Hellenistic art is defined by our academic fetishization of names. The summation of our Grecian canon relies much on the shadowy and, if you believe contemporary academics, non-existent figure of Homer. But from Homer, Phidias and Praxiteles carved, and Exekias and Kleitas painted. Of course, each name we have is defined by an adjacent absence. It seems aptly poetic – as all ancient Greek anecdotes appear to be – that the holy grail, the glittering cup that is Greek fresco painting, is defined by an absolute absence of the work itself, bar an unusually well-documented character by the name of Polygnotos.
Not one of his works survive. Our fragmentary evidence of him is due largely to Pausanias, author of the idiosyncratic Descriptions of Greece, a work worshipped by contemporary classics scholars desperately compensating for visual absences in their field. Fortunately, Pausanias painstakingly recorded a figure-by-figure analysis of Polygnotos’ lost frescoes in the Lesche of the Cnidians, at Delphi – titled the Iliupersis and the Nekyia, depicting the sack of Troy and Odysseus’ visit to Hades, respectively.
In perhaps equal testament to the veracious determinism of classics scholars and their overwhelming amount of free time, many have attempted to rebuild, redraw, and piece together these wall works from Pausanias’s works. If you too have such unlimited spare time, I recommend Mark D. Stansbury-O'Donnell’s summatory article on the topic, focusing on the Nekyia.
Reconstruction of Polygnotos's 'Nekyia', From Mark D. Stansbury-O'Donnell's 'Polygnotos's Nekyia: A Reconstruction and Analysis'
As told in Descriptions of Greece, Polygnotos brought figure painting from the traditional frieze composition to the three-dimensional plane, introducing terrain lines to give depth of space. This isocephalic departure is visible with our Pausanian descriptions of the Iliupersis and the Nekyia, but our imaginations are the victims of contemporary scholastic bias. Only through tangible works can we glimpse what the paintings would have looked like.
It appears that ancient artists working in alternative art forms utilised Polygnotos’ three dimensional techniques. Placed in the red figure era of Athenian vase painting, The Niobid Krater demonstrates a Polygnotan derived movement into free-form space, the liberal placement of the figures alluding to a tangible field. On the Niobid side, detailing the slaughter of Niobe’s children, the figures appear in freefall, or rather, mid-death; while still rigid as with most red-figure pottery, the figures have gained scenic depth. In all likelihood, the Niobid Painter may have seen Polygnotos’ Nekyia, or perhaps his other works – the Marriage of Leucippus in the Anacaeum being a notable example. Some would go as far to claim this certain; we possess no evidence of other fresco painters deploying a three-dimensional technique. However, when faced with a complete lack of evidence either way, to come to this conclusion seems futile.
In the ethics of classical recreations, futility is a fatal symptom. In truth, if I’m arguing that the assumption of certitude in antiquities is pointless, then the arguing by itself is infected with equal pointlessness. In the end, I raise no qualms with academics who piecemeal the lost works of antiquity from written evidence. Encountering such slivers of evidence almost demands that one take up the challenge. Polygnotos is an especially romantic question lacking an answer – we know he may have been a contemporary, or perhaps even teacher, of Phidias. It’s hard to not mourn the loss; a teacher of Phidias, emulated among the great ceramic artists, worthy of pages of intricate explanation by Pausanias (where in his approach to the Parthenon, he finds not the time, ink, nor desire for the tiny, unimportant, one hundred and sixty metre long frieze and ninety-two individualised metopes...) and yet we can, and will never, be able to see this beauty. What would classics be without that romantic loss, though? How can we throw our hands in the air and profess knowledge of ‘The Truth’ with so little contextual evidence, and the abject bias of looking at 500 BC sources through 2018 eyes? We take such firm grip on the threads we can. Our trust in these whispering scraps of evidence is, as Mark Abbe described on his writings on whiteness in classical art, ‘a lie we all hold dear’. It all appears to be sand between our fingers, the dust of polychromy brushed from the sixteenth century restoration table.