Example of Ancient Greek Painting


Ancient Greek painting from the most ancient times till the decline of Ellas could be considered as those which are closely connected with other types of art. The unity of depiction and material pattern in the painting, as well as the sound and word in poetry, reveal essential feature of ancient Greek culture, which is universalism. As Tarnas noted (1991), the ancients in the so called classic period appreciated the united cosmos that could defeat from destroying chaos (p. 36). Therefore, it is hardly possible to judge ancient Greek painting by ancient Greek vases and different types of walls. The examples of painting on vases that have survived until the modern times are linked with the names of such artists as Exekias, Klytios, Polygnotus (Thomas, 1988, p. 92). That is why in the center of attention in the current essay stands famous work by Polygnotus named Helen abducted by Theseus. According to Hynson (2006), the artist Polygnotus is often considered as one of the most talented representatives of the red-figure vase painting of the late classical era (p. 87). The painting is dated approximately 430 – 420 B. C. and belongs to the red-figure technique. It is currently a part of exhibition at National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece.


Firstly, the content of the painting is traditional as for the time of its creation. At first glance, the painting opens entire mythological story. Showing four significant characters in mythological consciousness of the ancients (Helen, Theseus, Pherios, Phoiba), the painting may be called the preface to the history of the Trojan War. From this point of view, the picture maintains typical feature of ancient Greek painting that is a depiction of mythological gods and heroes, as Tarnas showed in his study (1991, p. 52). All the four characters are depicted in motion and seem to be relevantly symmetric and realistic. It is possible to reconstruct real people, their behavior, their cloths and gestures, from the traits of their characters, although the painting is not overwhelmed with excessive details. This is so to say realistic intention of the artist that may even have some didactical connotations, which to some extent contradict with the ornament underneath the very painting, which undoubtedly has merely decorative function with no appeals to history and mythology.

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Secondly, structure of the painting is rather monolithic with united foreground and background. It has nothing to do with perspective as well. Looking at the painting, it is difficult to judge about position of the painter when he was working on it. However, one of the possible explanations of the perspective neglecting that does not bring any disproportion into the painting is the round shape of the vase. The entire space of the painting is likely to be divided into two parts, each of which includes a couple of characters and is situated as if the parts of the couple care only of another element in the couple. Thus Theseus is moving forward and pushing Helen who is looking back at him and also moving forward. Pherios is slightly bowed toward the chariot and looks at Phoiba who looks at him. As for the depiction of human body, Polygnotus worked out well the muscles, especially males’. The legs and arms of Theseus and Pherios have distinct patterns, while the arms of females are rather plump. It is worth noticing that faces of all the characters have relatively sharp features, which also include pointed noses. Conversely, the eyes are not as distinct as they might have been so that the face expressions are unclear and the painting at all does not belong to the portrait in contemporary meaning of the word. What concerns painting technique, the artist uses thin lines that enclose the painting to the carving.


To sum up, Polygnotus in his Helen abducted by Theseus uses popular plot telling about the beginning of Trojan War. He is assertive in depicting details of human body and clothes, so that looking at his painting even more than two thousand years later it is possible to build the portrait of the ancients. Using thin pointed lines Polygnotus depicts healthy people who are men with distinct muscles, chariot, and spear and beautiful women. Thus the artist shares the view on ideal people who dominated in the classical period in ancient Greece.

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