As part of my preparation for my tour to ancient Macedonia this week I’ve been reading up on Greek painting so I was really interested to find that some very high quality wall paintings dating back around 2000 years have been revealed near to the world heritage site of Petra in Jordan.
The paintings, which were discovered some time ago, had been very difficult to see as they had been obscured by soot, smoke and other matter (including graffiti) over the centuries. Now, thanks to the expertise of conservation specialists from the Courtauld Institute in London their full glory has been revealed. The image below is courtesy of the Courtauld Institute and shows a 'before and after' of a putto playing a flute.
Unsurprisingly, not many paintings survive from ancient Greece, although we know that painting was an art even in the classical period and the tradition of illustrating key points in history such as battles goes back at least as far as the representation of the Battle of Marathon in the Stoa Poikile (Painted Stoa) in Athens.
Most of the information on Greek painting comes from later, usually Roman, sources but Xenophon in his Memorabilia reports Socrates discussions with a painter, sculptor and cuirass maker. The craftsmen are listed in descending order of esteem – there was not a very high view of craftspeople generally in the classical world, but artists were viewed as higher than most, possibly because painting involved less physical labour.
Socrates points out that a good cuirass maker serves the physical demands of men, a good sculptor succeeds in representing man’s emotions by imitating bodily actions, but only the painter is capable of representing what seems to have ‘neither shape nor colour’ - the essence of man.
It was the judgement of later authors (including Cicero, Diodorus and Quintilian) that painting came to perfection not before the 4th century BC and authors tell us many names and describe masterpieces. They also tell us that copies were made and that sometimes these copies were passed off as originals!
By the 2nd century BC, there were collections of paintings in the great Hellenistic centres of Pergamon, Alexandria and elsewhere but the paintings were all on panels and so they have perished. Paintings would also have hung in temples, and possibly other public buildings, so we should not consider that all ancient painting was of the nature of frescoes. Many of them would have been encaustic on panel, such as the mummy portraits from Fayuum and other places in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt.
However, it is true Macedonian tombs have preserved for us a whole variety of paintings, including the masterly scenes of Hades’ Rape of Persephone at the royal tombs in Vergina. Moreover, some Greek paintings were copied and appear preserved on the walls of houses in Pompeii and the surrounding area. Not all were straight painted copies – the famous Alexander mosaic is a mosaic version of a lost painting of Alexander the Great’s victory at the battle of Issus.
So, the survival of these examples from Petra is very important as it shows the spread and extent of Hellenistic art and techniques. Petra was a Nabataean town. The Nabataeans were great traders who were the middle men between the incense growers of south Arabia and the market for the product in the Mediterranean, which was extremely profitable. They built a kingdom on the profits from this trade which stretched from Jordan down into the Arabian peninsula, including the amazing site of Madain Saleh in Saudi Arabia, and they were at their height in the 1st centuries BC and AD (the suggested approximate date of the paintings) until conquest by the Romans. They absorbed artistic influences from all of their contacts, so it is not surprising that they should adorn their dwellings with wall paintings.
Just as with the Macedonian paintings, there is a great deal of naturalistic intricacy to the Jordanian paintings: flowers, birds and insects can be all identified. Grape vines, ivy and can be discerned. The paintings are even embellished with gold leaf.
The paintings are not at the main site of Petra, but at Siq al-Barid in Beidha, about 5km away and are located within an area where ritual dining is thought to have taken place. The discovery of their true beauty and high quality following this three year conservation programme is to be welcomed for adding to the corpus of ancient paintings and it is hoped that continued study of the paintings will help to fill some of the gaps in our knowledge of the transition from Greek to Roman paintings.