For when one sees a story illustrated, whether of Troy or something else, he sees the actions of the worthy men that lived in those times, just as though they were present.
—Richard de Fournival, Bestiare d’amours, ca. 1250
The past was always within reach for medieval artists, just as it had been for their ancient Greek counterparts. Stories of the epic Trojan War and its heroes provided a particular source of inspiration—and identification—for both. What explains this war’s lasting power?
Troy had been sacked and burned some 3,000 years before legends of its destruction inspired medieval scribes and illuminators—as we see in one particularly fascinating section of the exhibition Imagining the Past in France, 1250–1500. Yet scenes and stories from the fabled conflict remained so vivid to medieval viewers that they often served as a historical point of reference.
For example, chronicles written in Old French prose as early as the 13th century claimed that a Trojan survivor made his way to Europe, where he founded France and his descendants became French kings. (As a parallel, imagine a contemporary novel claiming a genealogical relationship between Julius Caesar and President Obama.)
The Trojan War was likewise a constant point of reference for ancient Greek art, literature, and especially dramatic and poetic performance. The story was already over 1,000 years old even to the ancient Athenians, who were inspired by Homer’s epics—such as the Iliad and the Odyssey—first sung as oral poetry in the middle of the 8th century B.C. The Sack of Troy had been represented in Greek art from the time image-making began, and was a compelling scene for many Athenian vase-painters especially in the years around 500 B.C.
The Trojan War was more than a source of dramatic events and battle scenes, however. Ancient Greeks sought to link their genealogies and the history of their cities with the epic battle that destroyed ancient Troy. Many Greek families counted ancestors among those who had fought in the legendary conflict, and some could link their forbears directly to Homeric heroes. The classical city of Athens referred to her own part in the epic battle by sculpting the Sack of Troy on some of the Parthenon metopes.
Centuries later, the medieval French did the same: the story of a Trojan hero’s founding France validated the nation’s historical status through connection to the epic legend.
Most of the ruling houses of medieval Europe, in fact, claimed descent from survivors of ancient Troy. The commissioning of the Crónica Troyana, a 1350 Spanish translation of the Roman de Troie, was a calculated propagandistic move on the part of Alfonso XI of Castil, whose intent was to link his domain to other European countries, like France, that had previously claimed the epic legend as part of their origin story.
Because the Trojan War remained so potent as story and propaganda, both medieval illuminators and Greek vase-painters represented it as a contemporary conflict. In art, the past was depicted as the present.
This spectacularly detailed illumination from Augustine’s City of God (Cité de Dieu) combines the building and the destruction of Troy in one view—complete with medieval dress and architecture. A temple stands at left, where golden statues of Neptune and Apollo appear to give their blessing to the king of Troy, Laomedon, who gestures toward workers constructing the city. At right, the defeated Troy burns as the victorious Greeks depart in their ships.
The cityscape is neatly divided in half: at left, the colors are crisp and bright; at right, the burning city is seen through a dull lens, with red flames erupting from doorways and shattered battlements. The Greek word for Troy, ilion, labels the healthy city; ylion, the destroyed city.
In this image, as elsewhere in medieval art, the fall of pagan Troy is held up as a parable of Christian virtue. Greek artists, by contrast, often showed empathy for the people and city of Troy they had destroyed, as for example on this black-figured vase produced in Athens around 510 B.C.
The sharply defined shoulder of this vessel, a hydria used to carry water, provides an architectural framework for the city’s battlements, where old men and women mourn while archers attempt to protect the doomed citadel.
On the body of the vase, a four-horse chariot bursts into the melee, charging through a massive gate. At right, a faceless warrior in black armor hurls a boy by his ankle. The child is Astyanax, the son of Hektor and youngest grandson of King Priam, ruler of Troy. His death by being thrown over the battlements of the city is the final, brutal blow to the Trojan dynasty, ensuring they will never rebuild their city.
The juxtaposition of this act to the tripod (symbol of a sanctuary) and the figure of Athena, the goddess who punished the irreverent Greeks (with Priam cowering beneath her), underscores the sacrilegious nature of the act. The profound tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, written nearly a century later, recall heart-wrenching scenes such as this, which show the Greeks to be merciless murderers.
Who would have seen, and reacted, to such depictions of Troy? Both the manuscript illumination and this vase were destined for semi-private consumption. The vase held water to be mixed with wine for drinking at the symposium, or men’s drinking party—philosophical, poetic, and overseen by Dionysos, whose wine lubricated the conversation—made famous by Plato in his Symposium. The hydria was one of many vases in use at this event: it joined drinking cups, mixing bowls, and wine storage containers, many of them also painted with scenes of heroic and military life. As the vase-painting circulated in a room full of images, the manuscript illumination would have been shared with a discreet group of distinguished admirers in controlled settings, at special times and places.
Both the ancient Greeks and the medieval Europeans who contemplated and discussed these images understood that their revered ancestors had lived in an earlier and different kind of age. But for them, the Trojan past lived vividly in the present.
It’s fascinating that the painter of the vase shows his own (presumed) ancestors as “merciless murderers.” But at the same time, the warrior holding the boy by his ankle is imposing, almost impressive, in his terrifying helmet, and with his powerful muscles. Isn’t the artist glorying just a bit in the glamorous violence of that soldier? Or is that a modern way of seeing?
just to make it known, the “unknown warrior” in the vase image “throwing Astyanax over the walls of the city” is the Greek warrior Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. It is also told in some versions of the myth that Neoptolemus used the deceased body of Astyanax as a club to beat King Priam to death.
Can I have a source that is the son of Achilles?
In the Iliad, Athena did not seek to protect Troy. Quite the opposite – she worked with Hera to encourage the Greek army and even gave Diomedes near-godlike prowess to harry the Trojans (and even the gods who supported them).
Yes, it is fascinating, and true. If you walk around the Villa’s Men in Antiquity gallery you will see the warriors are represented as strong, fearless, intimidating and powerful. This is even more striking in the context of the Trojan war when they have also known to have committed sacrilegious crimes, in some cases, crimes for which the gods punish them. The art shows that the artist “glorying” in the glamorous violence is not far from an ancient way of looking at it.
You are absolutely correct – in the Iliad Athena hates the Trojans. But by the time Troy was sacked, the Greeks had committed so many crimes against her sanctuaries in Troy (including Ajax’s rape of the Trojan princess Kassandra as she clung to the sacred palladion of Athena, often represented in art) that Athena wanted only to punish them. If you look at lines 48ff. In Euripides’ Trojan Women of 415 B.C. you will see Athena articulating and defending her change of mind to Poseidon.
when is the next iliad event to be held?
Hi Chris — We don’t currently have plans to stage another Homer reading event at the Villa, but the Readers of Homer, which co-presented the event, has an active schedule of readings around the world. Upcoming readings will take place in New York in the spring and (exciting!) in London during the 2012 Olympics.