Between art and text in late antique ecphrasis: Christodorus Coptus and the periochae of Nonnus’ Dionysiaca

23 Feb 2018

There is increasing interest in what might be thought ‘special’ about late antique poetry. Two volumes of recent years, McGill and Pucci (2016) as well as Elsner and Hernández Lobato (2017), have focused on Latin poetry of this time, as it becomes increasingly acceptable to talk about late antiquity as a period in its own right, rather than a point of transition between high antiquity and the middle ages. Late antique Greek poetry has yet to receive the same level of attention, but this is not surprising as Greek poetry of the high empire still remains in many ways obscure. Simon Goldhill (2012) has discussed the poetics of late antique ecphrasis through the Latin writer Paulinus of Nola, arguing that this mode may be understood to reflect cultural change as different writers engage with the fundamentals of ecphrastic description, time and narrative, taking on culturally specific ‘forms of attention’. Ecphrasis might therefore be seen as a useful case study for poetics: Paulinus attempts ‘to construct a specifically Christian form of attention’, Goldhill remarks (p. 89, emphasis his), and in doing so he ‘provides a unique example from antiquity both of an ecphrasis of a self-portrait, and of an ecphrasis of an ecphrasis. Christian self-regard is articulated in an extraordinary manner through the ecphrastic discussion of a portrait of the author and the poems attached to it.’ My contention in this article is that this cluster of themes in Paulinus’ work – its turn to the text and its turn to the self qua viewer in ecphrasis – is not only more widespread in late antique ecphrastic poetry, but that this set of ideas may be discussed as a response to Christian concerns about the act of interpretation, not least of text, in the era after Constantine. I would suggest that there is a distinct late antique approach to the role of the text we may recognise in Greek poetry as well as Latin, and in poetry which describes works inspired by classical as well as Christian themes. This articulates itself in the tradition of poetic ecphrasis as the form moves to encompass the literary description of books as well as visual art.