Homer’s ‘Iliad’ sparks generations of art

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The war that formed the historical basis for the story of the Trojan War took place around 1250-80 BCE, contemporary scholars believe, during the Mycenaean Age in Greece. Following the Mycenaean period -- the Bronze Age -- Greece entered a dark age for about 300 years. The Mycenaean written language was lost. (Classical scholars only deciphered it again in 1952.)

And then, after that chaotic age, Homer came along. A writer scholars know little about, he lived on the cusp of the Archaic age of art in Greece, sometime in the 7th or 8th century BCE. He wrote down "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" -- tales that, up until that point, bards had preserved entirely through an oral tradition.

The Grecian art inspired by Homer’s tales, as well as other mythic accounts, divides into three periods: the Archaic period (750 to 500 BCE), the Classical period (500 to 336 BCE) and the Hellenistic period (336 to 146 BCE). Even in the Hellenistic period, hundreds of years after Homer, artists drew from his tales.

Greek artists used vase painting to depict well-known mythological stories. Exekias, a painter of the late Archaic period, is known for his detailed use of the black-figure technique (using black paint to paint figures on the red background of the pottery). One vase shows the Greek warrior Ajax, carrying the dead body of Achilles after he died from the heel wound inflicted by the Trojan Paris.

The red-figure vase painting technique, in which the figures are formed of the red pottery and surrounded by black paint, evolved in Athens at the artistic center of Greece during the Classical period. One of the most exquisite and tragic vase paintings of this era, the painting of Sarpedon by Euphronios, laments a minor character in the Iliad. Sarpedon’s death demonstrates that even the most powerful of the gods were subject to the whims of fate.

Sarpedon was a Trojan warrior and the son of Zeus. When Sarpedon lay dying at the hand of the Greek Patroklos, Zeus agonizes over whether or not to save him.

"My heart is torn in two," Zeus says in book 16 of Robert Fagles’ translation of the Iliad. "Shall I pluck him up now, while he’s still alive, and set him down in the rich green land of Lycia, far from the war at Troy and all its tears?"

But his wife, Hera, who favors the Greeks, replies, "What are you saying? A man, a mere mortal, his doom sealed long ago? Do as you please, Zeus Š but none of the deathless gods will ever praise you. If you send Sarpedon home, living still, beware! Then surely some other god will want to sweep his own son clear of the heavy fighting too."

On the vase, Sleep and Death carry Sarpedon’s body, with Hermes, the messenger god, looking on.

The Greeks believed the Trojan War to be the end of the age of great heroes. The gods retreated back to Mount Olympus, never to interact directly with mortals, because of the terrible consequences of procreating with mortals.

One of the most famous examples of art created based on the Trojan War is the sculpture of Laocoon and his sons, currently housed in the Vatican.

The story of Laocoon and his sons takes place after the end of the Iliad, before the destruction of Troy. Laocoon is a priest of Poseidon who warns the Trojans against accepting the Greeks’ gift of the Trojan horse. Poseidon’s sea serpents strangle Laocoon and his sons are strangled, prompting the Trojans to accept the Trojan horse in light of the bad omen, bringing their doom into the city.

This column draws on a class called "Greek Art and the Gods" taught by Professor Guy Hedreen at Williams College.


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