Helena (fl. after 333 BCE)

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Helena (fl. after 333 bce)

Ancient Greek painter who painted a famous picture of the battle of Issus. Name variations: Helen or Helene. Flourished after 333 bce; daughter of an otherwise unknown Timon from Egypt.

Helena is the only name of a female painter of antiquity not mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his catalogue of women artists in the Natural History. For all of the scant information we possess on her career, we must look to a single sentence in the Myriobiblion, the encyclopedic work of a 9th-century patriarch of Constantinople named Photius. There he tells us that her father was a certain Timon, "from Egypt." Given the thoroughly Greek names of father and daughter, we can assume that they were either inhabitants of one of the Hellenistic Greek cities of the region, or Hellenized natives. We are further told by Photius that Helena "painted in her own times the battle of Issus." This battle was fought near the modern Turkish town of Iskenderun on the Gulf of Alexandretta in 333 bce between the Greek forces of Alexander the Great and Darius III, Great King of the Persians. It resulted in the defeat of the latter, and marked the imminent fall of the Achaemenid Persian Empire and the beginning of Alexander's eastward sweep through to Northern India. It is not surprising, then, that the battle was a popular subject for contemporary and subsequent artists, and the names of several others who composed on the theme are mentioned in our classical sources.

Of Helena's famous painting, Photius tells us that the Roman emperor Vespasian (r. 69–79 ce) "relocated it in the Temple of Peace," northeast of the Roman Forum at the center of the city. Since Vespasian himself dedicated this temple in 75, and it was used to house the spoils of his eastern campaigns in Egypt and especially Jerusalem, we may surmise that Helena's already antique painting had been kept in the east previous to its appropriation by the triumphant emperor. Our information about Helena's "Issus" makes it very tempting to identify it with a well-known Pompeian mosaic on the subject, which is almost certainly a copy of a Hellenistic Greek painting. In truth, she has no more claim to the picture than any of the other ancient painters who are said to have painted on the theme. Many scholars, in fact, think it most probable that a certain Philoxenus of Eretria provided the model. In any case, this splendid mosaic, which captures a dramatic moment in the battle as Alexander watches Darius reach out towards a dying Persian noble, all against a backdrop of clashing cavalry and bristling lances, illustrates very well a major achievement of Hellenistic composition and technique, and helps us to envision in some sense the artistic milieu in which Helena worked.

sources and suggested reading:

Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildender Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Edited by Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker. S.v. "Helene." Leipzig: W. Engelmann, 1908–50.

Enciclopedia dell'Arte Antica Classica e Orientiale. S.v. "Helene." Rome: Instituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1958–66.

Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople. Opera Omnia. Vol. 3. Edited by J.-P. Migne. Paris: Garnier Fratres, 1900, p. 619 [149.B].

related media:

Good reproductions of the Pompeian mosaic of the battle of Issus are available in many works on Greek and Roman art; two easily accessible books with good color reproductions and brief discussions of the mosaic are John Boardman's The Oxford History of Classical Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) and H.W. Jansen's History of Art (5th ed. revised and expanded by Anthony F. Jansen. NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1995).

Peter H. O'Brien , Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts