of Jerusalem.

The representational strategies of Dynastic Egypt are treated, alongside Mycenean and Minoan art, in Nanno Marinatos's "Reflections on the Rhetoric of Aegean and Egyptian Art." As the title suggests, Marinatos's interests are in visual analogies for rhetorical figures: "pictorial similes" (comparing human and animal hunters), the spatial representation of polarities (order and chaos), and the subversion of gender division in representations of female rulers. Questions of narrativity are left aside, as the author acknowledges in the conclusion with the suggestion that the "implied three-way conversation" between viewer, object, and decoration "comes close to telling...a story of cultures and norms" (p. 87).

This loose use of the vocabulary of narratology is telling. It points toward the way in which several of the contributors to this volume, while analyzing visual narrativity, simultaneously construct their own narrative frameworks in which to read the past.

The narrative overtly analyzed in Joan Breton Connelly's contribution is the Rape of Cassandra. Implicit in this one act of hubris (whether named or depicted) are the larger narratives of the Trojan War and the divine punishment meted out to Ajax in consequence. Connelly's analysis of the scene in vase painting of the late 6th and 5th centuries B.C. boldly combines traditional concerns (iconography, vase shape, attribution, identification of reflections of historical events) with an interest in the "language of images" and the construction of a broader sociocultural context (although questions of function and the factors influencing the survival of the material are left aside). …

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