Asterius of Amasea’s Euphemia ekphrasis

Asterius of Amasea, a late-fourth-century Christian bishop with oratorical training, began a speech thus:

The other day, gentlemen, I had the great Demosthenes in my hand — that {oration} of Demosthenes in which he assails Aeschines with bitter words. I spent a long time with the text, and as my spirit was burdened, I needed the distraction of some walk, so that my soul could recover a bit from her labour.[1]

Asterius walked through the marketplace, readily imagined as filled with vendors noisily asserting the value of their products, and on to a temple, where he prayed.   Near to the temple on a portico wall he saw a painting that “overtook me completely.”  The painting seemed almost alive, like a masterpiece of Euphranor from fourth-century democratic Athens, or like a painting of other ancient masters.[2]  The painting represented the martyrdom of the virgin Euphemia.[3]  It marked the place of her tomb.  Euphemia was annually honored at that place with a festival and public speeches.  Asterius’ speech then proceeds to a verbally artistic description of the painting.  Asterius’ speech, with its framing narrative and attention to a painting described as seeming almost alive, follows a well-established rhetorical model of ekphrasis.

In the midst of his ekphrasis, Asterius praises painting with reference to a garlanded ekphrastic epigram.  In the first century BGC, Timomachus painted the Colchian woman Medea at the moment preceding her decision to kill her children.  Julius Caesar purchased this painting and placed it in the Roman temple of Venus Genetrix.   A couplet by Antipater of Thessalonica, who probably resided in Rome near the end of the first century BGC, described Timomachus’ painting:

This is a sketch of Medea.  Observe how she lifts one eye in anger,
and softens the other with pity for her children.[4]

Asterius describes a painting showing:

the drama of that woman of Colchis, how she is going to kill her children with the sword, her face divided between pity and anger — one of her eyes looking with wrath, the other revealing the mother in fear and sorrow.

Asterius is probably referring to Timomachus’ celebrated painting.  An extensive scholarly study of Timomachus’ Medea and ekphrastic epigram noted of Antipater’s epigram:

The rather awkward description of the eyes {of Medea}, one lifted in anger and one drooping with compassion, is not repeated in other epigrams and would seem to reflect the interpretation of the viewer/poet based on his knowledge and understanding of the Medea figure.[5]

Asterius could not himself have seen Timomachus’ painting, which burned in 80 GC.  Antipater’s epigram on Timomachus’ Medea circulated widely and was included in the Greek Anthology.  Asterius’ unusual description of Timomachus’ painting probably came from Antipater’s ekphrastic epigram.

Asterius’ homily on the rich man and Lazarus sets up the narrative arc for Asterius’ Euphemia ekphrasis.   Expounding upon the description of the rich man “clothed in purple and fine linen,” Asterius condemns the wearing of clothes decorated with pictorial designs:

having found some idle and extravagant style of weaving, which by the twining of the warp and the woof, produces the effect of a picture, and imprints upon their robes the forms of all creatures, they artfully produce, both for themselves and for their wives and children, clothing beflowered and wrought with ten thousand objects. … When, therefore, they dress themselves and appear in public, they look like pictured walls in the eyes of those that meet them. And perhaps even the children surround them, smiling to one another and pointing out with the finger the picture on the garment; and walk along after them, following them for a long time. On these garments are lions and leopards; bears and bulls and dogs; woods and rocks and hunters; and all attempts to imitate nature by painting.[6]

Painting imitating nature evokes the contest of deception between the ancient Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius.  As Asterius observed, a painting that imitates nature could also bring to life teaching about the courage and holiness of the martyr Euphemia.  Emphasizing luxury, vanity, and complacency, not epistemological concerns about imitation, Asterius vehemently rejected depictions of Gospel text on garments:

such rich men and women as are more pious, have gathered up the gospel history and turned it over to the weavers; I mean Christ himself with all the disciples, and each of the miracles, as recorded in the Gospel. You may see the wedding of Galilee, and the water-pots; the paralytic carrying his bed on his shoulders; the blind man being healed with the clay; the woman with the bloody issue, taking hold of the border of the garment; the sinful woman falling at the feet of Jesus; Lazarus returning to life from the grave. In doing this they consider that they are acting piously and are clad in garments pleasing to God. But if they take my advice let them sell those clothes and honor the living image of God. Do not picture Christ on your garments. It is enough that he once suffered the humiliation of dwelling in a human body which of his own accord he assumed for our sakes. So, not upon your robes but upon your soul carry about his image.

Do not portray the paralytic on your garments, but seek out him that lies sick. Do not tell continually the story of the woman with the bloody issue, but have pity on the straitened widow. Do not contemplate the sinful woman kneeling before the Lord, but, with contrition for your own faults, shed copious tears. Do not sketch Lazarus rising from the dead, but see to it that you attain to the resurrection of the just. Do not carry the blind man about on your clothing, but by your good deeds comfort the living, who has been deprived of sight. Do not paint to life the baskets of fragments that remained, but feed the hungry. Do not carry upon your mantles the water-pots which were filled in Cana of Galilee, but give the thirsty drink.

During the Second Council at Nicea in 787, which met to address Christians’ use of images, Asterius’ homily on the rich man and Lazarus was put forward as an argument against images.  Asterius’ Euphemia ekphrasis was then read into the record in support of images.  The Second Council at Nicea’s arguments about Asterius’ position on images communicatively parallel Demosthenes and Aischines’ agon introducing the narrative frame for the Euphemia ekphrasis.  Given Asterius’ explicit praise for painting in the Euphemia ekphrasis, Asterius could have easily anticipated that wearisome verbal development.

At its end, the Euphemia ekphrasis suspends representations.   In a poignant but conventional gesture, Asterius responds with tears to the depiction of an executioner knocking out all of Euphemia’s teeth.   But his ekphrasis continues through his tears: Asterius goes on to describe Euphemia alone, in prison, dressed in grey clothes, praying, with a Christian cross inscribed above her head.  Then the execution:

the painter lit a tremendous fire, with red colour giving life to the flame from all sides.  He put her in the middle with her hands stretched towards heaven.  No burden is manifested by her face; on the contrary, she looks rejoicing because she moves towards the bodiless, blessed life.

At this point, the Euphemia ekphrasis ends with deliberate choices to halt painting and speech:

Here the painter stayed his hand and I my speech.  It is time for you, if you want, to complete the description, so that you can see with precision whether our explanation was not failing.

Completing the description implies imagining a “bodiless, blessed life” like that towards which the “courageous and holy” Euphemia moves.  In a similar way, the original textual ending to Mark’s Gospel implied readers moving beyond terror, amazement, silence, and fear to build the church.[7]  Fourth-century homilies on martyrs emphasized that homage corresponds to imitation.[8]  The Euphemia ekphrasis, like the original ending to Mark’s Gospel, points to imaginative completion and inspired action.  That’s different from compelling arguments, such as those that wearied Asterius at the beginning of the narrative frame, or a call to imitation, which was the usual form in recounting martyrdom.

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Related work:


[1] Trans. Leemans et al (2003) p. 174.  All the references to Asterius’ speech are from that translation.  Castelli (2000) seems to me a worse quality translation.  For example, Castelli’s translation omits any mention of the painter Euphranor, even though that painter is explicitly mentioned in the Greek source.  Nonetheless, with the exception of the reference to Euphranor, all the points above are consistent with Castelli’s translation.  Demosthenes and Aeschines were prominent orators in fourth-century BGC Athens.

[2] Coulson (1972) argues convincingly that Euphranor was an Athenian painter who probably flourished about 360 BGC.  Thus Asterius’ reference to Domesthenes and Aeschines matches the historical time and place of his reference to Euphranor.

[3] Euphemia was from Chalcedon, a city close to Byzantium.  She was executed for her Christian faith in 303 GC as part of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.  See Castelli (2000) p. 464.  Asterius was from Amasea, in the middle of the Black Sea region of present-day northern Turkey.

[4] See my post on media in epigrams on Timomachus’ Medea.  Asterius compares that painting’s mixture of emotions to Euphemia’s mixture of docility and courageous determination. Leemans et al (2003) translates the emotions as “shame and firmness”; Castelli (2000), “modesty and courage”.   The conflicting emotions concern a willingness to be led (which in antiquity was associated with femininity) and a determination not to compromise or betray her Christian faith despite an authoritative order to do so.

[5] Gutzwiller (2004) p. 364.

[6] Trans. Pearse (2003).  The subsequent quote is also from that source.

[7] See Mark 16:8, which manuscript evidence suggests was the original conclusion to that Gospel.  Asterius’ Euphemia ekphrasis is consistent with such a form for the Gospel.

[8] Driver (2005) p. 254.


Castelli, Elizabeth A. 2000. “Asterius of Amasea: Ekphrasis on the Holy Martyr Euphemia.” Ch. 39 in Valantasis, Richard. 2000. Religions of late antiquity in practice. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Coulson, William D. E. 1972. “The Nature of Pliny’s Remarks on Euphranor”. Classical Journal. 67 (4): 323-326.

Driver, Lisa D Maugans. 2005. “The Cult of Martyrs in Asterius of Amaseia’s Vision of the Christian City”. Church History. 74 (2): 236.

Gutzwiller, Kathryn.  2004.  “Seeing Thought: Timomachus’ Medea and Ecphrastic Epigram.” American Journal of Philology 124, pp. 339-386.

Leemans, Johan, Wendy Mayer, Pauline Allen, and Boudewijn Dehandschutter. 2003. ‘Let us die that we may live’ Greek homilies on Christian Martyrs from Asia Minor. London: Routledge.

Pearse, Roger. 2003.  Asterius of Amasea, Sermons (1904), trans. Anderson and Goodspeed.


Mark Cuban on the value of professional basketball

With technological possibilities expanding rapidly, Mark Cuban offers an important lesson on business fundamentals.  He keeps his eye on what creates value for fans of professional basketball:

I can’t think of a bigger mistake then trying to integrate smartphones just because you can. The last thing I want is someone looking down at their phone to see a replay. The last thing I want is someone thinking that its a good idea to disconnect from the unique elements of a game to look at replays or update their fantasy standings or concentrate on trying to predict what will happen next in the game. There is a huge value to everyone collectively holding their breath during a replay, or responding to a great play or a missed call and then spontaneously reacting to what they see. You lose that if people are looking down at their handhelds. The fan experience is about looking up, not looking down. If you let them look down, they might as well stay at home, the screen is always going to be better there.

Fan value in professional basketball is not primarily about winning.  Cuban points out that it’s mainly about simultaneous, inclusive, emotional relations — the experience of a great wedding.  More generally, personal value involves subtle sensory effects, such as the accessibility of a good, the form of a text, and coloring.  Thinking carefully about value creation is a key business fundamental.

Mark Cuban, the owner of the NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks and a highly successful businessperson, writes his own blog.  It’s well worth reading for keen insight into technology and business.

word and image in the Book of the Dead

About 4400 years ago, Unas, the last Egyptian pharaoh in the 5th dynasty, was buried within a pyramid with written inscriptions on the walls of the burial chamber.  Subsequent pharaohs were buried similarly.  The texts on the walls of the pyramids’ burial chambers are a corpus of spells to aid the pharaoh in the afterlife.  These pyramid texts were not illustrated.  After a few centuries, texts began to be written on the inside surfaces of wooden coffins that contained non-royal persons.  These coffin texts seldom had any illustrations.  After another roughly six centuries, funerary texts began to written on papyrus rolls buried with the deceased.  The funerary texts written on papyrus, called the Book of the Dead, have a well-differentiated textual corpus from the earlier pyramid texts and coffin texts.  In addition, Book of the Dead rolls usually include illustrations.  Book of the Dead rolls have been found that include text only in a brief opening, with the rest of the work consisting only of illustrations.[1]

The inclusion of illustrations in ancient Egyptian funerary texts is plausibly associated with broadening of demand for the texts.  The change in media from burial chamber walls (pyramid texts) to coffins (coffin texts) to papyrus (Book of the Dead) reduced requirements for site-specific work and fostered increased division of labor and mass production of texts.[2]  The supply of scribal skills was probably constrained by the complicated representational language and well-established scribal guilds.  Illustrators, in contrast, probably were less organized and had less formal training.  Hence the supply of illustrators could increase more rapidly and more propitiously than the supply of scribes.  Popular demand favors production of images.  That sensory effect is likely to be greater in a largely illiterate society such as ancient Egypt.  Illustrated funerary texts were thus probably a market-driven development in ancient Egypt.

The relation between word and image in the Book of the Dead is highly fluid.  Consider, for example, the text images above and below from the papyrus of Ani, a Book of the Dead from Thebes about 1275 BGC.[3]  The illustrations in the text above are irregularly positioned and do not have bounding boxes.  The three illustrations in the top left portion of text below have regular bounding boxes.  The right portion of the text contains top-and-bottom nearly identical images that actually differ in subtle ways (the most obvious difference is the left-most white figure’s hairstyle).  Most surprising is the right-most figure’s hand gesture that breaks into the column of text.  Having an illustrated figure gesture into the space of the text is common in European medieval illuminated manuscripts.

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[1] Taylor, John H (2010).  Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the dead.  Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.  See p. 268.

[2] In some instances, different sections of a Book of the Dead were written by different scribes.  Scribes might work on separate pieces of papyrus that would later be joined together.  Scribes produced texts with spaces left for illustrations (vignettes).  Scribes also left blank spaces for filling in the name of the person who purchased/acquired a particular text.  Id.  pp. 36, 268-9, 286.

[3] Ani was a Theban royal scribe — “Accounting Scribe for the Divine Offerings of all the gods. Overseer of the Granaries and of the Lords of the Tawer.” Id. pp. 310, 36.


fuck communication economics

Recent scholarship on fuck jurisprudence has been downloaded 28,305 times from SSRN.   This scholarship ranks fifteenth among SSRN’s all-time most downloaded papers.  That’s an impressive achievement.

As an ambitious spare-time scholar, I thought of this achievement when I heard someone on the metro say, “He has no fucking idea!”  What about fuck communication economics?

Fucking in “no fucking idea” functions semantically as an intensifier.  Fuck is also a common ejaculation: fuck!   Fuck and its derivative forms are verbally performed in a variety of positions: verb, noun, adjective, adverb, e.g. “he got fucked over,” “I don’t give a flying fuck,” “she’s a fucking idiot,” “that’s a fucking beautiful dog.”  In communication, fuck has achieved astonishing penetration and has been highly generative.

Fuck’s communication market success occurred despite considerable irregularity.   The scholarly literature has analyzed well this irregularity:

[fuck] exhibits syntactic irregularity (e.g., the word’s noncompliance with the English reflexivization rule in allowing the object pronoun you instead of yourself in the common imprecation “Fuck you!” — cf. “Punish yourself!” or “Abuse yourself!” vs. *“Punish you!” or *“Abuse you!”); if one analyzes the common imprecation not as an imperative (with the underlying subject you) but rather as a speech act, the word exhibits pragmatic irregularity (e.g., the word’s inability to co-occur with hereby when used as a speech act verb of condemning or cursing — cf. “I hereby condemn you” and “I hereby curse you” vs *“I hereby fuck you”).[1]

Words that are irregular tend to have shorter communication industry lifetimes.  Fuck, however, has had a long history.  Some etymological evidence indicates that fuck predates the development of the English language.  Fuck appeared in an Italian-English dictionary in 1598.[2]  Many communication goods have come and gone while fuck has endured.

To better grasp fuck’s valued attributes, imagine that the word leeniddle replaced fuck.  If you fully believe that languages are fundamentally arbitrary social constructions, then words have no essential significance, and a leeniddle is as good as a fuck.  In that imagined alternate universe, the person on the metro would have said, “He has no leeniddling idea!”  If you think that’s plausible, you have no fucking common sense of the real world.

The phonological form of fuck supports its use.  The initial f blows air through lips pressed to teeth.  The short, low u echoes dread.  This efficiently monosyllabic word then ends with a harsh, explosive k.  Four-letter words have a characteristic linguistic and sensory form.  Fuck has a superb design for obscenity.

horse's ass


[1] Noguchi, Rei R. 1996.  “On the historical longevity of one four-letter word: the interplay of phonology and semantics.” Maledicta 12: 29-43, at. p. 30. The phrases that have a preceding asterisk in the above quote are phrases that a competent English speaker would not normally produce.

[2] Read, Allen Walker.  1934.  “An Obscenity Symbol.” American Speech 9: 264-79, at p. 268.

formal characteristics of obscene words

Some words are perceived as shocking and in proper circumstances cause persons to turn away.  For the purposes of the following analysis, those words will be called obscene.[1]  Obscene words in English have common phonological characteristics:

  1. the form CV(C)C, where C is a consonant and V a vowel (four-letter words)
  2. the outer consonants usually are produced “by an abrupt stoppage of air in the vocal tract followed by an abrupt release,” e.g. k, t, p (hard consonants)
  3. the medial consonant usually is sonorant like l,m,n
  4. the vowel usually is short and pronounced with the tongue relatively close to the mouth’s roof, i.e. a close or high vowel [2]

These characteristics make short, violent-sounding words.  Such words are efficient and communicatively propitious for ejaculative, shocking use.  Insightful scholarship explains these characteristics through word survival under selection for these characteristics:

it seems unlikely that speakers consciously create obscene words to fit some abstract phonological form for obscene words.  This kind of competence simply does not exist.  Nor is it likely (or at least demonstrable) that obscene words, which are in some ways akin to onomatopoeic words, originate from some natural connection between meaning and sound.  It does seem highly plausible, however, that given a set of semantically related words vying for survival,those words having some match between sound and sense have an added edge in the struggle {to endure}, other things being equal.[3]

That general process also describes the evolution of biological organisms.

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[1] U.S. administrative and case law has distinguished between obscenity and indecency.  All seven words at the center of the U.S. Supreme Court case Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation (1978) include two or more of the above characteristics for the word or prominent components of the word.  Adjudicating indecency is a challenging and often challenged task.  Vagueness of indecency standards is a a central concern.  See, e.g. Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations (2009) and U.S. Supreme Court, certiorari granted, June 27, 2011, 10-1293, FCC v. Fox.

[2] Noguchi, Rei R. 1996. “On the historical longevity of one four-letter word: the interplay of phonology and semantics.” Maledicta 12: 29-43, at p. 34.

[3] Id. p. 41.

users transforming content forms

Blogger’s new dynamic views transforms the organization of blog posts. Blogs usually have scrolling posts with web-paged post groups.  If that description seems complicated, you probably have taken for granted the conventional form of a blog.  Blogger dynamic views dissolves that convention and reshapes a blog into a flipcard checkerboard and four other views (change the view via the dropdown tab on the top right).   Each different view differs in the arrangement of blog posts and in the flow from one post to another post.

Each Blogger dynamic view replaces the author’s customized presentation.  That replacement concerns authors.  One direction for dynamic views would be to give authors more control over the layout of each dynamic view.  But that’s probably not the direction in which dynamic views points.  With Blogger dynamic views, Google is pushing forward users’ options for blogs’ bindings.

What makes a book is its binding.  Digital content has much greater possibilities for bindings than those for books.  For different users and in different circumstances, different bindings can be more useful and more enjoyable.  Authors should embrace those possibilities.

If you find the text of purplemotes tedious and frustrating, you are welcomed to view just its photos — here’s an apparently ad hoc assortment and here’s the collection of flowers.

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The photo above shows Justin Michael Finnegan‘s book sculpture entitled Frustration (2009).  Finnegan is dyslexic.  His work was on display at the Smithsonian in the exhibit, Revealing Culture.


voice and video calling

Skype’s recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) states that, in the last three months of 2010, video-enabled calls accounted for 42% of Skype’s within network communication minutes.  In October, 2009, Skype described video calls as accounting for “more than a third” of its total communication minutes.  Given that description, Skype’s video call share probably has risen over the past year.

Other Skype actions are consistent with the increasing importance of video communication.  Skype recently acquired Qik.  Qik offers live video calls from mobile phones as well as a wide range of options for video sharing.  In January, 2011, Skype officially launched a group video calling feature.  This paid service allows a social video call among up to nine persons at a time.   Group video calling requires more expensive product development than rebranding “speaker phone” as “social mode”, but it serves a similar need.  In addition to these developments, Skype reportedly is negotiating with Facebook to establish a video-calling partnership.

The sensory form of communication offer a propitious field for service innovation.  Mobile network operators are slowly integrating voice and data communications under LTE mobile networking technology.   Will they finally produce a show-and-tell communicator?  How about a Twitter-like service using photos?  Like Skype’s SEC filing, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s Order in the Matter of Preserving the Open Internet (adopted Dec. 21, 2010) refers to “voice and video telephony”.   Expect communication services of different sensory forms to gain importance in the future.

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what makes a book

What makes a book is its binding.  The binding implies a linear order of text and turning pages.[1]  A book is a slow, regular, rhythm of new textual images that plays out a story.   A book is a filmic projection of text, run in slow motion.

Turning pages isn’t the same as scrolling.  Scrolling is an undressing.  Scrolling is a gradual revelation of a form behind the text.

Book paging is likely to remain an important form in electronic works.  Web pages usually are not book pages, because web pages do not have a fixed frame.  They often have different sizes and require scrolling.   The movement from web page to web page is typically ad hoc.  E-readers for electronic books, in contrast, support book paging.  This paging will give books enduring meaning in electronic media.

A bound order of book pages is likely to remain an important form in electronic works.  A beginning and an end characterizes human lifetime.  A narrative arc makes a story memorable and shareable.  Electronic works make possible forms that incorporate user choices and random effects, e.g. virtual worlds and games.  Such works, while popular, will not replace within electronic media a bound order of book pages.[2]

Reference books will cease to exist in electronic media.  Codices allowed more efficient random access than did scrolls.  Electronic databases allow more efficient random access than do codices.  Where random access is the primary attribute of use, books have no meaningful electronic future.

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[1]  In an unpublished MLA presentation in December, 2006, Peter Stallybrass asserted that the book binder makes a book.  For discussion and related thoughts, see Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2007), “CommentPress: New (Social) Structures for New (Networked) Texts,” Journal of Electronic Publishing, v. 10, n. 3, DOI: 10.3998/3336451.0010.305

[2] While the electronic future of a bound order of book pages seems secure, traditional book publishers face a difficult future.


accessibility of a good increases its value

An scholarly article in a leading economics journal recently considered “the problem of a restaurateur who has to decide whether to provide customers with a written menu, a picture-based menu, or a desert tray.”

Scientific experiments provide relevant evidence.  Laboratory tests indicate that a picture of an item does not prompt a higher valuation for the item than does a textual description.  However, if the item is accessible to the subject (the subject could grasp the item, if allowed), willingness-to-pay is 40% to 60% higher.   The effect does not depend on the the smell of the (food) item, and the effect does not occur if the item is presented behind a plexiglass barrier.  The immediate accessibility of an item to a subject seems to prompt an unconscious process, which the authors call a Pavlovian process, that increases the value of the item to the subject in those circumstances.

Hence the scholars conclude:

The results in this paper suggest that dessert sales should go up significantly if the restaurant uses the dessert tray as opposed to the other two options. Furthermore, the results of the plexiglass experiment suggest that a transparent glass dome should not cover the dessert tray, as is the practice in some establishments.

These result also indicate limits of sense in mediated communication.  Real, accessible presence seems to evoke a distinctive response.

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Benjamin Bushong, Lindsay M. King, Colin F. Camerer, and Antonio Rangel, Pavlovian Processes in Consumer Choice: The Physical Presence of a Good Increases Willingness-to-pay, American Economic Review 100 (September 2010): 1–18.  The quoted text above is from p. 13.


illustrating the Shahnama

A millennium ago, the Persian poet Firdawsi completed his epic poem the Shahnama.   Artists instantiated this lengthy verbal text in illustrated books.  Lavishly illustrated pages from Shahnamas produced for wealthy patrons from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries are displayed in the exhibition Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings, now at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC.[1]

The extent of visual investments in these Shahnama texts is extraordinary.  The earliest pages in the Sackler exhibition are from the Great Mongol Shahnama.  It probably contained about 280 large folios with about 190 highly detailed, painted illustrations.  Although commonly called the Great Mongol Shahnama, it was produced in the waning years of the Mongol empire.[2]  The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, produced in a thriving Persian empire early in the sixteenth century, consisted of 769 large folios with gold-flecked margins, prized calligraphy, and 258 exquisitely painted illustrations.[3]   The paintings from both these books, and from other books on display, delight at the closest scrutiny.

While these Shahnamas are extraordinary, pictorial storytelling has attracted large investments across cultures and time.   The interaction of words and images occurs at early stages of sensory processing.  Writing and pictorial narratives have used common conventions from the time of the earliest writing.  Today, time spent watching television far exceeds time spent reading.  Adding images to words adds considerable value to a narrative.

The Bier of Iskandar, an illustration from the Great Mongol Shahnama and included in the Sackler Gallery exhibition, shows ways in which an image can work with a narrative.   Firdawsi’s Shahnama text describes intense grief at the death of Iskandar (Alexander the Great).  His troops, “a hundred thousand children, men, and women of Alexandria,” Greek sages, his mother, his wife, and nobles all grieve in extravagant ways.  Firdawsi, however, doesn’t include chaotic, non-verbal, emotional expressions.   His verse maintains a relatively formal register.[4]

Bier of Iskandar, from the Great Mongol Shahnama

The Bier of Iskandar illustration highlights chaotic grieving.  The physical setting is highly regular: a central lamp, a square frame, symmetrical lamp niches on the sides, four tall candles marking the corners of the bier.  Within this regular setting crowd irregularly individualized figures who gesture in markedly different ways.  In the foreground, two women have their veils pushed down.  One pulls out her hair, while the other has her hands crossed palms downward on the top of her hand.  Perhaps this represents her heaping dust on her head.  Iskandar’s mother leans across the side of the coffin, with the back of her veiled head appearing to the viewer.  Aristotle, the philosopher, with his head bent downward into a handkerchief, appropriately seeks to conceal his grief.[5]  A Greek sage next to him looks serenely skyward.  Some men hold their hands across their chests; others stretch their hands forward, and others, skyward.  The composition places and juxtaposes these gestures in ways that make the differences quickly apparent.  These choices of visual art bring out the emotional chaos of grief contained within Firdawsi’s verbal art.

Isfandiyar’s Funeral Procession, another illustration from the Great Mongol Shahnama, has less personal differentiation than does the Bier of Iskandar.  At both Iskandar and Isfandiyar’s deaths, Firdawsi describes some common conventions of grief: weeping, wailing, pulling hair, heaping dust on head, unveiling women’s heads, cutting horses’ tails, and reversing saddles.  Both illustrations display the disorder that these actions indicate.   Firdawsi’s narratives of Isfandiyar and Iskandar differ, however, in extent of internal tension.  The Isfandiyar’s narrative emphasizes unity that should have been between Isfandiyar and his father (Isfandiyar’s father sent Isfandiyar to his death) and Isfandiyar and Rostam (Rostam killed Isfandiyar).  The Iskandar narrative, in contrast, points to tensions between the Persians and the Greeks, between Persian wisdom and Greek sages, and between Iskandar’s mother and his wife.  The Isfandiyar funeral illustration shows a tumultuous sea of persons surrounding Isfandiyar’s coffin.  The disorderly persons surrounding Iskandar’s coffin are more individually articulated and contrasted.

The Sackler Gallery’s exhibition occupies only two small room on the first floor of the gallery.   The displayed works are book pages that cannot be fully appreciated if they are viewed as wall paintings.  But like the Shahnama text does for world history, these illustrated pages encompass a huge span of visual art.  Visit Shahnama: 1000 Years of the Persian Book of Kings at the Sackler Gallery through April 17, 2011.  Until supplies run out, you can leave with a free exhibition brochure that, appropriately, has large pages and lavish illustrations.

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[1] Firdawsi declared that he finished his work “in the month of Sepandormoz, on the day of Ard, and four hundred years have passed since the Hejira of the Prophet.”  Sepandormoz and Ard are a month and a day in the Zoroastrian calendar, while the Hejira is the focal date in the Muslim calendar.  Firdawsi’s finishing date corresponds to 1010 AD (Anno Domini) among persons oriented to preserving the cultural history of the Mediterranean, and 1010 CE (Common Era) in the currently dominant dating system in the West.  A very small party of progressive, culturally sensitive scholars refuses to conform to either and uses 1010 GC (Gregorian Calendar) instead.  The quote is from Firdawsī, trans. Dick Davis (2007), Shahnameh: the Persian book of kings (London: Penguin) p. 854.

[2] Scholars have attributed the Great Mongol Shahnama to royal artists in Tabriz, Iran, in the 1330s, under Il-Khanid ruler Abu Sa’id or Arpa Ke’un.  It is sometimes called the DeMotte Shahnama.  George Joseph Demotte was an art dealer who dismembered the book and sold individual paintings from it.

[3]  Artists under royal patronage produced the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp in Tabriz, Iran, circa 1525.  It is sometimes called the Houghton Shahnama.  Arthur Houghton was an art dealer who bought it in 1959 and dismembered it in 1972.  The Hamzanama of Akbar is the only illustrated text that plausible exceeds the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp in magnitude of material and artistic investment.

[4] In contrast, ancient Greek texts, e.g. Prometheus Bound, explicitly represent non-verbal shrieks and cries.

[5] See, e.g., Plato, Phaedo, 117c.  More generally, Cairns, Douglas, “Weeping and Veiling: Grief, Display, and Concealment in Ancient Greek Culture” in T. Fögen (ed.), Tears and Crying in Greco-Roman Antiquity (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009), 37-57.

Image credit:

The Bier of Iskandar (Alexander the Great), from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdowsi (d. 1020); Tabriz, Iran; Il-Khanid period, circa 1330-1336; opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper; Freer Gallery of Art Purchase F1938.3.

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