The Absence of Polygnotos

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.​