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The ancient paragone

Those who are here at the Center know that I have been puzzling over Theocritus’ Idyll 15, the Women at the Adonis-festival, since the fall, and in an earlier blog I announced that I would post some thoughts about it… So here we are. Idyll 15 contains a brief ekphrasis of certain tapestries depicting figures, whose life-likeness the two female protagonists admire (78-86), and a song in a song (100-144), which is likewise praised by one of the women (145f.). It has often been pointed out that the tapestries and the embedded song represent two different media, art and text, and that we should look at them as two (potentially) metapoetic elements. They consequently have been the focus of much scholarly attention, and the poem has been listed among the examples for an ancient version of the “paragone”, the competition between art and text.
I think, though, that the Idyll is a perfect example to show that this rigid dichotomy needs to be opened up. For the poem features a third element that should be included in the equation, namely the “temporary image” (von Hesberg) described in the song that is embedded in the Idyll. Because it is the subject-matter of the song, the temporary image is firmly tied to the latter, and this is probably why it has not received the attention it deserves. But we should look at it as a constitutive component of the Idyll, all the more so as several characteristics of the description and hints in the context make it sufficiently clear that it has a physical existence outside the song (mind you, I’m not saying outside the Idyll!). It must therefore be taken into account in the Idyll’s interpretation. Rather than presenting the dichotomy of tapestry vs. song, or art vs. text, the Idyll contrasts three different media with each other, tapestry vs. song vs. temporary image. And it is easy to see that the last one combines the virtues of the other two, because it is both visual and temporal.
Or is it? The temporary image, or installation, is essentially a display of two divine figures, Aphrodite and Adonis, for the duration of the festival. It might be objected that the display is rather static. If action is anticipated with the mention of the upcoming ritual procession in which Adonis will be carried to the sea (132), it is precisely the medium of the song that is able to perform this kind of time-lapse, while at the level of the display nothing happens (yet).
Nevertheless, there are various ways in which this temporary image is more dynamic and interactive than, for instance, the tapestries mentioned earlier. Apart from the fact that the display has been set up specifically for the occasion, we learn that queen Arsinoe is ‘pampering’ Adonis with all sorts of good things like fruit and cakes (111, note the present tense, which suggests an ongoing action, and action that will culminate in the ritual on the following day). Consequently, there is a spatial continuum between the audience and the divine figures. In the description of essentially two-dimensional art objects, for instance the surface of the wooden carved cup in Idyll 1, both the use of spatial markers like “next to…” or “above”, and the mention of materials and techniques out of which the object is made inevitably draw attention to the fact that we are looking at an artefact, and that the presence of human beings or gods depicted on it is a mere artistic illusion. The situation is different here: the mention of spatial markers and material details of this three-dimensional installation does not threaten the illusion that the gods themselves are present, because those details actually refer to the three-dimensional installation that is supposed to surround them.
Interestingly, though, when it comes to the divine couple, the pair of Aphrodite and Adonis themselves, all material details are omitted:
“In Adonis’ rosy arms the Cyprian lies, and he in hers. Of eighteen years or nineteen is the groom; the golden down is still upon his lip; his kisses are not rough” (128-130, trans. Gow).
Are we looking at statues? Presumably, but we don’t learn anything about their making. Instead, we are told directly what they represent, namely the goddess and her adolescent lover. This is often the case in ancient ekphrasis and should surprise us even less in a religious context, where a statue is supposed to embody the divinity it represents. But here, this is only one aspect of a larger strategy that aims at closing the divide between signifier and signified. As we have already seen, the divine couple inhabits the same space as the attendants of the festival, and members of the audience interact directly with the image, so that the boundaries between reality and representation are blurred. This dynamic and participatory character of the installation no doubt facilitates the perception of the figures as divinities.
Many aspects of this interesting text need further investigation, including the fact that the two women, in whose company we visit the festival, do not comment on the temporary image. We cannot be sure that they get to see it at all, and it is true that from their perspective, all that seems to count is tapestry and song, art and text, while the temporary image – the centrepiece of the festival, the reason why they went in the first place (lines 23f.) – is strangely absent from their immediate perception. From our perspective, however, it would be unduly reductive to leave the temporary image out of the equation, even though we ‘see’ it only through the embedded song. I think that there are two ways to look at this peculiar arrangement of things: One of them is to emphasize the fact that the song controls our perception of the image and therefore has power both over us and the image. The other understands the song as a mere placeholder for the dynamic image it describes, an image that (unlike the song itself) is such a faithful and life-like representation of the myth that its status as a (visual and dramatic) work of art tends to be overlooked altogether. So, if this Idyll thematizes (among other things) a competition between the arts, perhaps the palm goes neither to the figurative art of the tapestries nor to the song, but to Arsinoe’s dramatic art of staging the encounter between Aphrodite and Adonis.

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