The Concept of the Plenum in Ancient Art (2022)

The concept of the plenum, and the associated idea of plenitude, are very old ideas, often expressed in both art and ritual in the ancient world. Much of the significance of ancient art is however obscure to both scholars and the lay public, since there is no direct discussion of the principles of ancient art surviving from before the time of classical Greece. However, the expression of the same ideas recur in literary texts from several cultures, so in some cases it is possible, through careful analysis, to establish connections between the ancient literature and the iconography from these cultures.

We do have literary and philosophical sources for the principles of Greek art, and the integration of finite and infinite things in works of art, which surfaces in Diogenes Laertius, and which is also discussed obliquely by Plato. So the book starts with the Greek view of art and philosophy, and their conception of the plenum. The ways in which the idea of the plenum is expressed in their literature and philosophy is explored. The book then moves on to literary and iconographic parallels in other cultures around the Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East, and discusses the texts and images, their component parts, the way in which they are assembled, and their significance, within the respective cultures.

Scholars have often been puzzled by the endless reduplication found in both literature and art in the Ancient Near East, and, beginning with Henri Frankfort in the early years of the twentieth century, wrote off the repetitions as filler motifs. As if the images were no more than design elements which could be used almost anywhere according to the space available, with no particular meaning. Scholars had no other clue at the time, and still sometimes repeat this notion about ancient art. In fact, as is now known in some quarters,  the reduplication of ritual images is performative, and does serve a cultural function. Often the function of intensification.

There is more reduplication present than is immediately obvious however, because different words, phrases, images, and motifs can stand in for each other, and be combined in different ways, which provided both contemporary nuance to the ideas, and provide a way for us to understand how the concept of the plenum was an armature for ancient ideas of good order in the world, its fertility, and the legitimation of political and social power.

The discussion is presented around a collection of more than a hundred images which express the notion of the plenum, and which cannot be properly understood without an understanding of the significance of the idea in antiquity. The discussion is detailed, with extensive notes, documentation and full references.

Forthcoming 2020.

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