The period of Greek Art began from the Cyclidian and Minoan civilization. Ancient Greek Art and Hellenistic Art have and had been influenced by several other cultures and their art. We are going to look at the latter part of the Ancient Greek Art period on to the Hellenistic period from Geometric Period, Oriental Period, Archaic Period, Classical Period and Hellenistic Period respectively. This will also include some context, social, religious, or political, to go along with it. This article will mainly focus on the art form in potteries, sculptures friezes in temples if possible. Architecture has not been included for the sake of already lengthy size. Click the images to see an enlarged view in sta.sh.
Transition from the Dark Ages
After the destruction of Mycenaean palaces, the sophisticated achievements of the Greek Bronze Age1
disappeared. This hailed the Dark Ages2
. Lost was the knowledge and experience of construction using cut blocks, wall paintings, ivory and sculptures in stone workings. The Dark ages lasted for about two hundred years. The revival from the Dark Ages started slowly from late 10th century BC to around 8th century BC. The span of two centuries (c. 900-700 BC) was termed the Geometric Period, due to the mathematically precise methods in which the pot painters decorated their pots and vases.
The Geometric Period
The roots of Classical Greece lie in the Geometric period of about 1050 to 700 BC, when the primary Greek institutions - such as city states, major sanctuaries, Pan-Hellenic Festivals - took shape. This was also the time, specifically the 8th century BC, of Homer. His works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, regarded as some of the first masterpieces of literature in Western culture and have remained as inspiration to the classical Greeks and artists and writers in the present day.
Geometric period, as mentioned, derives its name from the artistic notion of using rectilinear and curvilinear forms. While this style was simple, it was very refined. Worshiping the gods took place in open air and was very important in their life, which resulted in gifts of votive offerings being made in the hope of reciprocal favors from the god. Therefore, the style was applied to pots and vases as well as figurines, with bronze and precious metals.
While knowledge of the lost Mycenaean skills was lost, the female sculptures of divine entities had similar features of those of Late Minoan sculptures. The sculptors also created works which included animals and hybrid creatures such as centaur from Lefkandi (Figure 1). The torsos usually had a triangular shape to them like that of Female figurine from Athens (Figure 2). They had long legs, sharp features .
Centaur, from Lefkandi. 10th century BC. Terracotta. Height 14 ins (36cm). Eretria Museum
Female figurine, from Athens. C. 730 BC. Ivory. Height 91/2 inch (24 cm). National Museum Athens.
Warrior figures were a common element, both in sculptures and tripods for human figures. These were offered as votive figures to the gods, or for celebrating a victory, which will be shown in the later stages. Early Geometric period (850-760 BC), aka the Protogeometric pottery, had shapes common of the amphora (for storage), the krater (for mixing drinks), and various shapes of cups. In terms of decoration, it was limited to groups of concentric circles or semicircles, precisely drawn with multiple brushes or compasses along with cross-hatched triangles, panels, and symmetrically arranged zigzags (Figure 3). The purpose of the decoration was to emphasize form3. Pedley, p.113
Protogeometric pots from the Kerameikos cemetery, Athens. Late 11/10th century BC. Height (of skypos) 6 ins (15.5 cm). Kerameikos Museum, Athens.
During the full Geometric style, the sharp features of the vases, pots, kraters still maintained their clean lines. People and animals were depicted as popular forms in stylized forms with them grazing or feeding and humans in stick like silhouette features with elongated legs, triangular torsos and dabs of paint for heads. For instances where warriors were portrayed in funerary vases, they would often accompany a funeral procession with the dead man laid atop horse drawn carriages, with frieze of warriors, horses, shields and chariots beside. This was to celebrate the dead’s role as a warrior, elevating their roles to virtue, service to state and aristocratic identity which is a symbol of Homeric and heroic past (Figure 4). Kraters are associated with male burials as they are mixing bowls for wine and water and are common in symposium, a social gathering of significance for males, male centric competitions and solidarity. On the other hand, amphoras with their belly and shoulder handled shapes are household objects for storing oils (olive) and grains, and water and are for female burials.
Figure 4 (Wikipedia)
Geometric amphora, from Diplyon cemetery, Athens. C. 750 BC. Height 5 ft 1 in (1.55 m). National Museum, Athens.
The Archaic Period ca. 700-480 BC consists of the Orientalizing Period ca. 700-600 BC as its start. It was the product of Asian Minor, of Syria, Assyria, and to some extent, Phoenicia and Egypt. New techniques in working with raw materials resulted in new kinds of sculptures, architectures, along with oriental designs from the East. Egyptian ideas particularly had effect in the creation of buildings and statues in stone; however, this was always modified according to the Greeks’ sense of proportions, forms, and/or patterns.
Many Greeks had been traveling abroad for their livelihoods in a series of colonization. Several New Greek cities, or city states aka poleis, were founded. During these times, many of the old poleis fell into the hands of individual masters, called “tyrants” (a term of no negative overtone at that time), who had all constitutional and military power. Trade, industry and public works were all encouraged. Complex alliances were forged and broken between neighboring and distant cities, nurturing fear, envy and competition.
Orientalizing influences on vase paintings can be seen in Corinth on early stages, which created a specific style of theirs, called the black-figure technique in the 8th century BC. The city, being well located with harbors had link to the rest of Greece and fostered transfer of ideas. Orientalizing motifs included floral and vegetal designs, and animals of all shapes, felines, bulls, birds, and or mythical elements like sphinxes, griffins, etc (Figure 5).
Figure 5 (Wikipedia)
Protocorinthian skyphos, c. 625 BC, Louvre.
In Corinthian black-figure style, all figures were drawn in black silhouette against reddish clay, with anatomical details picked out by incision with a needle like instrument. This allowed the colour of the clay to appear in sharp, thin lines thereby suggesting forms. This relied heavily on clear and crisp draftsmanship on precise contour and effects of colour (white or red) 4
. Those that merged Geometric features (such as bands of rings or crosshatched triangles in the baselines or shoulder for decoration) along with oriental figures were called proto-Corinthian style (Figure 5 above).
Black figure style pottery is also seen in modern culture in its use in Disney’s Hercules (1997) (Figure 6).
Meanwhile, pottery in Athens of the Orientalizing period was called “Protoattic” and doesn’t use the black figure technique of Corinth until the end of the century. They also retain some Geometric style features, such as the decorations, or triangular torso figures, angular bodies. Athenian potteries had mythological scenes prominent as features (Figure 7).
Protoattic amphora, the Eleusis amphora. C. 650 BC. Height 4 ft 9 ins (1.44 m). Archaeological Museum, Eleusis.
Image description: “[It] depicts the Gorgons in pursuit of Perseus in the main frieze, on the body. The hero has just decapitated their sister Medusa and is making off with her head. The figure of Perseus is fragmentary, as is that of Athena, who is hindering the gorgons…drawn in outline, with some added white paint, they offer toothy, snaky heads and torsos, frontally, with profile legs, as they advance, firm-footed on the groundline, their steps in unison. Here, then is a scene from a well-known myth, recognizable by any self-respecting seventh century BC Greek, conveying its message of the triumph of the Greek hero over the world of malignant monsters. An animal combat, with silhouette boar and outline lion, decorates the shoulder. On the neck, Odysseus and his companions blind Polyphemos, the Cyclops who had imprisoned them in his cave (Homer, Odyssey 9.870ff.). The literary inspiration is clear, while Geometric influence can still be seen in the silhouette figures. The body of Odysseus and the faces of his comrades, on the other hand, are painted white, and Polyphemos’ face is left the color of the clay. Incision is used for fingers, toes, and Polyphemos’ beard, while fillers have only a minor role. The image combined two episodes into one: Polyphemos howls as the stake penetrates his eye, yet he still has the wine cup in his hand with which the Greeks had stupefied him before blinding him while he slept. Thus, different incident are squeezed together, and time is compressed. This amphora, then, shows two approaches to narrative, one on the neck and one on the body, with the single episode (Perseus and the gorgons) standing for the entire fable, and the synchronized image (Odysseus, Polyphemos, and the Greeks) incorporating two different episodes. So well planned a composition with large figures, however awkwardly drawn, suggests an already existing tradition of narrative wall or panel painting. This amphora … would have served a funerary purpose. It was a burial jar for a child.” 5. Pedley, p: 126-128
Ongoing wars of the Greek city-states promoted that that male warrior type would continue to be a favourite subject of dedications in sanctuaries. In sync, the Panhellenic games which took place meant athletic male form became a motif for sculptors as well. Bronze was still a prized material for creating sculptures. Geometric forms still continued initially. This could be seen in The Mantiklos Bronze (Figure 7a) below from 700-675 BC from Thebes in Boeotia which was dedicated (a votive) to Apollo (and sometimes referred to as The Mantiklos Apollo). It shows cylindrical thighs, triangular torso, pyramidal neck, triangular face, and hemispherical crown. Greeks’ enthusiasm of writing was also seen here, as the dedicator, Mantiklos, proudly defaced the thighs of his gift with two hexameter verses: “Mantiklos dedicated to me the Far-Shooter with the Silver Bow from his tithe; grant, Apollo, something good in return.”, aka a du ut des. The hole in the left hand likely was an attachment as support for a bow. Geometric style features of triangular body, angular/rounded edges can be seen. It’s with a symmetrical composition with left hand clenched (for the arrow). The abdomen has some muscle definition of small signs on incisions. It was a figure of a warrior, as can be seen from the helmet over the long hair, and the warrior belt. However, it is nude, as genitalia was present, since heroic nudity was part of the culture. The left leg is placed a bit forward than the right, which gives it a walking forward posture, thereby showing a figure “in action”. Lower legs are missing. The eyes are hollow, possibly inlaid with gems or precious stones.
The Mantiklos Bronze, from Thebes. Late Geometric or Early Orientalizing Period. C. 700-675 BC. Bronze. Height 7 4/5 ins (20 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The Archaic Period
The Archaic Period, c. 600-480 BC, the prosperity of the seventh century BC continued, and so did the rivalries between the states. Many states continued to be in the hands of the tyrants, while others had set up democratic constitutions, for example, Athens. The Archaic period enabled architects and sculptors to outdo each other in monumentality in stone. As sculptors thoroughly observed the problems of representing ideal forms in observed subjects, Greek artists made increasingly naturalistic representations of the human figure.
Greek sculptors worked in marble on the islands of Naxos, Paros, and Samos before the end of the 7th century BC and these also appeared on the mainland afterwards. The two major type of sculpture prevalent in the sixth century BC was the standing nude male, the Kouros (pl. kouroi) and the standing clothed female, the Kore (pl. korai). The abstraction of the Geometric Period develops to more naturalistic human proportions and scale. Sculptors were also focusing more on how to better represent divine beauty in an ideal human form. The kore is particularly important in the development techniques to represent drapery, beginning by obscuring the anatomy to moving through hints of body beneath to revealing the body to some extent. Interestingly, the more there were steps to render drapery folds, textures and patterns, the more visible the body became. This, in addition, provides early concepts of movements, dynamic flow, transparency in semi-eroticism, through the curves, and folds in draperies.
An example of a kouroi, and famous one at that, is the New York Kouros from Metropolitan Museum of Art (Figure 8). It prominently shows male nudity (without the warrior belt from the previous trend of it in previous years, like the Mantiklos Apollo). It allowed the Greeks, specially Greek men, to separate their society from that of barbarians, from women, and slaves, showcasing the divine similarities between gods and men of: youth, beauty, athletic success, military and civic virtue, immortality and sexual desirability in both male and female eyes.
New York Kouros, c. 600 BC. Marble. Height 6 ft 4.5 ins (1.95 m). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The first quarter of the century, painters were decorating vessels in the Corinthian style (black-figure style) with Orientalizing features. Features such as black silhouette, red hair, beards, frontal chests and profile contours seemed adequate for the purpose of expressing the body in a more realistic motion and emotional state. New techniques were experimented with, which brought forth the Red-Figure style technique as the most successful method. This method was the reverse of the black-figure. The figure remains in red color of the clay while the background becomes black. Outlines were drawn with brush on the pot, and background painted black. Incision thickness changed to portray details and contours which made more improvements in terms of realistic representation of anatomy in motion, three-quarter views, and human emotions easier to portray. Dresses and anatomy distinguished males from females.
Attic red figure calyx krater by Euphronios: Heracles struggling with Antaios. c. 510 – 500 BC Height 19ins (48cm). Musee du Louvre, Paris.
The Transition Period
The Archaic period ends at around 480 BC with the marked halt of the Persian invasion. After this there’s the Transition period which proceeds the High Classical era, recognized by the introduction of a new style referred to as Severe style. In attempts to render more naturalistic anatomies, the Severe Style introduces movement into standing human figures by putting weight on one leg than the other and turning/bending the head, which transforms the stuff Archaic pose into more active dynamic images. Its name derives from the thoughtful, serious facial expression and heavy treatment of the drapery. The balance between the anatomical accuracy and representation of an ideal human form did not appear until the start of the High Classical period of the second half of the century.
Women’s role in the Greek world was not so much as sheltered but, in a world where most power was held by men, segregated. While Spartan women were encouraged to be outdoors, take part in sports or have some level of respect and freedom in society, their Athenian counterparts didn’t have any political rights. They could not vote, go to assembly or law courts, and were centered around the home and the family; marriage, conception, birth, and children being the main concern. However, this was not that their part in public life was invisible or negligible, at least for some. Those of upper class could take part in procession at festivals, or in festivals honoring the fertility goddess Demeter, attend births, marriages and funerals and most importantly as priestesses in religion. After the introduction of democracy in Athens, many were chosen by lot, where some remained priestesses for their whole life, while others until they married. Priesthood for female deities was held by women, and men for the counterparts with the exception of the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo at Delphi.
Temple of Zeus, Olympia, east pediment. C. 460 BC. Height 11ft (3.35m).
The pose of the entire group standing separately yet giving a sense of tranquility with the movement shown through the way the sculptor puts weight onto one leg with the other free, and various gestures. (Figure 10)
Tempe of Zeus, Olympia, east pediment: the seer Iamos. c. 460 BC. Marble. 4 ft 6 ins (1.38m). Olympia Museum.
Beyond the chariots, one figure identified is the Iamos, resident prophet at a particular house. Age is shown with full, heavy flesh of the torso and the balding head, with anxiety and shocked expression which is new to the Greek sculptures. (Figure 11)
Temple of Zeus, Olympia, east pediment: reclining corner figure (personification of the river Kladeos). C. 460 BC. Marble. Olympia Museum
The reclining corner figure (Figure 12) is a personification of a local river, Kladeos lifting himself to witness the events. Drapery contrasts with anatomy, muscle with bone and flesh. The body is lean and young in comparison to the old figure of the prophet. The overall posture gives a smooth natural wavy curve which implies waves of water.
Also check out “The Kritios Boy”
, “Artemision Bronze”
, and “Riace Warriors”
and “The Tyrannicides”
The High Classical Period
The Transitional period gave way to the High Classical Period c. 450 – 400 BC known for its sophisticated architecture and rich sculptural decoration. Often uniform representations of young men and young women were seen sharing similar physical traits. They had the same head types, small mouth, big eyes. Drapery went through radical changes with being carved more deeply, showing light and shade play as it swept against the bodies, allowing viewers to sense the limbs beneath. The gods were shown in human form - an ideal form - human anatomy is accurately shown and movement more naturalistic, yet the expression remained distant and otherworldly.
Doryphoros by Polykleitos, from Pompeii. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of c. 440 BC. Marble. Height 6ft 11 inches (2.12m). National Museum, Naples
This figure (Figure 13) is an example of how the reaction of the body to the free leg and weight leg pose. The free leg is placed behind, heel raised. The head turns the same side as the planted leg and holds the figure still. The expression is the similar High Classical distanced, tranquil look. Throughout the body, tensed forms balance the relaxed ones. Relaxed right arm balances the weight leg, while the tensed left arm balances the free leg vertically. The weight leg and free leg balance free arm and tensed arm. Contrapposto is used to describe this poise/counterpoise. Even with its idealized male beauty, it still incorporates realism of bone and muscle, hair and flesh. Nudity is a core element in showcasing the nature of perfection.
Even though the Classical expression was very important, it was however short-lived due to the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and allied city states led by Sparta.
The Fourth Century c. 400 – 300 BC
Towards the end of the High Classical period, sculpture became more naturalistic representation of human figure along with continuation of the representation of the idea in realistic figures. The Antikythera Bronze (figure 14) is an example of a fourth-century BC original. The standing nude youth shows the influence of Polykleitan athletic figures in the position of the legs and feet, the balance of muscular tension and the structure of anatomy. New improvements are the smallness of the head in proportion to the rest of the body, outstretched arm to involve the surrounding space, and the leftward swaying pose balanced by the right arm and the tilt of the head.
Antikythera Bronze c. 350 BC. Bronze. Height 6ft 4.5 inches (1.94 m). National Museum, Athens.
Dense application of drapery is seen in a bronze original of Athena (Figure 15). The larger than life Athena wears the new dense drapery, an aegis, and a helmet and originally held a spear in her left hand. She remains massive, imposing figure but with head tilted to the right and a gentle expression upon her face, making her more approachable than previous renditions.
The densities of draperies now describe the weight and texture of the cloth itself, which conceals the volumes of the body. They are complicated as in nature. For sculptures with two figures, new characteristic is the expression of gentle intimacy.
Athena, possibly by Sulla, C. 350 BC. Bronze. Height 8 ft (2.44m). Piraeus Museum.
The Hellenistic Period c. 323 – 31 BC
The Hellenistic period
begins between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and concludes in 31 BC with the Battle of Actium. It is called Hellenistic because it witnessed the spread of Greek and Macedonian ideas throughout what had been Alexander’s empire. Hellenistic kings became prominent patrons of the arts,. New precious and semiprecious stones were available through newly established trade routes. Hellenistic art became richly diverse in subject matter and in stylistic development. Hellenistic artists copied and adapted earlier styles and created new ones. Perfect 360 degree sculpture, draping and effects of transparency of clothing, various poses, all were still repeated in this period as well.
For subject matter, the standing male figure remained in use for images of gods and for commemorative statuary, and the draped female figure continued to be popular. But these were not the dominant types anymore. Interest in realism produced true to life portraits and images of characters with personality such as aged fisherman or old market woman (figure 16) as well as well as natural state of mind. Interest in eroticism resulted in sensuous statues of the nude Aphrodite, coupling satyrs and nymphs. Personification o and allegory became more important as subject matter while interest in theatricality and emotion produced statues in their settings such as Eros asleep on a rock, images of suffering, anguish, anxiety or pleasure.
Old market woman. Height 4 ft 1.5 inches (1.26 m). Late 2nd or early 1st century BC copy of a 3rd century original. Metropolitan Museum, New York.
Sculptors could now show other real life mental states in relation to physical states. Therefore, the Sleeping Satyr, or Barberini Faun (figure 17) shows a portrait of a mind at rest and body relaxed.
Sleeping Satyr, aka the Barberini Faun, found in Rome, possibly a Hellenistic original. c. 200 BC. Marble. Height 7 ft (2.15m). Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich.
Other such images include the Capitoline Venus (c. 250-150 BC), Eros Asleep (c. 150-100 BC), and The Laocoon group: Laocoon and his sons battling the serpents (2nd century BC or 1st century AD). Art history of this period often depicts these works as a decadent style, and sometimes referring to these as the 18th century terms Baroque sometimes. Interest in Greek art and culture remains strong during the Roman Imperial period for centuries and continued to make works of art in Hellenistic tradition.
1. Bronze Age Collapse
2. Greek Dark Ages
3. Pedley. Greek Art and Archaeology. 5th Edition. Prentice Hall Pearson. p. 113.
5. Pedley. Greek Art and Archaeology. 5th Edition. Prentice Hall Pearson. p. 126-128.
Other resources from Ancient Greece, 1000 b.c.–1 a.d.
from Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History l The Metropolitan Museum of Art
a. Geometric Art in Ancient Greece
b. Greek Art in the Archaic Period
c. The Art of Classical Greece (ca. 480–323 b.c.)
d. Art of the Hellenistic Age and the Hellenistic Tradition
's article, Art History: Greek and Hellenistic Art
And, Resources for Artists - Art of Civilizations Past