This talk explores the implications of materialist theory for the interpretation of artistic representations of gods and other supernatural beings, taking as a case study Lucretius’ anxiety around the centaur. Lucretius accepted the basic Empedoklean idea that, early in the history of the planet, earth produced a great variety of species, many of which went extinct because they were ill-equipped to survive. But Lucretius went out of his way to deny the very possibility of certain types of “monsters,” such as centaurs. Underlying this objection, it is argued, is an anxiety that materialist epistemology implicitly accords authority to representations of demigods in art.
This interpretation is based on two considerations: first, when Lucretius offers an explanation of the centaur, he does so in terms of
the mechanics of perception (effluences of a horse and man contaminating each other in the air), rather than some innate human capacity for visual invention; second, when Ovid replies to Lucretius’ arguments about centaurs, he
does so in language that powerfully evokes pictorial art.
Guy Hedreen is Professor of Art History at Williams College. His books include The Image of the Artist in Archaic Greece (Cambridge UP 2015), Capturing Troy (Univ. of Michigan Press 2001), and Silens in Attic Blackfigure
Vase-Painting (Univ. of Michigan Press 1992).