Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Painted Funerary Monuments from Hellenistic Alexandria

Although painting was one of the most celebrated arts of ancient Greece, extant original works of this fragile craft are extremely rare. A group of six painted limestone funerary monuments from Alexandria are exceptionally well preserved survivals of Greek painting from the fourth and third centuries B.C. These monuments—each in the form of a Greek stele with a large recessed painted panel—were discovered in 1884 in excavations of a large hypogeum tomb in the Ibrahimiyya necropolis of Alexandria. Conventionally known as the Soldiers’ Tomb due to the preponderance of monuments commemorating foreign mercenaries in the service of the Ptolemaic kingdom, this subterranean burial complex had a large central court open to the sky and multiple horizontal rows of narrow niches (loculi) cut into its walls for burials. Many of these niches were sealed with small painted slabs. The six painted funerary monuments in the Metropolitan Museum constitute the best-preserved examples of painting from this tomb and some of the finest extant painting from Alexandria in this period.

The focus of the painting on each monument is the deceased, who is identified by inscription. Two types of scenes generally predominate. The subject is represented either in a private domestic setting in intimate relation to family members, or in a more public presentation against a generic background with the attributes of his civic role emphasized.

Greek painters of the Classical and early Hellenistic periods developed revolutionary methods of representation that are fundamental to the Western pictorial tradition, such as three-dimensional perspective, the use of light and shade to render form, and trompe l’oeil realism. These stylistic developments were intimately related to Greek advances in the materials and techniques of painting. Few examples of the principal medium of ancient Greek painting—readily perishable whitened wooden panels (pinakes)—survive. Therefore our understanding of the technical innovations of Greek painters is largely derived from a limited number of paintings executed on stone supports that have been preserved in protected environments, such as the Soldiers’ Tomb and the monumental Macedonian tombs of mainland Greece. Such works, though not the esteemed masterpieces on wood celebrated by ancient authors, provide invaluable direct evidence of Greek painting.

The painted funerary monuments from the Soldiers’ Tomb reflect the highly developed technical sophistication of Greek painting methods of this period. The recessed picture panel of each was prepared with a lead white ground to create a flat, uniform, and brilliant white surface, a preparation technique undoubtedly transferred from contemporary wooden panel painting. An outline of the composition was incised in this ground layer and then delineated with extensive preparatory drawing using carbon black. The painting process involved building subtle color values and tones through overlapping applications of both pure colors and subtle mixtures of colors to maximum effect. Greek painters developed a wide variety of pigments and organic colorants to provide the technical means for representing the expressive ideas of their paintings. Many of these materials are evident in the painted monuments from the Soldiers’ Tomb, which used both local and imported minerals, synthetic inorganic pigments, and organic dye stuffs precipitated on white clay. It is unclear if these paintings were executed in tempera, characterized by the use of an organic binding medium, or encaustic (50.11.4), a less well understood wax-based technique developed by Greek painters during this period. This and other important issues of ancient painting techniques are the subject of ongoing technical art-historical research.