Polygnotus: The Greek Painter Of Ethos

Polygnotus was an ancient Greek painter whom Aristotle praised his art and called him a “fine portrayer of ethos.” Take a look at his eclectic life and career.

Jun 23, 2020By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
reconstruction etching polygnotus
Detail from the Reconstruction of the Nekyia of Polygnotus, Carl Robert, 1892, from the book “Die Nekyia des Polygnot”


“Zeuxis compared with Polygnotus. The latter was a fine portrayer of ethos (agathos ethografos), but there is no ethos in Zeuxis’s painting.” – Aristotle, Poetics 1050a.25


Few things are known about the life of Polygnotus of Thasos, the Greek painter of Ethos. He lived and worked during the first half of the 5th century BCE and was the son of the painter Aglaofon. Polygnotus learned the art of painting from his father. At some point in his life, he moved to Athens where he produced some of his most famous work. 


Even though Polygnotus did not reach the levels of realism attained by latter painters, he was considered their equal. To our good fortune, Pausanias, the Greek traveler, preserved some of Polygnotus’s lost works in his detailed descriptions. 


Polygnotus inherited a palette of four colors (black, white, yellow, and red) from his predecessors. As a master of color mixing, he created unique compositions by expanding the variety of available tones. His paintings looked like colored drawings without any rendering of light and shade. Despite this “naive” style, he remained relevant for centuries even after the invention of perspective. How did he accomplish that? He invested in expressivity and strived after the ethos of the human figure.


Polygnotus: A Fine Portrayer of Ethos

young man kithara
Young Man Singing and Playing the Kithara, Attributed to the Berlin Painter, 490 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art


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Polygnotus’s art could not trick the eye like Zeuxis’  and was nowhere near Apelles’ level of technical perfection. However, it had a unique attribute that allowed his naïve style to retain its appeal. His art expressed the ethos (the character, the spirit) of the depicted person. The figures of Polygnotus were not realistic but alive, nonetheless. This expressionist tendency moved Aristotle to call him a “fine portrayer of ethos.”


This ethos was the product of an exploration of the ideal self of the depicted. Aristotle also compared Polygnotus with other painters like Pauson and Dionysius saying that:

“Polygnotus depicted men as better than they are and Pauson worse, while Dionysius made likenesses.”

Poetics 1450a


And that:

“the young must not look at the works of Pauson but those of Polygnotus”

Politics 8.1340a


According to Pliny the Elder, Polygnotus first painted women in colorful transparent drapery. Pliny also considers him the first to portray figures frowning, with open mouths, and teeth showing. This seems unlikely but relates a certain truth. Polygnotus was so good at depicting facial expressions that his figures felt like something radically new. In any case, he improved the art he inherited from his predecessors. He managed to ‘breath life’ into his figures and portray their ethos in new ways.


The Invention of Multiple Seating Levels

krater niobid attic vase
Attic Red-Figure Calyx Krater known as the “Niobid Krater”, Attributed to Niobid Painter,  460-50 BCE, The Louvre


Greek paintings traditionally featured figures next to each other on the same level. Polygnotus changed that by introducing multiple seating levels for his forms (complex composition). This new method led to new conventions for describing spatial relations within a painting. According to these, the lower rows of a picture were nearer and the upper rows were farther from the viewer.  This can be seen in vase painting of this period.  A good example is the vase of the picture above attributed to the so-called Niobid Painter. 


With the introduction of multiple seating levels, Polygnotus could indicate depth at a time when perspective was yet unknown. This allowed more figures to coexist in one dynamic composition. As a result, religious and historic scenes could now come to life easier and more efficiently. At a time when telling a story was everything, Polygnotus had managed to tell a story better than anyone before. This new descriptive power combined with his ethical idealism made his works almost magical. Using his skills, Polygnotus depicted battles in a novel manner that provoked the imagination. Even centuries later, the Roman historian Aelian, would still write that Polygnotus depicted battles “perfectly.”


Greek Paintings in the Poikile Stoa

reconstructed drawing painted stoa athens
Reconstructed Drawing of the West End of the Stoa Poikile (the Painted Stoa) as it would have appeared in about 400 BCE, American School of Classical Studies at Athens


The Poikile Stoa was a building in the Athenian agora built between 475-450 BCE.  The stoic philosophers used it as a meeting place for their school which eventually took the building’s name (Stoicism). The Stoa was a kind of an ancient gallery, and for this reason, it was called Poikile (painted). Its walls were filled with large colorful Greek paintings with themes drawn from mythology and history. The works were probably painted on large wooden panels hanging on the walls. 


Pausanias describes four major works from the Stoa: The Battle of Oenoe between Spartans and Athenians by an unknown author, The Amazonomachy by Micon, The Sack of Troy by Polygnotus and The Battle of Marathon by Panaeunus or Micon.


The most famous of these was Polygnotus’s Sack of Troy. As the name suggests, it depicted the legendary taking of Troy by an army of Greeks led by King Menelaus. Interestingly, Polygnotus did not ask for monetary payment for this work. That is because he received the Athenian citizenship in exchange for his labor.


Allegedly, Polygnotus depicted his lover, Elpinike as one of the women in his monumental Sack of Troy for the Poikile Stoa. According to Plutarch’s Kimon, Polygnotus and Elpinike maintained an illegal and apparently “improper” relationship. Of course, this was not as improper as that of Elpinike with her brother Kimon (the main adversary of Pericles). 


Greek Paintings for the Lesche of Knidians in Delphi 

sanctuary of apollo in delphi drawing
Sanctuary of Apollo in Delphi by Jean Claude Golvin


The Lesche of the Cnidians was a meeting place devoted to the Sanctuary of Delphi by the city of Cnidos. The Lesche functioned as a clubhouse for Cnidians who visited the religious center of Delphi.  Large compositions of Polygnotus decorated its interior. These were the Sack of Troy (Iliupersis) from Homer’s Iliad and Odysseus’s descent to Hades (Nekyia) from the Odyssey.


Pausanias provides us with extremely detailed descriptions of the works, figure by figure. The Iliupersis covered the right side of the building’s interior walls, and the Nekyia the left side. There were many similarities in composition and many figures repeated throughout the two Greek paintings. This means that, although they were two distinctive works, they were part of a single conception. 


In the next sections, we will take a closer look at these works with the help of two wonderful reconstructions. Both belong to Carl Robert who made them in the 1890s based on Pausanias’s descriptions. Robert used art references from the time of Polygnotus to make his reconstructions as accurately as possible. Although his attempt remains entirely fictional, it is certainly entertaining.


The Illiupersis 

illiupersis of polygnotus
Reconstruction of the Illiupersis of Polygnotus, Carl Robert, 1892, from the book “Die Nekyia des Polygnot”


Polygnotus’s Iliupersis included multiple figures. Most of them were Greek generals and Trojan warriors and women. The synthesis moved between the fallen castle of Troy and the victorious Greek army sailing back home. Important figures from Homer’s epic were those of Menelaos and Helen, Neoptolemos, Odysseus, Diomedes, Andromache, and Polyxena. Multiple warriors lied dead on the ground. Amongst them was Priamus, the king of Troy.


detail of kassandra ajax illiupersis polygnotus
Detail of Kassandra and Ajax from Robert’s Reconstruction of the Illiupersis 


Another important figure was Kassandra, the daughter of Priamus. Due to a curse, Kassandra had foreseen the fall of the city, but no one believed in her prophecies. When the Greeks entered the city, Kassandra found refuge in a temple of Athena and grabbed the goddess’s statue. Ajax, the Greek general, dragged Kassandra out of the temple resulting in the statue falling in the ground. Ajax finally abducted and raped Kassandra. Athena later punished him for the sacrilege of her temple and his violent act. Polygnotus portrayed Kassandra holding Athena’s wooden statue while encircled by Greek warriors including Ajax. 


The Nekyia 

nekyia polygnotus reconstruction
Reconstruction of the Nekyia of Polygnotus, Carl Robert, 1892, From the Book “Die Nekyia des Polygnot”


The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’s adventures as he tries to reach his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War. Nekyia is an episode in the epic, where the protagonist descends to the Underworld (Hades). There, Odysseus hopes to meet the legendary oracle Teiresias who can help him find his way back home.


Polygnotus presented a very vivid Greek painting of Odysseus’s descent to Hades. On one side of the image was Charon carrying some souls with his boat across the river Acheron. On the other side were Sisyphus and Tantalus, both doomed to suffer unending tortures. Sisyphus aimlessly pushed a boulder on top of a hill again and again in eternity. Tantalus was cursed to be hungry and thirsty but unable to drink the water below and eat the fruit above him. Around the center of the composition was Odysseus speaking with Teiresias. 


A series of figures appeared in the painting as well: Agamemnon, Hektor, Orpheus, Theseus, Ariadne, Phaidra as well as Achilles, Patroclus, and many others.


polygnotus nekyia detail eyrynomus
Detail of Eyrynomos from the Reconstruction of the Nekyia 


Pausanias noticed a peculiar figure on the far-left side of the painting. The figure’s name was Eyrynomos and Pausanias had never heard of such a name in the Odyssey. The Delphian guides informed him that Eyrynomos was one of the demons who lived in Hades. These terrifying beings consumed the corpses of the dead sparing only their bones. Pausanias describes the figure with these words:


“He is of a color between blue and black, like that of meat flies; he is showing his teeth and is seated, and under him is spread a vulture’s skin.”


Polygnotus the Painter and Polygnotus the Vase Painter

perseus beheading medusa
Perseus Beheading the Sleeping Medusa, Attributed to Polygnotus, 450–40 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Polygnotus’s art is permanently lost to us. However, many art historians and archaeologists claim that fragments of his work survive. The idea is that Polygnotus’s grand compositions and innovations influenced other art mediums like vase painting. 


Polygnotus’s influence is arguably most evident in the work of another Polygnotus who was a vase painter. It is also very possible that the vase painter admired Polygnotus so much that he designated himself after him. This Polygnotus was among the most important vase painters of the attic red-figure pottery and liked to paint large vases. Many believe that his figures indicate the influence of Polygnotan artworks. 


sapho poetry vase polygnotus
Sapfo Reciting Poetry, Group of Polygnotus, ca. 440-30 BCE,  Archaeological Museum of Athens


The influence of Polygnotus the vase painter was also strong. What is more, he seems to have been the leading figure of a group of artists named after him; the Group of Polygnotus. The group remained active for the most part of the second half of the fifth century. Today there are almost 700 vases attributed to the wider circle of the Polygnotan Group. 

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.