“The Exploitation of Homeric Associations by the Ancient Artist”

Seraphina Goldfarb-Tarrant May 27, 2010 The Trojan War has been widely treated by ancient Greek vase painters of both red and black-figure, and there is a corpus of scholarly work devoted to divorcing these works from direct Homeric inspiration. This pursuit is a necessary reaction to some of the overzealous Homeric attributions (such as in the case of the Late Geometric bowl depicting “the abduction of Helen by Paris”) and are invaluable in their investigations of the reasons for departures from and inconsistencies with the Homeric tradition—arising from an epic that was well-known but has not survived to reach us, or influence of another artist, or even an artist’s lapse in memory. Yet the way this conversation is framed seems a product of the way our current Western culture makes meaning: these seem to be concerns of a monotheistic society that has dogma, an interest in narrowing explanations to one correct narrative, is sensitive to issues of heresy, and possesses a widespread literary tradition. These concerns have been imposed upon a polytheistic society with a flexible oral tradition. There is little evidence to suggest that it mattered to the Greeks whether a particular artist was working from Homer, a spin-off, a copybook with a Homeric depiction, or his own imaginative rendering of the battle between Achilles and Hektor. Regardless of which of these was the inspiration for a particular vase painting, in depicting the Trojan War a painter was drawing on a vast narrative base that his viewership held in common, a narrative base that he could mine for meaning, psychology, motion, and emotion to greatly enrich his work. This associational background could act as an aid for lesser artists, giving vitality and pathos to inexpert renderings, or as an amplification for the talent of an artist like Exekias. The effect of the

and pathos brought by the audience was not interrupted by “departures” from Homer or by visual innovation. but dogma and heresy were foreign. which have finite descriptive 1 2 Hesiod. Euphronios. who brought the story they carried within themselves and which they then attached to an artist’s rendering. Multiple versions of myth did not trouble the Greeks. was “particularly interested in the portrayal of anatomy”2 and so he depicts Sarpedon as a “heroic nude” instead of enshrouded in a robe as in the Iliad. however close or loose. Homer may be very cinematic but the Iliad is still words. when the Muses say that they. The image and the associations would have flooded together instantaneously and made their collective impact. “know how to speak many false things as though they were true”1 as well as true things. the painter of the Sarpedon Vase. For instance. This process of association. the allegiance that inform one Athena’s actions may be different from those that inform another’s. impiety could be punished.partnership between “Homer. Woodford 76. Theogony ln 27-8. There is also room in Homer for artistic interpretations that go against nothing. as could revelation of the Eleusinian Mysteries (though many of these were not in fact punished until Peloponnesian war). The Theogony. The status of myth in ancient Greece was so flexible that the artist didn’t have to constrain himself in order to enrich his work with associations birthed from the Trojan War.” more accurately “The Trojan War” and vase painters. . meaning. because there was no “right way”—Achilles was still Achilles in different traditions.” admits multiple versions of myth. was realized in the viewers of the paintings. the closest thing the Greeks had to “dogma. but this would not have required thought or brain power to work out. There are many things in the Iliad that Homer does not describe or only alludes to.

In fact. 5 Shapiro 34-37. but their nature as oral narratives made them a heavily improvisational art nonetheless. who lift Sarpedon’s body. in many cases what 3 Much of the Iliad and Odyssey was in prefabricated sections ranging from single lines to large paragraph chunks of description. an event well suited to a frieze running on a circular surface. The artists show their knowledge of the power that Homeric associations give their stories by their insistence on Homeric identification. however different their chosen composition is from what the “Homeric” version dictates. . and which include anachronistic prizes and the would have been familiar to an Athenian audience but are hardly Bronze Age details.”6 There appears to be an overwhelming bias on the part of the vase painter toward having a scene be identifiable.4 Hypnos and Thanatos are indistinguishable from any other Hoplite as they strain under the weight of the body of Sarpedon (still nude and immaculately muscled. In his earlier version of the same epic event. “the technique of making these stories immediately recognizable and increasingly complex. This is sometimes a great deal of difference. winged Hoplites with particularly unearthly eyes. within the confines of a pot surface. Once their names are read. as burly. made even more finite by the nature of an improvisationally3 performed oral narrative in strict meter. 4 Both images can be found in Shapiro 23. however. as in both the Sophilos fragment and the François Vase depiction of “The Games of Patroklos. and it becomes clear who they are. true to Euphronios’ style) save for the scrawled inscriptions bearing their names. 6 Shapiro 5. Euphronios has depicted Hypnos and Thanatos. In that very same Sarpedon Vase. Vase painters make ample use of character attributes to develop visual conventions.abilities. they take on an unearthly character that Euphronios didn’t manage to create purely on a visual level at this earlier point in his career.”5 which limit themselves to chariot races.

In the Homeric tradition Hermes has already left the scene by now. At an even deeper and more psychologically meaningful level the inclusion and identification of Hermes emphasizes that this scene treats the relationship between the living and the dead. rather than of the scene as a whole. However. for all three vase painters depict Hermes with his characteristic traveler’s cap and kerykion.7 and a red-figure exterior of a cup by the Painter of the Fourteenth Century Brygos8 show Hermes ushering Priam into Achilles’ tent. saying that. but to say that this function is widespread and notable. 9 Shapiro 39. the artist can remind the viewer of the divine intervention that brought Priam here to Achilles’ tent. It is also important to them that he have an obvious presence. but it seems to have been important to the vase painters to keep him here.”9 Here Shapiro must mean more the ease of recognition of Hermes himself. Shapiro comments on this. (the Rycroft painter even adds his winged boots) when Hermes is meant to have accompanied Priam in disguise. This is not to say that there are not also other functionssuch as wanting the associations of a character to be brought into a particular scene as in the case of Diomedes in the Embassy to Achilles. . Woodford 85. a relationship that only Hermes can truly facilitate by his 7 8 Shapiro 40-41. one attributed to the Rykroft Painter and an earlier one to the Painter of London. By clearly identifying Hermes. or to facilitate balanced compositions.can be perceived as departures from “fidelity” to Homer seem to function to make a scene more clearly recognizable. Two black-figure depictions of the ransom of Hektor. the associations that come with the figure of Hermes can flesh out this moment. “gods disguised as mortals do not translate well into visual terms when ease of recognition is the artist’s primary goal. for the presence of Hermes is hardly essential to a clear depiction of the ransom of Hektor.

the phenomenon of depicting gods in disguise in their full godly aspect creates (if the viewer remembers that the god is. Woodford 85. The earliest of the three. Achilles was unwilling to let Priam see the mangled body of his dead son. as the epic cycles themselves were transmitted through performance and recitation. Earth. where the viewer knows that he is looking upon Hermes but the figures in the scene do not. even when the indentified personage is one who is not central to the moment that is taking place. shows Hektor’s body lying just behind the reclining Achilles. and can help give the static image a sense of motion. In addition. in the mythic tradition. But putting the corpse of Hektor on display is. both of whom cannot fully make their crossing because they lack the proper burial rites. This can create an association of the image as a kind of performance. This also brings to mind the souls of Hektor and of Patroklos. This set of three “ransom of Hektor's" does also show insistence on techniques to mark the narrative moment as well as the individual characters. The two other versions show Hektor’s body beneath the kline of Achilles. These compositions display a “distinctly unhomeric touch”10 for in Homer. “a useful device to indicate that this was no ordinary banquet”11. the Painter of the Fourteenth Brygos and the Rycroft painter have chosen to 10 11 Shapiro 40. the Painter of London’s rendition. . and Olympus. These three vase paintings provide clear examples of how the associations that are brought by the viewer to an image can lend multifold meanings to the image. It also adds a gruesome element to Achilles’ dining that is not in the Homeric tradition. Secondarily. appearing in a false form) an atmosphere reminiscent of dramatic irony.character as the god who can cross the boundaries between Hades.

The compression of space in this composition allows the pathos of the watching Hekuba and Priam to be brought to the fore. and to top that off a figure of Iris running past Achilles. . but the scene would be far less clear in subject matter. compressed into a nearly square panel of a belly amphora”12. which in Homer he leaves outside the tent. Shapiro 39. Included in a single square tableau are Achilles leaping over the body of Hektor onto a moving quadriga being driven by a charioteer.include the ransom that Priam offers to Achilles. The vase painters have chosen instead to be sure the scene is clear by including all of these elements. four horses disappearing off to the right. A black-figure hydria by the Leagros Group14 depicting Achilles dragging Hektor’s body also shows the trend of condensing elements of a story to create a great associational base. the eidolon of Patroklos. It might actually be more effective from a psychological level to have Priam and Achilles alone in the tent without the ransom. meaning an image that combines moments without unity of time and space. The vase painters are collectively hedging their bets that they can engender a greater response in a viewer by ensuring that they know to what this image refers.”13 but these can also be seen as sacrifices. the snake that marks his grave. a watching Priam and Hekuba to his left. Priam and Hekuba 12 13 Shapiro 41. than by creating a purely beautiful image that may have to stand alone with no viewer-provided associations.15 This composition is so crowded that it is a remarkable feat of artistic composition that each character and instance it references remain distinct. Shapiro describes the Rycroft Painter as having given “all the key ingredients. what Woodford calls “visual prolepsis” and Shapiro a “synoptic” image. 15 Shapiro 8. 14 Image found in Shapiro 30 and Woodford 84. These elements are “liberties we have come to expect vase painters to take for the sake of clarity and completeness.

“blending incompatible motifs and episodes in a way that underscores all the emotional tensions at the end of the Iliad. Shapiro suggests that the artist does this. that takes away the power of this scene being different from the standard. The painter has innovated and included them. However. the force of feeling that drove him to these extreme and impious actions. . for elsewhere in the Iliad Achilles is driven by Automedon. Additionally. One innovation of this painter that has so far been left undiscussed is that of Achilles leaping onto the quadriga. would have broken that solitude. “to capture the skill and ferocity 16 Vermeule. Then the artist balances these emotional associations with the inclusion of Patroklos’ eidolon and Patroklos’ grave marked by a chthonic snake. The association of him being driven is not foreign to Homeric tradition. Her upraised arms mirror those of Priam and Hekuba. were he still alive. These bring the associations of Achilles’ anger and anguish. directing the eye back to them and creating even more sympathy with their plight.”16 In this blending the painter displays compositional prowess both on the visual and the emotional level. Emily. of this being Achilles’ personal vendetta which he attends to alone. and this pulls into the image the associations of Priam’s terrible supplication of Achilles.would have been watching from the walls of Troy and could not realistically be both included and visible in any painting done to scale. The Leagros Group painter shows innovation in synoptic composition. quoted in Shapiro 31. rather than driving his chariot as he does in the Iliad. in honor of his lost companion who. another compression of time. and reminds the viewer of the gruesome injustice that Achilles is committing. Achilles turns back to the watching parents. The inclusion of Iris. brings in the memory that this is not an action condoned by the gods. The painter must have had a significant reason to break from this powerful detail.

Achilles’ legs mid-jump mirror those of the running Iris. for though the image is busy each character is easily distinguished through the ingenuity of the composition. The viewer will see that this is not a feat for just any man. I am inclined to favor Shapiro’s opinion. It should be noted that Susan Woodford is in direct conflict with Shapiro’s glowing account of the pathos of this vase. beautiful composition. It is equally. Balancing this busy composition would have taken great visual skill.”17 and emphasize his “swift-footed” aspect in jumping onto a chariot. Perhaps this is the association being evoked. set off from an Iris who is black in her midsection with white skin showing through at her extremities.18 One of the factors of Greek art that fosters the partnership between the Trojan 17 18 Shapiro 29.of the Homeric Achilles. The charioteer is in the center of the composition. and as the Athenians of this period no longer rode chariots. plausible that the painter has shown Achilles leaping onto his chariot in order to foster a more balanced. and it is likely that the artist would have chosen to sacrifice one emotional portrayal in the service of his composition and trusted that the rest of the emotions that pack the scene would suffice. though with a certain moderation. but it would not be necessary to show him as “swift-footed” because once he is identified as Achilles that epithet immediately comes to mind. Secondarily. they can be emphasized by his stance and actions. . But these associations come parceled in with the figure of Achilles. Iris and Achilles even show a loosely mirrored color scheme. it seems more likely that an artist would desire an immediate emotional effect upon a viewer. the difficulty of leaping upon a chariot would not likely have been foremost in their minds. She thinks that this image is so packed with physical movement that it has become emotionally stillborn. There is a seductive romanticism in Shapiro’s suggestion. but rather for the man who chased Hektor thrice around the walls of Troy. if not more. and it is true that in considering the image at length the difficulty of leaping onto a moving chariot will likely arise in the viewer’s mind. a black Achilles with white accents on his shield flanks him.

Hermes has his boots. 23 Shapiro 42. The vasepainters had a visual language with which to allude to a particular narrative moment or sequence. Athena her Aegis. Running. hat. Each god has their specific attributes. The early black-figure artists of the first half of the sixth century were in the business of “inventing iconographies”21 but then later their compositional schemes were repeated time and again. and kerykion. that particular symbology. as Shapiro suggests. Shapiro 13. and so forth.”20 and though Briseis being wrested from her lover in order to be kept by another is not a wedding scene. A slithering snake (as in the Leagros Group hydria) marks a hero’s tomb and alludes to his descent into Hades. which moves beyond the identification of specific characters. 22 Snodgrass 106. the young groom leading away his bride by the wrist.War tradition and Greek vase painters is the existing rich visual symbology. perhaps even the “contamination” of that symbology. The depiction of Achilles reclining in the aforementioned “ransom of Hektor” scenes is itself part of the “iconography of the reclining hero”23 and thus is useful for 19 20 Shapiro 30.19 Scenes of the taking away of Briseis make use of “an iconographical schema popular in Greek art. serves as the necessary narrative signal. Briseis’ veiled crown in these scenes is also part of the bridal iconography. winged women signify the speedy Iris. and repeated compositions fostered the development of rules of interpretation for certain elements. and how the placement of the body of Euphorbos and the direction of his head indicates who will win the fight over him. The visual language became entwined with the language of narrative. .22 When Snodgrass discusses this development he is referring to earlier East Greek Euphorbos plate from the end of the seventh century. That is only the start of the visual symbology. 21 Shapiro 39.

26 Shapiro 16-17. even in different contexts. For instance. recognizable elements within them became referents to Trojan War narrative and emotion through the medium of reference to an artist who had distilled a scene with particular finesse. sulking Achilles. for canonized compositions and individual. and Woodford states. Astyanax.27) but adapted for use in the red-figure cup by the Briseis painter.”25 In fact. 28 Woodford 69. Ibid. . 27 Shapiro 18.narrative communication. saying.28 Woodford discusses the effect of some of the bloody (and popular) portrayals of Neoptolemus using the body of young Astyanax as a flail. Visual symbology was enriched over time through the process of canonization. “Priam. “the two figures were so powerfully characterized that even when they were reduced to mere formulae in the hands of less gifted artists. this sulking Achilles so well encapsulated the atmosphere of this moment and this aspect of Achilles that it became “iconography” for this emotion. The importance of emotional associations is demonstrated by this process. they still retained a very considerable emotional impact. and Cassandra all represent archetypal kinds of victims…but the fact that they have names and histories personalizes their stories. the red-figure depiction of the Embassy to Achilles by the Triptolemus Painter24 displays a particularly apt characterization of Odysseus leaning back and crossing his legs leisurely opposite a veiled. This composition was copied many times. depicting Briseis being led away from Achilles’ camp. even though this posture makes it impossible for Priam to clasp his knees in supplication. Thus the untimely death of Astyanax pains us 24 25 Woodford 73. The sulking Achilles was not only used in other Embassy to Achilles scenes (as in those by Makron26 and the Eucharides Painter.

It is hard to believe that. On another black-figure amphora painted some 30-40 years later by Exekias is a depiction of Achilles about to thrust his sword through the throat of Penthesilea. Ibid. the conclusion must emphasize the potency of using narrative associations and Homeric characters. and the nobility and grace with which she faced her own death. Yet it is with the identification of this woman as Polyxena that this tableau comes to life. However. A black-figure amphora by one of the painters of the Tyrrhenian Group bears a two-dimensional rendering of the sacrifice of Polyxena by Neoptolemus. despite it’s lack of subtlety—the warriors thrusting Polyxena forward show no signs of the strain of her weight. with no names or pasts. and that make the dying woman not a cause for flinching at violence but a source of a deep sense of sadness and loss.more than the death of an anonymous child. the associations brought by identification of Achilles and Penthesilea can add yet more interest. a viewer would be able to forget this armored woman locking eyes with her murderer. It is this that makes the otherwise uncomplex image memorable. and the cylindrical Polyxena is reminiscent of a battering ram— succeeds at provoking in the viewer a flinch at the sight of the blood pouring from the woman’s throat. .30 The rendering. 31 Woodford 89. in all of his works. With her comes the trope of the fall of the royal house at Troy. Were Penthesilea and Achilles to be unknown figures. a master of uncrowded compositions that hold great psychological weight.31 Exekias is. despite Exekias’ mastery. the mad grief of her mother. even with no associations. Woodford posits that Exekias has succeeded in suggesting that in that moment that the eyes of Achilles and 29 30 Woodford 111. by demonstrating the effect upon both a skillful and a more primitive work. Exekias’ rendering would still be breathtaking.”29 In order to tie this analysis together as a whole.

“a hopeless love has dawned. 32 Ibid. The Iliad was the common background that every Greek would have had from birth. The ancient Greek vase painters knew what they were doing in highly valuing their entanglement with Homeric tradition and the Trojan War. and enhance the psychologizing effect on their viewers. These painters knew how to appeal to emotion. these two are a very moving composition. Exekias is uncommon in that he by no means needs Homeric associations to create pathos. but there is no love. . glassy-eyed in their admiration of Homer. but only presuming that we know who these characters are. and it had enough emotional impact upon that populace that it could inspire young men go off to war. These men were certainly not naïve young painters. the image does suggest this. They show themselves again and again to be concerned with and highly knowledgeable of psychological effects. which gives extra meaning to any image of a woman and an apple. powerful compositional performance in the eyes of the viewer.”32 Woodford is correct. and the image continues on as Penthesilea’s helmet seems to begin to fall from her head as the spear plunges into her throat. Without their names and personal histories. and the wrenching quality of Achilles looking upon the beauty that he has just extinguished is fully realized. A loose parallel can be the Western biblical tradition (though that has been too codified to be a true parallel). a love tragically extinguished the very instant that it is born.Penthesilea lock. or a woman in blue with a baby. but learned craftsmen using the tools at hand to create a moving image and an affecting. but he uses them nonetheless. and they mastered the art of working within and alluding to the tradition that everyone could be counted on to know. for the contact of their eyes recalls the love-story. When his painting is Achilles and Penthesilea it gains still more motion.