BMCR 2014.04.35

Image and Myth: A History of Pictorial Narration in Greek Art. (Translated by Joseph O’Donnell; first published 2003)

Luca Giuliani, Image and Myth: A History of Pictorial Narration in Greek Art. (Translated by Joseph O'Donnell; first published 2003). Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2013. xix, 335. ISBN 9780226297651 $65.00.


This handsome translation of Bild und Mythos: Geschichte der Bilderzählung in der griechischen Kunst (Munich, 2003), by a student of the great Karl Schefold, is a pleasure to hold. Printed on thick paper, the illustrations are of a uniformly excellent quality.

In a rather cerebral preface Giuliani discusses the theoretical role of images in society. The reader will have to survive such sentences as “Conversely, those regarding art as a heteronomous system have necessarily viewed the individual work primarily as a reaction to the relations within which it has been produced and have not inquired into the possible role of principles immanent to the work itself.” Nonetheless, he raises the problem we face in considering the translation of a myth, which exists in words, into a visual image, which exists in pictures. This problem is, after all, at the heart of the study of narration in Greek art.

Giuliani first reviews the arguments of Gotthold Lessing’s famous essay Laocoön: An Essay upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry, published in 1766, where Lessing distinguishes between the signs of painting, which exist in space, and the signs that exist in poetry, which exist in time. Hence art can never represent narrative, but poetry always does. In rather more abstract language than I prefer, Giuliani discusses the history since the Renaissance of the problem of narration and description in art, concluding that he will use the Iliad as a test case for this distinction.

Giuliani begins with the description of the Shield of Achilles in Iliad 18. He points out that, although the object is static, people on it move, dance, and sing. Curiously for epic style, the shield contains few names and, in the human sphere, none. There is no suspense about the outcome of the events portrayed, hence no narration, only description. Is this true of images from Homer’s own day in the eighth century BC? Do they depict the world or narrate stories? Of course the epic tradition is very old, reaching back several hundred years at least, while figured illustration on pottery is something new around 800 BC.

Giuliani then discusses a quadrupedal stand c. 740 BC from the Kerameikos in Athens (Kerameikos inv. 407). Above is a band of armed warriors, and below are four pictures of a lion (?) attacking a helmeted man. In two of these pictures the man fights the lion, and in two the man holds a sheep or goat to protect it from the lion’s attack. Is this a mythical narrative, perhaps Heracles and the Nemean Lion? No, because Heracles is not known to be a herdsman, and the upper frieze shows that these are simply men of high social standing engaging in manly behavior, even if lions were not part of the everyday experience of Attic aristocrats.

Similarly with a well-known dinos in London (British Museum 1899) that shows a ship filled with oarsmen and a much larger man standing to the side, holding a woman of similar proportions by the wrist. The woman holds a wreath. Is the man abducting the woman? We cannot be sure, and in any event the scene cannot represent a narrative because there are too many narrative possibilities: Helen and Paris, Ariadne and Theseus, and so forth. Narrative requires a specific reference. Hence the scene must depict the aristocratic everyman “in a constellation typical of his social status.”

Similarly in the case of the image of what seems a dual man on a geometric vase (Metropolitan Museum of Art 14.130.15) whose central theme is a male prothesis. This cannot be the Siamese twins, the Molione, as some have argued, but must be an artistic convention showing two men riding in a chariot. The scene is non-specific, hence not a narrative of a very obscure myth obliquely referred to by Homer.

A kantharos in Copenhagen (National Museum inv. 727) that shows a man devoured by two lions, but also lyre players, men dueling, and men dancing, likewise functions within a descriptive, not a narrative mode, showing the life of the agathos characterized by war, festivities, and a willingness to suffer heroic death. Nor can a well-known scene of shipwreck on an Attic pitcher in Munich (c. 730) represent the shipwreck of Odysseus ( Od. 12), because it too is descriptive, not narrative. It (and similar scenes) portrays the typical dangers of the aristocrat’s life.

All this changes around 700 BC when we get the first clear reference to narrative on a Boeotian fibula that shows a horse with wheels and little windows (British Museum 3205). Surely this is the Trojan Horse, and you must know the narrative of the story to understand the image: the image itself is silent. From around 670 BC we find the famous relief on a pithos from Mykonos that also shows a wheeled horse and armed men emerging from it (Mykonos Archaeological Museum 2240). Lower bands of relief show miscellaneous scenes of the murder of children and women. Though some of these scenes have been associated with specific incidents from the fall of Troy—the murder of Astyanax, Menelaos and Helen—they must in fact be generic representations of horror. In other words, the pithos combines narrative with descriptive representation. The Horse is a narrative representation, but the pictures of mayhem are generic and descriptive.

Then around 670 BC emerges the extraordinary popularity of the image of the blinding of Polyphemus from widely separated locations: from Argos, Caere, Eleusis, southern Etruria, and Samos. These illustrations, while sharing a common theme, are so different as to preclude copying. Because of certain details, they cannot depend on a widespread folktale type, but must go back to the Odyssey of Homer, which “received its (more or less) definitive form in the late eighth or early seventh century.” Giuliani does not explain why artists suddenly felt compelled to illustrate events that are truly narrative and not descriptive, that cannot be understood without reference to written documents—in this case the Odyssey —except to say that in the context of aristocratic conviviality it became popular to talk about the stories behind images.

Already we are talking about writing and pictures. Against all evidence, Giuliani imagines that the Greek alphabet was first used for commercial purposes, but nonetheless notes that from the middle of the eighth century we find names scratched on pottery, and also the complete hexameter of the Dipylon Oinochoe from c. 740 BC, and two hexameters on the “Cup of Nestor” from Pithekoussai of about the same time. Beginning in the seventh century BC inscriptions begin that are painted on the pottery before firing, instead of scratched through the decoration, proving that the humble potter possessed a kind of rudimentary literacy. Giuliani is probably not sufficiently surprised by this extraordinary development, unknown in all earlier cultures, holding that the potters simply desire the kleos that their aristocratic sponsors so desired. Then in the second quarter of the seventh century BC appear the named figures of gods; yet the images remain descriptive, not narrative, because there is no story behind the names. Around 650 appears an unequivocal reference to a mythical event supported by writing on the famous Chigi Vase: the judgment of Paris. The inscriptions ALEXANDROS and ATHANAIA and APHROD leave no doubt as to the subject. Still, names can be added to purely descriptive, not narrative, representations, such as a procession of warriors undifferentiated except for one named MENELAS. Any narrative content has to be imagined. Similarly a wholly generic scene on a puzzling plate from Rhodes shows two warriors fighting over a fallen warrior, but the dead man is labeled EUPHORBOS and the fighters MENELAOS and HEKTOR. The labels impart to a descriptive scene a kind of narrative content. Menelaos and Hektor do not, however, actually fight over the obscure Euphorbos in the Iliad.

Another descriptive scene that can be made to refer to narrative by the addition of names is the warrior setting out in a horse-drawn chariot. An example from a Corinthian aryballos depicts the generic scene but the warrior is labeled PATROKLOS. Because Patroklos’ only role in myth is that described in the Iliad, the artist must refer explicitly to the sixteenth book of that poem. Giuliani cites various other examples of the same technique of tying generic scenes to epic through the use of labels. The common scene of a departing warrior, an everyman, taking his armor from a woman is transformed into Achilles receiving the armor of Hephaistos ( Il. 19) simply through the addition of names.

Such an approach is enlightening when applied to the famous François Vase by Kleitias in Florence, where 130 name inscriptions identify gods, heroes, and even commonplace objects such as “altar” (BOMOS). On the handle Aias carries Achilles from the field, but this is only a preexisting iconographic template to which names have been added. This is true, too, of the chariot race on the top frieze, another generic scene, now attached to the funeral games of Iliad 23 by various labels, which however bare scant resemblance to the actors in the Iliad. No doubt Kleitias does not have access to written copies of the Iliad, or any interest in a faithful reproduction of the literary version. He has heard an oral recitation at some time of the funeral games of Patroklos and he does his best to provide plausible names to the charioteers.

Another issue is the representation of sequential events. On a Spartan cup c. 560 BC (Paris, Cabinet des Medailles 190) is shown the blinding of Polyphemus. Odysseus holds a kantharos, to indicate the giant’s drunkenness, while Polyphemus holds two legs of the men he has devoured, a kind of “polychrony” where sequential events are presented in a unified image. Giuliani shows how in representations of Odysseus’ encounter with Kirke the artist also translates sequential narrative into a simultaneous presentation of events, dividing the substance of a story into several images, each of which refers to a single moment. In pictures of the murder of Priam, artists combine two scenes into a single scene: the dashing of Astyanax from the walls of Troy and the killing of Priam, where Neoptolemos kills Priam by using his own grandson as a weapon. There is no basis in epic for this event. It grows out of two originally unrelated artistic templates.

In the fourth century BC Attic imports to Italy came to a virtual standstill as Athenian potters, working in Taranto, began to produce wares for local consumption. Unlike earlier Attic vases, Italian vases were not designed for the symposium, but for funerary purposes, which permitted a shift in subjects and themes and an opulence previously unknown. Whereas Attic vases used transparent themes, those on Italian vases are complicated and often hard to interpret. They are far more closely tied to their literary models than Athenian paintings of the sixth and fifth centuries, as if they were visualized quotations. Evidently written texts have become the most important source for mythical images.

In the early third century BC red-figure vases disappear in Italy, Greece, and Sicily, while black-glazed ceramics imitating metal originals continued. They are covered in a monochromatic slip and are embellished with plant motifs, tendrils, and wreaths. Evidently wealthy clients now preferred vessels of gold and bronze, while poorer clients made do with ceramic imitations. However in Macedonia and Thessaly were produced molded, relief-decorated vessels created by means of stamps. Several of these illustrate scenes from plays by Euripides. Giuliani provides an extremely interesting discussion of two of these bowls from the second century BC (Berlin Antikensammlung 3161n, 3161r [now lost]) that illustrate events from the 22 nd book of the Odyssey, accompanied by long excerpts from the actual text of the Odyssey engraved in a mirror scrip or painted on with liquid clay. The inscriptions are incomplete, beginning in the middle of a sentence and with arbitrary lacunae. Evidently these two bowls once belonged to a long sequence of bowls that illustrated the entire Odyssey and appealed to a client who was intimately familiar with a written version of the Odyssey. The client was expected to fill out the extensively lacunose text by personal knowledge of the written Odyssey. Pictorial illustration of Greek myth has shifted to total dependence on written models, an extraordinary development.

The book concludes with some summary remarks about the problems in representing narrative in pictures, and the importance of recognizing description as against narrative in art. This is an outstanding book, the best I know on the problem of the evolution of narrative in Greek art. The illustrations are fine, and Giuliani’s analysis of individual scenes is exemplary, a model for art historical studies. There are occasional slips in proofreading, and I do not think that Lessing’s theories do much for Giuliani’s argument, but the distinctions he makes are valid and solve many of the tangled problems that have in the past afflicted the study of narrative in Greek art.