Greece: Art and Form


Ancient Greek Art

The Ancient Greeks created what has become known as classical art. Many of the governmental buildings have been designed with Classical Greek structures. Greeks are seen by many as the cornerstone to the western traditions of art and ideas. The Ancient Greeks are known for three main items; their sculptures, their temples, and their vase paintings.

The art work embodies much of what made the Greek civilization great. The Ancient Greeks were organized into independent city-states. In these states the ideas of courage, valor, and independence where strongly held values. These themes can be seen very clearly in their human depictions. The Greeks idealized humans, showing the strong and youthful depiction of men and women. The topics shown in their vases reflect the importance of strength, athletic competition, and battles. Their temples reflected their religious beliefs in the gods.


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Ancient Greek Sculpture

There are three main periods of Greek Sculpture; Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic. The Greeks were blessed with a large supply of marble, which was what they used most in their sculptures. Bronze was also used in their artistic work of humans. Many of the original sculptures were damaged or destroyed. Yet, many still survived because the Romans make copies or duplications of the original works.

The Archaic period was the earliest period in Greek Sculpture which started around 600 B.C. and lasted until 480 B.C. These works have a stiff and ridged appearance similar to that of the Egyptian sculpture.

Archaic Period Sculpture


The second period, the Classical period, was between the Archaic and Hellenistic times. The Classical period shows a very large shift from the stiff Archaic to a more realistic and sometimes idealistic portrayal of the human figure. Females, after the 5th century B.C., were depicted nude, often with flowing robes. The robes gave the sculpture the idea of movement and realism in an effort by the artist to show humans more realistically.

Classical Period Sculpture

The third period, the Hellenistic period, started a little before 300 B.C. To the average person, it is more difficult to see the distinctions between the Classical and Hellenistic period. Both periods did the majority of their sculpture as nudes. The Greeks portrayed a young, vigorous, and athletic person in their works. These works idealized the individual and in a way, attempted to capture the idea of youth and strength in their design. The works reflect the commonly held views of youth, strength, and courage which were encouraged in the Greek City states.

Hellenistic Period Sculpture

A couple of interesting notes about the Greek sculpture. Greeks portrayed the gods in very similar fashion as they did the regular humans. There were no distinctions of size or body make up in their sculpture which would suggest that the gods where greater or more powerful then the humans. This is also similar in Greek stories, where the gods are shown to have very human characteristics, both good and bad.


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Greek pottery

Greek pottery has long fascinated scholars and historians of art. It provides a continuous commentary on all other Greek arts, even sculpture, and the scenes figured on the vases can prove to be as subtle and informative as the works of Greek literature. In no other art of antiquity do we come closer to the visual experience of the ancient Greeks or share their views on life, myth, and even politics. The subjects on Greek vases are of vast variety, almost as great as the number of specimens now in the museums of the world. This number was estimated by De Witte at fifty thousand, but Dr. Birch places it at twenty thousand of vases of all kinds. These subjects are chiefly of four classes:

  • Relating to mythology;
  • Relating to the Heroic Age and traditions of early Greek history;
  • Relating to known history;
  • Relating to contemporary manners and customs.

Among the vast number belonging to the first and second classes are not only numerous pictures which are recognized from knowledge of the mythology, poetry, and traditions of the Greeks, but also many which are unexplained by any extant literature. The songs of many ancient poets are lost, while the illustrations of their songs remain on pottery vases.

A study of Greek vases can be made intelligently only as accompanied by a study of Greek history and literature, and an appreciation in some sort of the Greek mind. The chief bond of the various Greek tribes was their common language, not identical, but sufficiently alike in different families to sustain intercourse. The epics of Homer and the Cyclic poets had been recited among the Grecian families before written language was generally known among them, and thus arose a community of traditions relating to the Heroic Age, which was another bond. The Olympiads date from 776 B.C., when Lycnrgus and Iphitus established, or revived, the Olympian games. The various cities of Greece remained independent, but the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" were the common property of all Greeks, and were as familiar in the seventh century before Christ to the uneducated tribes of Greece as the Bible is to modern Christians. It was not till about 530 B.C. that the books of Homer were rescued from confusion, and arranged. Other epics were popular, abounding in roman tie story. All these were handed down from lip to lip and generation to generation long before they were committed to writing. Men boasted of their ability to repeat them from beginning to end. When painting became an art known to the Greeks, they used it to illustrate the stories with which every Greek household was familiar. Hence the thousands of vases now known, and countless thousands more, on which the paintings represent the stories of heroes, demi-gods, and gods, from poems which were the delight of every Greek.

Inscriptions on Greek pottery are numerous, both painted and incised. Oftentimes each figure in a painted subject has the name near or on it. Abbreviated forms of spelling are common in these; letters are omitted; where double letters occur, one only is used. The names of men are sometimes accompanied with adjectives, as "The beautiful Hector," and occasionally inscriptions represent what the person is supposed to be saying. Thus Silenus says, "The wine is sweet;" a man lighting a funeral pyre says, "Farewell;" a boy playing ball says, "Send me the ball." On cups "Hail to you, and drink well!" is a not uncommon legend. The prize vases of the Athenian games were inscribed, "I am a prize from Athens". Names of persons with the epithet "beautiful" are of frequent occurrence, often of boys and females. Thus vases have "Dorotheos the boy is beautiful, the boy is beautiful;" "Stroibos is beautiful;" "The beautiful Nikodemos;" "Oinanthe is beautiful;" and one vase has "Beautiful is Nikolaos; Dorotheos is beautiful: it seems to me one and the other boy is beautiful. Memmon to me is beautiful, dear." The frequency of this style of inscription has led to much discussion of its origin and intent, without satisfactory solution. It has been suggested that they referred to children, and were presents, or that they have allusion to victors in games, or to persons specially popular among a people who loved beauty, and that potters placed them on vases to suit public taste. Inscriptions intentionally illegible are of frequent occurrence, and unexplained.

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The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes was a huge statue constructed in Rhodes in the 3rd century BC. It was roughly the same size as the Statue of Liberty in New York, although it stood on a lower platform. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

When Alexander the Great died at an early age he had not had time to put into place any plans for succession. Fights broke out between his generals, with three of them eventually dividing up much of the empire in the Mediterranean area.

During the fighting Rhodes had sided with Ptolemy, and when Ptolemy eventually took control of Egypt, they formed an alliance which controlled much of the trade in the eastern Mediterranean.

Another of Alexander's generals, Antigous, was upset by this turn of events. In 305 BC he had his son Demetrius (now a famous general on his own) invade Rhodes with an army of 40,000. However the city was well defended, and Demetrius had to start construction of a number of massive siege towers in order to gain access to the walls. The first was mounted on six ships, which blew over in a storm before they could be used. He tried again with an even larger land-based tower, but the Rhodian defenders stopped this by flooding the land in front of the walls so the tower could not move. In 304 BC a force of ships sent by Ptolemy arrived, and Demetrius's army left in a hurry, leaving most of their equipment.

To celebrate their victory the Rhodians decided to build a giant statue of their patron god Helios. Construction was left to the direction of Chares, who had been involved with large scale statues before. His teacher, the famed sculptor Lysippus, had constructed a 60 foot high statue of Zeus.

Ancient accounts (which differ to some degree) describe the structure as being built around several stone columns (or towers of blocks) on the interior of the structure, sitting on a 50 foot high white marble pedestal near the harbour entrance (others claim on a breakwater in the harbour). Iron beams were driven into the stone towers, and bronze plates attached to the bars formed the skinning. Much of the material was melted down from the various weapons Demetrius's army left behind, and the second tower was used for scaffolding around the lower levels. Upper portions were built with the use of a large earthen ramp. The height of the statue itself was over 110 feet tall.

Construction completed in 282 BC after 12 years. The statue stood for 56 years until Rhodes was hit by an earthquake in 226 BC. The statue snapped at the knees, and fell over onto the land. Ptolemy III offered to pay for the reconstruction of the statue, but a Rhodian oracle was afraid that they had upset Helios, and they declined to rebuild it. The remains laid on the ground for over 800 years, and even broken they were so impressive that many traveled to see them.

In AD 654 an Arab force under Muawiyah I captured Rhodes, who sold the remains to a travelling salesman from Edessa, according to the chronicler Theophanes. The purchaser had the statue broken down, and transported the bronze scrap on the backs of 900 camels back to his home. Pieces continued to turn up for sale for years, after being found on the caravan route.


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Ode on a Grecian Urn

John Keats

 Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
     Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
 Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
     A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
 What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
     Of deities or mortals, or of both,
         In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
     What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
 What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
        What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
    Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
    Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
    Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
        Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
    She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
        For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
    Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
    For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
    For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
        For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
    That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
        A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
    To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
    And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
    Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
        Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
    Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
        Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
    Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
    Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
    When old age shall this generation waste,
        Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
    "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,--that is all
        Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."


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An Explication of: Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn

Ode on an (emotionally charged) Urn? by Al Provinziano

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