Asterius of Amasea’s Euphemia ekphrasis

Asterius of Amasea, a late-fourth-century Christian bishop with oratorical training, began a speech thus:

The other day, gentlemen, I had the great Demosthenes in my hand — that {oration} of Demosthenes in which he assails Aeschines with bitter words. I spent a long time with the text, and as my spirit was burdened, I needed the distraction of some walk, so that my soul could recover a bit from her labour.[1]

Asterius walked through the marketplace, readily imagined as filled with vendors noisily asserting the value of their products, and on to a temple, where he prayed. Near to the temple on a portico wall he saw a painting that “overtook me completely.”  The painting seemed almost alive, like a masterpiece of Euphranor from fourth-century democratic Athens, or like a painting of other ancient masters.[2]  The painting represented the martyrdom of the virgin Euphemia.[3]  It marked the place of her tomb.  Euphemia was annually honored at that place with a festival and public speeches.  Asterius’ speech then proceeds to a verbally artistic description of the painting.  Asterius’ speech, with its framing narrative and attention to a painting described as seeming almost alive, follows a well-established rhetorical model of ekphrasis.

In the midst of his ekphrasis, Asterius praises painting with reference to a garlanded ekphrastic epigram.  In the first century BGC, Timomachus painted the Colchian woman Medea at the moment preceding her decision to kill her children.  Julius Caesar purchased this painting and placed it in the Roman temple of Venus Genetrix. A couplet by Antipater of Thessalonica, who probably resided in Rome near the end of the first century BGC, described Timomachus’ painting:

This is a sketch of Medea.  Observe how she lifts one eye in anger,
and softens the other with pity for her children.[4]

Asterius describes a painting showing:

the drama of that woman of Colchis, how she is going to kill her children with the sword, her face divided between pity and anger — one of her eyes looking with wrath, the other revealing the mother in fear and sorrow.

Asterius is probably referring to Timomachus’ celebrated painting.  An extensive scholarly study of Timomachus’ Medea and ekphrastic epigram noted of Antipater’s epigram:

The rather awkward description of the eyes {of Medea}, one lifted in anger and one drooping with compassion, is not repeated in other epigrams and would seem to reflect the interpretation of the viewer/poet based on his knowledge and understanding of the Medea figure.[5]

Asterius could not himself have seen Timomachus’ painting, which burned in 80 GC.  Antipater’s epigram on Timomachus’ Medea circulated widely and was included in the Greek Anthology.  Asterius’ unusual description of Timomachus’ painting probably came from Antipater’s ekphrastic epigram.

Asterius’ homily on the rich man and Lazarus sets up the narrative arc for Asterius’ Euphemia ekphrasis. Expounding upon the description of the rich man “clothed in purple and fine linen,” Asterius condemns the wearing of clothes decorated with pictorial designs:

having found some idle and extravagant style of weaving, which by the twining of the warp and the woof, produces the effect of a picture, and imprints upon their robes the forms of all creatures, they artfully produce, both for themselves and for their wives and children, clothing beflowered and wrought with ten thousand objects. … When, therefore, they dress themselves and appear in public, they look like pictured walls in the eyes of those that meet them. And perhaps even the children surround them, smiling to one another and pointing out with the finger the picture on the garment; and walk along after them, following them for a long time. On these garments are lions and leopards; bears and bulls and dogs; woods and rocks and hunters; and all attempts to imitate nature by painting.[6]

Painting imitating nature evokes the contest of deception between the ancient Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius.  As Asterius observed, a painting that imitates nature could also bring to life teaching about the courage and holiness of the martyr Euphemia.  Emphasizing luxury, vanity, and complacency, not epistemological concerns about imitation, Asterius vehemently rejected depictions of Gospel text on garments:

such rich men and women as are more pious, have gathered up the gospel history and turned it over to the weavers; I mean Christ himself with all the disciples, and each of the miracles, as recorded in the Gospel. You may see the wedding of Galilee, and the water-pots; the paralytic carrying his bed on his shoulders; the blind man being healed with the clay; the woman with the bloody issue, taking hold of the border of the garment; the sinful woman falling at the feet of Jesus; Lazarus returning to life from the grave. In doing this they consider that they are acting piously and are clad in garments pleasing to God. But if they take my advice let them sell those clothes and honor the living image of God. Do not picture Christ on your garments. It is enough that he once suffered the humiliation of dwelling in a human body which of his own accord he assumed for our sakes. So, not upon your robes but upon your soul carry about his image.

Do not portray the paralytic on your garments, but seek out him that lies sick. Do not tell continually the story of the woman with the bloody issue, but have pity on the straitened widow. Do not contemplate the sinful woman kneeling before the Lord, but, with contrition for your own faults, shed copious tears. Do not sketch Lazarus rising from the dead, but see to it that you attain to the resurrection of the just. Do not carry the blind man about on your clothing, but by your good deeds comfort the living, who has been deprived of sight. Do not paint to life the baskets of fragments that remained, but feed the hungry. Do not carry upon your mantles the water-pots which were filled in Cana of Galilee, but give the thirsty drink.

During the Second Council at Nicea in 787, which met to address Christians’ use of images, Asterius’ homily on the rich man and Lazarus was put forward as an argument against images.  Asterius’ Euphemia ekphrasis was then read into the record in support of images.  The Second Council at Nicea’s arguments about Asterius’ position on images communicatively parallel Demosthenes and Aischines’ agon introducing the narrative frame for the Euphemia ekphrasis.  Given Asterius’ explicit praise for painting in the Euphemia ekphrasis, Asterius could have easily anticipated that wearisome verbal development.

At its end, the Euphemia ekphrasis suspends representations. In a poignant but conventional gesture, Asterius responds with tears to the depiction of an executioner knocking out all of Euphemia’s teeth. But his ekphrasis continues through his tears: Asterius goes on to describe Euphemia alone, in prison, dressed in grey clothes, praying, with a Christian cross inscribed above her head.  Then the execution:

the painter lit a tremendous fire, with red colour giving life to the flame from all sides.  He put her in the middle with her hands stretched towards heaven.  No burden is manifested by her face; on the contrary, she looks rejoicing because she moves towards the bodiless, blessed life.

At this point, the Euphemia ekphrasis ends with deliberate choices to halt painting and speech:

Here the painter stayed his hand and I my speech.  It is time for you, if you want, to complete the description, so that you can see with precision whether our explanation was not failing.

Completing the description implies imagining a “bodiless, blessed life” like that towards which the “courageous and holy” Euphemia moves.  In a similar way, the original textual ending to Mark’s Gospel implied readers moving beyond terror, amazement, silence, and fear to build the church.[7]  Fourth-century homilies on martyrs emphasized that homage corresponds to imitation.[8]  The Euphemia ekphrasis, like the original ending to Mark’s Gospel, points to imaginative completion and inspired action.  That’s different from compelling arguments, such as those that wearied Asterius at the beginning of the narrative frame, or a call to imitation, which was the usual form in recounting martyrdom.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Trans. Leemans et al (2003) p. 174.  All the references to Asterius’ speech are from that translation.  Castelli (2000) seems to me a worse quality translation.  For example, Castelli’s translation omits any mention of the painter Euphranor, even though that painter is explicitly mentioned in the Greek source.  Nonetheless, with the exception of the reference to Euphranor, all the points above are consistent with Castelli’s translation.  Demosthenes and Aeschines were prominent orators in fourth-century BGC Athens.

[2] Coulson (1972) argues convincingly that Euphranor was an Athenian painter who probably flourished about 360 BGC.  Thus Asterius’ reference to Domesthenes and Aeschines matches the historical time and place of his reference to Euphranor.

[3] Euphemia was from Chalcedon, a city close to Byzantium.  She was executed for her Christian faith in 303 GC as part of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.  See Castelli (2000) p. 464.  Asterius was from Amasea, in the middle of the Black Sea region of present-day northern Turkey.

[4] See my post on media in epigrams on Timomachus’ Medea.  Asterius compares that painting’s mixture of emotions to Euphemia’s mixture of docility and courageous determination. Leemans et al (2003) translates the emotions as “shame and firmness”; Castelli (2000), “modesty and courage”. The conflicting emotions concern a willingness to be led (which in antiquity was associated with femininity) and a determination not to compromise or betray her Christian faith despite an authoritative order to do so.

[5] Gutzwiller (2004) p. 364.

[6] Trans. Pearse (2003).  The subsequent quote is also from that source.

[7] See Mark 16:8, which manuscript evidence suggests was the original conclusion to that Gospel.  Asterius’ Euphemia ekphrasis is consistent with such a form for the Gospel.

[8] Driver (2005) p. 254.


Castelli, Elizabeth A. 2000. “Asterius of Amasea: Ekphrasis on the Holy Martyr Euphemia.” Ch. 39 in Valantasis, Richard. 2000. Religions of late antiquity in practice. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Coulson, William D. E. 1972. “The Nature of Pliny’s Remarks on Euphranor”. Classical Journal. 67 (4): 323-326.

Driver, Lisa D Maugans. 2005. “The Cult of Martyrs in Asterius of Amaseia’s Vision of the Christian City”. Church History. 74 (2): 236.

Gutzwiller, Kathryn.  2004.  “Seeing Thought: Timomachus’ Medea and Ecphrastic Epigram.” American Journal of Philology 124, pp. 339-386.

Leemans, Johan, Wendy Mayer, Pauline Allen, and Boudewijn Dehandschutter. 2003. ‘Let us die that we may live’ Greek homilies on Christian Martyrs from Asia Minor. London: Routledge.

Pearse, Roger. 2003.  Asterius of Amasea, Sermons (1904), trans. Anderson and Goodspeed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *