The Art of the Ancient Aegean



The Art of the Ancient Aegean
The Art of the Ancient Aegean
The region known as the Aegean Sea was the home to three ancient cultures before the rise of
the Greek Civilization on the mainland of Europe. These were the Cycladic, located on the
islands of the Aegean; the Cretan on the island of Crete; and the Helladic or Mycenaean on
the mainland of Greece.
Since there is hardly anything known of the peoples of the Aegean Bronze Age apart from
what we can learn from their artifacts, there can only be a relative chronology. This was
established by Sir Arthur Evans on the evidence of ceramics into three periods: Early Minoan,
Middle Minoan and Late Minoan, later extended into the Cyclades and Mainland as well:
Early Cycladic, Middle Cycladic and Late Cycladic; Early Helladic, Middle Helladic and Late
Art of the Cyclades (Cycladic Art),
The Cyclades have been inhabited since at least 7000 BC, and there's evidence that Milos'
obsidian (volcanic glass used to create sharp blades) was being collected as early as 7500 BC.
The Cycladic seafaring civilization appeared in around 3000 BC. During the Early Cycladic
period (3000-2000 BC) there were settlements on Keros, Syros, Milos, Naxos, Sifnos and
Amorgos. It was during this period that the famous Cycladic marble figurines were sculpted.
Many of the islands were occupied by the Minoans in the Middle Cycladic period (2000-1500
BC); a Minoan town has been excavated at Akrotiri on Santorini. The Cyclades were taken by
the Mycenaean’s at the beginning of the Late Cycladic period (1500-1100 BC), and the
Dorians followed in the 8th century BC.
White marble Cycladic figurine
Art of Ancient Crete (Cretan or Minoan Art)
The largest of the Aegean islands was Crete. It is roughly 155 miles long and 36 miles wide.
Crete produced its’ own fruit and vegetables as well as livestock but lacked the necessary
minerals for the production of bronze. Crete gained wealth as a sea port trading with not only
mainland Greece, but Egypt and the Near East. During the Bronze Age, the culture of the
Island of Crete was called Minoan, after King Minos who ruled from the city of Knossos.
This name was given to that culture later by British Archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. Art and
architecture created on Crete during that period was very distinct in style. A distinct feature
of Minoan architecture was the building of palaces. One such palace was an extremely large
structure which served as the setting for the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. This palace
was built in the city of Knossos. Knossos is located on the north coast of the island of Crete.
The structure was made of dressed stone exterior walls and wood columns which were tapered
narrower toward the bottom and were painted in bright red colors. The site consisted of food
storage, workshops, and artists’ studios as well as what appear to be ceremonial rooms. In
total there are more than 1300 rooms which are interconnected.
According to legend, a half-man, half-bull called the Minotaur lived in a maze at Knossos
called a Labyrinth. This creature was created through the union of the wife of King Minos
and a bull belonging to the sea god Poseidon. The Minotaur had a craving for human flesh so
to satisfy him, King Minos ordered the kingdom of Athens to send a yearly sacrifice of 14
young men and women to be offered up to the creature. Theseus, the son of the Athenian
King Aegeus, (after whom the Aegean Sea is named) eventually slayed the creature.
For a photo tour of Knossos and more information follow the links below:
In Minoan religion the bull was considered sacred and games like bull leaping developed from
their interaction with the beasts. Bull images were often incorporated into religious
ceremonies. One such sculptural figure is the Rhyton Bull Which is made of steatite, agate
and shell with gilded horns. Below is a link to the image.
During the Minoan period several palace type structures were built on the island of Crete.
Each is characterized by a large trade/ceremonial center located on top of a hill with a
community surrounding it. Each are also characterized by specific unique artifacts such as the
Phaistos disk found at
the palace of Phaistos, and the Kernos which was found at the palace of Mallia.
Minoan Fresco
As mentioned in earlier sections, fresco painting is the art of painting on a plaster. It was
generally used as a means of decorating interiors and was practiced in many different cultures
throughout the world. Fresco can be divided into two types. The first type is called fresco
secco (dry fresco) in which the paint is applied to cured remoistened plaster. The second type
is called true fresco (sometimes referred to as Buon Fresco). Each type has its’ advantages
and disadvantages. In fresco secco, the painter isn’t as pressed for time because the plaster is
allowed to cure before the paint is applied which allows the artist more time to work. The
disadvantage of fresco secco is that the paint sits on the surface of the plaster. This allows the
paint to often flake off due to changes in humidity. Thus fresco secco scenes are more of a
stain rather than a painting. In true fresco however, the paint is actually absorbed into the
plaster which allows for more permanence. Its’ disadvantage is that the artist must paint as
the plaster is curing and slightly damp. Therefore the painter must work quickly. Minoan
frescoes were typically done in true fresco which has allowed them to remain vibrant in their
Above: Bull Leaping Fresco from the palace complex, Knossos, Crete, Late Minoan period, c.
1550-1540 BC. Height 24 1/2”.
The above image of bull leaping depicts a peculiar sport which evolved in the Minoan culture.
It was recorded in various art forms such as jewelry and fresco. In the sport the bull was
enticed to charge the participants at which time they tried to jump over him in an acrobatic
form without being impaled or trample.
Left: Fresco from the palace of Knossos, The Prince of
the Lilies; c. 1550 BC
Because Minoans painted in true fresco, their artists had to be more spontaneous. Therefore
their style of fresco evolved into a more curving, elastic line of the body than Egyptian fresco.
Therefore more emphasis was placed on a narrow waist, wide shoulders and the curves of
muscles. They did however use the same traditions regarding color such as white skin for
women, reddish brown for men, gold jewelry represented in yellow, silver represented in blue
and red representing bronze. With regard to pose, the Minoans developed a stylized system
for pose. The eye was shown in full view, the waist was narrow, the head was in profile, and
movement was vigorous or energetic. There were so many similarities in Egyptian and
Minoan art because of their trade interaction. The high period of Minoan art was
contemporary with the Egyptian New Kingdom.
Minoan Pottery
Minoan pottery was an amazing evolution. It was valued for more than simple storage vessels
but also as an art form. Today it is valuable as a historical record because its surface
decorations documented the activities of the civilization. Because the Minoans had a wide
range of trade pottery pieces were found as far away as Egypt and Syria, as well as mainland
Greece and the Aegean Islands. Through the creation of the potters’ wheel, sophisticated,
symmetrical forms were created. A variety of surface finishes evolved such as burnished
(polished) as well as red iron oxide stained designs which were painted on the containers.
A container made of carved steatite (soapstone) which is the finest surviving example of
Minoan relief sculpture is the Harvesters Vase. The piece was created c. 1650-1450BC. This
vase depicts a group of harvesters celebrating on their return from the harvest which was
cause for a festival. They are shown in an emotionally charged scene celebrating to the beat
of a sistrum (a rattle type percussion instrument). It shows a keen interest in human anatomy
rather than the old convention of combined profile and frontal views. The pieces was thought
to have been covered in gold leaf and measures only about 4 ½ “ tall. Follow this link for
good images of the Harvesters Vase.
During the Bronze Age there was a group of small islands called the Cyclades Islands located
in the Aegean Sea. The culture flourishing on these islands is considered one of the three
major cultures of the Aegean along with the Minoans and Mycenaean’s. The art produced on
these islands was called Cycladic Art. From white marble native to these islands the people
carved small human figures as their primary art form.
Below: Two Figures of Women, Cyclades. c. 2500-2200 BC, marble, heights 13”
Mycenaean Art
The Mycenaean period, also called the Helladic period (the Greek name for Greece) was a
period lasting from about 3000BC through 1000BC. It was a time concurrent with the
Minoan and Cycladic periods. As the Minoan culture declined the Mycenae began to occupy
Crete as well as mainland Greece. Mycenaeans were very skilled metal workers. Many finely
crafted gold objects have been excavated over the centuries. The chief influence on
Mycenean art was from the island of Crete.
Mycenaean architecture often made use of huge rough-cut blocks of stone that created heavy
walls. This type of building is often called cyclopean. When burying royalty Mycenaeans
often built large circular domed structures of this heavy stone construction which was entered
through a long rock lined corridor. These tombs are called tholos or beehive tombs. One
famous tomb is called the Treasury of Atreus which dates from between 1300BC and
1200BC. In Greek mythology Atreus was the king of Mycenae. He was also the father of
Agamemnon, the king that laid siege to the city of Troy. It was an extremely large. The entry
way was 114’ long and 20’ wide lined with large cut stone. The interior in an amazing feat
with a diameter of 47 1/2’ and a height of 43’. Its’ ceiling tapers in a dome like shape to a
single capstone that locks the structure in place. This tomb was a collection of amazing
wealth. Many gold objects were attributed to this site, although it is difficult to say which
items actually came from the tomb because it was looted over the centuries.
Above: Interior ceiling of the Treasury of Atreus.
Left: Part of the entry to the
Treasury of Atreus.
The contents of the tombs at Mycenae were looted long before a systematic excavation was
conducted by Heinrich Schliemann. However, he did excavate several neighboring shaft
graves 20-25’ deep and found many amazing works done in metal, specifically gold.
Schliemann identified Mycenae as the home of Agamemnon. Agamemnon was the
commander of Greek forces in the siege of Troy. Within these graves, over 30 pounds of gold
objects were found including several death masks. Because of its’ distinguished features,
Schliemann incorrectly identified one as the death mask of Agamemnon’s. Because of more
recent dating the graves are known to be several centuries older than the events described
surrounding Agamemnon.
Funerary mask (misidentified as the mask of Agamemnon), Mycenae, Greece. c. 1600-1550
BC. Gold, 12” high.
Mycenaean Ceramics
A Mycenaean form of art that continued long after the collapse of the Mycenaean world was
their vase forms and vase painting. They developed distinct shapes for specific purposes with
specific names describing the forms and their functions. They were very skilled in the use of
the potters’ wheel and their firing techniques. Two such forms were the amphora and the
krater. An amphora is a long-necked vase with two handles. The Greek "ambos" meant
"both" and "phoros" meant "to carry," The krater (Greek word meaning “to mix”) was a large
container often used for mixing. It is easy to recognize by its’ large “crater” like opening. See
below for examples of both. Many Greek vases from throughout the history of ancient Greece
were so prized by later cultures that they were collected. Many of the surviving examples of
Greek vases that are in museums today were preserved in Etruscan tombs.
Above Top: Large late Geometric Attic amphora, ca. 725 BC – 700 BC. Above Right:
Laconian black-figure krater, 590–550 BC.
Art of Ancient Greece
Geometric and Archaic Periods
The Greek peninsula juts down into the Mediterranean from the European mainland. In ancient times the
land that the Greeks lived on consisted of the islands and the coast of the Aegean Sea, not just on the
European side, but also on the coast of Asia Minor (Turkey), as well as the island of Sicily, the southern
coasts of Italy, France, Spain, and North Africa, with a trading colony in Egypt.
There was not much land good for farming in the Greek world, so imports of grains through sea trade was
important to them from the earliest time. The coast line of Greece was jagged with good harbors.
The Greeks were divided into regions dominated by city-states. They were a civilization, but not a nation.
Some of these city-states were Athens, Corinth, Sparta, and Thebes.
Greek civilization grew out of the "dark age" which followed the defeat of the Mycenaean civilization by
invading Greek tribes about 1200 BC. Over the next several centuries the Greeks felt their way toward
sculptural figure representation, grand architecture, and ceramics that were to influence the western world up
through our own time.
The Geometric Style
The Proto-Geometric style was the style of vase painting began which began to appear about
1050BC and is called Proto-Geometric because it precedes the Geometric style. It was characterized
by the use of linear designs such as spirals, diamonds and other geometric patterns rather than
recognizable figures. Eventually this style evolved into what is called the Geometric style after
about 900BC and lasted until about 700BC.
Above: Protogeometric amphora with checkerboard design on the shoulder and parallel wavy
lines. Terra cotta, 950–900 BC (Late Protogeometric).
During the Geometric period the style that evolved made use of schematic (stylized) forms.
The forms were typically silhouette, angular forms that were recognizable but not realistic.
During this period very LARGE vases were made and used as grave markers. Several such
vases were found at the Diplon Cemetary.
Above: Dipylon Amphora, Dipylon Cemetery, Athens. Late Geometric period, c. 750-700BC.
An amphora is a long-necked vase with two handles. The Greek "ambos" meant "both"and
"phoros" meant "to carry," This amphora is about 6 feet high and was used as a tombstone in
the Dipylon Cemetery in Athens. It shows considerable mastery of the art of pottery as well as
of decoration, although the painting is highly stylized. The decoration consists mostly of
geometric patterns arranged in horizontal bands (the Greek fret or meander design is
prominent) but also represents human figures at a funeral ceremony. The figures are
simplified, silhouetted, flat, hour-glass shaped and stiff.
Funerary krater ca. 2nd half of the 8th century B.C.E
A krater was a punch-like bowl used for mixing strong Greek wine with water. This particular
krater was also a grave marker which may have also served as a receptacle for libations
(offerings of wine) which would have soaked into the ground on the grave below. Like the
amphora, it has typical geometrical patterns arranged in bands, also representing a funeral
scene. In the center of the top band the deceased lies on a bier with offerings, flanked by
seated and standing figures. On the band below are soldiers with shields (they look like apple
cores) and horse-drawn chariots. The three horses look like one beast with three heads and the
requisite number of legs as they overlap one another. Follow this link to view the Dipylon
The Orientalizing Phase
Vase painters began to change their style, transitioning away from the linear decoration of the
Geometric Phase by the seventh century BC. In style, their pieces began to involve more
open space and the use of large motifs which told stories. In figure, they used not only real
animal, plant and human forms but, also, imaginary creatures which were often composite
monster/human or monster/animal forms. Their inspiration for these creations came from
their interaction with the Near East, Asia Minor, and Egypt. People in the port city of Corinth
were heavily involved in foreign trade so it is no wonder that was where the Orientalizing
Phase began.
Orientalizing Phase pitcher, with animals and
sphinxes, ca. 640 BC–630 BC, Corinth.
The François Vase Is a large black figure Krater from about 575 BC. and is a good example
of Archaic style pottery. It has images of some 200 figures organized in bands arout the
surface. The figures represent nearly the entire Greek pantheon (all the gods).
Black and Red figure pottery
The Francois Vase was an excellent example of a type of pottery surface decoration called
black figure. In this type of surface decoration, the surface design was painted in a coating of
finely sifted clay called engobe. The engobe was originally the same color as the clay used for
the rest of the pot. Through a three phase firing process the engobe changes color to black
and the unsifted claybody turns red. In the first step of the firing process the piece is fired and
the entire piece turns red (oxidizing phase). In the next phase oxygen resupply to the kiln is
removed (reduction phase) and the entire piece including the design turns black. In the last
phase the oxygen is reintroduced (reoxidizing phase) and the coarser material absorbs oxygen
turning red again while the areas coated with the engobe remains black. In this design style
originally the figures were painted with engobe thus they were black in the final result. Thus
they are called Black Figure. In the evolution of this process, Greek potters eventually began
painting around the figure, covering the background, thus the figures were red hence, they are
called Red Figure.
Larger scale sculpture in stone made its appearance in the middle of the 7th century BC.
Although it is part of the Orientalizing movement, this sub-style takes its name from the
legendary Cretan craftsman Daedalus (remember the Daedalus and Icarus myth?) Legend says
that he worked in Egypt as well as Crete.
Archaic sculpture (c. 600-480BC)
During the Archaic Period, the Greek civilization, both on the mainland and the islands began
to flourish. The various economies were robust and art began to make great strides. During
the Archaic period life size, free standing commemorative statuary became popular. These
statues were popularly used as grave markers and temple stand ins. Early on these statues are
very “Egyptian” in pose and style (very blocky) however, they paid closer attention to
anatomical form. The sex of the subject matter determined what it was called. For example, a
Kore (Korai, plural) is a female statue and is always clothed. A male figure is called a Kouros
(Kouroi, plural) and are nearly always nude. Generally the figures are representational of
priestesses, gods goddesses, warriors and athletes.
Samos Kouros
Kouros, National Archaeological Museum, Athens
Artemis from Delos Kore xoanon-type figure dedicated by Nikandra of Naxos,
ca. 650 B.C.E.
Kritios Boy
Above: Kritian Boy from Acropolis, Athens. c. 480 BCE. Marble, height 3’10”
A figure in the tradition of kouroi statues, this work makes a significant break with
that tradition, which makes it a sort of watershed in the history of art. It appears to be
the first statue to depict the fluid movement of a figure standing at rest. All the kouroi
figures, as well as all the Egyptian and Middle Eastern figures, stand at attention, both
feet flat on the ground, spine stiff, all the parts of the body lined up with the plane of
the front of the original block of stone. The Kritios Boy is the very first statue to show
how a figure stands at rest. The weight is carried on one leg (his left), the other is
relaxed and acting as a brace, or maybe depicts a walking position, as all the kouroi
did. This makes the pelvis tilt upward above the weight-bearing leg and drop on the
other side, which also causes the spine to curve slightly, and in some cases the
shoulders also tilt in the opposite direction. This movement causes all the muscles in
the torso also to change configuration. The head is slightly turned as well. This
complex movement is called contrapposto or counterpose.
The reason that all this is so important is that a whole new philosophy of art is
introduced here, a new aesthetic. Now the important thing is not the symbol, but the
real thing. It is more like a human being than a slab of stone. There are many
implications here, and they all lead right down to the way most people today look at
art: the more realistic it is, the better it is. The more a work of art conforms to the real
world, the higher its quality. This is not necessarily true, but it has become a universal
standard in the West until recent times. During the classic period in Greek art, the
sculptors did a remarkable thing: they kept the realism in check and married it to the
symbolic. There is a balance between the two, which is one of the hallmarks of
classical art.
Archaic Architecture
A Greek temple, which was the most significant public building, was simply a room (naos or
cella)for a cult statue. All devotions took place outside in front. Temples were placed on
prominent bluffs, if one were available, where they could be seen from distances as if they
were pieces of sculpture. At their site, they stood on a stepped platform (stereobate), the top
level of which was called the stylobate which made the floor of the temple. Above was a
gabled roof which was common, as we have seen, in early houses. The temple could have a
front porch (pronaos) with columns inset (in antis), columns across the front (prostyle), front
and back (amphiprostyle), or eventually, all around (peripteral). The Parthenon is a good
example of a peripteral temple. At the other end of the building could be another small room
(opisthomodomos) which could be used as a storeroom for sacred items used in rituals and
The columns held up several horizontal members making up the entablature, and above that
was the triangular space beneath the eaves called the pediment. Different styles used different
shaped members, but the basic form was found everywhere in the Greek world, then in the
Roman, and after the Renaissance, all over the western world as churches, banks, courthouses,
state capitals and mansions.
The Greek Orders of Architecture
There were three orders of architecture in Classical Greece. Those orders were based on a
system of parts based on mathematical ratios (generally the golden mean or phi). As described
above, the primary parts were the column, made up of the shaft, capital and on the Ionic and
Corinthian the base, the entablature, was the beam or lintel above the column, in the case of
the Doric and Ionic orders a pediment (the triangular portion of the roof) was included.
Because of an optical illusion created when columns are placed side by side (they appear to
bow inward) an outward bow was given to the shafts to counteract the illusion. This outward
bow is called entasis. From close it is obviously bowed outward, but from a distance it
appears correct.
1. The Doric order was intended to give a powerful, weighty look to the structure.
The shafts were a larger diameter than the other two orders, and they were
generally spaced closely together. The shaft of a Doric column rises directly
from the platform without a base. This adds to the heavy appearance. The
shaft of the column is fluted with channels running its length. The capital of
the Doric column is a large simple, often plate-like or cushion shaped
appearing form. Above the columns was the entablature or as it was called in
other sections the lintel. The entablature was divided into two parts: the
architrave and the frieze. These sections were often decorated with sculpture.
The architrave was divided into alternating sections of triglyphs and metopes.
The end of the structure above the entablature was the pediment. The
pediment was also often filled with relief sculpture.
Above: Ionic style columns, Lincoln Memorial, Washington D. C.
2. The Ionic order has more elongated proportions than the Doric. The diameter
of the columns was much more slender and elegant. Columns in the Ionic
order rest on a base which resembles stacked rings. It has flutes running down
the length of the shaft. The flutes are deeper and have a flat section separating
the channels called fillets. The capital of the Ionic is easily recognized by the
scroll shaped volute patterns. The crowning portion above the columns is
much like that of the Doric order except it didn’t have a triglyph. Therefore,
the frieze was a continuous relief sculpture.
Above: Ionic style columns, Washington D.C.
3. The Corinthian order is a style that was developed by the Greeks and was
very popular with the Romans. It is still a favorite in modern architecture. It
wasn’t suited well, however for exterior use because of its very decorative
nature. The shafted is fluted like other styles and it rests on a base much like
the base of the Ionic order. The capital is much more decorative than either of
the other two orders. It is made up of a lot of foliage and decorative features
such as, rosettes, acanthus leaves and volutes. The crowning feature of the
building in a flat roof.
Above: Roman Corinthian capital, Rome, Italy.
Below: Roman Corinthian columns, Rome Italy.
Original columns were made from large tree trunks. Later these were replaced by more
monumental stone columns. They could have been made from single pieces of marble, but
more typically they were built up of drums stacked up one above another, held together with
pegs in the center, and then carved with groves called flutes all around. In the Doric order,
these flutes were shallow, quite wide, and met at sharp edges. These flutes helped reinforce
the vertical shape of the column, visually reinforced its’ supporting structure, and gave an
interesting series of shadow around the column which changed throughout the day.
Temples were decorated with painted sculpture. The Doric order had figure sculpture
(eventually freestanding) at each end in the pediments and around the frieze in relief sculpture
on the metopes, which alternated with carved triglyphs. The subject matter was taken from
mythology, seldom depicting actual historical events, even though they might have been
symbolized by the myth. The metopes were square or rectangular and posed no special
difficulty for spatial composition. However, the triangular pediments were difficult to fill with
figures that were of the same size.
Above is an example of the temple front, complete with triglyphs in blue and the triangular
pediment sculpture painted in multiple colors. This is from the Temple of Aphaia built c.
500-490 BC. Below is part of the remaining statuary from the end/triangular points.
Vase painting changed significantly by the 6th century, when the potter Ergotimos made the
krater later named The Francois Vase, after the person that discovered it. It was painted with
over 200 figures from mythology in bands around the surface, by the painter Kleitas. Both
artists signed the vase, each twice.
It is a good example of Archaic style pottery done in Black Figure. The figures represent
nearly the entire Greek pantheon (all the gods). Each figure is labeled so we know who it is
intended to be. This is the most comprehensive visual encyclopedia of the Greek religion and
Black and Red figure pottery
The Francois Vase was an excellent example of a type of pottery surface decoration called
black figure. In this type of surface decoration, the surface design was painted in a coating of
finely sifted clay called engobe. The engobe was originally the same color as the clay used for
the rest of the pot. Through a three phase firing process the engobe changes color to black
and the unsifted claybody turns red. In the first step of the firing process the piece is fired and
the entire piece turns red (oxidizing phase). In the next phase oxygen resupply to the kiln is
removed (reduction phase) and the entire piece including the design turns black. In the last
phase the oxygen is reintroduced (reoxidizing phase) and the coarser material absorbs oxygen
turning red again while the areas coated with the engobe remains black. In this design style
originally the figures were painted with engobe thus they were black in the final result. Thus
they are called Black Figure. In the evolution of this process, Greek potters eventually began
painting around the figure, covering the background, thus the figures were red hence, they are
called Red Figure.
Art of Ancient Greece, Part 2
Transitional, Classic, Late Classic and Hellenistic Periods
Temple of Aphaia
Temple of Aphaia at Aegina, 500-490 BC
On the island of Aegina a Doric temple to Aphaia was built between 500 and 490 BC with
dramatic stylistic changes. Forty-five feet across the front, there are 6 columns, slenderer
without the bulging entasis and more widely spaced than at Paestum. The capitals have less
flare and make a more effective transition from vertical to horizontal. This is a transitional
style, and the period around 500-480 BC is sometimes called the Transitional Period in Greek
Architecture of the Classic Period
The Parthenon
The culmination of Doric temple architecture was the building known as the Parthenon, built
in Athens after the Persian armies had desecrated and destroyed the sacred sites on the
Acropolis. After years of experimentation with proportion and refinement, all the elements of
Doric style reached a point beyond which the Greeks could no longer go. Work on a new
temple to Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin) on the Acropolis in Athens was
commissioned around 490 BC. This building was still unfinished when the Persian armies
destroyed all the buildings there around 480 BC. Work was resumed by the architect
Kallikrates, but was halted briefly, then resumed again under Perikles, who commissioned the
architect Iktinos to redesign a larger temple using the same foundation. It was finished by 438
BC except for the sculpture, and that was finished by 432 BC. The money for the building
program came from the treasury of the Delian League, a group of Greek cities which
Designed by the sculptor Phidias, who was artistic overseer, the architect was Iktinos and the
builder was Kallikrates. Built with carefully calculated proportions, the Parthenon seems to be
the model of mathematical perfection. It is an excellent example of a peripteral temple in that
it is surrounded by columns.The Parthenon was special in its great size and elaborate
decoration. Constructed from 20,000 tons of Attic marble, it stretched nearly 230 feet in
length and a hundred feet wide, with eight columns across the ends instead of the six normally
employed in Doric style, and seventeen instead of thirteen along the sides. These dimensions
gave it a massive look conveying an impression of power. But in fact there are built into it
certain "refinements" that keep it from looking calculated and mechanical.
Above: a painting by painter Leo von Klenze (1784 - 1864) of the reconstruction of acropolis
of Athens.
Above: A full scale replica of the Parthenon located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Some of the refinements mentioned above are:
a. Entasis, or bulge on the columns.
b. The floor is curved slightly upward. This curve is carried on up to the capitals
and entablature. The reason for using a curve instead of a straight line
(suggested by the Roman architect Vitrivius in the first century AD) is that a
straight line of that size would tend to appear to sag in the middle, so the curve
compensates for this and gives the illusion of being straight.
c. The columns lean inward slightly. If continued upward, the columns would
meet one and one-half miles above the temple.
d. The outside columns are closer together than the others in the row. The space
in between would appear to be larger if the bright sky were seen through it.
e. The corner columns are slightly thicker. This, along with the tighter spacing,
gives a reinforcing sense of strength to the corners.
f. A relief frieze of sculpture ran around the exterior of the cella or naos at the
height of the ceiling. This is a feature of Ionic temples, never seen before in
Doric temples.
g. Four Ionic columns held up the roof of the treasury, another Ionic feature.
h. Proportions of the parts to the whole are very sophisticated and are the
development of years of experimentation combined with a knowledge of
geometry to achieve a perfection of form that makes the Parthenon the highest
example of temple building.
i. Open this site to view the application of geometry and the Golden Mean to the
j. Also view this site which proposes a method of design based on the golden
k. PBS video of the Parthenon
Full size reconstruction of the statue of Athena at the Parthenon in Nashville.
She stands nearly 42 feet high and was created over an eight-year period by
Nashville sculptor, Alan LeQuire. The statue of Athena in Nashville is the
largest indoor sculpture in the western world.
A Roman copy of how Athena appeared in the Parthenon.
The interior of the cella or naos of the Parthenon held an image of the goddess Athena made
of ivory and gold (chryselephantine). She was 40 feet high, built on a scaffold of wood with
layers of ivory shaped around it for skin, and gold shaped into decorative features. The
interior was supported by two superimposed ranks of Doric columns. Because the Doric order
was naturally stocky in its proportions, to make one column high enough to support the rafters
would have made its base massive and have taken up a great deal of space. By superimposing
a second row of smaller Doric columns in the second story, their bases continue the diameter
of the tops of the lower columns, but by being shorter and keeping the same proportion, they
do not violate the architectural sensitivity of the designers.
The way the Parthenon sculptures are displayed today at the British Museum, London. The
frieze is at eye level. Originally it was located at the top of the outside wall on the Parthenon.
The sculptor in charge of the architecture and sculpture on the Parthenon was Phidias, the first
sculptor entrusted with such a complex project. Of course, Phidias was only one sculptor of
many at work on the projects, but there is remarkable uniformity of style throughout
considering the scope. On the Parthenon there are 92 metopes in high relief sculpted between
446 and 400, the continuous Ionic frieze, 520 feet long, begun in 440, and two pediment
ensembles. In addition to these, Phidias also executed a cult image for the interior which was
40 feet high and made out of ivory and gold (chryselephantine).
The major part of the existing Parthenon sculptures is in London in the British Museum. They
were purchased in the early 19th century from the Turks, who ruled Greece then, by a British
nobleman, Lord Elgin, and eventually by the British government. They are called the Elgin
Marbles. They are fragmentary, but even in their ruined state they give an impression of
nobility and grandeur that is unsurpassed in Greek art or any other.
Left portion of the pediment sculptures, British Museum (Elgin Marbles).
Below: Centaur and Lapith [metope III from S. side, Parthenon],
ca. 447-438 B.C.E. British Museum, London.
Above: Centaur and Lapith [metope XXXI from South side Parthenon],
ca. 447-438 B.C.E. British Museum, London.
Above: Parthenon, Athens: detail of entablature at SE. corner angle, showing
replacement marble sections and cast replicas of East Pediment figures (from
restoration project ongoing since 1983),
ca. 447-432 B.C.E.
The Gateway to the Acropolis at Athens, the Propylaia
The entrance to the Acropolis (propylaea) looked like a Doric temple, with Ionic features on
the inside. Built by the architect Meniscles it had a ramp leading up to it and on the inside had
a painting gallery as one wing, and would have had a sculpture gallery on the other if it had
been finished.
Above: the gateway (Propylaea) leading to the acropolis.
The Erechtheium, Acropolis, Athens
Erechtheium, Athens: detail of caryatid porch (Portico of the Maidens),
view from SE., c. 421-405 B.C.E.
A building called The Erechtheium was also located on the acropolis in Athens. The architect
of this complicated temple is unknown but it is thought it may have been meniscles. It was
designed to accommodate sacred sites, although its irregular shape may be a result of being
unfinished. This is an Ionic temple. Its most famous feature is the "Porch of the Maidens,"
with figures of young women carrying the entablature on their heads as if they were marching
all together. They are sturdy figures, with vertical folds along one leg suggesting flutes of a
column, but graceful in movement.
The Erechtheium was associated with some of the most ancient and holy relics of the
Athenians: the Palladion, which was a xoanon (defined as a wooden effigy fallen from heaven
- not man-made) of Athena Polias (Protectress of the City); the marks of Poseidon's trident
and the salt water well (the "salt sea") that resulted from Poseidon's strike; the sacred olive
tree that sprouted when Athena struck the rock with her spear in her successful rivalry with
Poseidon for the city; the supposed burial places of the mythical kings Cecrops and
Erechtheus; the sacred precincts of Cecrops' three daughters, Herse, Pandrosus and Aglaurus;
and those of the tribal heroes Pandion and Boutes. –Wikipedia.
Porch of the Maidens
Sculpture in the late 5th Century and after
Sculpture of the late 5th century was dominated by the style of the great master Phidias. His
flowing drapery style and attention to anatomical accuracy has a lasting impact on future
A sculptor from the Greek city of Argos whose fame rivaled that of the master Phidias during
the 5th century was Polykleitos. No original statues by Polykleitos exist, although he had a
career of forty years as an artist. However, there are over thirty existing copies of the
Spearbearer. Much like the standards established by the Greeks in architecture, Greek
sculptors set standards for ideals in the human form. Such desirable features as athletic
proportions, refined, regular facial features and idealized overall form became the norm of
how they viewed human perfection. Sculptor Polykleitos developed a set of rules in
constructing the human form which he wrote in his treatise called The Canon (Kanon
=measure/rule/law in Greek). Because his treatise disappeared, later artists and scholars have
widely debated his ratios of the ideal human form. To illustrate the proportions, Polykleitos
sculpted a larger than life size male nude. This piece was made of bronze and it also no
longer exists. A Roman copy in marble however was made and is still in existence. It is
called the Spear Bearer (Doryphoros). The form is athletic, well balanced and demonstrating
contraposto/weightshift. It illustrates the Spartan ideal of the Greek warrior. This statue was
famous throughout the ancient classical world. Armor was even modeled after the torso, and
there is a famous statue of the Roman emperor Augustus which was made to look like this
Polykleitos Spear Bearer (Doryphoros) Roman copy after the original bronze from c. 450-440
BC. Marble, height 6’11”.
The Peloponnesian War
The Peloponnesian War (431 BC–404 BC) was an Ancient Greek military conflict fought by
Athens and its allies and the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta. This conflict lasted for
decades and eventually wore down the Athenians.
The economic costs of the war were felt all across Greece; poverty became widespread in the
Peloponnese, while Athens found itself completely devastated, and never regained its prewar
prosperity. –Wikipedia
In the late fourth century Philip II of Macedon eventually took control of all of Greece. He
was the father of the Alexander the Great.
Left: Portrait bust of Philip II of Macedon
Art produced after the Peloponnesian War changed drastically in subject matter. During the
fourth century after the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War the subject matter transformed
from Majestic strength and rationalizing design to sensuous languor and more light hearted
Above: Grave stela from the Ilissos of a young hunter and his father (attributed to the
sculptor skopas?), ca. 340 B.C.E.
A good example of Late Classical Sculpture is the piece above. It is thought to be by the
sculptor Praxiteles or one of his followers at c. 340BC. The Image above is most likely
not from the original piece but a Roman copy. This piece is 7’1” tall. Hermes was the
god of many things including the inventor of fire. He was also the patron god of athletes
since he gave such sports as boxing and many types of racing to the Greeks. Dionysos,
the son of Zeus, on the other hand was the patron god of wine, theater and agriculture. In
the piece above he is represented as an infant.
The Scraper (Apoxyomenos) (above) is a piece that is intended to be seen from multiple
viewpoints, drawing the viewer around the sculpture, rewarding him with a different
silhouette as he moves. In this way the statue is involved with the space around it rather than
being isolated, or ignoring the space, and in this way involves the viewer to a degree not seen
in previous sculpture. This piece was done by the sculptor Lysippos. The image above is a
Roman marble copy from the bronze original. The piece shows a young male athlete scraping
away oil and dirt from his body using a scraping tool called a strigil. See detail below.
Another notable piece by Lysippos is the weary Heracles (Hercules in modern times). This
piece shows the massive figure of Heracles resting on his club after completing the last of his
12 labors. The piece we view here is a marble copy by the Roman Glykon based on the 4th
century BC bronze piece by Lysippos. The marble piece was used to decorate the Baths of
A notable Hellenistic statue depicting flight, which uses transitory (brief) movement to a
degree never before accomplished, was the Nike of Samothrace (pictured below). This piece
originally sat in a niche above the sanctuary of the Greek gods at Samothrace. The piece is
approximately 8’ tall and the artist who was its creator in unknown.
Another Hellenistic sculpture which is an excellent example of realism so prevalent during
that period is the Seated boxer. This piece is about 50” tall and was discovered in Rome.
Follow to view the piece.
During the Hellenistic period, common themes were suffering and tragedy. This was popular
among both patrons and sculptors. The Piece Laocoön and his sons (see images below) is an
excellent example of this theme. The piece has been attributed to three sculptors,
Hagesandros, Polydoros and Athenodoros from the island of Rhodes. It is based on a part of
the story of the Trojan war in which the priest Laocoön warned the Trojans not to bring the
giant wooden horse, left by the Greeks, into their city. The piece illustrated the retaliation by
the god Poseidon against his priest for defying him in trying to warn the Trojans. The piece is
made of marble and is 8’ tall and is located in the Vatican Museum in Rome.
As you can see in the various images below, the strain of the father and his sons as they
struggle to free themselves from the serpent. All muscles are in tension and the curve of the
torso emphasizes the movement in the scene.
Above: The Dying Gaul or Dying Trumpeter. This piece also exemplifies the Hellenistic
theme of tragedy and suffering where a woulded soldier-trumpeter slowly dies from a
puncture wound to his side. Gauls were the forefathers of the Celtic people. This artist
intended to show his subject as dignified in hopes of creating pitty for the subject and he
breathes his last breaths.
The Altar of Zeus and Athena at Pergamon
Above: Great Altar of Zeus, Pergamon: W. side [restored],
ca. 180-175 B.C.E. Pergamon Museum, Berlin
The capital city of Pergamon was noted as being a leading center of the arts and sculpture
during the early third century BC. Hellenistic Architecture was marked by great scale and
ingenious interior space. Below is a sketched reconstruction of the Acropolis of Pergamon.
Below that is a modern aerial view of the acropolis with its amphitheater, stoa (building
housing a marketplace) as well as other important public buildings such as baths and temples
to various gods such as Zeus discussed below.
Many monuments commemorating their victory over the group known as the Gauls, which
were a Celtic people were built, to celebrate the victory. The Gauls were a group that
eventually pushed by the Romans to the area of Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany. They and
other outsiders whom the Greeks considered uncivilized were labeled by the Greeks as
The Altar of Zeus and Athena at Pergamon (now located inside the Berlin Museum) was
originally covered by an Iconic colonnade raised high on a podium and approached by a
staircase that was 68’ wide and about 30’ deep. The sculptural frieze wrapping the altar
depicts the battle between the gods and the giants known as the Titans. This epoch tale was
viewed by the Greeks as a metaphor for their struggles against the Barbarian groups such as
the Gauls.
As with many architectural sculpture pieces during the Hellenistic Period, the influence of the
master Phidias is very evident.
Above: Great Altar of Zeus, Pergamon:
detail of North wing, West side,
ca. 180-175 B.C.E.
Great Altar of Zeus, Pergamon:
Zeus battling Three Giants, detail of East frieze,
ca. 180-175 B.C.E.
As sculpture progressed in the later Hellenistic period, the subject matter depicted expanded
to include the very old and the very young, rather than the idealized figures in the prime of
their life. An example of this is the piece currently in the collection of the Vatican called a
boy strangling his goose, pictured below.
The Monument of Lysikrates
The Choragic Monument of Lysikrates near the Acropolis of Athens is a monument built
by the wealthy patron of musical performances named Lysikrates to commemorate an
award for a musical performance he sponsored in the theater of Dionysis in 335BC. This
circular structure is raised on a high square podium, was the first Greek monument to be
done in the Corinthian order on the exterior. As is visible on the monument, the delicate
nature of the Corinthian order does not fare well out doors.
Choragic Monument of Lysicrates:
ca. 334 B.C.E.
The Greco-Roman Period
As Greece began to collapse and was taken over by the Romans, artwork continued to be
influenced by the many accomplishments of the Greeks and was infused by the style and
adaptations made by Roman artisans. This phase was dated to the time after 146 B.C. and is
called Greco-Roman.
Greek And Aegean
 Minoan
 Helladic
 D o ric
 P rot o
 Geometric
 Orientalizing
 Archaic
 Classical
 Late Classical
 Hellenistic
 Late Hellenistic –