Greek Art : The Geometric Period

In the 8th century BC, large-scale ceramic vessels were produced as grave markers. As these were originally decorated with just repeated angular patterns, the style became known as "Geometric" art. As time went by, small portions of the vessel might be filled with simple stick-figure people, often attending a funeral. The first image here is a funeray amphora, almost 6 feet tall, with a detail in the second image. The third image is a cross-section of the types of graves in which these vessels are found, showing their placement. The other vase is a little later than the first, with more detail, including a chariot procession.

101.jpg Amphora 102.jpg Detail 102a.jpg Cemetery 102b.jpg Chariots

But not all geometric vase-paintings are as monumental in size. Here is a small cup decorated with similar stick-figures, apparently engaged in battle, but whether this represented a real or a fictional battle is unknown. Within a relatively short time, however, the pictorial scenes increase in size and detail, and shortly after 700 BC we find the first recognizable scenes taken from myths.

103a.JPG Sea battle 104a.JPG Warriors

Greek Art : The Archaic Period

The Archaic period of Greek art spans about 200 years, from 700 to 500 BC. The two major types of art of this time, vase-painting and sculpture, show a real flourishing of realism and narrative iconography.

The primary technique of Archaic vase-painting (derived from the Geometric style) is known as the black-figure vase-painting technique. The first example below shows one of the very early examples, still somewhat rough and sketchy, but the second example shows the fully-developed technique. Note how the major figures are painted primarily with black paint (with a few details added in other colors) on a red-orange colored clay vessel. This does not necessarily mean that the people were black-skinned - it was merely the standard of this style of painting. Notice also that only the male figure is all black, and the two females on either side have their skin areas painted in white.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Archaic bronze sculptures no longer exist, having been 'recycled', i.e., melted down for other uses. A few figures have been found, however, such as this ithyphallic satyr from Delphi. Also there are some marble sculptures from the Archaic period, many from temples, and often in damaged condition, such as this sculpted metope from Sicily.

Black figure 1 Black figure 2 Bronze satyr Metope

Greek Art : The Classical Period

The beginning of the 5th century B.C. marks the approximate start of the Classical period, which by its very name suggests that this marks the high point, the 'golden age', of ancient Greece. In vase-painting, the technique changes from 'black-figure' to 'red-figure', where the backgrounds (and details) are now painted in black, and the natural color of the red clay now represents flesh tones. Some vase-paintings are signed by their artist, while other artists have such a distinct style we can identify the same hand at work. Here is one of the finest examples of red-figure vase-painting by an artist known by the (artificial) name Kleophrades Painter.

Bronze sculpture was another major art form of Classical Greece, but as with Archaic bronzes, extremely few still exist today. Those that do, such as the two pictured here, were each discovered in modern times by underwater-archaeologists among the remains of sunken ships.

The Parthenon of Athens (a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena) is one of the major architectural works of the Classical period. It and other temples usually contain scuptures of mythological subjects.

Black vs. red figure Kleophrades Ptr. Bronze god Man Parthenon Olympians

Greek Art : The Hellenistic Period

The Hellenistic period is usually said to begin with the conquests of Alexander the Great, around 330 B.C., during which time Greek art and culture spread to other lands. The sculptures of Hellenistic times tends to be much more active and intense, often in groups engaged in violent activity. One of the best examples of this style is the sculptural decorations of the Great Altar of Zeus at Pergamum. The first image shows the goddess Athena gripping a rebellious Giant by the hair; the second shows a close-up of Artemis' dog biting another giant.

Another well-known Hellenistic scupture is the Winged Victory of Samothrace, now in the Louvre, Paris. Although headless and armless, her rippling garment conveys a real sense of movement.

Athena vs. Giant Dog vs. Giant Winged Victory

Roman Art: Pompeii

In general, the sculptures of the Roman period continued the trends of the Hellenistic period, i.e., large, multi-figure groups with great detail and emotional intentisty. (In many cases, it is very difficult to distinguish between Hellenistic works, Roman copies of Greek works, and Roman originals). Good examples are the Farnese Bull and the Laocoön.

Bull Laocoön

Many of the most important artworks from Roman times are those which have been discovered in or near the famous buried city of Pompeii. The eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. completely covered this Roman seaside city but preserved it more-or-less intact. Also buried in the same event was a nearby city called Herculaneum, where many important artworks have been found. Below is an aerial photo of Pompeii, followed by some ground-level views showing the remains as they appear today.

Not only were items of daily life discovered, but also many painted walls with vivid scenes taken from myths, as seen below. Another technique that the Romans were quite skilled at was mosaic, the making of pictorial scenes, often quite large, from minute pieces of colored stones.

Aerial photo Forum House Temple Wall Herculaneum

With the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire and the start of the Middle Ages, there began a period of about 1000 years during which there was little or no depiction of famous myths in art. It was only around the 14th century A.D. that the accomplishments of the Classical civilizations were rediscovered or revived, a time now referred to as the Renaissance (a word from French meaning "rebirth"). For this, see the next page here.

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