Greek Dark Ages 1100 - 900 BCE
After the glory days of ancient Mycenaens, Aegea fell into a dark age. Tribal feuding and nomadic lifestyles resulted in an almost total loss of culture including written language. Mythical centaurs seem to have evolved during the Greek Dark Age. While Egyptians had various gods and goddesses who were as half people and half animals, and the imposing Assyrian lamassu were half man half winged bull, centaurs seem to be a specifically Greek invention. One wonders whether centaurs might have evolved as an expression of the close relationship that horses and people sometimes share. Centaurs endured throughout Greek history and came to symbolize man in an irrational primal condition. This is exampled by the battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths that is carved in the entablature around the Parthenon.
Organized in small city-states and provenances that were in constant competition with each other, the Greeks were a bellicose bunch. Different city-states had distinctly different traditions, but shared a taste for fighting and plotting in their mythology and art as well as their history. Like any people who fight hard and strike preemptively, the Greeks were always seeking ways to justify their aggression. Divine provenance, gods being on their side, freedom from tyranny, democracy, or just nasty senses of superiority are some of the many justifications the Greeks found for waging war. (Unfortunately, these reasons all sound pretty familiar still today.) By the time they achieve the truly sophisticated culture, art, and science of the Classical period the Greeks seem like a culture with a split personality that is sophisticated on the one hand, and brutish on the other.
Geometric Style 900 - 700 BCE:
Named for the very linear and organized painting seen on ceramics from this time, the Geometric Style coincides with a cultural revival including the return of agricultural development, community building, and written language. The logic and order innate to this style can be understood as a visual indication of a growing inclination to an ordered and organized society.
Small Bronze sculptures were produced during the era of the Geometric Style. The figurine of a man with a long neck is one of the first known depictions of the God Apollo. There is an inscription proclaiming their allegiance to Apollo of the person who commissioned the piece. The piece with two figures is meant to represent a hero, perhaps Hercules, grapling with a centaur.
Orientalizing 700 - 600 BCE:
Orientalizing Style, easiest to identify through ceramic works, is named for the visual influence of the Assyrians and other cultures from the Fertile Crescent. The influence of these more established societies is an indication of the increased trade and communication between the Greeks and their neighbors. The carved Lintel pictured directly below is from a very early temple.
Archaic 600 - 480 BCE:
The Archaic period is defined by a tremendous increase in productivity. While the ceramic arts remained a rich tradition, architecture and sculpture boomed as evidence of an increasingly busy and vibrant culture. It is during this time that Greek art and architecture came into its own. Styles and techniques emerged that were unique in both concept and design. Sculpture and architecture from this period reveal Egyptian influence but also begin to assert more and more of a specifically Greek identity. At Paestum in Southern Italy two temples dedicated to the goddess Hera reveal the evolution of temple design in the Doric order. The columns of the older temple are stout, short and positioned closer to each other than they are in the later temple. This reveals that successive architects pushed the ratio of column width and height relative to payload through a process of trial and error from one temple to the next.
Stone sculptures from the Archaic period tend to look a bit stiff. They usually portray archetypal youths or deities (who in ancient Greek religion look like people, a species-centric notion that is still popular today.) Other than their stiff posture, Archaic sculpture is identifiable by the odd grins worn on the faces of subjects. This strange facial expression known as an Archaic smile is not meant to suggest that everyone was giggling or saying cheese, but was intended to make the subjects look more alive. An archetypal male youth is called a kouros (the plural is kouroi) and they are always sculpted fully nude. An archetypal female youth is called a kore (the plural is korai) and they are always depicted demurely clothed. The interest in youthful beauty and in human subjects in general reveals a human-centric value system and an obsession for physical perfection. Considering the money spent on plastic surgery, health clubs, and spas, one could easily argue that the Greeks obsession for physical perfection is part of our cultural inheritance.
There is evidence found in writing and on pottery indicating that life size hallow cast bronze sculptures were produced during the Archaic Period, but none exist today. Quick to reinvent and improve themselves, it is assumed that the Greeks themselves melted down all the bronze statuary from this period so that they could recycle the bronze to use for later better sculptures. The kuouroi and korai on the Acropolis were all destroyed by the Persians when they invaded Athens in 480 B.C.E only to find the city abandoned as part of a clever ruse devised by the Athenian admiral Themistocles. Themistocles tricked the massive Persian forces into believing that Athens would surrender. The Persian navy sailed into the narrow Salamis Straight where they were surprise attacked by the much smaller but faster Athenian fleet of war ships. This victory over the Persians is what set Athens on a rapid trajectory toward fame and fortune. However, it must have been disheartening for them when the Athenians returned to their city to find the extensive vandalism done to it by the Persians. Rather than repair or destroy their broken sculptures, the Athenians decided to leave them as a reminder of the Persian threat where they eventually got buried in the reconstruction of the acropolis.
The Archaic Greeks invented a type of ceramic decoration that isn't glaze but is almost like it. Terra sigellata is a watery solution of colored clay ground down and sifted into the finest possible particles. While glaze is usually applied to ceramics that have already been fired once, terra sigellata is applied to greenware and buffed to a fine sheen. Glazed pottery usually has to be fired twice, achieving an especially water tight vessel because the glaze seals the clay. The fine polished clay particles in Greek Black Figure ware (above) and Red Figure ware (below) achieve a similar water tight skin in just one firing.
Early Classical aslo know as the Severe or Transitional Period 480 - 450 B.C.E.
The Temple of Aphaia is important because like Chartes Cathedral in France where both Early and High Gothic styles are combined in one building, the temple preserves an important breakthrough in sculpture that occured during its construction. The two fallen warriors are from the the pediments on either side of the temple. The older of the warriors has an Archaic smile that seems odd in light of the arrow sticking out of his chest, and he is resting on his hip in an unlikely way that is as awkward as his grin. The newer warrior has a a facial expression that is more in keeping with gavity of his circumstances, and his body is posed in a more believable positon with his shoulders twisting around the axis of his spine in relation to his hips. This warrior is an example of the Severe style.
The change in facial expressions from smiley to serious is what inspired the term Severe Style, but it is an anatomical principal known as contrapposto that enabled the breakthrough to more realistic looking sculpture. An Itallian word that translated into English means counter ballance, contrapposto is the pehnomena of the human body shifting in equal and opposite ways in response to how it holds itself up. For example, if standing with more weight on one foot than the other (which is typically the case) the hip that is bearing most of the weight will be higher from the ground than the relaxed hip and in equal but oposite ballance the shoulder on the relaxed side will be slightly higher than the shoulder on the weight bearing side. Understanding this subtle dynamicism enabled artists to portray human subjects in a way that is much more natural. The first known example of contrapposto is a small kouros found broken and burried on the Acropolys. The sculpture is named Kritios Boy, after the scuptor who is believed to have carved him. The principle of contrapposto fueled the rapid development of more dynamic and natural looking anatomy. For example, the Discus Thrower is a Roman copy of a bronze orginal created by the Greek sculptor Myron. It is seen as epitommizing the Greek ideal of body and mind working in unison with feirce detrmination toward perfection. Discobolis also pushes the concept of contrapposto from relaxed to a tensely coiled athletic spring that makes for a sculpture that is dramatic and dynamic from every viewing angle.
In their day, Greek bronze sculptures were prized over stone carvings. Today they are even more valuable in comparison to stone sculptures because most of them were melted down during antiquity to make other things. This six foot six inch tall bronze statue of a warrior posed in dramatic contrapposto was found in a ship wreck in the late seventies off the coast of Southern Italy. It's eyes are made from inlayed shell, while the lips and nipples are inset pinkish copper. The simillarly tall bronze sculpture on the right is believed to depict Zeus throwing a thunderbolt. The thunderbolt may have been made out of a material that floated away from the ship wreck, or deteriorated in the ocean, such as wood covered with gold leaf.
On the brink of the high classical period, a sculptor named Polykleitos from Argos not only acheived great realism, he also wrote an extensive analysis of his methods for calculating human proportions. This Canon of anatomy helped future artists sculpt accurate proportions. More importantly, it also helped elevate art and artists within the social heirarchy. Art came to be seen as an intelectual pursuit. The Spear Bearer sculpture is a Roman copy of Polykleitos's bronze original that he made to illustrate his Canon of proportions. Perfecting these proprtions in their art speaks not only to the Greek notion that a sound body is the sign of a sound mind, but also to the fact that as a society Greece was obsessed with human perfection and acheivement.
Classical Period 450 - 400 BCE
This is the most famous era of Greek art, during which the Acropolis in Athens was crowned with the Parthenon and other fine buildings. Sculpture progressed beyong the naturalism it had acheived fifty years prior, to a heroic dynamicism that left an indelible mark on the history of art. The sociopolitical context of democracy invented by the patrician Cleisthenes enabled Athens to develop into a mecca for the arts and culture during the late Archaic Period. Democracy allowed many more citizens to achieve their potential. Improved human resources and morale fueled not only the arts but collective inteligence as well. This in conjunction with the discovery of a nearby silver mine gave the Atenians a distint socioeconomic edge over not only their Greek neighbors, but over the powerful invading Persian Empire as well.
The brilliant Athenian general Themistocles (who in his later days was banished from Athens and wrote much of the history of this period) had the forsight to anticipate the Persian threat and conviced the Athenians to use their new found wealth to build a naval fleet. It was this naval fleet and a cunnig two part strategy involving the evacuation of Athens itself and the luring of the Persian naval fleet into a straight where Athenian tyrenes could trap and pounce on them that secured the immediate future of Athens and Greece. The important role that Athens played in saving Greece from Persian dominance gave rise to a coalition of city-states called the Dellian League. City-states who were members of the league paid taxes to Athens in exchange for the protection of the Athenian navy. This arrangement brought Athens tremedous revenue and made them world-renouned, but not necessarily loved by Dellian League members and other Greek city-state, especially nearby Sparta.
It was during this time that Themistocles fell out of favor with the Atenian citizens and was eventually blackballed making room for a new leader named Perikles. Unlike Themistecles, who was of humble origins, Perikles descended from a long line of wealthy Athenian patricians and this probably influenced both his political savy and his grandiose vision for rebuilding the acropolis. Having found the town empty and having assumed that the Athenians had run away in fear, the Persian infintry wasted their time and energy looting the town and bashing the sculptures and temples on the acropolis when they should have been rethinking their military strategy instead.
Rebuilding the acroplis involved enormous expenditure and the collective commitment of the people to create a monument rivaling those built by the great Eastern empires such as Egypt and Persia. The sculptor Phidias as the artistic director of the project worked closely with many architects, artists and many craftsmen to realize Peraklese's vision. A shining monument to democracy, individual freedom, and civic pride was the goal and the place is still seen as an important symbol of these ideals.
The Parthenon, a temple dedicated to the city's patron goddess Athena is the jewel in the crown of buildings on the Acropolis and was the first to be constructed. Massive in both size and aura the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates chose the Doric order for the Parthenon's design. Careful mathematical consideration of proportions brings a harmony to the building that makes it's mass feel appropriate. The Golden Ratio discovered, or at least first written about by Euclid, is a proportion that is used throughout the building. Not satisfied with pure geometry, the Parthenon's floor is bowed slightly upwards in the center and its collumns are splayed slightly outward to compensate for the visual effect of orthoganal lines tapering toward vanishing points. This compensation entailed a much greater degree of planning and sophistication on the part of the architects and builders. Rather than having blocks and collumn drums that were carved with right angles and could be interchangeable, each and every stone had to be carved to specific specifications that were subtly skewed from 90 degree angles and were therefore not very interchangeable.
Stone scupture from the Parthenon includes high relief programs designed for its pediments as well as bas relief programs for the inner and outer entablitures. The mythical battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs was chosen for the metopes that are part of the building's exterior entabliture. The theme symbolizes the rational grace and moderation of the Lapith men triumphing over the primal instincs of the centaurs who had gotten drunk at the wedding party that the Lapiths had invited them to. This metaphorical aspect of Greek art distinguishes it from the art of previous civilizations. The three goddesses that were sculpted for a pediment are meant to be watching the birth of Athena. The manner in which they slump against each other is an arrangement that fits nicely into the triangular corner of a pediment. The loose wet-looking clothing they wear is an innovation that Phidias came up with and is more revealing of female anatomy than the archaic examples that came before it.
Much of the sculpture from the Parthenon was acquired by an English lord named Elgin between 801 and 1812. Lord Elgin took advantage of an Athens in a moment of economic weakness while it was part of the Ottoman Empire, and removed sculpture from the Parthenon, bringing it back to England to preserve, study and display. England claims that Elgin saved the sculptures from neglect, but Greece is still trying to get them back. It is probably the most famous case of repatriation and contested patriation of art. In 2012 Athens reopened a newly refurbished national museum that includes displays intended for Lord Elgins marbles once they are returned. Paraklese needed the continued support of Athenian voters to make this happen. However, the bulk of the money came from taxing the other Greek city-states who were given no say in the allotment of these funds and probably assumed that they would be spent on strengthening the military. Athens' star fell almost as quickly as it rose when in 431 BCE Parakles proposed and recieved popular support to wage a war on Sparta. The rapid fall of Athens can be seen as an example of what I like to call cultural narcissim. Their success and pominance created a sense of superiority that led to major political and military miscalculations.
The Erecthion is a temple on the Acropolis in the Ionic Order dedicated to Athena and Poseidon and built by Phidias between 421- and 406 BCE. The building takes its name from a legendery Archaic era Athenian king mentioned by Homer. The Erecthion has an unusual floor plan partially because it was built around pre-existing sacred features. For example, there was an olive tree growing near it that Athenian's believed was created by Athena when she competed with Poseidon for devotion of the Athenians. Legend has it that Poseidon struck his trident into the rock creating a spring. However, the water from the spring was salty. Athena then struck her spear in the same spot purifying the spring water and causing an olive tree to grow there. The Erecthion was used for some of Athens's most ancient annual ceremonies. The Caryatid Porch is believed to have been built specifically for one of these traditions involving a cult of virgins dedicated to Athena. A caryatid is a column in the form of a woman. On the Erecthion, they symbolize pillars of society calling into question the unfair gender roles in Greece. It may not be a coincidence that the porch was commissioned by Parakles, who happened to have held more openminded views of women.
A gallery for paintings was also constructed on the Acropolis. Since the Greeks painted with encaustics or else fresco secco, none of the paintigs originally displayed in the gallery exist anymore, but the building itself is still there and can be considered the first public art museum in history. While there are few Greek paintings left, Greek mosaics such as this one depicting a hunt from Alexander the Great's Palace in Macedonia called Pella suggest that just like their sculpture, Greek painting must have achieved a high degree of realism. This rare fresco seco painting depicting Hades abducting Pesophone was recently discovered in a tomb. Even in it deteriorating condition it hints at a compositon depicting not only realistic anatomy, but also evoking a dynamic sense of movement, strong emotion, and an illusion of depth.
Athens miscalculated that their war with Sparta would be over in a year or two, instead the Peloponesian War lasted nearly three decades, from 431 - 406 BCE. By the end of it, Athens was not longer the international powerhouse that it had breifly been. Construction on the Acropolis continued during most of the war with the addition of smaller temples such as the the Temple of Athena Nike. Hubris is a Greek word meaning arrogance and there are some very specific clues, looking at the sculptures from the Temple of Athena Nike, that cultural Narcisism was starting to infect Athens. The temple is a small one in the Ionic order that flanks the top of the staircase to the Acropolis. It is called Athena Nike because it celebrates Athena's victory and therby the city of Athen's. The sculptural program depicts the Greek gods watching the Athenians as they conduct their religious rituals. The notion that the gods would be so interested in the Athenians as to assemble together and watch them is a bit arrogant. This relif of Nike adjusting her sandal strap from the building's parapet reveals just how human and falable the gods were to the Greeks. Why would a goddess need to perform such a mundane act? Why wouldn't she have divine snadals that never need adjustment? It's important to consider that these humble depictions of deities were being created at the same time that an Athenian stone mason turned philosopher, by the name of Socrates, was daringly questioning whether or not the gods even exist.
Late Classical Period 400 - 325 B.C.E.
The time period after the Pelopnisian War and before Alexander the great is known as Late Classicism. Athens was in decline economically and militiristically speaking, but because it had risen to such great heights it remained a center for culture and intelectual thought. This was a great time of questioning. Plato who as a youth had been an olympic wrestler, picked up where his teacher Socrates had left off. Socrates was infamously tried and killed for corrupting the youth, but he had also spoken out against the death penalty for the city's few remaining military leaders who the town blamed for having lost the war, and he had questioned the existence of the gods. Despite his tragic demise, the practice of questioning everything in life, and of engaging in Socratic dialogue is a legacy that helped shape the development of Western Civilization. That questioning can be seen in this Roman copy of Hermes with the baby Dionisis by the Late Classical Athenian sculptor Praxatiles. Hermes, who is known as a trickster, is dangling a bunch of grapes above Dyonisis head. This not only foreshadows what the baby god of wine will grow up to represent, it also questions Praxatilies elongated the proportions of Polyleiotos's canon and also made his figures look more fluid by studying the way muscles look as a group rather than deliniating each muscle separately. In this sculpture he also clusters more than one figure together somewhat like the wayPhidais did with the three goddesses, enrching the narative and making the overall piece more complex.
Mybe it was partially from Socrates questioning the existence of the gods, that a Late Classical Athenian sculptor named Praxatiles had the audacity to create a life sized nude sculpture of Aphrodite. Male nudity was common place, but female nudity was much less so, and everybody knows what happened to the hunter who stumbled upon Artemis while she was bathing. Despite being a sexy goddess, even for Praxatilies to imagine Aphrodite nude was considered wrong in some circles. The sculpture had originally been commissioned by the island of Kos, but they rejected the finished piece for its shocking nudity and because a courtesan had modeled for the work. Praxatilies had to look at some fine lady in order to sculpt his Aphrodite, and in doing so began an interesting tradition in western art of courtesans posing as mythical and sometimes even sacred Judeo-Christian female subjects. One island's trash is another islands treasure, and the Island of Knidos was delighted to purchase Aphrodite at a discount. They were wise to do so as she quickly became a tourist attraction that Greeks and others travelled from afar to gaze upon and Worrship. While she is nude, Aphrodite is in the act of preparing to take a bath. Her gaze is not looking directly at the viewer and her right hand is in front of her womanhood in a manner that is meant to be understood as modest. This became a classical pose in Western art and can be seen in later works such as Bottocelli's La Primavera painting. Even though the original work was marble, rather than bronze, it did not survive antiquity. The version depicted here is a Roman copy, but this illustration of an engraved coin from Knidos helps verify the sculpture's legendary existence.
Hellenistic Period 325 B.C.E. - ca. 100 C.E.
blah blah blah the ancient Greeks are super interesting, but this page is taking me forever to write.