Greek Sculpture


Table Summary

Summary of Greek Sculpture
Archaic age
ca. 800-500 BC
Classical age
ca. 500-330 BC
Hellenistic age
ca. 330 BC-0
kouroi/korai architectural sculpture (Phidias), statues (Myron > Polyclitus > Praxiteles) Laocoön and his Sons, Winged Victory

General Features

When Mycenaean civilization collapsed ca. 1200 BC, the urban prosperity of the Aegean region crumbled into the Greek Dark Age (ca. 1200-800 BC), during which all forms of art languished. This period ended with the rise of the Greek city-states, of which Athens was the cultural leader. The Archaic period (ca. 800-500 BC) was the formative era of Greek art, while the Classical period (ca. 500-330 BC) was the culminating age.

The history of large-scale sculpture in Europe essentially begins with ancient Greece; only a handful of large sculpted works were produced by earlier cultures. The two great traditional forms of large-scale sculpture, statues and architectural sculpture, both flourished among the ancient Greeks. Greek sculptors worked primarily in stone (especially marble) and bronze. While large-scale bronze sculptures are usually hollow, stone statues are necessarily solid, and must therefore be carefully designed so as not to break under their own weight.

The overall aesthetic of Classical Greek art is known as classicism (see Western Aesthetics). Classical sculpture is simple, balanced, and restrained; the expression of a classical figure is composed and solemn. Hellenistic sculpture (ca. 330 BC-0), on the other hand, is typically dynamic and extravagant, with passionate expression; this aesthetic, which stands opposite to classicism, is known as baroque.1

Few original Greek works have survived; most are known only through Roman copies.

Main Article

Archaic Age

ca. 800-500 BC

Compared with the lifelike statues of the Classical era, Archaic Greek sculpture is rigid and stylized (see Realism vs. Stylization). The principal types of Archaic sculpture are the kouros (plural kouroi), a nude male statue standing with one foot forward; and the kore (plural korai), a clothed female statue standing with feet together.

Kouroi/kore statues, which were derived from the statues of Southwest Asia and Egypt, are roughly symmetrical and forward-facing, with simplified anatomy. The realism of these statues gradually increased, however, as the Archaic period drew on. The hair, eyes, lips, and clothing of ancient Greek statues (but not the skin) were often painted.C19,D56,H126,1

Kouros Statue
Kouroi Statues
Kouros Statue
Kore Statue
Kore Statue
Reconstruction of a Painted Kore Statue

The Rise of Realism

The Classical age (ca. 500-330 BC) is considered the apex of Greek cultural achievement. Archaic stylization gave way to breathtaking realism of human anatomy and posture, as well as realistic drapery (loose fabric). One common quality of lifelike statues is contrapposto, in which the figure's weight is supported mainly by one leg, causing the torso to rotate slightly.

The Greek transition to realism is the most extraordinary revolution in the history of art. Throughout the world, the norm of art history is strict adherence to tradition (rather than experimentation), with stylistic change occurring very gradually (if at all). Stylization is also the norm: in most artistic traditions, the world is depicted as it is conceived, rather than as it physically appears.

In the Classical age, the ancient Greeks shattered these universal tendencies. Stylistic innovation occurred rapidly (as experimentation flourished and rival schools of art emerged), and stylization yielded to realism.F65 At the heart of this artistic shift was humanism, which propelled a great body of revolutionary ideas known collectively as the "Greek Awakening" (see Greek Awakening).

Classical Age

ca. 500-330 BC

The four most renowned Greek sculptors all lived during the Classical age. One of these sculptors (Phidias) is remembered primarily for architectural sculpture, while the other three (Myron, Polyclitus, and Praxiteles) mainly produced statues. These artists may also be classified according to their preferred subjects: deities (Phidias, Praxiteles) or athletes (Myron, Polyclitus).

Classical Greek Sculpture
architectural statues
deities Phidias Praxiteles
athletes Myron, Polyclitus

Phidias, generally considered the greatest of all Greek sculptors, is known chiefly for designing the sculptures of the Parthenon. Like other Greek temples, the Parthenon was decorated with two types of sculpture: relief (sculpture upon a flat surface) and in-the-round (fully three-dimensional sculpture). A large portion of the Parthenon sculptures, known as the Elgin Marbles, is found in the British Museum.

Apart from the Parthenon, Phidias' most notable works are two colossal statues, one of Athena (for the Parthenon), the other of Zeus (for the Temple of Zeus at Olympia). These enormous statues (neither of which survives) were about forty feet tall and composed of ivory plates laid over wooden frames, with draperies of gold.5

Parthenon Pediment Sculptures
Parthenon Pediment Sculptures (reconstruction)
Parthenon Frieze Sculptures
Phidias' Great Statue of Athena (scaled-down replica)
Phidias' Great Statue of Zeus (artist's conception)

Polyclitus, often considered second only to Phidias, was the most influential theorist of Greek sculpture. Three of his main arguments were that a figure should have: ideal proportions (which he quantified precisely), balance between tense and relaxed muscle groups, and balanced orientation of limbs.4 These considerations are evident in his three foremost works: Spear-bearer, Discus-bearer, and Athlete Tying on a Fillet.

<em>Spear-bearer</em> (replicas)
<em>Discus-bearer</em> (replica)
<em>Athlete Tying on a Fillet</em> (replica)

"Fillet" is a synonym for headband. Headbands, like laurel wreaths, were often awarded to victorious athletes. Statues of athletes in ancient Greece had religious overtones, as victorious athletes were considered to be divinely favoured.F56

Polyclitus' career, like that of Phidias, lay in the heart of the Classical age (the late fifth century BC). His most renowned predecessor was Myron (early fifth century BC), who also focused on statues of athletes. Myron's greatest and most famous work is Discus-thrower.

<em>Discus-thrower</em> (replica), Myron

Polyclitus was succeeded by Praxiteles, the foremost Greek sculptor of the fourth century BC, who (like Phidas) preferred to sculpt deities. Praxiteles’ style reigned in the sternness typical of Classical sculpture, infusing it with a new gentleness and delicacy. His masterpiece is Aphrodite of Cnidus.6

<em>Aphrodite of Cnidus</em> (replica), Praxiteles

Hellenistic Age

ca. 330 BC-0

During the Hellenistic age, Greek culture flourished throughout the vast region conquered by Alexander. Athens fell into decline, as other cities around the eastern Mediterranean became the new leaders of Greek culture. Hellenistic sculptors tended to embrace dynamism and extravagance, in sharp contrast to the calm, restrained majesty of Classical statues (see Western Aesthetics).1

No statue better illustrates the typical Hellenistic style than the group sculpture Laocoön and his Sons. This work depicts a scene from Homer's Iliad, in which the Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons are killed by sea serpents (at Athena's bidding) when he attempts to warn his people about the Trojan horse.

The most famous Hellenistic work may be Winged Victory of Samothrace, another masterpiece of dynamism. Victory's robes are dramatically ruffled as though she were facing into a storm.

Laocoön and his Sons
Winged Victory of Samothrace
Dying Gaul
'Real Person' Sculpture (Old Nurse with Baby figurine)
'Real Person' Sculpture (Woman with Mirror figurine)

Another development of the Hellenistic period was the embrace of real people as appropriate subjects for Greek sculpture. During the Classical age, sculptors were preoccupied with physically "perfect", youthful figures. Hellenistic sculptors, on the other hand, began to introduce elements of harsh reality, including age, injury, and un-idealized features. (This embrace of "real people" would be repeated in the Baroque age, following the idealizing classicism of the Renaissance.)H180

Etruscan Sculpture

The stylistic development of Etruscan sculpture largely parallels that of the Greeks, due to the strong cultural influence of the latter on the former (via Greek settlements in southern Italy). Consequently, Etruscan sculpture of the Archaic period is heavily stylized, while that of the Classical period is often quite realistic. The Etruscans were fascinated with funerary matters, as reflected in one of their most striking forms: the sculpted sarcophagus, in which figures are presented as lying on the coffin lid as though it were a couch. The most famous Etruscan statues may be two animal bronzes, Chimera of Arezzo and Capitoline Wolf, which strike a fantastic blend of realism and stylization.

Sculpted Sarcophagus
Sculpted Sarcophagus
Chimera of Arezzo
Capitoline Wolf
1 - "Greek art and architecture", Encarta 2004.
2 - "Greek art", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2010.
3 - "Etruscan art", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2010.
4 - "Polyclitus", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
5 - "Phidias", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
6 - "Praxiteles", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.