Raoul Mortley

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A Comment on the Cover of my Plotinus Book

  • February 18, 2014
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Plotinus refers to the luminosity of the human face, and his biographer also sees light in Plotinus’  face. It was, of course the light of intelligence, which comes from above and which pervades all reality, but especially the human mind, which transparently expresses itself through the human face.

In the painting chosen for the cover, graciously released to us by the Munich Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, we have tried to capture an image of the face which might have been in the minds of Plotinus and Porphyry.  This comes from the Fayum and is illustrative of funeral painting across the ancient world at the time: it is remarkable for its verisimilitude, or its photographic like qualities. The wish was apparently to represent the living person as closely as possible in the portrait to appear on  top of the coffin. Modern artists frequently take these paintings as inspiration,  and re-present them in their own vernacular.

There is however a departure from the attempt to present complete exactitude, in that there is a boost [“rehaut”] provided by the excessive amount of white paint on the around the pupil of the eye, and in particular under it.  This provides the transformational contribution of the artist, and gives the subject an increased spirituality, since he appears to be looking upwards. The question of white paint graphically represents the luminosity which Plotinus and Porphyry see in the human face. We should recall the Platonic description of the “light-bearing eyes”, taken up by Plotinus and discussed in Chapter 9.


I asked my colleague Jan Jervis to Photoshop the original version, reducing the white paint around the pupils to what might be normal levels, and as can be seen below there is a dramatic change in the look of the individual, who becomes correspondingly less lofty in appearance, the less white there is.

My guess is the that the white paint in the hands of the artists, who were often former ships painters, used to working on wood, becomes the artist’s way of expressing the philosopher’s idea of the illuminated human face.

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