Throughout the course, and hinted at in the name, we have been discussing works of literature referred to as epics and the images that sometimes accompany them. This isn’t something attributed only to these ancient works, even today modern works will have a visual counterpart created for them such as a cover, illustrations, or adaptations for the screen/stage. But what is the relationship between the two, the written and the visual? Could the visual object itself tell a story, or is it merely an additional layer to the written text?
Starting first with the Iliad as we have when the class started there is, of course, a water jug with a scene from the epic. On the jug we see Priam begging before Achilles while Hector’s corpse lies on the ground. Priam, of course, is Hector’s father and is begging Achilles to allow him to burry Hector properly and tells him to think of the relationship between him and his own father. Achilles gives in and cries with Priam and allows the burial to take place.
But this isn’t what the scene of the jug shows us. On the jug is a snapshot of the scene described above. A man is knelled before a laying man. A body is laid on the ground and there is a suit of armor/or guard set up to the side. If you ask someone unfamiliar with the story, which I have, they can tell by context clues and understanding of body language what is happening. My brother (a 15-year-old high school student for context) was able to tell that the man kneeling was begging or asking for something. He could also tell that the man that was lying down had power, mostly though because you wouldn’t beg to someone that doesn’t have power over you or something that you want. He, however, couldn’t figure out how the corpse played into the scene.
Moving on past the Greeks and into Roman culture we can look at the Aeneid, more importantly, the Vergilius Romanus. A manuscript was put together of Virgil’s works, including the Aeneid with pictures at the beginning of each book. I won’t go into much detail about the pictures since I already did that for a previous assignment, instead, I will focus again on the issue at hand: context. When I showed my brother the images his first thought was “I love old paintings like these, they just make absolutely no sense.” In the image for the first book, his thoughts were “Are these gods in the sky? You said this was Roman right, so yeah I think those are gods and the people in the ship are praying to them because it looks like there are sirens in the water, maybe.” So he didn’t understand that the image would be showing Aeneas and his crew being attacked by Aeolus until Neptune stepped in and helped guide them So, what is causing this disconnect?
I have two theories for what is happening by looking at these images expecting a story. The first one is kind of sad in a sense. A visual image will never be able to tell a whole story. Sure, you’ve heard the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, but what words are they? The water jug for the Aeneid by brother could tell that one man was begging and one man had the power. For the ship image for book one of the Aeneid, the story being told, to him, was voyagers praying for safe travels. Neither story is technically wrong, but it isn’t the full picture that the story lays out. Or, in other words, the one thousand words spoken by the images were within the words of the story. If there was a Venn diagram of what the images can tell the viewer and what the story tells the reader there would certainly be a lot of overlap.
My second theory is a little more hopeful, I think anyway. Perhaps the needed historical context is lost to us. Maybe there is something within those images, that to a viewer of the time they would see and clearly know the context of the image. For instance, and as I brought up in another assignment if someone today were to see an image of a man in a theater box in a top hat with a gun to them, they may immediately think of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. In fact, I tried the thought experiment on my brother and as I said, “picture a man in a theater box” his response was “what, like Lincoln?” But what I am referring to as “historical context” here could just be knowing a story. We know what Lincoln looked like, and how and where he died, because we know the story, it was innate knowledge. So if you picked someone who didn’t know Lincoln and his story and asked them what they thought of a picture of Lincoln in a theater box with John Wilkes Booth in the background, they may say “Oh, that man is going to kill the other man” which is correct, but not the full story. Perhaps there is a mix of both theories happening or something else that I can’t think of at the moment. The common thread of both though is the power for the image to tell a story. That a viewer can have their own interpretation of events in a way that a text may not allow for. When alongside a text it can act as shorthand for saying something that doesn’t need to be repeated or allow an artist to depict the scene as they see it. So, while an image alone may not be able to tell you an exact story of what is happening, maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Maybe it is okay to have wiggle room with how to interpret an image, or even how to depict a scene from a work, and it is okay that the movie isn’t like the book.