Ancient Greek Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations  

Many accepted traditions of Western culture—in philosophy and government as well as in art and architecture—were first defined in Greece centuries ago. The Greek concept of beauty was based on a pleasing balance and proportion of form. The design of graceful columned Greek temples has influenced architecture from the Renaissance to modern times. Greek sculpture established an ideal standard for the human form that served as a model for artists in ages to come.

Early Influences
People have lived in the area of Greece for thousands of years. Two great cultures developed in the region during the Bronze Age (about 3000-1100 B.C.). One was located on the island of Crete. It is called the Minoan culture after the legendary King Minos. The other was located on the Greek mainland. It is known as the Mycenaean culture after the city of Mycenae. The Mycenaean culture flourished slightly later than the Minoan and was greatly influenced by it.

At the end of the Bronze Age, the Mycenaean culture disappeared. Many of the old sites were burned down or abandoned. New settlements were established. For several hundred years the area entered what has been called the Dark Ages. People continued to live in the area, but in smaller, isolated groups. Painted pottery, a characteristic art form of ancient Greece, continued to be made. Few buildings of this time survive because they were made of wood and mud brick.

The Geometric Period (900-700 B.C.)

After about 900 B.C., a rebirth occurred. Small settlements grew into cities. Sanctuaries (places of worship) were founded. And people began to create art in great quantities once again throughout the region.

In pottery painting, a new style of decoration developed. It was based on geometric designs--triangles, dots, and straight and angled lines. Human figures were introduced by the 700's B.C. They first appeared on large pots used as burial monuments. These early, primitive silhouette figures marked the first depiction of people in Greek art. As artists began to portray the natural curves of the human body, the angular figures were gradually replaced with more rounded and realistic shapes.

Architecture during this period still consisted of small structures of wood or mud brick. Sculpture was mainly small figurines.

The Orientalizing Period (700-600 B.C.)

Beginning about 700 B.C., Greek art was greatly influenced by art from Egypt and other advanced civilizations in the Near East (part of western Asia, which was once known as the Orient). In a remarkably short time, the geometric style of vase painting was replaced by a bolder, more expressive style as artists experimented with Eastern images. These foreign influences are particularly evident in art produced in the city of Corinth. Potters there made colorful vases decorated with animal figures—such as owls or roaring lions—as well as rosettes and other Eastern designs.


The Archaic Period (600-480 B.C.)

It was during the Archaic period that Greek art and architecture attained its distinctive style. In some ways this style was a combination of the old geometric style and the newer influences from the East.

After about 600 B.C., the Greeks began building temples to honor their gods. Greek temples were built in three different styles, or orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Each of these styles is best identified by the distinctive design of its columns and capitals (the decorated tops of the columns).

The Doric order was developed by the Dorian tribes on the Greek mainland. It had a simple, sturdy, and relatively undecorated design. Unlike the other orders, Doric columns had no base. The Ionic order was developed by the Ionian Greeks living along the coast of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). It was more delicate and ornate than the Doric order. And it had longer and more slender columns that were often topped with a spiral or scroll-shaped capital. The Corinthian order developed in the city of Corinth during the classical period, well after the Doric and Ionic styles. It is a variation of the Ionic. But its capitals have carved acanthus leaves instead of scrolls.

Inside the Greek temple was a smaller, freestanding structure called a cella. The cella was surrounded by a row of columns (a colonnade). Inside the cella was a statue of the god to whom the particular temple was dedicated.

The Archaic period saw a rapid development in the portrayal of the human figure. At the beginning of the period, sculptors began to carve life-sized and larger figures of men and women for use in sanctuaries and grave monuments. These figures had stiff upright postures. Males were typically portrayed nude. Their arms were close to their sides and one leg was extended slightly forward in a style adopted from Egyptian sculpture. Females were clothed in elaborately draped garments. Like all Greek sculpture, the statues were painted with many colors.

By the end of the period, sculpture had become much more realistic. Poses were less stiff and more natural. The drapery on female figures better reflected the shape of the underlying body. Figures were also more idealized. This means they were meant to depict the ideal male or female form.

Although the art of wall painting was popular in ancient Greece, few examples remain today. However, many examples of vase painting have survived. By the Archaic period the depiction of human and animal figures had reached new heights.

Two different techniques were used for vase painting at this time. The earliest is called black-figure painting. It was invented in Corinth in the 600's B.C. Figures were painted with liquid clay, which turned a glossy black when fired in a special oven called a kiln. The black silhouettes were then given details by incising, or scratching, lines through them to reveal the red clay body of the vase. Details were emphasized by white or red paint.

About 530 B.C., a new technique, red-figure painting, reversed this color scheme. Backgrounds were painted black and the figures--more natural and lifelike than those in black-figure painting--were left in the color of the clay. Details were added with diluted black paint. Additional colors were rarely used. Scenes from mythology and, later, everyday human life were popular. Many vases were signed, indicating a pride in craftsmanship.

On other vases, the whole background was sometimes painted an ivory white. The figures stood out more strikingly on this white background. Details were highlighted by the use of red, blue, yellow, or brown. These white-ground vases are rarer than black- or red-figured ones.


The Classical Period (480-323 B.C.)

Scholars date the beginning of the classical period with the invasion of Greece by the Persians and its end with the death of Alexander the Great. During the second half of the 400's B.C., Athens, which had emerged as the most powerful Greek city-state, was the center of Greek art. Even after its defeat by the city of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), Athens' artistic achievements continued to influence Greek art.

The Parthenon was built between 447 and 432 B.C. on the ruins of an earlier temple destroyed by the Persians. It is considered the greatest example of the Doric order. Larger than the standard temple, it measures 228 feet (70 meters) long and 1011/2 feet (31 meters) wide. It has eight columns across the front and back, and 17 down each side. The Parthenon was built entirely of marble. It was decorated with magnificent sculptures portraying various battles, a procession of Athenians honoring the Greek goddess Athena, and scenes from Athena's life. Although now a ruin, the Parthenon still stands today, dominating Athens' Acropolis (the highest point of the city). (For more information on the Parthenon, see the Wonder Question, What are the Elgin Marbles? accompanying this article.)

The Erechtheum was built on the Acropolis about 20 years after the Parthenon. It has the slim proportions and decorative details typical of the Ionic order. Unlike most other temples, the Erechtheum has porches extending from both sides. One of the porches is the famous Porch of the Maidens. It has columns in the shapes of female figures.

Another notable Doric temple is the temple of Apollo at Bassae. Built between 420 and 400 B.C., its interior contains the earliest known Corinthian columns. After the 400's B.C., architects continued to work with the Doric and Ionic orders. But they tended to add ornamentation and experiment further with combining the orders in a single building.

Among the other architectural forms created by the Greeks during this period were the stoa and the theater. The stoa was a long roofed hall or promenade that had a solid back wall and a colonnade at the front. The structure was used as a shopping center, a law court, or simply a shelter from the weather. Stoas were also used to enclose spaces, such as markets. Theaters were an important part of every Greek city. They were usually situated against a hill where the audience could sit to watch the performances. Performances were dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine.

Few original sculptures of the classical period survive. Much of what is known about the great sculptors of this age comes from copies made by the Romans. The Romans also recorded the names of many Greek artists in their writings.

The growing interest in realism, as well as in the idealization of the human body, can be seen in a famous early classical sculpture called the Discus-Thrower. It was carved about 450 B.C. by Myron of Thebes. But it is known today only from a Roman copy. The athlete is caught in mid-movement, at the instant he is about to hurl the discus. Another famous example is the Charioteer (about 470 B.C.). This life-size bronze statue was discovered at the great sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. Bronze was a favorite material from which to make statues in the early 400's B.C. However, very few large bronze statues have survived because they were melted down long ago to make useful objects, such as spearheads.

Classical sculpture peaked after the middle of the 400's. Two of the greatest sculptors of this period were Phidias and Polyclitus. Phidias was known for his sculptures of the gods. He was in charge of the sculptures created for the Parthenon. Two colossal gold-and-ivory statues of Zeus and Athena were his masterpieces. Both are now known only from descriptions. Polyclitus specialized in statues of athletes. His works, such as the Spearbearer, firmly established the ideal measurements and proportions of the body. The pose of this figure, with one leg drawn back and the weight of the body shifted onto the other leg, continued to be used throughout the history of art.

Relief sculpture--sculpture carved to stand out from a flat background--often decorated temples. The long horizontal bands called friezes that ran above Ionic columns often featured relief sculptures of human and animal figures. An example is the frieze that runs along the outer top of the Parthenon's cella.

Between 400 and 323, the influence of Athens on Greek art declined. A variety of differing styles emerged. The great sculptor Praxiteles introduced a soft, subtle style. In his Hermes and the Infant Dionysus (about 340 B.C.), he portrays the gods in graceful human form with relaxed, leaning poses. In contrast, another sculptor, Scopas, conveyed strong emotions by his use of twisting, active poses. A third sculptor, Lysippus, introduced a new system of proportions for the human form. He made the head smaller and the limbs longer. Lysippus was the court sculptor for Alexander the Great.

Except for vase painting, very little painting has survived from the classical period. Literary works of the time note the names of individual painters as well as their use of realism, color, shading, and perspective. (Perspective is the technique of showing the illusion of distance on the flat surface of a painting). The work of a vase painter of the mid-400's B.C. known only as the Niobid Painter provides evidence of some of these techniques. The Niobid Painter did not arrange his figures in a row, as was common in red-figure vase painting. Instead, he arranged them on different levels and in different sizes to show perspective. During this period, red-figure painting became more ornate as more color and even gilding (coating with gold) was used. By about 320 B.C. red-figure vase painting had died out in Athens. Simpler non-figured designs took its place.

As early as the 500's B.C., the Greeks began creating mosaics. Mosaics are pictures formed by laying small colored stones, pieces of marble, or glass in cement. In early mosaics, black and white river pebbles were set into cement floors to depict animals, flowers, or scenes from mythology. The mosaics served as decorative floor coverings in important rooms of a house.


The Hellenistic Period (323-146 B.C.)

The period between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and Rome's conquest of Greece in 146 B.C. is known as the Hellenistic period. During this time Greek culture continued to influence the many non-Greek people conquered by Alexander throughout the Middle East. The Roman Empire later spread Greece's influence throughout most of Europe and into northern Africa.

Architects working in many parts of the Greek world continued to use all three orders, particularly the Corinthian. The Corinthian order was used as the basis for a similar design used throughout the Roman Empire. Architects also began combining different styles of decoration and changing the proportions of various elements in buildings. With the rise of great cities, urban architecture flourished. And the invention of the stone arch offered new possibilities of construction.

Hellenistic sculpture reflected the variety and diversity of Hellenistic society. Sculpture was still used for dedications and grave monuments. But art was also used as decoration and propaganda (created to persuade others). Although the earlier classical styles were still somewhat influential, Hellenistic sculpture portrayed not only youthful adults in peak physical form but also children and the very old, often in stark realism bordering on melodrama. For instance, one sculpture portrays a boxer seated on a rock, his face and body realistically battered. Perhaps the most original Hellenistic sculpture comes from the small kingdom of Pergamon, on the coast of modern-day Turkey. Here the great Altar of Zeus was erected between 200 and 100 B.C. It commemorates the victory of the Pergamenes against an invading tribe of Gauls (a Celtic people from the area of France). A relief frieze around the altar shows a battle of gods and giants. It suggests that the defeat of the Gauls had the scale and drama of a mythological struggle.

Two of the most famous sculptures of ancient Greece date from about this period. The Venus de Milo, or the Aphrodite of Melos, was carved from marble by an unknown artist. The statue is missing its arms. But it is an outstanding example of the idealization of the human form. The Winged Victory of Samothrace is also by an unknown artist. It depicts the Greek goddess Nike standing on the prow of a ship with her wings spread wide and her garment flowing in the wind.

Unlike painting from earlier periods, some original Greek paintings from the Hellenistic period have survived to modern times. They are mainly found in the tombs of Macedonians (people from Macedon, a region in northern Greece). The complicated composition and the use of colors and perspective found in these works indicate that wall paintings produced in ancient Greece at this time were of high quality.

Methods of making mosaics improved during the Hellenistic period. Instead of pebbles, small cubes of cut stone or glass were used and laid in more intricate patterns. A famous Hellenistic mosaic found in the Roman city of Pompeii depicts Alexander the Great leading the Macedonians against the Persians. This and other mosaics may have been copies of Hellenistic paintings. Like the paintings, they were colorful and complex works of art.

William R. Biers
Professor Emeritus
University of Missouri, Columbia
Author, The Archaeology of Greece: An Introduction

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