MORE THAN THREE THOUSAND YEARS AGO, in a small corner of Asia Minor, a city was besieged and fell: despite painstaking excavations in her ruins, archaeologists today can tell us little more of Troy's fate. Yet through the centuries since, her story has lived on in both literature and art, reflecting in its varying forms the changing patterns of the years. The pictures that follow show better than words the legend's history, for, as narrative art must do, they echo the changes in the story.
Since its first great poet told parts of the action and its aftermath in the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Trojan war has been an outstanding theme in two widely separated periods and two diverse literatures. Greek epic, song, and drama shaped its outlines in the ancient world; its Latin expressions were largely adaptations of these legends in another tongue. The paintings of Trojan scenes which ancient writers described profusely have long since perished: there remain today a few Roman copies, together with gems, coins, some sculpture, and a wealth of Greek vase paintings, exquisite, direct, and forceful presentations of a story known to everyone in a time when everyone delighted in stories.
The second great period of Trojan narrative came with the Middle Ages, when the legend was retold by romancers to fit the pattern of feudalism and chivalry and by historians as the Greek chapters of universal histories. Medieval sources tell of walls painted with scenes from Troy romance. A twelfth-century Latin treatise, De Claustro Anime, 'The Cloister of the Soul', speaking in general terms, reproaches the clergy for adorning their palaces while neglecting the needy: 'The painted walls bear the Trojans in clothing of purple and gold, and the cast-off garments are denied to the Christians. Arms are given to the Greeks, to Hector a shield resplendent with gold; but no bread is granted to the poor clamouring at the gates.' Other documents mention specific examples, though fewer than those noted by the ancient chroniclers of Greek art. Most medieval paintings have long since disappeared, but the legend is still abundantly represented in two characteristic forms of medieval art--manuscript illustrations and the storied tapestries with which kings and princes hung their walls.
With the renaissance rediscovery of ancient literature came a revival of the story's classical form, though its treatment was often eclectic. The patterns set by Greece and Rome have remained, with but few exceptions,