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History of Art: Ancient Greece

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This post is part of a series called A Beginner's Guide to Art History.
History of Art: Ancient Egypt
History of Art: Roman

Welcome back to our series on art history! From Ancient Egypt we move north, across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece! Home to distinctive pottery, brilliant sculptures, and columns, so many columns, the art and culture of Ancient Greece has had a huge impact on history and many modern cultures. Let’s run through an overview of some of the most influential contributions the Greeks have made to art history.

Laocon and His Sons
Laocoön and His Sons. Image Credit

Pottery

Unlike in the other articles in this series, we’re going to focus on different styles of art rather than giving a timeline. We’ll begin with pottery. We’ve seen pottery in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt already. Since there’s some overlap between these cultures in the timeline, you’ll notice some similarities in terms of style and structure.

Often painted in great detail, these vessels were mostly made from terracotta and were quite durable. The Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum has recorded over 100,000 pieces of pottery that exist today in private and public collections around the globe.

Protogeometric Pottery
Protogeometric Pottery. Image Credit

Greek pottery can be split into two categories: figurines or useful vessels. You can tell a vessel’s use from its shape, or at least historians do their best to do so. Agreed upon uses and shapes include (though aren’t limited to) amphora for storage or transport, krater as a mixing vessel, kylix or cups, and aryballos for perfume.

While some pieces are incredibly plain, others are intricate in their painted decorations. These decorations developed over quite a bit of time, from protogeometric style (1050–900 BCE), with its minimal design, to geometric style (900–770 BCE), with its collection of triangles, which was used all over vessels. After geometric came Orientalizing style (725–625 BCE) thanks to influence from Asia Minor. Animals, mythical and real, joined painted motifs around the middle of vessels.

Orientalizing Style Pottery
Orientalizing Style Pottery. Image Credit

Next up comes the most recognizable pottery style of Ancient Greece: black figure (620–480 BCE). When discussing art history, I get pretty excited about the development of figurative work seen in Ancient Greece. There’s a certain sort of perfection achieved by the Greeks in their understanding of anatomy, and looking at black figure pottery you can see some of those achievements develop.

Black Figure Pottery
Black Figure Pottery. Image Credit.

The technique used to create this distinctive style involved painting onto a vase with a clay slurry that turns black after the pottery piece is fired. Large sections of designs were “painted” with a brush while details and line work were cut into the clay so the vessel could show through. 

The real magic happened during the firing process. At 800°C, the vase turned red-orange and then at 950°C, with vents closed in the kiln to help remove oxygen, the vase turned black. Open the vents in the final stage and the vase turned back to red-orange thanks to the return of oxygen, except for the “painted” portions that remained black. As I said, it’s magic (or science).

Sculpture

As in the development of pottery, the Greeks ultimately focused on great figurative works in their sculpture. Additionally, sculpture was produced for a variety of reasons including art, public memorials, offerings in temples, and more. Let’s split their contributions to the history of sculpture into three stages: Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic. Much like this entire article, there’s more to the history, but we’re hitting the highlights.

Archaic Sculpture

Possibly inspired by Egypt and Mesopotamia, these figurative works were carved in stone. The most common subjects were nude standing youths, a girl draped in cloth, and a sitting woman. While rough in terms of accuracy compared to later works, even these figures show off a greater understanding of anatomy than other eras at this point in history. As with other cultures, a lot of works were intertwined with religious figures.

Statues of Kleobis and Biton
Statues of Kleobis and Biton. Image Credit

Since their gods were mostly human-looking, sculptures could focus on the human body in great detail without the idea of focusing on humanity as a subject for art as being in conflict with ideas about worship. That sort of attitude will be seen in other cultures, and really was never something you’d see reflected in Ancient Greece.

Classical Sculpture

This period is often referred to as being revolutionary for the skillset of Greek sculptors. Anatomical proportions were correct, and bodies were softened and realistic, though idealized (so many six-packs—those statues are fit). It’s this huge change between human-ish to: “Is that a bronze person?”

Funerary relief National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Funerary relief. National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Image Credit

Relief sculptures decorated the outer walls of temples during this time, though a lot of these pieces have been lost, and only fragments remain. Another interesting development is the personalization of funerary sculptures. Previously they were rather rigid and generic during the Archaic period, but they now featured real people, usually the deceased and family members. 

It’s changes like this that, along with the focus on realism, shows how humanistic the classical period grew to be. It’s also something we see reflected in Ancient Greece’s culture, government, and more when taking a look at the whole picture.

Hellenistic Sculpture

Our third and final sculpture period is the Hellenistic or Hellenic period. As in the period before it, sculpture was ever more naturalistic. Everyday subjects like common folk, animals, and more became popular. These subjects were shown in a more expressive, energetic way.

Jockey of Artemision
Jockey of Artemision. Image Credit

The Jockey of Artemision is a great example of this: the horse is in motion and the child, seated on its back, is leaning forward. It’s as if they’re frozen in time rather than being a sculpture. Everything from the horse’s muscles to the kid’s tousled hair is in a state of motion, preserved for all time in bronze.

One of the most famous sculptures ever, the Venus de Milo (Aphrodite of Milos), was created during this period. The Colossus of Rhodes, a massive 98 feet (30 meters) high statue was also created around this time, along with other large pieces. Sadly, it was destroyed in an earthquake in 226 BCE.

Coins

Gold 20-stater of Eucratides
Gold 20-stater of Eucratides. Image Credit

While the Greeks didn’t invent the use of coins for a tangible currency, they definitely pushed their use, influencing the design of currency for the rest of history. Round discs of metal with an important figurehead or god in profile on one side and additional information or design on the back—when you look at their coins, there isn’t a lot of difference between them and the coins most nations use today.

Architecture

Where would capitol buildings around the world be without influence from Greek architecture? Without glorious columns, that’s where! I guess plenty don’t have columns, but so many do, and you can blame the Greeks for this architectural contribution.

When discussing Greek architecture, we typically start in the Classical period and beyond. Before that, a lot of buildings were made of mud brick and have been lost to the ravages of time (as so much art is). There’s a lot to talk about with Greek buildings, but since our focus is art, we’re going to discuss columns since they’ve become a decorative feature in modern times (or can be, anyway).

Doric Iconic and Corinthian column styles
Doric, Iconic, and Corinthian column styles. Image Credit, Image Credit, Image Credit.

There are three orders of architecture that were used in Ancient Greece: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Doric columns were typically wider and shorter than the two other styles. Unlike the other two, they didn’t have a base, being flat against the temple floor. The capital (it’s that top bit of a column) was fairly simple and flared a bit.

Ionic columns are the ones with the scroll-like capitals. They’re likely what you think of most when the idea of Greek columns pops into your head (I assume). Finally, Corinthian columns are the fanciest of all, featuring all sorts of flourishes, greenery, and even little figures in their capitals. This style was also used in Rome and led to other influences in Roman architecture.

Painting

Some common forms of painting in Ancient Greece were panel and wall paintings. Panel paintings were done on wood boards (panels) in encaustic (wax) or tempera. As with the art above, a great deal of paintings were figurative, though little to none survived to the modern era. Wall paintings were mostly frescoes, paintings done in fresh, wet plaster.

One of the Pitsa tablets
One of the Pitsa tablets. Image Credit.

Descriptions of panel paintings and their creators are noted in literature of the time. One set of panels, the Pitsa tablets, did survive, showing the artistic skills of the Archaic period. The panels are wooden boards painted over in stucco with figures painted in mineral pigments. They show religious scenes centered around nymphs. 

According to historians, these tablets were votive offerings. Like a great deal of art through history, we have an example of art created for worship’s sake.

Wall fresco at the Tomb of the Diver
Wall fresco at the Tomb of the Diver. Image Credit.

Wall paintings were used on buildings and as grave decorations. As discussed above, since a lot of buildings didn’t survive over time, neither have a lot of wall paintings. Those that do have been on tombs, such as the Tomb of the Diver.

Conclusion

From pottery to sculpture to architecture and culture in general, a great deal of Ancient Greece influenced history. It’s quite notable in its influence of Ancient Rome, which we’ll tackle next in this art history series. You’ll also notice that as art history moves on toward the modern era, artistic movements rediscover the artistic accomplishments of the Greeks.

This is just a small taste of the fantastic contributions made to the art world by the Greeks. For more, check out these books and websites:

Article sources include the following:

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