Image and Portrait in Roman Culture and Religion

P LOT I N \J S objected to having his portrait painted because he distinguished between ail individual's character and mere external appearance. The outward form and, even more, the representation of that form made by an artist using pigments Otl wood was, to his mind, an illusion, A painted portrait had no life, depth, or meaning beyond recording the transitory and superficial aspect of the model, and, if it pretended to show any more than that, it was a fraud. Plotinus, like Plato, not only regarded artistic images as inferior copies but also as deceptive snares that would lure the eye and turn the mind away from contemplation of reality. Plotinus was wary of the material world and of seductive physical delights that entrapped the soul in base pursuits and pleasures, keeping it from ascending to more lofty truth.

Whether or not this philosophical critique was heeded, the ancient monuments that fill today's museums show that the production of portrait images was widespread in the ancient world and no less in the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity. The disapproval of intellectuals does not appear to have affected the population's desire for artistic representations of family members, great heroes, rulers, statesmen, and the gods. However, the question of what constituted a worthy portrait—or likeness—is complex. Although the ancient Egyptians may have been the first to have fashioned porlrait-like art works, art historians (like many ancient philosophers) generally credit Greek sculptors with the first recognizable artistic likenesses, a development that characterized the transition from the archaic to the classical period^ reflecting an increased emphasis on individuality and naturalism over standardized types or forms. From that time on, classical portrait images ranged back and forth on a spectrum between realistic and idealized representation—the matter of what constituted a portrait dependent on how the concept itself was understood.

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