Discussion Group: Object, Text, and Intermediality in Zbigniew Herbert

Details of Hagia Triada Sarcophagus

Known primarily for his poetry, the Polish writer Zbigniew Herbert was also the author of a rich prose oeuvre, consisting of essays, cultural criticism for the press, and above all, a trilogy of travelogues thematising his journeys in Western Europe. Occupied with the tension between literature and material reality, Herbert used his travel essays as a space to wrestle with the question of how to translate his encounters with past civilisations and his experience of art into writing. This OCCT Discussion Group session interrogated both this fundamental question of intermedial translation and Herbert’s subjective approach to it.

The session took the form of a discussion between Marianna Leszczyk, who introduced Herbert’s highly self-aware engagement with ekphrasis as exemplified by his description of the Hagia Triada sarcophagus, and Professor Jaś Elsner, who offered a response. The relationship between text and object was problematised not only within the space of the dialogue between the two speakers, but also through the display of photographs of the sarcophagus itself. This juxtaposition of a visual representation of the object and the ekphrastic text invited the audience to follow the process of ekphrasis in practice and to reflect on intermediality, the workings of representation, and the distortions that the latter inevitably entails.


Marianna Leszczyk is a DPhil candidate in classical reception at Balliol College, Oxford. Her doctoral project explores the reception of Graeco-Roman antiquity and the classical tradition in the prose of Zbigniew Herbert. Before coming to Oxford, she completed an MA in Comparative Literature and Classics at the University of Glasgow and an MLitt in Classics at the University of St Andrews, producing work on the performativity of national identity in twentieth-century literature and trauma in ancient Greek historiography respectively. Her work on Herbert focuses on themes such as intermediality and the question of (un)mediated access to antiquity, materiality, and the ethics of alterity. Her other academic interests, similarly cutting across antiquity and modernity, include trauma studies, cultural hybridity, and points of friction in cultural and historical narratives.

Jaś Elsner is Professor of Late Antique Art at the University of Oxford and Humfry Payne Senior Research Fellow in Classical Archaeology and Art at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He is also Visiting Professor of Art and Religion at the University of Chicago, a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Max Planck Society, as well as a Fellow of the British Academy. He is widely published and serves as the joint editor of two monograph series, Greek Culture in the Roman World and Ashgate Studies in Pilgrimage. He works on all areas of art and religion in antiquity and the early Middle Ages across Europe and Western Asia, including pilgrimage, travel-writing, and the description of art in texts. His most recent work is centred around the problems of comparativism in art history and explores the possibility of a global, non-Eurocentric comparative art history.