Ancient Greek Art

Ancient Greeks created art in many forms – from figurines and decorated pottery to monumental sculptures that still captivate our attention in museums across the globe.

  • All works of art had one thing in common: they honored Greek gods and mythical heroes. Greek artists sometimes depicted their contemporaries, but those weren’t ordinary mortals.The only men that were important enough to be immortalized in a statue were the victors of the Olympics and other Pan-Hellenic games.
  • Originally, all of those statues were bright and colorful — the faded eyes that we can see in museums used to be painted, just like clothes, weapons, and all other details.The statues of gods were decorated with gold, red, and black paint.
  • The Greeks didn’t think of art the way we do today. The word they used was “tekhne” which means – craft, skill, and technical ability.Some of the ancient artifacts were not meant to be art objects. The famous vase painting, for example, was merely a decoration on pottery.

The phases in Greek art

  • The Geometric Period (1100–700 BC) – In the beginning, the Greeks just decorated their plates and cups with geometric patterns.Rarely they tried to represent a human figure.
  • The Archaic Period (700 BC–480 BC) – Greek artists became influenced by Egyptian and Asian colleagues.The archaic sculpture reminds very much on Egyptian art – with two important differences.

    Greek statues weren’t carved onto a column or wall, and the male figures (called kouros, pl. kouroi) were completely nude. The figures of women (korai) were depicted with clothes.

  • The Classical Period (480–330 BC) – Throughout this period, the Greeks created some stunning statues of men and gods. Those were often represented without any clothes, to draw attention to their ideal athletic physiques.The artists wanted to make lifelike figures, and they managed to make an incredibly detailed representation of each line and muscle.

    The only problem is that those statues looked better than the actual men and women. The image of the human body in the classical period is idealized, not real.

    Like in the previous period, female figures were covered with close – this time with very elaborate drapery – and the one exception was the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who was often shown naked.

  • The Hellenistic Period (330–30 BC) – The artifacts from this period finally look like real people, and not like idealized god-like creatures.The artists still made images of gods and heroes, but they also started making the figures for children and old people.

    One famous sculpture from this period shows a drunken old woman – which would be unthinkable in the classical period.

Greek Sculpture

Magnificent Greek statues of men and deities are the best-known works of art from antiquity.

The famous sculptures were not created accidentally by a talented individual. It was just the opposite –sculpting was a real job for many families, and the skill was taught from father to son.

Sometimes whole teams of sculptures worked on major projects, such as a colossal statue for a temple.

There were two techniques in ancient Greek sculpture. Everything was made either of marble or bronze.

  • Marble statues were made by cutting some huge stone blocks. It was really challenging work; just a few imprecise hits and the whole statue would be ruined.
  • Cast bronze statues were equally tricky to produce.The sculptor first made a model of clay or plaster, and then poured molten bronze in it.

The majority of these large sculptures were set up in public, often as a decoration to temples and other important public buildings.

Only the wealthy could afford to have statues in their homes.

Famous sculptors

Sculpting was a much-respected occupation, and the best artists normally became famous during their time.

  • Pheidias (circa 460–400 BCE) had an elite workshop in the famous temple complex at Olympia, where he made a legendary statue of Zeus. The people of Elis apparently killed him for jealousy.
  • Polyclitus of Argos (circa 460–410 BC) worked solely in bronze. He made some famous statues of athletes (including the Doryphoros) and invented the standard way of representing human muscles in movement.
  • Myron (circa 470–420 BC), the creator of the Discobolus, also depicted movement marvelously. He is most famous for creating figures of people and gods in new and uncommon postures.
  • Lysippus of Sicyon (circa 370–315) belonged to both the classical and Hellenistic era. His famous work is the head of Alexander the Great.

What did you learn?

What ancient Greek sculptures represented?

Most of them represented Greek gods and goddesses, as well as some actual people who deserved to be depicted as heroes – such as Olympic winners.

Which materials did Greek sculptors use?

They worked in bronze and marble.

Did ancient Greeks believe in artistic talent?

No, sculpting as well as other forms of art was family business and was taught at home in artisan families.

Are the famous Greek statues preserved in their original form?

No. Not only that many of the statues are broken and fragmented parts; all those pale figures used to be covered with color.

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