Ancient Greek art and culture have become cornerstones of modern western society. It remains present in popular culture and one can see its reiterations on film, art, architecture, and literature. However, throughout ancient Greek civilization art underwent several distinct changes in medium, style, use, and accessibility. Here, we examine these changes through time.
Following the dissolution of the Mycenaean civilization and end of the Bronze Age in the 11th century BC, Greek culture fell into a period of relatively little social or artistic progression known as the Greek Dark Ages. The Geometric Period in Ancient Greece marked the end of this Dark Age, beginning with the re-emergence of ceramic painting during the Proto-Geometric Period (ca. 1050-900 B.C.).
The Geometric Period is characterized by its use of geometric patterns and shapes in its iconography. The focus of the art also shifted from the more fluid, amorphous shapes of the Mycenaean period and onto more recognizable depictions of the people and animals of the Athenian polis. The period can be split into three eras: the Early Geometric, Middle Geometric, and Late Geometric.
During this period of Ancient Greek art, there were two prominent types of monumental votive vessels: kraters and amphorae. Kraters were used to decorate male graves, where amphorae decorated female graves. They generally had a slim neck and a widened center with two side handles.
One of the defining features of Geometric Period pottery is called ‘horror vacui’, or the ‘fear of empty space’. This manifested in filling entire surfaces with intricate details or patterns. Vases, for the most part, were thus completely covered with iconography, resulting in rich and artistic decoration.
Vessel decoration was often split into levels, which were then also decorated with processional or ‘marching’ scenes. Figures on Geometric Period pottery were often painted in black against a lighter background, and could be distinguished by their small heads, widened triangular chests, small waists and angular legs.
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Though the Geometric Period is known primarily for its pottery, the Late Geometric period also developed a recognizable style of sculpture. These primarily bronze figures were generally very simplistic, classically rendered, and elegant in form.
Archaic Period, ca. 700-480 B.C.
The Archaic Period featured a considerable increase in interaction between the Greek world and the surrounding areas of the Mediterranean due to trade and international communication. This manifested itself through artistic and cultural influence from Egypt, the Near East, and other areas surrounding Greece.
The art of Archaic Period Greece reflects this heightened international influence in technique, tools, and iconography. With continuously advancing technologies, artists were able to create realistic human imagery for the first time. They were also able to produce ornately detailed, colorful pottery.
Two defining pottery styles emerged during Ancient Greece’s Archaic Period. The first of these is known as black-figure pottery, which was made from red pottery with back glaze decoration. The second pottery technique was called red-figure, which featured the outlining of figures in black, leaving them red on the inside. Initially, these vessels were decorated with mainly war scenes, specifically from the Iliad or Odyssey. However, as time went on they also evolved into calmer scenes such as symposia or mythical storylines.
Most prominently produced were drinking vessels. However, there were many methods used to produce them and they varied considerably in shape, use and size. Some were used for wine jugs, mixing or serving bowls, perfume jars, and storage jars. The shape of the vessel usually indicated its use, but the vast majority of them featured a long neck, widened center and side handles.
The Archaic Period of Ancient Greek art also saw dramatic innovation in sculpture production. These naturalized sculptures called kouroi appeared. Kouroi were commemorative, semi-lifelike statues representing idealized young men during their prime. Also existing was the less famous, clothed female counterpart: the kore.
Kouroi looked notably Egyptian; their slightly angular, geometric design mimicked that of ancient Egyptian bronze or wood sculpture. They stood upright with broad shoulders, arms at their sides with slim hips and their legs together. However, throughout the Archaic Period, they evolved into more naturalistic, detailed forms characteristic of the following Classical period.
Classical Period, ca. 480-323 B.C.
The Classical Period began with the end of the Athenian tyranny in the 5th Century B.C., which paved the way for the subsequent establishment of democracy. It also saw the Persian Wars and the rule and death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. Philosophers such as Plato, Socrates and Aristotle came to fame during this period, and it has been regarded as an Athenian ‘golden age,’ during which intellectualism, art, literature, and culture flourished.
This period saw the introduction and expansion of many things that represent Ancient Greece to modern viewers, and one could not look at the classical style without considering its architecture. There was an increase in monumental temple construction during the Classical Period, which included the completion of the Athenian Acropolis and Erechtheion alongside numerous temples in locations including Delphi, Olympia, and Corinth.
There were three recognizable architectural styles during the Classical Period: the Doric Order, Ionic Order and Corinthian Order. The Doric Order was simple, with plain pillars, capitals, and pediments. The Ionic Order was slightly more ornamented, with pillars that looked like a rolled scroll. The Corinthian Order was the most detailed of the three, with intricate, organic pillar and capital designs.
Classical art is also easily recognizable from its near-perfect depictions of the human form in life-size and monumental sculpture. Greek artists became increasingly focused on the study of human anatomy and musculature, evolving from the Archaic kouroi to more naturalistic, physically accurate depictions of the human form.
Ancient Greek sculpture also gained variation in subject matter and body pose. Rather than depicting the archetypal idealized man or woman, Classical sculpture began to exhibit a more diverse set of recognizable features. Sculptors also experimented with the human form by crafting pieces with the subject in action, or standing in the iconic contrapposto pose, with one hip protruding and the weight shifted to its side.
While the male nude was prioritized by most artists during this period, Praxiteles experimented with the female nude, pioneering the female form in his sculpture of the Aphrodite of Knidos (ca. 350 B.C.). The sculpture became so famous that it remains, in modernity, as the ‘archetypal female nude’, and is continually referenced in the study of the female form. There was also a rising presence in domestic reliefs which depicted women and family scenes.
Hellenistic Period, ca. 323-31 B.C.
The Hellenistic Period in Ancient Greek art began with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. The leadership of the massive empire that he had accrued throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa, and parts of Asia was subsequently divided into three regions and assumed by generals, splintering the empire. However, Greek art continued to expand on the classical ‘Hellenism’ of the empire in art with more international influence.
Generally speaking, Hellenistic Period art featured an increase in expression and detail from the Classical Period. It began to diverge from the idealization of the Classical Period, and artists were no longer restricted to depict physical perfection. They were free to explore themes of illness, death, and old age in sculpture.
Even with the fragmented empire after Alexander the Great’s death, there was a large amount of privatized wealth within it. This resulted in a rise in private artistic commissions and thus more diversity in the subject matter. Pieces were produced for domestic enjoyment rather than just commemoration, which also meant that there were sometimes elements of comedy or irony.
There was also significant innovation with mold making for the production of drinking vessels and votive terracotta figurines, which may account for their increased importance and use during the Hellenistic Period. The miniature statues, often depicting women holding objects of religious significance, had previously been used for religious offerings. However, with their wider availability, they rose in popularity as funerary decoration as well.
Though little physical evidence of Hellenistic Period painting survives, it is known for its rise in depictions of landscapes. Many of these landscapes combine realistic natural elements with religious themes. They were often also used as settings for recreations of myth or ancient literature. There is also a small amount of evidence of Hellenistic wall painting, mostly seen in the Macedonian royal tombs at Vergina, which feature mythical and religious elements as well.