The Story in Paintings: Modes of painted narrative

Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521), Andromeda freed by Perseus (c 1510-15), oil on panel, 70 x 123 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Over this series of articles, I have shown examples of different modes of visual narrative: most commonly that in which the painting shows a moment in time, usually termed monoscenic, with some instances in which a single painting shows two or more moments in time within the same frame, something often referred to as continuous narrative. This article considers how best to classify these and other modes, and proposes a terminology which will I hope make future discussion easier and clearer.

Andrews (1995) has reviewed some of the terms used by different authors, which has been made the more complex by the fact that most have developed their classification in a limited context, for example considering only classical Greek and Roman art. He makes the broad distinction between monoscenic and continuous modes, lumping all those which show more than a single moment into the latter category. Unfortunately this quickly becomes less clear when he considers examples, and starts describing paintings as having “continuous scenes”.

Kilinski (2013) more ambitiously divides the modes into:

  • monoscenic, a single, often dramatic or culminating moment fills the image;
  • expanded monoscenic, in which there are also elements that allude to other actions or actors beyond that visually present;
  • synoptic or simultaneous, in which more than one moment and/or locale is represented in a single scene;
  • cyclic, in which the narrative is divided into separate scenes without repeating characters in any single frame;
  • sequential cyclic, in which there is a clear progression through the cycle;
  • continuous, in which figures are repeated in a common background in which time changes with the reappearance of the figure(s) but not necessarily the locale; most commonly seen in very wide formats such as scrolls.

The current Wikipedia article on narrative art also uses the terms:

  • simultaneous, in which discernible organisation is only apparent to those acquainted with its purpose, with geometric or abstract designs;
  • panoptic, which equates to Kilinski’s cyclic mode;
  • progressive, showing a single scene in which characters do not repeat, but in which a sequence of actions take place to convey the passage of time;
  • sequential, a continuous narrative in which framing shows the progress of time, as in comics and manga;

There are no doubt several other classifications, and further terms, which have been used elsewhere.

Few of these texts have considered the first and most important issue of what defines visual narrative, which surely determines the root of any classification. I discussed that in my article So what is a narrative painting? which stressed the importance of the image referring in some way to two or more events. Thus a simple depiction of a moment is most unlikely to be sufficient to qualify as narrative, even if the viewer might associate that image with a known story. The clearest visual narratives contain references to, or depictions of, more than one instant in the story.

The next obvious and logical division depends on whether the graphical content of the image is of a single moment in time, or two or more moments. If from a single moment, then the term monoscenic might have been appropriate but for its connotations in the theatre and movies, where a scene can last for a considerable period of time, allowing actors to move from one side of the stage to the other, victims to die, and much more besides. The term instantaneous appears much more appropriate to what we are looking for in a painting, photograph, or other image.

Andrews’ use of the blanket term continuous to cover all non-instantaneous modes is of limited value, as it does not actually describe how the image differs from the instantaneous, and the narrative is not depicted in any continuous form. I prefer the more descriptive multiplex, or for images which are clearly divided into a group of frames, each containing the instantaneous, multi-frame.

There is another mode which needs to be separated here too: when a series of instantaneous images is used to tell the story, which would logically be described as multi-image.

Another important question which most texts omit is how to handle images containing discrete areas which contain other images, such as paintings or other pictorial devices such as a flashback or flash-forward (analepsis or prolepsis, respectively). These are rhetorical devices which do not themselves alter the mode of narrative, nor are they usually a distinct frame in the way that multi-frame images are.

For the moment I propose that they should not affect the basic classification of the mode of narrative, but can qualify an image as being narrative, and can be usefully appended to the mode, e.g. ‘instantaneous narrative with an embedded analeptic painting’. Embedded images can also add another story to the main story, making the whole image polymythic.

This provides the following classification:

  • narrative, in which a story is depicted, almost invariably containing reference to, or depictions of, more than one instant in the story;
  • instantaneous, in which the image is intended to show what was happening at a single moment in time, even though it is likely to contain references to other moments in time;
  • multi-image, in which a series of separate images (e.g. paintings) is used to tell the story;
  • multiplex, in which a single image contains representations of two or more moments in time from a story;
  • multi-frame, in which two or more picture frames are used to tell a story, most commonly in comics or manga;
  • polymythic, which is a single image containing two or more stories.


It is simple to embed this into a flowchart enabling the classification of paintings, photos, and other images. Here is an interactive version as a Zipped Storyspace document: narrativeclass1
for which you will need a copy of that app from Eastgate Systems.


Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Rinaldo and Armida (c 1630), oil on canvas, 82.2 x 109.2 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.

Poussin’s Rinaldo and Armida (c 1630) shows a single instant, but has multiple references to events before and after that moment, so it has instantaneous narrative.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), Cleopatra before Caesar (1866), oil on canvas, 183 x 129.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Gérôme’s Cleopatra before Caesar (1866) also depicts a single instant, but again has references to prior events, particularly the screwed up carpet, which was used by Cleopatra to gain entry. Her dreamy look towards Caesar also anticipates her affair with him. It therefore has instantaneous narrative.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), Cinderella (1863), watercolour and gouache on paper, 65.7 x 30.4 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes paintings with instantaneous narrative can make quite small and subtle references to other events in the story, and confirm their narrative nature. In Burne-Jones’s Cinderella (1863) the only such reference is the missing slipper on Cinderella’s right foot. This has instantaneous narrative.

Édouard Detaille (1848–1912), Le Rêve (The Dream) (1888), oil on canvas, 300 x 400 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. By Enmerkar, via Wikimedia Commons.

Although Detaille’s Le Rêve (The Dream) (1888) contains two images, these are not in fact linked by normal narrative, but the dream image shown in the clouds could be considered as a form of analepsis, or flashback. Thus the painting has instantaneous narrative.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931), Aino Myth, Triptych (1891), oil on canvas, overall 200 x 413 cm, middle panel 154 x 154 cm, outer panels 154 x 77 cm, Ateneum, Helsinki. Wikimedia Commons.

Gallen-Kallela’s triptych showing the Aino Myth (1891) contains three separate images which tell one of the stories from the Kalevala myths. It is therefore multi-image narrative, within which each image is itself conventional instantaneous narrative.

Unknown, Perseus and Andromeda (soon after 11 BCE), from Boscotrecase, Italy, moved to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. By Yann Forget, via Wikimedia Commons.

Immediately on looking at this Roman painting of Perseus and Andromeda, you can see the duplicated images of Perseus: one flying in from the left, the other being congratulated at the right. If intended to be a literal telling of the story, Cetus the sea monster would not appear until after Perseus had freed Andromeda from her chains. It therefore contains at least two different moments in time, but is not divided into frames. It is therefore multiplex narrative.

Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521), Andromeda freed by Perseus (c 1510-15), oil on panel, 70 x 123 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

One and a half millenia later, in Piero di Cosimo’s Andromeda freed by Perseus (c 1510-15), Perseus appears three times: flying down from the top, stood on Cetus about to kill the monster, and in the subsequent party at the bottom right. Andromeda also appears at least twice. These separate events are mixed together in its multiplex narrative.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Ariadne on Naxos (1913), oil on canvas, 116 × 147 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Moving more than a millenium forward, Lovis Corinth’s Ariadne on Naxos (1913) also combines two separate events into a single image: the abandonment of Ariadne by Theseus, and the arrival of Dionysus/Bacchus to be her future husband. He does this without any duplication of actors, though, and it remains multiplex narrative.

Masaccio (1401–1428), The Tribute Money (1425-8), fresco, 247 x 597 cm, Brancacci Chapel, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Masaccio’s fresco in the Brancacci Chapel of The Tribute Money (1425-8) contains three images of Saint Peter, and two of the tax gatherer, which are carefully set and projected into the same single view. Although each is spaced apart from the next, no pictorial device is used to separate them into frames. This too is multiplex narrative.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), The Garden of Eden (1530), oil on lime, 80 x 118 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Wikimedia Commons.
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), The Garden of Eden (1530), oil on lime, 80 x 118 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Wikimedia Commons.

The five different sets of Adam and Eve shown in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s The Garden of Eden (1530) are set within the representation of the garden as a whole, making this multiplex narrative.

Unknown, Krishna Storms the Citadel of Narakasura (detail) (S India, Mysore workshop, c 1840), double page from the manuscript of the Bhagavata Purana, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, 25 x 36.84 cm (spread), Sand Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

This detail of Krishna Storms the Citadel of Narakasura (c 1840) contains two near-identical representations of Krishna, which make it multiplex narrative.

Unknown, Heiji Monogatari Emaki (Sanjo Scroll) (平治物語絵巻 (三条殿焼討)) (Night Attack on the Sanjō Palace) (Kamakura, late 1200s), colour and ink on paper, 41.3 x 699.7 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

My final example of multiplex narrative is that of the Heiji Monogatari Emaki (Sanjo Scroll) (late 1200s), in which time advances from right to left, and there is duplication of actors.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Echo and Narcissus (1903), oil on canvas, 109.2 x 189.2 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Although linked, and often told together, the stories of Echo and of Narcissus can be separated, and it is therefore possible to classify JW Waterhouse’s Echo and Narcissus (1903) as being very unusual, and showing polymythic narrative.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), The Spinners (Las Hilanderas, The Fable of Arachne) (c 1657), oil on canvas, 220 x 289 cm, Prado Museum, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

A few paintings appear even more complex: Velázquez’s Las Hilanderas (The Spinners) may contain one narrative in the foreground, a second in the background, and a third in the painting of The Rape of Europa shown in the far background. This would make it polymythic narrative at the very least.

I hope that those examples illustrate the practical application of the terminology proposed above.



Andrews L (1995) Story and Space in Renaissance Art, the Rebirth of Continuous Narrative, Cambridge UP. ISBN 0 521 47356 X.
Kilinski K II (2013) Greek Myth and Western Art, The Presence of the Past, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 1 107 01332 2.