views updated


c. 500 b.c.e.–c. 440b.c.e.


Innovations in Painting.

Polygnotus, a Greek painter who introduced several innovations to his craft, was born on the island of Thasos in the northern Aegean Sea although he lived in Athens during the first half of the fifth century b.c.e. He was the son of a painter of Thasos, Aglaophon, and adhered to the familiar pattern of a son following his father's trade. The historian Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century c.e., credited Polygnotus with being the first to paint women with transparent garments revealing the body beneath them, and to show them with multicolored headdresses. He treated the faces and mouths of his human figures in a freer, more naturalistic manner than his predecessors. The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle praised Polygnotus' ability to represent the characters of his human figures. His effort to represent space and depth in his pictures was also an innovation. Polygnotus was not satisfied with placing all his figures in the foreground, on the baseline of the picture, as was typical in pictures of the time. Instead he tried to represent depth in his paintings by placing figures that were more distant on a higher level than that which were nearer to the viewer. There is evidence of similar experiments in red-figure vase painting about the time that Polygnotus was active, indicating his influence on that medium.


Since none of his paintings survived, knowledge of his works comes entirely from descriptions of them by later writers. The Greek writer Pausanias who wrote an account of his travels in Greece in the second century c.e. mentioned a painting by Polygnotus in the picture gallery in the north wing of the Propylaea, the monumental entrance to the Athenian Acropolis. He also saw Polygnotus' picture of an episode in the sack of Troy in the Stoa Poikile ("Painted Porch") in the Athenian marketplace. It was painted on wooden panels attached to the wall of the porch, the foundations of which have recently been uncovered, and must date soon after 460 b.c.e. His work on the Stoa may have been the reason that Athens conferred citizenship on him in an era when Athens rarely gave aliens such an honor. His most famous works were at Delphi, however, where he did paintings of the Sack of Troy and of the Underworld—that is, the world of the dead—in the Lesche, or club house of the Cnidians, built by the city-state of Cnidus sometime between 458 and 447 b.c.e. The foundations of the Lesche survive, and Pausanias provided a detailed description of Polygnotus' paintings there.


Robert B. Kebric, The Paintings in the Cnidian Lesche at Delphi and Their Historical Context (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1983).

E. G. Pemberton, "The Beginning of Monumental Painting in Mainland Greece," in Studia Pompeiana et classica. Ed. Robert I. Curtis (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Caratzas, 1988): 181–197.

Eleni Zimi, "Polygnotus," in Encyclopedia of Greece and the Hellenic Tradition. Vol. 2. (London, England: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000): 1383–1384.