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    Members’ Reports

    Rachel Catherine Patt
    Center 42

    Rachel Catherine Patt

    Meaning, Materiality, and Pothos in Late Antique Gold-Glass Portraits

    Today, social media attest to a fascination with creating portrayals of those around us, but this impulse for capturing likenesses of friends, family members, and strangers is not new. At the same time, we mark two years of isolation, longing for others, and grief as the staggering toll of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact our daily lives. My dissertation research, which looks anew at a small group of Late Roman portraits, highlights the transhistorical stakes of representation by tapping into an intrinsic aspect of the shared human experience that breaks the confines of chronology and feels keenly relevant in 2022: What does it mean to miss someone beloved?  

    Anonymous Roman, Portrait of Gennadios, c. 200–250 CE, gold and glass, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access

    In Book XXXV of the Natural History, Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) recounts the catalyst for creating the ur-portrait as an event from the even more remote past: the imminent separation of a Greek potter’s daughter from her lover. At the core of the invention of portraiture, perhaps the format most strongly associated with Roman artistic innovation, was a sensation of yearning, lust, and longing for someone absent. One term that Romans might have used for this type of desire was pothos, from the ancient Greek. Two millennia after Pliny, the notion of pothos as a chief motivator for the creation of a portrait image still resonates. 

    My dissertation takes the exploration of pothos in ancient portraiture as a point of departure for investigating an understudied Roman portrait—the gold-glass roundel. The first half of the dissertation focuses on extracting a corpus of 18 gold-glass portraits from the much larger body of elite objects that survive from antiquity; known as gold sandwich glass after their remarkable facture, the objects combine gold leaf designs worked between two layers of glass. Subsequent chapters in the first half of the dissertation then situate this corpus within contexts that include the tradition of the exquisite portrait miniature, reaching back to the Hellenistic period, and that extend to contemporary portraits sculpted in marble during the third century CE.

    Anonymous Roman, Portrait of Man in Chlamys, c. 200–250 CE, gold and glass, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photo: Rachel Catherine Patt

    The second half of the dissertation employs the corpus as a vehicle for exploring theoretical issues related to ancient portraiture more broadly. After introducing pothos and probing how Romans conceived of the portrait image, I turn to the aesthetic and material qualities of the gold-glass portraits. At the conceptual center of my study is what I define as an “aesthetics of wonder,” whose characteristics can be traced back to the verses of Homer and Hesiod, among other poets and writers. Passages of classical literature connect conceptions of the wondrous and otherworldly with luminosity, gleam, goldenness, and luster, the very qualities of the portrait roundels. The dissertation considers how the gold-glass portraits harness this aesthetics to transform into powerful, animated images equipped with the agency to assuage pothos. I conclude by considering three types of afterlives of the gold-glass roundels: their eventual placement in the Roman catacombs, the role of pothos in Byzantine image theory, and the longevity of the small-scale portrait format.

    The first half of the dissertation is therefore dedicated to integrating these 18 roundels into a broader conceptualization of ancient portraiture. Yet to explore these gold-glass portraits is to acknowledge a host of enduring themes that transcend a specific Roman context; this is the domain of the dissertation’s second half. The project opens onto themes that are at the heart of the humanities, such as the persistent drive to commemorate, conceptions of self-presentation, and the emotional bonds that unite individuals throughout millennia—all intrinsic to the experience of being human.

    The project proposes a new epistemology for interpreting the 18 gold-glass portraits by returning to the vocabulary used by Greek and Roman authors to describe works of art and their world. By establishing an ancient aesthetics of wonder as a framework in which to interpret these portraits, I contend that the material form of the portrait was tantamount to the type of power it wielded. I argue that the roundels were perfectly suited to mitigate pothos, traversing realms of the real and marvelous to make present the absent beloved. In uniting language, aesthetics, and materiality, this dissertation puts forward a means of looking at art and society that is not limited to portraiture but that can be more widely deployed within the classical world and, indeed, in other areas of visual culture studies.

    Emory University
    David E. Finley Fellow 2019–2022

    Rachel Catherine Patt will be joining the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies at Princeton University as a Mary Seeger O’Boyle Postdoctoral Research Associate.

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