Battle of Isso at the Archaeological Museum of Naples

Painting in Ancient Greece

The forgotten art of ancient Greece

In the imagination of ancient Greek art, painting seems to play a minor role compared to architecture and famous sculptures, but is this really the case? In truth, we know that painters enjoyed the same prestige as sculptors, if not greater, and that great paintings adorned the halls of palaces, but unfortunately we can only imagine that wonder. We know Greek painting mainly through vascular painting, which cannot be a valid representative of their mastery, so this explains why there is little modern consideration for this branch of ancient Greek art.

Vascular painting

Different types of pots

When we talk about Greek vases, we should not only consider them as artistic products, but also remember that vases had an important practical use in daily life and in trade. In fact, Greek vases have been found scattered all over the Mediterranean, a sign of how important these tools were for trade. Having to serve different practical needs, it is therefore natural that different shapes existed to serve different purposes.

As in sculpture and architecture, Greek pottery also used mathematical ratios to define different proportions. The most common ratios are 1:1 where therefore the vase can be inscribed in a square, and 1:1.618 ratio also known as "Golden Section".

alabastron aryballos
Alàbastron and Aryballos

Small jars used for precious ointments and oils. The alabastron takes its name from alabaster, a stone used to make pots in North Africa, long and narrow often with a flat mouth to be used to spread the ointment more easily on the skin. The Aryballos has a similar purpose, but the body is more spherical in shape. These vessels often lacked a base and were placed on stands made of precious metals. Due to their size, single subjects were often depicted on these vases instead of scenes with several characters.


Small 'jewellery box'. It was used for storing jewellery or precious objects.


Cup used for drinking wine at banquets. Small in size and with two curved handles on the side.


Large, flat cup typically used for drinking wine. The bottom often bears a design facing the drinker. The design, showing itself only after finishing the wine, usually had to do with drunkenness.


The modern 'jug' was large in size and had a handle and spout placed to help pour the wine. Its purpose was in fact to collect the wine from the crater and then distribute it into the cups.


A large vase with a wide mouth was used to mix wine with water before serving it in the symposium. The large side surfaces were well suited to complex designs with many characters.


A large vase with a wide mouth was used to mix wine with water before serving it in the symposium. The large side surfaces were well suited to complex designs with many characters.

Black-figure vases

The oldest type of vase painting is that of black figures painted on a reddish clay background. The figures were painted with a varnish consisting of very fine clay and water, which became dark and permanent when baked. Internal details were then created by scratching the surface with an awl. The resulting drawings have sharp outlines, the figures are in profile and the scene is flattened.

vasi a figure nere conservati Museo Benaki, Atene, Grecia

Black-figure vases in the Benaki Museum, Athens

Red-figure vases

In Athens towards the end of the 6th century a new procedure was invented: the entire body of the vase was covered with black paint, leaving the inner parts of the figures uncovered. Details were then added with a brush and more paint. At this stage, it is more common for the figures of the craftsman and the painter to be distinct, which is why the vases are also doubly signed by the two artists. In addition to black paint, details were also added with a bright red pigment. Using a thin brush instead of an awl creates more modulated and less sharp lines, which is why the resulting representations are more refined and detailed.

red-figure vases

Vases with a white background

A marvellous but often overlooked type is that of white ceramic vases that are painted entirely with a brush. In this case there is no contrast between the background and the inside of the figures with the line acting as the only demarcation between the two planes.

ancient greek ceramic vases with a white background

The most famous painters of ancient Greece

Today, we have direct knowledge of Greek painting thanks to various sources consisting mainly of frescoes, mosaics and the famous painted vases. Among the most striking and best-preserved examples of frescoes are those depicted on the walls of the tombs of ancient Pestum, an important city of Magna Graecia, the best known of which are those in the Tomb of the Diver:

On the left is a man playing Kottabos, an ancient game of hitting a target with the last remaining wine and dedicating it to a loved one.

tomb of the diver pestum

As with sculpture, we have to thank the Romans for their passion for Greek art, which led them to make numerous copies of famous works that have survived to this day. In the House of the Faun in Pompeii there is a mosaic made around 100 BC which is probably a copy of a painting dating from the 4th-3rd century BC attributed to Philoxenus of Eritrea. The mosaic depicts the Battle of Issus and on the left is Alexander the Great intent in battle against Darius III of Persia depicted on the right.

battle of Isso

Battle of Isso, mosaic found in the House of the Faun in Pompeii

In spite of these direct sources, some of the most famous artists who worked in ancient Greece are only known through the testimony of their contemporaries who described their qualities and different styles. Among the earliest known painters is Polynotus of Thassos, who lived in the mid-fifth century BC and was mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his 'Natural History' as a skilled painter:

"For example, Polignoto Tasio, who was the first to paint women in translucent robes, covered their heads with multi-coloured turbans, and was the first to assemble a large number of paintings, because he began to open his mouth, to show his teeth, and to vary his will from its ancient rigidity."

Pliny the Elder also tells us about Parrasius, whose style is associated with the sculpture of the famous Phidias (sculptor of the colossal Athena Parthenos, the Parthenon's main statue more than 12 metres high). Parrasius was, according to the sources, the most skilful master in defining the plasticity of bodies and their volumes with the sole use of lines.

In un'altra direzione sembra invece andare l'arte di Zeusi, pittore lucano della fine del V secolo. Di lui parlano Quintiliano ed Aristotele, dalle cui parole evinciamo che nella sua pittura comprendeva effetti di chiaro-scuro, una composizione complessa e una grande inventiva.

Zeuxis is the protagonist of a famous legend according to which, wishing to portray Helen, he had the five most beautiful girls in Crotone brought to him so that he could copy each one's best features.

vincent zeusi
By Stefano Vivaldini
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