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Category Archives: Sculpture

The Statue of Zeus
By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom What do we really know? It sounds like something straight out of the
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When in Rome, Be Greek
By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Rome: a Mediterranean giant, known far and wide for its conquering and warfare…
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Etruscan Art: Not Just a Transition
By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Many folks see the Etruscan civilization as merely a segue, a follow up
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Flawless Beauty or the Beauty of Flaws
By Anya Leonard “CRACK! Smash!” The sound of your favorite vase hitting the floor. You search around for the culprit
Read more.
The Evolution of the Man in the Marble
The artwork, and specifically the sculptures, of ancient Greece were some of the most profound, artistic statements of the human
Read more.
Hellenistic Greek Art
It is easy to have an ‘ideal’ when it is unchallenged. “This king is best”. How readily this bold statement
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High Classical Greek Art: Political Patrons
Few things impact a budding art scene like an empirical power showing off. The ruling class often invest heavily in
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Walk Like an Egyptian: Early Greek Art
It easily falls into the ‘conspiracy’ category – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun story to tell. We
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The Statue of Zeus

by November 13, 2018

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
What do we really know?
It sounds like something straight out of the Hollywood machine that produced movies like Cleopatra and 300– and in all honesty, it kind of looks like a Hollywood prop piece too. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia has been deemed (rightly so) one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It stood almost 40 feet high and was outfitted with gold, ivory, precious stones, and sat on a cedar wood throne. In one hand, the statue holds a scepter with an eagle perched on top; the other hand, a statue of Nike. It was placed inside the preexisting Temple of Zeus, which has quite the foundation myth itself. Conjured up in our minds is a statue with the force of nature behind it, inspiring awe and fear simultaneously.
Thousands of years later, we have fragments of the temple, including the pediments, the base of the steps and some columns, but the overall superstructure was ravaged by fire and earthquakes, leaving us with less than ideal remains. Unfortunately, the statue no longer exists entirely, as it was likely destroyed in Constantinople sometime after 426 AD, leaving us with a major gap in the material record that we would love to have filled. Who wouldn’t want to find a gigantic Greek god in all his glory poking out of the ground somewhere? However, this is not more than unlikely, it’s quite impossible.
illustration of Zeus

Statue of Zeus

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia
When talking about the imposing Statue of Zeus at Olympia, you can’t do so without talking about the temple within which it was placed. After all, context is the key to understanding, right? The temple of Zeus was built around 470-456 BCE and was one of the largest on mainland Greece. It was built primarily of local limestone, but Parian marble decorations adorned the facade in Severe and Early Classical style. Later, when restoration and renovation was needed, Pentelic marble was used. The temple provides us with sculptures on the metopes and the West and East Pediments that are truly amazing. The metopes boast the 12 labors of Heracles, while the West Pediment shows the Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs at the wedding of Peirithos. The East Pediment illustrates preparations for the chariot race between Oinomaos of Pisa and Pelops for the hand of Hippodamia in marriage.
The overall impression we get of these depictions is that this is a temple honoring no small feats of strength, power, and man. No, this temple of Zeus reached for the highest caliber of laurels. Fittingly, the statue of Zeus that was commissioned to be placed inside the already existing temple was not to be any ordinary shrine. The statue of Zeus had to be more monumental than the accomplishments and stories of the heroes shown on the outside, making it clear the Zeus was trumping it all.
Sculpture of pediments

East Pediment

Writings about the Statue of Zeus
So how do we know about the statue in the first place? For this, we look to the many authors of Greece and Rome who committed the statue to writing. Strabo said that if the statue stood up, it would have lifted the roof of the temple. Pausanius also provides us with a detailed account of the statue and temple, describing Zeus to be ornamented with olive sprays, robes, intricate carvings, gold and ivory. Perhaps one of the more moving descriptions of the statue comes from Dio, who wrote that “a single glimpse of the statue would make a man forget all his earthly troubles.” It is safe to say that while this statue surpasses our idea of monumental and maybe even toes the line of ostentatious. Clearly, it impacted the very psyche of the visitors and patrons of the temple.
The statue took upwards of eight years to complete, and a workshop was built specifically for Pheidias to build it. Interestingly, we still have remains of what we think is Pheidias’ workshop. Thanks to the extensive literary descriptions we have of the statue, many reconstructions exist. While we can’t ever be sure that they are 100% accurate, it is certainly a great way to get an idea of just how massive and incredible this statue was. Take a look for yourself below and maybe you’ll be inspired to train for the Olympics in honor of this massive god:

When in Rome, Be Greek

by October 10, 2018

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Roman Versus Greek Art

The Discobolus Lancellotti and a fragmentary statue of the Lancellotti type, Roman copies

Rome: a Mediterranean giant, known far and wide for its conquering and warfare… and its strong penchant for proudly displaying spoils all around the city. For hundreds of years Rome’s military prowess led to Triumphs, civil ceremonies and religious rites paraded through her famous streets. Rome was powerful…and she wanted to make sure her control extended not just to the military, but to the artistic endeavors of the empire as well.
After the Roman Empire conquered Greece and found (relative) stability in their position in the Mediterranean, a certain movement swept through the upper level Romans. Philhellenes – literally friends of Greece- were adamant admirers of Greek culture and everything that went with it. This movement, finding its roots in the literate upper class as early as the 3rd century BCE, led to centuries of cultivating Greek art for Roman consumption.
Roman Empire Map

Map of the Roman Empire

And the Romans absolutely loved it. The sculptures of Greek athletes, the strong and toned depictions of gods and goddesses, the busts of famous philosophers – it all showed beauty and power of a great civilization that was now under the jurisdiction of Rome. The Romans knew that at the height of Greek power architecture, art, theater and philosophy as well as war, politics, and money were valued greatly. They saw the Greek civilization not as defeated or crumpled, but as a narrative of the not so distant past and the potential greatness that they too could achieve.
The Romans respected the Greeks… and that is important to remember.
By the 2nd century CE, the market for Roman copies of Greek sculpture and art was enormous. Casts were made in workshops to “mass produce” pieces of particular interest. Roman artists would morph the two cultures by taking Roman heroes and marrying them with the distinguishable Greek style of athletic sculpture. In the end, wealthy Romans displayed their copies prominently in their homes and decorated their villas, using Greek sculptures as functional and integrated design features of their homes.
Heroic Roman Sculpture

This marble made statue is a representation of Octavius, a Heroic Roman General

Again, the Romans absolutely loved it. The copies insinuated education, class, and privilege, and the Romans capitalized on this prestige.
Of course, this wave of philhellenism is very much in line with the Roman style of expansion. As their grip on the Mediterranean oppressively tightened, as far as art, language, and religion were concerned, conquered territories were allowed to continue practicing whatever it was they wanted… as long as they paid taxes, sent men for war, and made sacrifices to the Roman gods. This was how the Romans maintained control on such a massive scale.
Roman Sculpture

Statue of Mars, the Roman God of War

When the Romans spread east over Greece, they recognized and remembered the importance and power of the Greek civilization. Whereas the rest of the empire was expected to learn and speak Latin as a mark of education, the Roman empire allowed Greek to remain the language of distinction in Hellas. The result was: if you were an educated and sophisticated Roman, you knew Greek too.
So, knowing how impressive and respected the Greek civilization was, the fact that the Romans fell absolutely head over heels in love with their art is no surprise. The Roman government effectively used Greek art as political propaganda. They constructed buildings specifically to display imported art and held the Greek spoils a head above the rest. While Rome became a conglomeration of artistic spoils of lands plundered throughout their region, there was just something about Greece that made her stand out. And Rome welcomed it with open arms.

Etruscan Art: Not Just a Transition

by August 3, 2018

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Etruscan art

Detail of two dancers from the Tomb of the Triclinium in the Necropolis of Monterozzi

Many folks see the Etruscan civilization as merely a segue, a follow up to the Greeks and a foreshadowing to the Romans. But casting this ancient society as a sideline character might not do them enough justice.
Indeed, despite the importance of Etruria (the wider region of the Etruscans) in its context as a link between the ancient worlds of the Greeks and the Romans, modern thought considers Etruscan civilization ‘far superior to the traditional picture of a poor relation of Greece and a mysterious prelude to Rome.’
This new found appreciation of the Etruscans can be most clearly seen in its art and architecture – and distinguishing where they leave off from the Greeks and create their own individual style.
Of course, Etruscan art did owe a great debt to Greece. Even in its primitive form, we are able to draw comparisons between the miniature statues of Etruscan native warriors and Greek Cycladic art (Quick note: the Cyclades is a group of islands including and north of modern Santorini). The unnaturally thin limbs and square faces, although not being a direct copy, certainly look as if the Etruscans must have been aware of the Cycladic statues.
Etruscan sculpture

Warrior with helmet, originally holding a spear. Etruscan art, Southern Umbria, 5th century BC. NG Prague, Kinský Palace, NM-H10 4787.

This very early example gives us the impression that trends in the art world, in general, evolve in tandem and that ‘picking and choosing’ Greek elements may not have been a conscious decision by Etruscan artists. Instead, the vast trading links with Greece would have provided constant contact with the art of different peoples.
For example, red and black pottery were introduced into the Etruscan world in the 6th century BC when Greek artists began to settle in towns such as Veii and Cerveteri. This would have made good fiscal sense, as it was far easier, safer and cheaper to relocate one gifted artisan than transport 500 pots. We see this evidence in the discovery of bird, ring, and animal shaped vessels found in Greece and Cyprus, but which are made of native clay. Such items are technically Greek rhytons, a type of drinking horn, despite their Etruscan origins.
Additionally, we can see that the antefix, a type of ornament that hides the joints of a tiled roof, from the temple of Portonaccio at Veii is designed in the image of a gorgon, and can be a direct copy of the Greek style prominent on the pediment of the temple of Artemis at Corfu. Also striking is that the two examples are within only a few decades of each other, implying that not only were ideas from Greece to Etruria transferred, but they were done so relatively quickly.
We can also see these cross cultural transfers in painting, particularly in the practice of portraying females in white and males much darker. This made sense in Greek painting as women were supposed to remain within the oikos, or house, whilst men went about their business outside. However, Etruscan women were given no such restrictions (though more about them later) and therefore this shows us an artificial depiction brought to the Etruscans from Greece.
But in many ways Etruscan art was different to that of Greece. For instance, the roofing techniques found in Etruria were not in Greece, and this can be taken further as we examine Etruscan dwellings in general. An Etruscan funerary urn (8th century BC) depicts a wattle and daub hut most unGreek in style. Also, even if some materials and techniques may have had Greek origins, we still have a good deal of subject matter that is uniquely Etruscan.
Etruscan house

Urna cineraria a capanna forse da Vulci, VII secolo a.C., Museo nazionale di Villa Giulia, Roma

For instance, there is little exaltation of local heroes in the art and no attempt to use it as a tool of fear or propaganda. This may be one of the reasons why the Etruscans are thought mysterious to modern archaeologists and dangerous to Greeks and Romans, as they felt identity was more precious than all else.
There are other ways in which the Etruscans revealed their own unique style. For example, in pot making. While the technique may be Greek, Etruscans introduced their own shapes into the art, making it no challenge to tell apart a Greek from an Etruscan pot. Additionally, more unGreek scenes appear, such as the mauling of a blindfolded man by a dog, and the occurrence of elaborate gold jewellery, which has more in common with the Celtic Le Tene culture, than with Hellenistic artwork. There is also a good deal of material whose origins could be said to be more Egyptian than Greek, such as the appearance of ‘human feline’ statuettes and hieroglyphic markings.
But it is the women in Etruscan art that make it really unique from Greece.
In both Greek and Roman societies even the highest bred women were subject to a greatly diminished status, both domestically and within the state. Whilst we have little to tell us of the official role of women in Etruscan society, we can see through the artwork that they enjoyed a much more even social status.
Etruscan art detail

Etruscan Boccanera Plaques Cerveteri, 560 BC – 55 BC

‘Etruscan woman ‘went out’ a great deal. We see them everywhere, in the forefront of the scene, taking a considerable place in it and never blushing from shame’ (J. Heurgon, Daily Life of the Etruscans). There are several wall paintings of feasts and banquet scenes that feature both men and women enjoying their meals together. The Greeks, rather unreasonably and rudely, used this as evidence that Etruscan women were all drunkards and promiscuous.
This domestic interaction between the sexes is something that is seen nowhere in Greek art. Women are either interacting between themselves, performing sexual acts, entertaining, working or taking part in a festival in Greece. These domestic scenes, therefore, would be wholly bizarre and unnatural to the Greeks.
Etruscan sarcophagus

Etruscan sarcophagus from Cerveteri c. 520 BCE. Terra cotta, length 2 m. Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Rome.

In Etruria we see the women reclining along with their husbands in what the Greeks presumed to be a readiness to perform sexual acts, but seems far more probable to be merely an affectionate sharing of time together. This is supported in the grave markers, where the sculptures of a man and wife lie in peace together. We see one example of a couple with the woman holding a baby on her knees in a scene where presumably libations are about to be poured for the child’s safety. Domestic intimacy like this is an alien concept to Greek art.
Though we can clearly identify a good deal of Greek artistic traits in the art of the Etruscans, we could just as easily claim to identify Egyptian ones (to a lesser extent) and on this tack we could claim that any Greek art is not truly Greek but merely a bastardisation of near Eastern art.
That said, Etruscan art can clearly be identified as an art unto its own. Saying it is merely the evolution of Hellenistic art seems rather patronising towards the Etruscans. Regardless of to what extent the Greeks managed to influence Etruria, it seems that the Etruscans were more than capable of firmly stamping their own individuality on their artistic culture.

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.
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.
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.
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.

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.
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.
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.

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.

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 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.

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.