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Category Archives: Ancient Greek Art

Flawless Beauty or the Beauty of Flaws

by September 5, 2014

By Anya Leonard

“CRACK! Smash!” The sound of your favorite vase hitting the floor.

You search around for the culprit – a child, a dog, or a clumsy spouse, any of which is about to incur your wrath. Perhaps it was an earthquake, and Poseidon is to blame…

But what if, instead of looking at the broken vase as a damaged, now defunct object, you saw it as an opportunity to show its past? To display its cracks as something inherently beautiful?

Indeed, if you were a fan of the Japanese art Kintsugi, you may have even wished for the china to not so gently touch the ground. For this would give you the chance to make it even more enchanting.

Also known as Kintsukuroi (Gold repair), Kintsugi is the ancient art of fixing broken pottery with the use of gold, silver or platinum in order to highlight the fractures that are now part of the object’s history… rather than disguise it.

The results, shimmering fault lines through the earthen pot, are truly spectacular.

But appreciating mistakes and making flaws beautiful aren’t usually the first step in the history of art. More often than not, the principle aim is to create the ideal, the perfect.

This is, at least, how Ancient Greek art began.

The Archaic Period

Let’s start, for simplicity’s sake, with the archaic period, usually described as between 800 BC and 480 BC. This was the era in which the city-states, or polis, were cemented, colonies were created, and philosophy, as well as her entertaining sister, theatre, were planting their potent seeds.

Art, also, was progressing. Characteristics for which Greek Art would famously be known were already starting to shine through. This was particularly true with regards to the free standing nude statue.

Originally borrowing heavily from the Egyptian statues in pose and proportions, large scale sculptures at this time usually fell into two categories: the male Kouros, or standing youth, and the female Kore, or standing draped maiden.

These statues had the trademark ‘left-foot forward’ and ‘helmet hair’, a very stylized pattern for their tresses. They also possessed the coined ‘Archaic smile’, a somewhat condescending, if not sublime smirk, that has no correlation with the personality or situation depicted, but which, nonetheless, can be found on the majority of the statues from this time period.

Kleobis

A perfect example of the Kouroi of the archaic period, c. 580 BC, is Kleobis and Biton, held at the Delphi Archaeological Museum. These colossal monuments are imposing in their weight and presence, reminding viewers of the Pyramids more than the Parthenon.

While it was throughout the 6th century BC that the human representations in sculpture advanced in many ways, the desired outcome was almost always the same: to create the best, most stylized, ideal person.

Perhaps this is not so surprising when considering the purpose of their art. Archaic sculpture most often served as dedications to the gods or as grave markers. Solemn affairs, in other words. Artistic expression was less a motivation than following proper ritual and tradition.

Who knew how the Gods would have taken a dedicated statue that was frowning?

While sculpting the ideal body was attempted before the Persian war, it was arguably only perfected after the ousting of Xerxes. Of course Xerxes had nothing to do with it, he’s just the handy marker that separates what Art historians like to deem the archaic period from the Classical Period.

The Classical Period

Covering approximately 157 years, the Classical period includes the height and fall of Athens, starting with Persians and ending with the Peloponnesian war. In between these dramatic conflicts, however, Athens ruled supreme in regards to economics, politics, and importantly for this article, culture.

Acropolis

In fact, Athens’s indisputable position allowed for some of the most famous, influential art works ever created. See, Athens became all-powerful through her role in the so-called Delian League, which was originally a voluntary collection of Greek city-states. Athens, however, assumed the leadership spot, took over the treasury and with this newfound confiscated wealth, built the everlasting wonder that is the Acropolis.

The popular statesman Pericles simply took the Delian League’s collection to fund the greatest artists of the day and celebrate both Athens and her patron goddess, Athena. Now, with this goal at hand, you can imagine that the craftsmen, painters and sculptors depicted the perfection and power of men and gods… not their inherent flaws.

This was fifth century Athens, after all!

Nothing exemplifies this dedication to the ideal and calculated beauty than Polykleitos of Argos, who formulated a system of proportions that achieved the artistic effect of permanence, clarity, and harmony.

Doryphoros

His bronze male nude, known as the Doryphoros (“Spear-carrier”), illustrates these ideals, all while casually exhibiting his famous trademark of Contrapposto, a posture in which the weight was placed on one leg.

But our Spear-carrier also reveals another interesting change in Ancient Greek Art. The persons depicted were not just the religious or the divine, but also normal folks, like charioteers or Discus-bearers. This meant a softening in positions, stances and more natural situations.

In other words, the figures were to be ideal, but also human.

And then they went a step farther. From 500 BC, Greek artists started to carve, paint and mold real, actual humans! The statues of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, set up in Athens to mark the overthrow of the tyranny, were said to be the first such public monuments.
Harmodius

This move is crucial in the shift from the perfect ideal to the wonder of flaws… because it is in the flaws that we are able to recognize the individual.

Anyone who has casually drawn a portrait of a friend will empathize with this predicament: Make it too realistic and you might offend your sitter. Make it too idealized and your obliging model won’t be recognized. We can’t imagine how portrait artists of kings and queens handled the situation!

One court sculptor, however, seems to have accomplished this task quite satisfactorily. It was Lysippos who was commissioned by none other than Alexander the Great, another great patron of the arts. Moreover, Lysippos’ busts and his creation of the ‘Heroic ruler pose’ highlight the transition between the Classical Period and the Hellenistic Period of Greek Art.

Hellenistic Period

This final era of Ancient Greek Art is usually marked by the death of that Macedonian prince, Alexander the Great. His grand empire had meant previously isolated cultures came into contact with each other, influencing styles and subjects.

Gaul

Art within the region became more diverse and took contributions from the newly enveloped orbits and colonies of the empire; Greco-Buddhist art illustrates the widespread impact of this collaboration perfectly.

Meanwhile, sculpture evolved to be more and more naturalistic, both in stance and subject. Commoners were now depicted, along with women, children and animals. Wealthy families commissioned domestic scenes and everyday events for their abodes. Sculptors no longer stuck to the ideas of physical perfection, instead opting for models of all ages.

We have finally come to the beauty of flaws in Greek art.

Statues dropped their smug archaic smiles for raw emotions, exhibiting everything from love to pain and death. Solid stances were replaced with full-bodied twists and turns. Heavy folds melted to sheer fabrics revealing detailed, human forms.

Laocoon

The art has left the realm of the perfect deity and reached the world of human individuality. One only has to think of the Dying Gaul or Laocoön and His Sons to see pain and suffering of mere mortals. These aren’t gods. They aren’t even ideal athletes. They are statues of a barbarian and an elderly man with his children, respectfully.

It is their turn to achieve a form of immortality as humans and show their (and our) history… flaws and all.

Practical panegyric poetry: an Augustan love-in

by April 25, 2014

By Ben Potter

It’s a story with which we are all well-familiar… that of the first emperor of the civilization that shaped the western world, Rome.

Octavian statue

Octavian Augustus rose to power following the assassination of Caesar, though only by overcoming the traitor-in-chief Brutus, and his ally Cassius, at the battle of Philippi in 42 BC.

His power was then consolidated following the battle of Actium in 31 BC, at which he defeated “Antony… with him also, a shameful thing, his Egyptian wife” (Cleopatra).

These words of the poet Virgil ring in harmony with so many from the time. This is because it was an era with so many highly gifted poets, ones who were universally full of praise for the leader of the state.

While we refer to the likes of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Webster as ‘Elizabethan’ or ‘Jacobean’, those adjectives merely denote the time periods during which these men of letters were active. The likes of Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Propertius and Tibullus were ‘Augustan’ in mind, body and soul, rather than solely in chronology.

But in a world where the leader is suddenly, brutally and absolutely in command, the question almost inevitably rises: to what extent can we rely on contemporary poets to express their true feelings about Augustus?

Well… the Augustan poets were certainly not backward in coming forward when it came to praising the Emperor.

Reams of paper (well… papyrus) were spent glorifying the new boss. Though ‘glorifying’ is perhaps not a strong enough word; much of the language used by the poets actually attempts to compare the object of their panegyrics to a god:

“Some council of the gods will soon receive you” – Virgil, Georgics.

“Jupiter rules the citadels of heaven and the realms of all the immense three-natured universe ; the earth Augustus governs, each of them Father and Leader” – Ovid, Metamorphoses.

Likewise Horace’s Odes are littered with such allusions and Virgil’s Aeneid is a piece of epic propaganda which attempts to legitimize Augustus’ reign and prove his divinity.

Octavian

The idea of equating a man to a god is (ironically) a trifle hard to swallow in this day and age. However, this would not have been so at the time under discussion. Leaving aside the fact that Roman society was polytheistic and so the quota of gods could never be fully reached, Augustus was literally a god.

Upon conquering Egypt he became the Pharaoh, no mere leader, intermediary, or ruler by Divine Right, but an actual god.

In addition, Julius Caesar was posthumously deified – Haley’s Comet passing during his funeral games helped grease the wheels of this idea – and so in Rome too, Augustus was, at the very least, the son of a deity.

Divinity was not the only way in which the poets exalted the Emperor; his building works were also praised.

Suetonius famously reports that Augustus boasted he “found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble”.

In Propertius 2.31, the poet makes a reference to one such example, the mighty Temple of Apollo on the Palatine. However, this could also be interpreted as a reference to divinity, as Augustus’ residence adjoined the fantastic structure. What is more, the mention of the temple’s ‘Punic columns’ forces us to think of Augustus’ victory over Cleopatra (and thus Antony).

Battle of Actium

Indeed, the battle of Actium was another favoured topic the scribblers dwelt on. Epode 9 of Horace deals with the subject at length and states of the leader that “not even Africanus equalled him”. To be considered greater than the scourge of Hannibal was just about the highest praise one Roman could bestow on another.

So Augustus brought peace and prosperity to the Empire, he was literally a god on earth, and he rebuilt a decrepit and decaying Rome. Why then is there any doubt that the poets winged worship was anything other than genuine?

Well, one reason would be the client-patron relationship. The patron in question was, crucially, a close friend of Augustus. He was a man named Maecenas.

Virgil

He had Virgil, Propertius and Horace all firmly under his patronage and pay. The true parameters of the (traditional and formal) relationship are not known, but it is likely Maecenas would have been able to dictate the topic and tone of much poetical output, if not the actual content.

However, there were a few notes of dissent and, being poets, these came in response to Augustus’ Leges Iulia, his laws championing a lifestyle of monogamy, sobriety and fecundity.

For example, in Propertius 2.7, the poet unequivocally repudiates the Augustan ideal by claiming that he is not going to marry and breed simply to swell the ranks of the dilapidated army: “there will be no soldier from my blood”.

A step further is Ovid’s Art of Love which is basically a handbook on how to seduce women!

How could Ovid get away with something like that in an absolutist regime? Well… he couldn’t. He was exiled from Rome in 8 AD.

Ovid himself described the causes of his exile as “carmen et error” – a poem and a mistake. The poem in question is obviously the Art of Love, but the mistake, intriguingly, remains unknown.

Scholars have enjoyed guessing what it may have been, but most conclude that he witnessed or participated in a sex scandal involving a member of the imperial family. There is, however, no evidence whatsoever to corroborate this.

Ovid

Even after his exile, Ovid continued to write praiseworthy prosody from his Romanian sanctuary, meaning that, up until the end, Augustus still had every major poet in the empire singing and scribbling his praises.

The simple, but slightly unsatisfactory, reason for this is that the poets wanted to praise the emperor.

The lavish praise they heaped onto Augustus’ shoulders merely reflected his popularity with both the plebeians and aristocracy alike. As a matter of fact, the plaudits from Horace and Virgil began in the 30’s BC, before it was clear Augustus would be the undisputed future of Rome and long before he had absolute power.

This is hardly surprising… Augustus took Rome from being divided, demoralised, socially and religiously depraved, and on the brink of bankruptcy and famine. He transformed it into the commanding power of the ancient world, doubling its territory and winning massive favour with all classes.

True, as absolute ruler he was powerful, untouchable and often ruthless. Thus, the Augustan poets knew on which side their bread was buttered – but fortunately for all concerned, it was the side, given the choice, they probably would have spread it on anyway.

Burn Ivory, Melt Wax… Just like the Ancient Artists

by December 2, 2013

by Victoria Papale

Ancient form of painting

The 5th century BC Greece was a time of change. The region was becoming more unified with the development of city states and the new democratic government in Athens was taking hold. Art, as well, evolved, mirroring these progressions. The techniques and imagery of Greek painting began to advance, as the profiled, non-emotional, flat representation of the human was replaced with the expressive frontal and ¾ portraiture. Moreover, depth and perspective came into play.

Realism was now the passion of the Greek artist.

But how were these artists accomplishing this great artistic revolution, and with what materials? Not easily and not with much. See, today’s artists have it made. They only need to purchase their materials at the local arts and craft store and viola! They can begin.

In antiquity, however, painters had to do a lot more.

Painting by the AuthorFirst, they needed to seek out the correct minerals, and grind and heat them to a fine powder. Bee’s wax was then used to mix and adhere the pigments to wood or linen. They practiced a technique called ‘encaustic’, employing wax in a heated state and then working fast before it dried. Encaustic was painted on thin wood and likely treated with distemper or animal glue. Linen was also used for paintings when the wax was in a cool state. This was called the ‘punic’ technique.

Due to limited local minerals, artists worked with an extremely small palette. In fact, Pliny claimed that, ”four colors only were used by the illustrious painters to execute their immortal works”. These pigments are known as the ‘four earth tones’ or tetrachromy in Greek. Namely: white, black, burnt sienna, and yellow ochre.

As mentioned, these lucky four had to be sourced from minerals. In order to produce a brownish red or a red earth hue, for example, they had to burn Ivory or find Hematite. Meanwhile, setting dry dregs of wine on fire created a deep bluish color. Atramentum, a generic term for black, could also be made from burning ivory and dry dregs. This color was also often used as a varnish. Finally, Hydrated Iron Oxide produced yellow ochre and Calcium Sulfate, or chalk, was used for whites.

The beauty of the earth tones was that these colors work in relationship with each other, creating a harmonious and subtle vibrancy to figures and nature.

But let us look at the painters themselves. Indeed there were many from the Classic and Hellenistic periods, but let us begin with Polygnotos of Thasos.

Drawing of Sack of IluiumPolygnotus of Thasos (500 BC – 440 BC) was not only the first painter to portray emotion in his portraiture, but also one of the first to make the leap from sculpture to painting. He was noted for his arrangement and distribution of figures, placing them at various points in space which were correct in depth and perspective, as opposed to the horizontal plane artists used before him. And as for his painting, Pausanias, a 2nd century Greek traveller and geographer, states that his large paneled depiction of the sacking of Troy was displayed in the Agora, or Athenian market.

Polygnotus was very admired. In fact, the native of Thasos was adopted by the Athenians and admitted to their citizenship, clearly indicating his fame and approval in the ancient metropolis.

Then there was Apollodorus, known as the “Shadow Painter” or Skiagraphia, active around 480 BC. Some of Apollodorus’ works include “Ajax Struck by Lightning” and “Priest in the art of Devotion”. More importantly is that Apollodorus was an innovator who developed the application of light and shadow. This technique, known as Chiaroscuro – chiaro meaning light and scuro dark, was further developed by future artists, especially Italian Renaissance painters. So the next time you are admiring a Caravaggio or Da Vinci, you can thank Apollordorus!

These artists, with their revolutionary visual introductions, did not come from nowhere. In fact, it is paramount for artists to have great teachers, and so, I am compelled to at least briefly discuss an artist and renowned teacher whose name was Pamphilos.

Alexander the Great with ApellesPamphilos of Macedonia, prominent in 3rd century BC, was an artist, but made his mark in history as the teacher who originated the scientific method, or the use of math to ensure proper proportions. He attended, and later became head of, the Sicyonian Art School, located in the northern Peloponnesus which was founded by Eupompus. Pamphilos’ most famous pupil was none other than Apelles, portrait artist to Alexander the Great.

It is this artist, Apelles, with whom we shall complete our brief overview.

Apelles (352 BC – 308 BC) was an Ionian Greek from the island of Cos. You could say he was the rock star of art in the Hellenistic period. In Pliny’s opinion, Apelles perfected the techniques of realism, symmetry and depth. He was a master of the ‘four color palette’ and, once again according to Pliny, created the recipe for a black varnish, which served to preserve and soften the colors. A number of sayings are connected to Apelles, including “Nulla dies sine linea” … Not a day without a line drawn!

Apelles studied first at Ephesus and later at Sicyion, under the previously mentioned Pamphilos. Apelles went on to become the portrait artist not only to Alexander the Great, but also to his father Philip. Paintings attributed to Apelles included, ‘Aphrodite Rising from the Sea’ and ‘Alexander the Great holding a Thunderbolt’.

Painting from FayumSadly none of the paintings described here have survived. It is the historians, such as Pliny the Elder and Herodotus, who have given us the detailed information on the artists and their materials, and whom we should thank.

But there is one good piece of news. In the late 19th century two archeologists, Theodor Graf and Flanders Petrie, discovered over 1000 portraits in the Fayum section of the desert, west of Cairo. These paintings were of the four color palette described, used the encaustic method, and were painted from 1st to 3rd century AD.

Amazingly, they were preserved by the arid climate, allowing us to travel back into time and enjoy the art and artists from antiquity… and see for ourselves the artistic revolutions of Ancient Greece and Rome.


Victoria Papale is an artist and studied art in Greece in 2007 at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts in Paros. There she was introduced to the Earth Tones which are now her four colors of expression.

The Evolution of the Man in the Marble

by May 26, 2013

The artwork, and specifically the sculptures, of ancient Greece were some of the most profound, artistic statements of the human form ever to emerge from society. The dedication to detail, intricacy and exemplifying the beauty of the human body was unmatched at this time. However, like all art, it was a process of slow and deliberate evolution that created the beautiful depictions of the human body that we have all come to love, and the evolution of the man in the marble is just as intriguing as the finished product.

The Geometric Period

geometric 2

sculpture of a horse from the geometric period

Not much is really known about this period of Greek art, as there is no writing found from this period to describe the artwork. The sculptures created were often very small objects like chariots and horses. Many of the pieces were placed in tombs and not intended for public display. It is possible that larger sculptures made at this time were constructed from perishable materials, like wood. This period was believed to have lasted from about 900-700 BCE.

The Archaic Period

The archaic period was believed to have lasted from about 700- 480 BCE. This era saw the first depictions of the human form. These sculptures were not the beautiful, idealized depictions that would be produced later, but instead the bodies were usually stiff and rigid. The principle sculptures at this time were given the generic term of kouros, a simplified, nude sculpture of a male youth, and kore, which was a depiction of a female youth who was normally clothed.

kouros

a male nude would be none as a “kouros”

These statues were simplified, forward facing and lacked extensive detail. They were  believed to have been influenced by the cultures of Egypt and south west Asia. The korous and kore would often be depicted smiling, which was uncommon for later sculptures. These statues would lay the ground work for later masterpieces of ancient Greece.

Classical Period

kritios

Kritios boy

The classical period is thought to have begun with the sculpture known as “The Kritios Boy” in about 480 BCE. This sculpture was one of the first to depict the human form in a very realistic way. The body was sculpted to reflect accurate human proportions. The marble appears as if there are defined muscles covered by taut skin, while the sculpture itself appears to be displacing its weight on one hip. This is known as a contrapposto stance and it represented a significant innovation in the representation of  human beings. While the Kritios boy is regarded as the start of the Greek classical period, it in no way encompasses the entire period.

zeussposeidon

Artemision bronze shows a highly idealized figure

The classical period saw the rise of brilliant artists like Polyclitus, Lysippos, Scopas,and Praxiteles. They all contributed to the innovation and realism that would come to constitute the Greek classical period. It is during this time that we see an obsessive eye for detail and, at times, an exaggeration of the human body. Many idealized statues can be seen with muscle definition and limb proportions that are unattainable by a human being. Many of the portrayals are god-like creations that would have been larger than life when compared to the average citizen of ancient Greece. Unlike the Kritios boy, which was faithful to the human form, later sculptures were heroic looking creations that captured the imagination.

Hellenistic Period

the Hellenistic period would see a dramatic rise in artistic innovation in the expansive area conquered by Alexander the Great. This period is believed to have lasted from about 323-1 BCE. Although the influence of Athens, and other centers of artistic innovation during the classical period, began to decline; the influence of the eastern Mediterranean was on the rise.

While the classical period focused on idealized forms often depicted in cool, simplified stances; the Hellenistic sculptures focused heavily on sharp contrast and dramatic surroundings to create an engaging environment within the marble. The sculptors focused on the backdrop around the human subject as much as the subject itself. Figures were not always shown standing, contrapposto or otherwise. They were often seen laying down, leaning against objects, or even writhing in pain.

The Hellenistic period also saw the depiction of subjects that were less than idealized. Sculptures of humans that were old, deformed, or even dying came about during this time. In addition, it was common that the sculptures told a story.

Laocoon and his two soon

Laocoon and his two soon

“Laocoon and his sons” is perhaps the best example of Hellenistic style. The sculpture reflects a dramatic scene from The Iliad. Laocoon was a Trojan priest who attempted to warn his citizens about the dangers of  accepting the Trojan horse.  Subsequently, he, along with his sons, were devoured by a serpent, at the bidding of Athena who favored the Greeks.

Notice the powerful representation depicted. The sculpture is not a simple, standing figure, but a sharp portrayal of an event. There is believable pain displayed across the faces of the marble men. Their suffering becomes ours as their story is told to us.

Hellenistic Greek Art

by February 19, 2013

It is easy to have an ‘ideal’ when it is unchallenged. “This king is best”. How readily this bold statement rolls off the tongue, when there is no other king of which to speak. Likewise the phrase, “This God (or Gods) is right” offers no resistance if one’s own knowledge of divinities is severely limited. Similarly, “This is the perfection of beauty” can hold only sway in a small or isolated society.

Winged Victory of Samothrace

Winged Victory of Samothrace

It is often diversity, then, that invites people to examine their own unquestioned convictions in governance, religion or art. The complementary act of decentralisation, takes these norms and expectations away from one ruling group and puts independent thought and creation into a multitude of hands. There are now many competing ideas and concepts.

It is this diversity that characterizes the era of Hellenistic Greek art, the period of eclecticism.

This multeity was born out of the expansion of Alexander the Great’s empire, though its historical barriers aren’t clearly defined. The King of Macedonia brought extreme and remote regions under one vast umbrella. His kingdom, as well as the influencing Greek culture, stretched from Egypt to as far as India.

Within this thriving, expansive network new centers of “greek” art sprung up, questioning the previous dominance of Athens as the cultural epicenter of the ancient world. Now, cities like Alexandria, Antioch, and Pergamum began making a name for themselves in the artistic arena. They took the attic ways, but then added local flare or improved technical abilities. By the 2nd century BC, the rising power of Rome also absorbed much of the Greek tradition, all while supplying their own slant or engineering prowess.

So what did the local artists do to the Athenians’ dominant version of ‘ideal’?

Well, they destroyed it in the most magnificent of ways.

Venus de Milo

Venus de Milo

The tall, proud statues found in high classical art were punched, twisted and tortured. They distorted the beautifully sculpted youths of Athens’ golden age into decrepit or dying individuals. Upstanding gods and men were depicted as inebriated, passed out with their legs spread wanton or clutching a bottle.

The artists picked up the old perfect bodies, wrapped gracefully and modestly in sculptured cloths and threw them into the water till they were drenched. The women became erotic, with shapely figures bravely carved through flimsy fabric. They perfected transparency portrayed in stone.

One only has to think of the “Venus de Milo” and the slinky s-like shape of her torso to grasp this new found sensuality. The “Winged Victory of Samothrace”, now atop a dramatic staircase in the Louvre, is breathtaking and triumphant in her clinging cloth.

The Hellenistic sculptures also broke out of their planes, becoming “in-the-round”, or something to be seen from every angle. True to the diversity from which the art was born, subjects reflected a medley of individuals. There were old men and children, africans, sentimental folks and the so called “grotesques”. Emotions, such as agony, kindness or wisdom, were revealed, etched into their faces.

dying gaulAmong the most famous pieces of this time period is the “Dying Gaul“. It portrays a soldier, crippled over in pain. His expressions show his anguish as well as his contorted body. The realism of this piece, which was commissioned some time between 230 BC and 220 BC by Attalus I of Pergamon to celebrate his victory over the Celtic Galatians in Anatolia, is overwhelming.

Another exemplary specimen is “Laocoon and his two sons.” The statue depicts a scene from Virgil’s Aeneid, when a priest tried to warn the Trojans against taking in that wooden horse. The Gods on the Greek side sent a snake to punish the prudent man and his sons, which is what we see in stone. These statues are a conglomeration of twisting nudity and pain. The elderly priest, while in excellent physical shape shows true torment on his face. He is a far cry from the noble Apollonian statues of the Classical period or the Kouros of the Anarchic era. This tormented figure is definitely Hellenistic Greek Art.

Laocoon and his two soon

Laocoon and his two soon

Eventually this style and period came to an end. The historians like to mark this moment with the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. It was when Octavian, who later became the emperor Augustus, defeated Marc Antony‘s fleet and, consequently, ended Ptolemaic rule. The Ptolemies were considered the last Hellenistic dynasty to fall to Rome.

It was time for another empire, with its own range of diversity, to take place.

This does not mean, however, that Greek art and its traditions completed disappeared. Indeed, they remained strong during the Roman Imperial period, and especially so during the reigns of the emperors Augustus (r. 27 B.C.–14 A.D.) and Hadrian (r. 117–138 A.D.).

This is a wonderful fact for the modern viewer, as many of the astounding works that exist for us today are not in fact, Greek originals. They are Roman. By improving the materials and support systems, the Latin conquerors helped preserve some of the greatest art of the Ancient Greek world.

High Classical Greek Art: Political Patrons

by February 12, 2013

Few things impact a budding art scene like an empirical power showing off. The ruling class often invest heavily in propaganda and self grandeur, paid into the hands of the artistically gifted. They might even commission a few temples, as thanks to the gods for their new found positions. The artists, as long as they celebrate approved figures, are rewarded with extravagant commissions. Their patrons, in return, shower their favorite sculptors and painters with prestige and honor.

Bust of PericlesPericles, the Athenian Statesman, and Alexander the Great, the king of Macedon, were no exception. In fact, the Golden Age of Athenian art – the high Classical greek art period – is broadly defined by these exceptional gentlemen, book holders for fabricated historical boundaries.

Apparently it all started in 479 B.C. when Athens beat the Persians and founded a confederacy of allies to ensure the freedom of the Greek cities in the Aegean islands. Participants supplied either ships or funds in order to secure protection. This so-called “Delian League”, however, didn’t last long.

Athens wanted an empire, and that’s exactly what it got. First it moved the treasury closer to home – to the imperial city of Athens itself. Then the city-state put forth the Coinage Degree, which imposed Athenian silver coinage, weights and measures on all of the allies. Any left overs from the mint went straight to Athens, and any other use was punished by death.

Now the ordinary Greek members of the Delian league were, in fact, Athenian subjects.

This is where the man who was “surrounded by glory” comes into play. Pericles, who lived from ca. 461–429 B.C., was one of the masterminds behind Athens assuming full control over the league and a famous proponent for Athenian democracy. He then orchestrated one of the greatest human embezzlements of all time. He used the league’s treasury to build some of the most amazing artistic creations of the ancient world. He launched Greek Art into the “High Classical Greek Art”.

Pericles transformed the Acropolis (including the Parthenon) into a lasting monument of Athens’ political and cultural power. He worked tirelessly, with the likes of the Greek sculptor Phidias, to promote Athens as the artistic center of the Ancient World.

The red figured vase on the right allows for more detail

The red figured vase on the right allows for more detail

This catalyst propelled Athens further, innovating art on every level, from theatrical works to sculpture to vases. In regards to the last item, a major development occurred in this time period. The red-figure technique superseded the previously traditional black-figure technique. This change may not, at first, seem monumental, but it allowed a greater ability to portray the human body, clothed or naked, at rest or in motion.

Meanwhile, the solid, archaic figures of early Greek sculpture transitioned into more naturalistic statues, revealing movement, grace and the female form. The nude Aphrodite of Knidos, by the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles, was one of the first to break the convention of hiding female figures behind heavily draped attire. In addition to realistic bodies, statues began to depict real people. Democracy trickled down from politics to art.

Aphrodite of Knidos - example of High Classical Greek Art

Aphrodite of Knidos – example of High Classical Greek Art

Among these changing stylistic innovations, developed the art of studying art. For the first time, artistic schools were established, such as the school at Sicyon in the Peloponnese. There students learned the cumulative knowledge of art, the foundation of art history.

It would seem as if the creative boom of the Golden Age would never end. The artistic funds of Athens, however, eventually dwindled along with Athens’ defeat in the second Peloponnesian war.

Fortunately for art, another champion came forward, along with grand commissions and an immense bank account. Alexander the Great, known for his ruthless wars and expanding empire, became a patron of the arts as never before seen… loot from plundered lands will do that. Man is seldom shy of spending other people’s money and Alexander was no different.

It is here that the artificial boundaries of history are vaguely drawn. Alexander the Great, founding great cultural cities around his empire, brought together artistic ideals which had previously never been in contact. Styles and techniques drastically changed throughout the empire’s reach. Was this the peak of Classical art or the beginning of a new age of Art? No one knows precisely when the one period ends nor when the next begins…  What follows though, is the final stage of Ancient Greek art… the Hellenistic Period.

 

 

“High Classical Greek Art: Political Patrons” was written by Anya Leonard