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Vergina Lion Hunt painting

Posted: Fri Feb 14, 2020 8:14 pm
by Alexias
Pauline recently sent me an article by Despina Ignatiadou entitled 'Royal Identities and Political Symbolism in the Vergina Lion-Hunt Painting' ... t_painting . The painting from the frieze of the tomb shows a panoramic hunting scene with a figure on horseback on the right usually identified as Philip and a central figure on horseback usually identified as Alexander. The article identifies various parts of the landscape as representing real places and the animals as symbolic figures. This is not a new idea, see this thread here viewtopic.php?f=2&t=3789&hilit=observatory and the original article here ... 4_in_Greek_. The article also and attaches names to some of the other figures.

The premise of the article is that the painting was not an original work of art commissioned by Alexander for his father's tomb, but was a copy of a painting commissioned by Philip to celebrate his successful Thracian campaign. The original artist, perhaps Apelles, may have copied the painting onto the tomb's frieze.

If this is true, then in my opinion it is possible the artist adapted the original in small ways such as putting the wreath on Alexander's head and half-obscuring Philip's face to indicate his deceased state.

I would also propose that the painter may have adapted the size of the painting to its new position. The left hand side of the painting is very different in character from the right hand side. It is more decorative and less symbolic than the right hand side of the painting, it is looser in style and there is less detail in the background and foreground, whereas the right hand side of the painting is crowded with figures, rocks and dogs. Two of the four figures on the left side have their backs to the viewer and the other two figures are just generic youths, whereas the figures on the right side are each individualised. The original painting may therefore have been expanded, and quickly without much pre-planning for symbolic meaning, to fit the dimensions of the frieze. This re-sizing would have deliberately placed Alexander more in the centre of the frieze than near the left side of the original composition. The original composition would have had Philip's position more to the centre.

It is also possible that the Alexander figure was not in the original painting as the figure is not directly engaged in the lion hunt and his spear throw would not hit the lion but probably one of the dogs.

The article proposes that several of the figures may represent historical figures, namely the figure to the immediate right of Alexander being his cousin Amyntas, the figure with the axe being Hephaestion and the figure to Philip's right being Ptolemy. I would disagree with these identifications.
The figure with the axe cannot be Hephaestion and in identifying it as such, the author is contradicting her own logic and chronology. The author believes the original painting was commissioned by Philip after the conclusion of his Thracian campaign and before Chaeronea, so possibly the winter of 339-8 BC. Part of her reason for this is that the Alexander figure looks too young to be Alexander at 20 ie Alexander at Philip's death. Alexander was 18 at Chaeronea and Hephaestion was about the same age, so the muscular figure of the man with the axe is not how you would expect an 18 year old youth to be portrayed but a man well into his twenties, if not thirties.

Another reason it cannot be Hephaestion is that at this stage in his life he had done nothing, that we know of, to warrant being depicted in the place of honour hunting by the king's side. It would also have done nothing for Philip's propaganda in celebrating his Thracian campaign to have himself depicted hunting side by side with his teenage son's lover.

Alexander could have had Hephaestion's face superimposed on the original image, but that would have seriously antagonised the senior generals upon whom he depended for support as they would have felt they were more worthy of the honour, and it would have undermined their view of his judgement in making such a self-indulgent decision. It would have made more sense for Alexander to depict himself hunting next to the king but this doesn't appear to be a particular individual's face but it bears more resemblance to the stock features of an athlete or hero's statue.

The figure with the axe is surely Heracles, Philip's heroic and semi-divine ancestor. Philip is equating his achievements with those of the hero and if the painting does commemorate Philip's Thracian campaign, the eighth labour of Heracles has him killing Diomedes, a Thracian king. In one version of the story, according to Wikipedia (which does not quote the source), Heracles killed him with an axe. It may very well be that in the northern tradition, or an earlier tradition than the Hellenistic tradition from where our idea of a club-wielding, muscle bound Heracles comes from, Heracles' weapon of choice was an axe. This would bear investigating.

This article ... and_Thrace says that Heracles' campaigns in Thrace were viewed as the punisher of perfidy and the founder of cities. This is precisely how Philip would wish to portray his Thracian campaign, so equating himself with Heracles is exactly the message he is publishing. Hammond also states that Philip stated to Atheas, the King of the Getae, that he wished to erect a statue of Heracles at the mouth of the Danube. This has echoes of Alexander at Tyre, providing a religious gloss on an offensive move.

If the figure is Heracles, the painting thus also references Heracles' killing of the Nemean lion, although Heracles strangled the lion. You have to be very brave to attack a lion with an axe as raising the axe over your head to gain maximum force for the blow not only exposes the whole of your body, it brings you well into range of the lion's claws, and jaws. Hence why the axeman is approaching the lion from behind whilst others distract him. However, Philip is equating himself with this bravery.

The author of the article also identifies the tall naked figure second from right, wearing a Macedonian-style hat, as Ptolemy on the basis of his physiognomy. This cannot be Ptolemy for the same reasons that the axeman cannot be Hephaestion - the author has imputed later importance to an earlier date when the importance did not exist. Ptolemy may have distinguished himself in the Thracian campaign, although the author doesn't quote the source for this, but if the painting is based on an original painting commissioned by Philip, depending upon when it was painted, Ptolemy may well have been exiled by Philip shortly afterwards. But in any case, he was one of many young officers who could merit inclusion though he didn't even belong to a near-royal family as say, Perdiccas, did.

Alexander's expedition against the Maedi while Philip was in Thrace is often dismissed as glory-hunting. According to Livy though "that tribe had been in the habit of making raids into Macedonia, whenever it knew that the king was engaged in a foreign war and the kingdom unprotected." They controlled the upper reaches of the Strymon valley, which had until recently been the border between Macedonia and Thrace. It provided an important route into the Thracian mountains from Amphipolis , so Alexander's action had considerable validity.

Hammond points out that while Philip and Alexander were commanding armies in the field, Antipater and Parmenion were also quelling a rebellion. This shows the strength of Macedonian manpower, and the figure in the painting may well therefore be a generic representation of the Macedonian soldier and an acknowledgement of their contributions in the Thracian campaign.

The other significant figure which the author of the paper names is the figure wearing a purple cloak and hat to the left of the axe man and the right of the Alexander figure. The author says believes that this figure is Philips'nephew Amyntas. He is the third figure in royal purple, the other two being the Philip and Alexander figures.

If the original painting does date before Chaeronea, this could be Amyntas. He was Philip's spare heir whom Philip sent to Thebes while Alexander was sent to Athens after Chaeronea. But it seems unlikely that he would have been placed closer to Philip in the painting than Alexander, who is shown as isolated and unsupported. Also, if it is Amyntas, Alexander is unlikely to have wanted to portray his main rival to the kingship so prominently after Philip's death. He would want to downplay Amyntas's importance.

If this figure is royal, it would seem to be more likely that it would be Amyntas's father, Perdiccas, Philip's older brother, who made valiant efforts to stabilise Macedonia. Or perhaps it is just a generic representation of Philip's royal predecessors.

Re: Vergina Lion Hunt painting

Posted: Fri Feb 14, 2020 8:33 pm
by Alexias
Left.jpg (217.51 KiB) Viewed 3127 times
Left side of the painting
Right.jpg (253.92 KiB) Viewed 3127 times
Right side of the painting - supposedly the Thracian campaign, the right side representing the north and the left the south.

Re: Vergina Lion Hunt painting

Posted: Sun Feb 16, 2020 6:27 pm
by delos13
Thank you, Alexias and Pauline, for these interesting links, photos and your own thoughts on the subject. Though I don't have much to add but I want to express my appreciation of the subject and your efforts to keep this community alive.

Re: Vergina Lion Hunt painting

Posted: Sun Feb 16, 2020 10:03 pm
by Alexias
Thanks, Delos. If the axeman really is Heracles, it brings into question the identity of the axeman in the Pella mosaic.


I'd really like to know more about the Macedonian tradition of Heracles.

Re: Vergina Lion Hunt painting

Posted: Mon Mar 16, 2020 11:06 pm
by Alexias
In support of my theory that the axeman is Heracles

heracles.jpg (97.2 KiB) Viewed 2428 times

A Grand Tour intaglio from the 1820s ... _active_63

Depicting a young Heracles