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History of Art: Ancient Greece

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: