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.
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.