Troy at the British Museum: Exploring the legacy of Homer’s The Iliad and Greek mythology in art

The story of the fall of Troy is one that has survived the test of time through endless retellings during in every time period since the era of Ancient Greece. The classic myths and their influences are still as popular today as they were when the stories were first told orally by story tellers to a captive audience in ancient homes as grand entertainment.

In modern literature we see it retold in books such as The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller or The Silence of Girls by Pat Barker as well as other well-known novels and poems. In television we see it portrayed to global audiences through the BBC’s adaptation of the tale in Troy: Fall of a City and on the cinema screen we see it echoed in plot lines from blockbuster movies such as Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince. However, it is a vanishing cabinet and not a wooden horse that allows a dark army to overcome their enemy.

Odysseus and the Sirens
Odysseus and the Sirens, Athenian jar, c.480-470BC, ceramic © The Trustees of the British Museum

Over the years The Iliad has also spawned the creation of numerous works of art. In their latest exhibition, Troy: Myth and Reality, the British Museum has brought together pieces from throughout history and from various places of origin to showcase the legacy Homer’s tales have left on human culture.

The exhibition covers a plethora of art pieces that showcase different interpretations of the story of Troy. There are items that are contemporary to when the story would have been first told to delight audiences. These items of pottery and stone work date back to the days of Ancient Greece and slightly later when the Roman Empire dominated the western world. Figures are painted and carved on the items that show scenes from various key moments in the story. As you take in these works of art, light effects and audio recordings of snatches of the text are played to enhance the depth of experience visitors have interacting with the story of Troy.

There are pieces that date to more recent time periods. One of the highlights of the show is an incredible sculpture called The Wounded Achilles by artist Filippo Albacini who lived through the late 1700s and early 1800s. The piece shows the warrior just moments before his death, sprawled across the floor with the weapon that causes his demise glistening in gold. The sculpture is on loan from Chatsworth House and has been specially restored for the exhibition.

Fillippo Albacini, The Wounded Achilles
Filippo Albacini(1777-1858), The Wounded Achilles, 1825, marble, Chatsworth HousePhotograph © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees

As you walk through the exhibition space you will see there are several finds from archaeological digs that took place as part of the search for the real city of Troy that would have inspired Homer. You can read the fascinating story of how the items came to be found and as you view them you will find yourself speculating as to what the truth is behind the myth.

There is the opportunity to see texts throughout time that have retold the story. In this section of the exhibition there are medieval texts, a translation by Alexander Pope and even modern comic books that recreate the tale using stunning illustrations. As you examine these texts a screen overhead shows a snippet of a modern day stage production of The Iliad by a cast of Syrian women.

One of my favourite pieces was The Judgement of Paris (after Rubens) by artist Eleanor Antin. It shows Helen as being unhappy about the role she is being force to play in the Gods’ games and it prompts the viewer to consider the way Helen has been seen and portrayed in the works that have come before.

Antin--Judgement of Paris (after Rubens), 2007(1)
Eleanor Antin Judgement of Paris (after Rubens) – Dark Helen, 2007 chromogenic print 38 x 73 inches (F) edition of 5 Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

The exhibition brings together over 3000 years of art inspired by Homer’s The Iliad and other mythology. It highlights not only the tale but examines the human condition through the eyes of many cultures, eras and artist interpretations.

There are several lectures and events taking place at the museum about Homer, The Iliad and the pieces that are on display as part of the exhibition.

Troy: Myth and Reality and the educational programme created around it is a fantastic way to experience the way ancient texts have influence the modern world.

The BP exhibition Troy: Myth and Reality runs from 21st November to 8th Match 2020 at the British Museum. Click here to go to the British Museum website to book tickets. Tickets start at £18, children under 16 go free and concession/group rates are available.

To view a full list of the lectures and events that are taking place in relation to the exhibition please click here.

More information about the event is available on The British Museum website click here to take a look.

Thumbnail image: Eleanor AntinJudgement of Paris (after Rubens), 2007, from “Helen’s Odyssey”© Eleanor Antin. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York

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