What does it mean to illustrate text? Must the pictures physically accompany the text? Do the pictures, whether they are together with or apart from the text, have to agree with the story? What does such agreement entail? Do pictures agree, if they add details not in the story? Conversely, what about if they omit certain details? Are they still illustrating the text if they contain elements that contradict what the text says? What role does literacy play? Can an illiterate artist illustrate a text? What about the nature of the tools available? Does it matter that for most of antiquity the dominant form for long texts was a roll and not a codex? Iftexts are used to understand pictures, can pictures be used to reconstruct texts? Does the relationship between text and picture change over time? These are basic questions, some of which have been considered from the beginning of modern art history, others of which have seldom been treated. Yet all are necessary for understanding how pictures and text work together and apart in classical antiquity.
Of the questions just asked it is strange that one of them is rarely posed. With the exception of a handful of scrappy, incomplete literary papyri and a similar handful of fragmentary technical treatises, no illustrations from antiquity are joined physically to any text. Even those scrappy, incomplete papyri are relatively late, since the earliest technical papyri date from the second century BCE and the earliest extant illustrated literary papyri from the second century ce (Small 2003, 121-23 and 138-41). It is not just that the pictures do not physically accompany texts. The pictures were created independently of the texts. While today illustrations are sometimes created long after texts were first written, such as for new editions of Mark Twain, in antiquity, until the Hellenistic period, the common practice was for text and pictures to be made and sold independently of each other as totally distinct entities. In other words, no physical evidence, including statements in classical texts, indicates that the pictures we have are illustrations of texts. Even for the Hellenistic period and later the evidence remains sparse. Objects like the Hellenistic relief bowls and the Iliac Tablets do combine text and pictures, but the sizes of the objects limit the amount of text to quotations (Small 2003, 86-90 and 93-96).
Although Greek art and literature often shared the same subjects, as is only to be expected, the correspondence between the two media for choice of subject is far from exact. Even where they do overlap and tell the same story, the renderings differ. Most frequently scholars have interpreted this situation as a gap in the knowledge of the texts by either us or the artist. Paradoxically, we are both more and less likely to know texts than they: more, because we know all sorts of obscure variants preserved for us by later ancient scholars, which are more easily retrievable today; less, because we often miss knowing the obvious that never made it into a written text or was merely not preserved. Our very dependence, however, on preserved texts has led to an overemphasis on texts for art, not just in our need for the literary sources to help us identify and interpret scenes, but also in the very way that we approach art. We assume that, because we need the texts, classical artists must have also needed them. The idea rarely occurs that artists might depend more on other artists than on texts for their sources. Even less often considered is the idea that artists do not depend on texts at all or, at best, only indirectly.
Before beginning the discussion of pictures of Greek tragedies, it is useful to distinguish an ‘‘illustration’’ from a ‘‘representation.’’ I use ‘‘illustration’’ only for pictures that match (or should match) the text in the way that Sir John Tenniel’s engravings fit Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. A representation has only a loose connection with the text. The covers of cheap paperback editions of mysteries may contain the elements of the story, but put together not quite in the way they are in the story. Three synonyms for representation are depiction, image, and picture. There is no uncontested representation of an extant tragedy on Attic vases, and the situation is not much better for South Italian vases. Methodologically this is an extremely important point, because the scenes on the vases are often used to reconstruct lost Greek tragedies. If we do not have both parts of the equation - the picture and the play - we cannot tell how painters ‘‘used’’ tragedy. And not just one such pairing is necessary, but multiple pairings, for a single example may be anomalous. Otherwise, we are totally in the realm of speculation about how artists used texts. Please note that I distinguish between influence of a text on how a picture represents a story from how actors acted and might have influenced gestures of figures on vases. An actor and a figure on a vase, for example, might use the same physical gesture to express horror without sharing the same text or story.