J. Elsner, Art and the Roman Viewer. The Transformation of Art from the Pagan World to Christianity
Cambridge University Press, 1997, pb, ISBN 0 521 59952 0, £16.95 (hb ISBN 0 521 45354 2), 375 pp.
reviewed by Leslie Brubaker
University of Birmingham
The premise of Art and the Roman Viewer is that over time people interpret what they see in different ways: Elsner looks particularly at how people saw, their `frames of interpretation', in a series of works spanning the period between Augustus (31 BC-AD 14) and Justinian I (AD 527-565). Elsner's concern is to show that how people give meaning to visual imagery is bound up in other networks of meaning that also change over time - in his framing, the critical change is the advent of Christianity - and that the imagery itself can impact on how people then interpret their world. Elsner also believes that formal changes in the ways images look (stylistic shifts) follow changes in the way people interpret the visual, and he is really quite interested in linking form and visual ideology. Art and the Roman Viewer is an ambitious book, and it proceeds in seven carefully mapped chapters toward Elsner's conclusion that the great difference between art of the first century and art of the sixth is that the former (and Roman art in general) is materialist, literal, secular and naturalistic while the latter (and Christian art in general) is symbolic, exegetic, sacred and abstract. Whether or not one actually agrees with this conclusion, it is hardly radical; Elsner's real project, however, is to explain why the differences exist.
In the first chapter, `Viewing and the Real', Elsner provides a close reading of Philostratus' Imagines and the Tabula of Cebes and suggests that these two very different ways of writing about images respond to two different ways of confronting and assimilating art, or, as Elsner puts it, different strategies of viewing. `Viewing and Society' attempts a Bourdieu-inspired interpretation of the Roman house as a cultural system; Elsner sees the deliberate confusion of outside and inside as `transgressive' and, invoking Vitruvius, suggests that the `process of realist viewing ... is at stake' (p. 74). `Viewing and the Sacred' relies on the writings of Plotinus and Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite, along with the Justinianic mosaics at Mount Sinai, to explicate `mystic viewing', which, Elsner argues, stresses the `unity of style, theme and viewing' (p. 123); chapters two and three are used, in other words, to construct a contrast between realist, transgressive, domestic imagery and metaphysical (i.e. a-realist), unified, sacred imagery. Next, in `Viewing and identity', Elsner uses Pausanias' descriptions of his travels around Greece to show that seeing is not monolithic: one person can view different objects in different ways. In this case, Elsner continues with his secular/sacred bifurcation by neatly differentiating between Pausanias' common-sense or secular viewing identity and his ritual or initiate identity; more broadly, Elsner considers how Pausanias constructs a `national' identity through the text, an identity only possible because Greece was united against and under Roman dominion (pp. 140-144). The following two chapters focus on the transformation of art from Augustus to Justinian through studies of imperial portraiture (Augustus of Primaporta, the tetrarchy at Luxor, Justinian and Theodora at San Vitale in Ravenna) and of images of Roman, Mithraic and Christian sacrifice. Following on from Elsner's earlier thesis, both chapters stress a shift from the particular (literal, realist, secular, Roman) to the universalising (exegetic, symbolic, sacred, Christian) image. Elsner concludes with an examination of the fourth century as the pivotal period when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman state, and traces the development of visual exegesis in decorated silver, ivories and the Via Latina catacomb.
This is a very intelligent book marred by its genesis as a PhD dissertation. As in many dissertations, the tone of Art and the Roman Viewer is polemical, nuance is ignored in favour of blanket generalisations that make a strong point, and cleverness is valued for its own sake: the book is a thoughtful study almost lost behind pretentious vocabulary and repetitive writing. The rush of words sometimes muddies the thought: in a book that states and restates essential themes, and defines and redefines concepts its author finds interesting, it is odd to find that `art' is used as an uncritical term, without discussion-- as, until the very last chapter, are the labels `pagan' and `Christian'. Assertions go unsubstantiated; contradictions abound (e.g. typology, well-known in pagan Roman culture on p. 280, has become a radically new Christian concept by p. 284). In the end, however, while Art and the Roman Viewer is easy to criticise, it remains damned smart, and it is a terrible pity that it was not re-written more thoroughly and, occasionally, re-thought more maturely, with some additional pertinent bibliography thrown in (e.g. Henry Maguire's analysis of San Vitale in his Earth and Ocean: the terrestrial world in early Byzantine art [University Park, 1987], which augments and anticipates Elsner's discussion of the monument). Whatever one may think of his presentation and interpretation, Elsner's basic points are sound and important; they deserve a better forum.