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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

F. B. Tarbell, A History of Ancient Greek Art

Greek Painting



Icon of the Christ and New Testament Reader

If we turn now from the humble art of vase-decoration to painting in the higher sense of the term, the first eminent name to meet us is that of Polygnotus, who was born on the island of Thasos near the Thracian coast. His artistic career, or at least the later part of it, fell in the "Transitional period" (480-450 B.C.), so that he was a contemporary of the great sculptor Myron. He came to Athens at some unknown date after the Persian invasion of Greece (480 B.C.) and there executed a number of important paintings. In fact, he is said to have received Athenian citizenship. He worked also at Delphi and at other places, after the ordinary manner of artists.

Painting in this period, as practiced by Polygnotus and other great artists, was chiefly mural; the painting of easel pictures seems to have been of quite secondary consequence. Thus the most famous works of Polygnotus adorned the inner faces of the walls of temples and stoas. The subjects of these great mural paintings were chiefly mythological. For example, the two compositions of Polygnotus at Delphi, of which we possess an extremely detailed account in the pages of Pausanias, depicted the sack of Troy and the descent of Odysseus into Hades. But it is worth remarking, in view of the extreme rarity of historical subjects in Greek relief- sculpture, that in the Stoa Poicile (Painted Portico) of Athens, alongside of a Sack of Troy by Polygnotus and a Battle of Greeks and Amazons by his contemporary, Micon, there were two historical scenes, a Battle of Marathon and a Battle of Oenoe. In fact, historical battle-pieces were not rare among the Greeks at any period.

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