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Ancient Greek Visual Arts

An Introduction to Ancient Greek Visual Art

The ancient cultures of Greece, the Minoan and the Mycenean, produced wonderful works of art, but we are indebted to archeology for the finds that we have from these cultures. Information regarding classical art comes more from literary resources that have been maintained over the centuries. Comparison of the early archaic art of the 10th century BCE reveals a remarkable difference between the art of mainland Greece and the art of the previous cultures. For this reason the history of the art of classical Greece usually starts with the early archaic art and the art of Minoan and
Mycenean cultures is dealt with separately.

The period after the Trojan war is usually referred to as the Greek dark age because there is so little material from that period. We do not know what was going on, but whatever it was, it was very revolutionary. Art changed a great deal and began the developement of Greek art that was to flower in the classical period. This period is referred to as the geometric period because of one of the striking characteristics of this art. Most of the decoration consists of various geometric patterns. There are figurative elements too which appear to be illustrations of myths. This is a trend that will continue in Greek art, but few of the myths in the early pieces can be identified because of the schematic nature of the figures. Some of the mythicalcharacters, such as centaurs, are easily identified even in scematic form.

The main points about the early art which carries through the Classical period are:

  • The art is idealized in a number of ways.
  • Figures are illustrated in the context of myths.
  • The art is religious in nature and supports religious activity.

The main periods in Greek art are:

  • Neolithic in Greece: 6500 – 5500 BCE (The beginning of art in Greece)
  • Bronze Age in Greece: 3500 – 1000 BCE
  • Early Minoan: 2800 – 2200 BCE
  • Mycenean: 1800 – 1100 BCE
  • Middle Minoan: 2200 – 2700 BCE
  • Late Minoan: 1700 – 1200 BCE
  • Homeric Age: 1100 – 750 BCE
  • Archaic: 750 – 470 BCE
  • Golden Age: 470 – 378 BCE (Classical Greece)
  • Hellenistic: 338 – 146 BCE

The main visual artists by period:

  • Late Minoan
    • Daidalos
    • Smilis, an Aeginetan, the son of Eukleides. (Pausanias, Description of Greece 7. 4. 4)
  • Archaic
    • Sophilos, potter
    • Kleitias, potter
    • Nearchos, potter
    • Lydos, potter
    • Exekias, potter
    • the Amasis Painter, potter
    • Andokides, potter, developed red-figure technique, about 530 B.C.
  • Classical
    • painters
    • Sculptors
      • Polyclitus
      • Praxiteles
      • Lysippos
      • Phidias
  • Hellenistic

The images on Greek vases are illustrative of gods and goddesses and people who lived at the time of the Trojan war, some 700 years earlier. The artists could have known little of the subjects, but rather used as models contemporary objects and people. These artists rarely illustrated landscapes and architecture either. Yet even with these limitations the vase painters left an extraordinary amount of information about the culture of Greece.

Let’s investigate the question of nudity in the art of the Greeks. Assume that the classical period is 470 – 338 BCE. The Aphrodite of Knidos of Praxitiles was sculpted in the period 350 – 330 BCE. If we can focus on the early classical period before 350 we can avoid the influence of the Aphrodite of Knidos.

A sample of images of nudes follow:

The above represent a sampling of the images of nudes available. These images are too old to have been influenced by Praxiteles. In the total collection there are 11 clothed men, 12 nude men, 5 nude young men, one clothed older women, 3 nude older women, and two nude girls. It is certainly not true that men were portrayed nude exclusively, but they certainly were portrayed more frequently than women. In this sampling of nudes, youths were exclusively portrayed as nude. Nudity seems to be a symbol of youth. Several
of the images show nude youths dancing with older man so there is an indication that homosexual activity is suggested. The nude girl and the nude men suggest heterosexual activity in the same way. The last image is most perplexing Here you have a nude man dancing with a clothed women. This image seems to raise the kind of question being asked.

There is a definitely a connection between nudity in art and nudity in
sport. Heroes are often portrayed nude, as the athletic victor must have been nude. War is another form of athletics, so warriors are often portrayed nude.  Clothes are an important sign of status for women and their clothing often indicates status. For the Greeks athletic ability may have been important enough that strong muscles were a sign of status. It would have been necessary to display them. Nudity also reinforces the maleness of the person.
There is definitely the suggestion that being male was desirable and the surest sign of being male was nudity.

The society of the ancient Greeks achieved a high degree of culture
that stands as a wonderful example of human achievement to the world of today.  The mythology is intimately connected to the art and architecture of ancient Greece and so it forms an important basis to the perfection and universality of the art achieved. That art set standards of form which are still active today. In addition, the mythology of ancient Greece touches such a wide range of human emotion at such a dynamic level that it has filtered into the subconscious of the western world. In many cases the study of Greek myths reveals the emotional and rational foundation of western culture.

A vase exists which illustrates the process of production af ancient Greek Sculpture:

A vase exists which illustrates how images were prepared on the vases:

A Note about Collecting Ancient Greek Art.

The ancient Greeks achieved an extremely high level in their art and so it is much in demand and much copied. Some of the copying goes on to develop artists to a very high level while others plays on the patrons ignorance and does little more than remind one of the glories of the past. This process began almost immediately with the artists of Rome. In some cases all we know of an ancient work is the many copies that the Roman artists produced. But it is too often possible to distinguish the copy from the original merely by the
quality of the art. During the dark ages the copying was reduced because most of the Greek art was considered Pagan. But the influences persisted and art objects such as angels clearly illustrate a contructive influence. In fact angels are still being produced which are clearly modeled after ancient Greek goddesses and do not clearly fit the Christian mold.

During the Renaissance patrons returned to Greek inspiration and many pieces were produced that seem Greek in their origin. Later Greek revivals have the same result. But there is some merit in distinguishing what is really Greek from what is only an imitation. One reason is that Greek art reflects Greek culture. Nude images of the judgement of Paris do not reflect what the Greeks felt about this scene. A nude with an apple in her hand can be called Aphrodite, but the rendering of the figure usually does not reflect the Greek idealism as well as a truely Greek work. Another reason is a development of taste. Art can be a guide to moral decisions and tast is a guide to good ones. If one can learn to descriminate good art then one can learn to descriminate good people.

The art market is full of forgeries and knockoffs that just remind one of the original. In some cases there are simply thefts. A museum goes to great expense to maintain and display a great work of art from ancient Greece. It seems only fair that that museum should be compensated for this effort. A museum should receive a royalty on any reproduction of the pieces that they maintain. A person who makes such a copy should go to the museum and make the necessary arrangements.

Care should be taken that a reproduction actually is a good one. The
artist should make some effort to reproduce the finer details of the original. An an artist should not make modifications that mislead the patron. I have a statuette labeled Artemis that is actually a copy of an ancient statue named Amazon. This does not represent a good intent on the part of the artist.

Some items are simply stolen from graves. But this is difficult to detect.  Some items come with a certificate of authenticity. This is not nearly so useful as being able to trace an item through its owners to its original location. Really genuine items rarely need such certificates.

Some items are simply fakes. Without extensive knowledge the collector is really at a loss her. Careful examination and comparison with items in a museum is useful, but not certain. The sad fact is that any mistake that is made by the collector about fakes or thefts greatly reinforces the criminal.

But this is not to say that the collection of ancient artefacts is a bad
thing. It is a process of paying close attention to the Greek culture, and spending a lot of time in museums studying fine art. This can be enormously rewarding as the pursuit of quality always is.

Marble plate fragment in the collection of the FJKluth Art Gallery found in the Balkans from 5 – 4 century BCE with figures of a man on a horse, a large snake, and a dog.


  • Hodge, Susie, “Ancient Greek Art” (Hodge, Susie, Art in History.),
    Heinemann, September 1997, ISBN: 1575725517, Juvenile Nonfiction/Art – History
  • Hull, Robert E./ Hull, Robert, “Entertainment & the Arts (World of Ancient
    Greece)”, Franklin Watts, March 2000, Dimensions: 10.36″ x 8.19″ x 0.06″,
    Paperback, Category: Juvenile Nonfiction/Social Studies – Customs, Traditions,
    Anthropology, ISBN: 0531153819.
  • Hurwitt, Jeffrey C./ Powell, Patricia C./ Elvehjem Museum of Art (Cor),
    “Ancient Etruscan and Greek Vases in the Elvehjem Museum of Art”,
    ISBN: 093290047X
  • Newby, Martine, “Glass of four Millennia”, Ashmolean Museum, April 2000,
    Hardback, ISBN: 1854441248, Paperback, ISBN: 185444123X. An historical survey
    of the development of glass from ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, Islam, medieval
    Europe, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the present day. Illustrated
    throughout from examples in the Museum’s collection.
  • Richter, Gisela M. A., “Handbook of Greek Art/a Survey of the Visual Arts
    of Ancient Greece (Da Capo Paperback)”, Phaidon Press, October 1994,
    ISBN: 0714824968.
  • Sayles, Wayne G., “Ancient Coin Collecting II: Numismatic Art of the Greek
    World”, 3/1/1997, ISBN: 0873415000. Covers the artistry of the Archaic,
    Classical and hellenistic periods of Greek coinage. From the history of leading
    collections to trade and colonization patterns, revisit find sites, witness,
    witness artistic motifs and be privy to recent finds that impact the intriquing
    market of ancient coins.
  • Stansbury-O’Donnell, Mark, “Pictorial Narrative in Ancient Greek Art”
    (Cambridge Studies in Classical Art and Iconography), ISBN: 0521640008.
  • Vickers, Michael; Gill, David, “Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware
    and Pottery”, ISBN: 0198150709 / Paperback / 7/1/1996.
  • Vickers, Michael, “Ancient Greek Pottery”, Ashmolean Museum, Hardback,
    ISBN: 1854441159, Paperback, ISBN: 1854441140, The majority of the pots illustrated were made in Corinth or Athens between the seventh and fifth centuries BC. The decoration of the figurative scenes gives a remarkable insight into Greek religion, warfare , sport and everyday life.

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