Chapter 5 Gods, Heroes and Athletes The Art of Ancient Greece Summary

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Chapter 5

Gods, Heroes and Athletes

The Art of Ancient Greece


This chapter introduces the Greek world and its contribution to Western civilization. The student will be able to discern the differences between the art of Greece and the art of the world covered thus far. For the Greeks the body was the visible means of conveying perfection. The student will see the developing forms of sculpture from the geometric period and its schematic naïve presentation to the full realization of the human form as a vehicle to illustrate “natural” movement in a hard and intractable form as marble. The student will see the figure developed as a representation of the humanity of the Greeks and their attempt to gain perfection. The student will become familiar with the Greek tenet of art production: balance, harmony and symmetry. These ideals are reflected in architecture as well as sculpture. This chapter will also introduce the student to the realities of Greek life and its exclusivity. The blind admiration of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries will be touched upon. This chapter will develop a more reasonable approach in defining Greek society. In addition to these important references, this chapter will also discuss the development of Greek art and its effect on the contemporaneous societies at that time, but also, its subsequent effect on the Western society. This chapter will show the development of Greek society from its earliest inception to its final flowering as the Hellenistic period and as a dominant world power.

  1. It would be useful to delineate the periods of Greek development and introduce them as they come up in the lecture.

Geometric and Orientalizing Periods 9th–7th C. BC

Archaic Period 6th C. BC

Classical Period 5th C. BC

Late Classical Period 4th C. BC

Hellenistic Period 323–31 BC

One of the major differences between this early period and its counterpart in the Ancient Near East is the fascination the human body had for the Greeks. Even in the 8th C. BC, the Greeks were interested in the depiction of anatomy and detail natural movement. Their earliest works do show a marked fascination with the body and movement. The figure of Hero and Centaur (Herakles and Nessos?) (5–2) does illustrate the sense of volume and natural movement. Figure 2 illustrates the anatomy, even though one figure is a mythic creature, centaur, the artist represents both figures as naked. A more natural representation of the figures is presented by showing the curving of the anatomy, note the lower torsos of both figures depict a primitive attempt at showing the form (human figure). The Greek artist has attempted to show the scene, thought to be the battle between Herakles and Nessos, by aligning the arms of both figures as if in a wrestling match. The elbows of both figures are cocked and tense as if in battle. Following the Herakles and Nessos, is the Mantiklos Apollo (5–3). This work continues to illustrate the focus of the Geometric artist with an emphasis on human anatomy. The upper torso is showing more anatomical naturalism, from the shoulders to the stomach, the artist has been engaged in illustrating a more realistic presentation of the human male figure. This figure is naked as well. Another figure Bard with Lyre reflects this predilection for representing the human figure as accurately as possible. Although this figure predates the Mantiklos Apollo and is closer in dating to the Herakles and Nessos work, it does show the evolution of the figure. It illustrates the development of figural representation during this earliest of periods.

The Geometric artist did not confine his work to the three-dimensional medium alone. Greek Vase painting reflects the development of figural representation in a two-dimensional format. Figure 5–1, a krater, does illustrate this evolution. Again the figures on the body of the krater are almost schematic in shape. The important factor in this depiction is the narrative value this vase contains. The funeral of the individual is shown and the mourners are demonstrating their grief by the gestures of raised arms. Unlike the Egyptians, this is a straightforward depiction of a funeral; no mythic creatures are present. The difference is the representation of a funeral and the absence of gods escorting the deceased along the journey. Another feature of vase painting is the use of the entire surface of the object as a platform for depiction. This can be seen in an oinochoe (wine pitcher) which details the “Shipwreck of Odysseus”. The neck of the pitcher shows the shipwreck, the crew helter skelter in space and the ship shown as a series of oar ports with Odysseus, the largest figure, behind, as it were, the ship and the last to leave the sinking vessel. The body of the pitcher has a series animals used as decorative motifs that cover the entire body of the pitcher. The vase painter involved the whole surface of the vessel and used figurative as well abstract bands to cover the surface. This is a departure from previous and contemporaneous traditions. The human figure has the place of importance in both of the vessels.

The Archaic Period (6th C. BC) saw the human figure developing more quickly and fluidly. Again the artist was fascinated with the male figure and the representation of not only a naked body but also a body that has a clearly defined musculature. The kouros is the young male sometimes representing the god or a votive figure or a grave marker. In figure 5–8, this young male is reminiscent of the work of Egypt. A comparison with the Old Kingdom Dynasty IV figure of Menkaure and Khamerernebty (3–13) does show a similarity in representation. Both works show the male figures with their arms clasped to their sides and striding forward, the major departure for the Greek Archaic work is the presentation of the figure as naked. Also in the kouros figure the arms are not part of the marble but carved freely, space is clearly seen, unlike the Egyptian work. Again the emphasis is on the natural representation of the body. Juxtaposing the Lady of Auxerre (5–7) and the kouros together does show the continuing Greek fascination for the human body. Traditionally in the Archaic period, the female figure was depicted as clothed and the male figure was depicted as naked. Yet both figures do indicate the evolution in the representation of human anatomy. Even though the Lady of Auxerre is standing, as if frozen in time, the artist has made an attempt to indicate her anatomy. Again comparing this figure to the Egyptian couple (3–13), the Lady of Auxerre does suggest a more realistic handling of her anatomy. The roundness of her shoulders and the cocked elbow and hand to her breast suggest a more comfortable handling of figural representation. Whereas, Khamerernebty shows the stiffness inherent in Egyptian art, even striding forward her garment clings to her body, unrealistically, so tight as to defy natural movement.

The female figures represented do indicate the fashionable attire the Athenian woman wore at that time. This does show the effect commerce and trade had on the population. It also supports the dynamics of this interchange and the effect it had on the cultures trading with the Archaic Greeks. Figure 5–12 Chios Kore shows the change in fashion when comparing this figure to the earlier Peplos Kore (5–11). The artist has painted the pleating in the himation (mantle) and has also attempted to show the garment as it flows and falls from the body. The representation does show the developing concerns for the Archaic in depicting a more natural figural representation. The artist has attempted to move this figure from a “frozen in time” moment to a “momentary pause”, the slight tilt to her head and the smile (Archaic smile seen on all figures at this time) also could indicate a “pause” rather than a “stop in time”.

As already touched upon, the male figure or kouros in the Archaic period took on a variety of personas. The Kroisos figure c.530 BC (5–10) is a grave maker for the young man who died in battle. Comparing this figure with the earlier kouros, c.600 BC (5–8) figure shows that in the span of seventy years, figural representation has undergone great strides in human figural representation. Even though the Kroisos is depicted in the same manner, striding forward with arms locked to his sides, the musculature is becoming more realistic.

The final break with the Egyptian method of representation came with the Kritios Boy c.480 BC (5–33) created in the Classical Period (5th C. BC). This figure occupies the space it is in, in a relaxed and real sense. The contrapposto or counterbalance is shown with the dip in the right hip and the bent leg, the artist has captured the weight shift and has carved this shift in marble. This movement and weight shift can be more clearly seen in the figure of the Young Warrior c.460 BC from the rear view. The flexed buttock and thigh do show very clearly a body at rest and now the arms are free from the sides of the body as well. The muscles of the back and the veining of hands indicate a clear understanding of male anatomy and the functioning of the human body. This final evolution in the Early Classical period laid the foundation for the High Classical period that saw the human male figure go from “frozen” moments to existing in real space and almost moving within that space. The continued development of three-dimensional sculpture in the Hellenistic period (323–31 BC) now allowed the sculptors to develop the female figure in the same fashion as the male figure. The Hellenistic propensity for emotional and vigorous figural representation is predicated in part on the work of Praxiteles. He did not break with the Early Classical tradition of great beauty and perfect bodies for the divinities; but now, the gods and goddesses also have a sensual quality that focused on their more “human” natures. For the Greeks their gods and goddesses had all the flaws that humanity had, anger, jealousy, envy, lust, as well as the virtues, nobility, loyalty, courage, wisdom. In figure 5–60, Aphrodite of Knidos c.350–340 BC, Praxiteles has captured the sensual beauty of the goddess. The sculptor has stripped from the divine being all unnecessary artifice, clothing. Here Aphrodite stands in all her naked beauty, yet the hand gesture shows a modesty which allows the viewer to witness “divine beauty” as a tribute to the goddess and not as a voyeur “peaking”. Praxiteles created a vision of the goddess and amplified her extraordinary beauty. He further created an ideal of a nude by allowing her facial expression to remain serene and controlled. He removed any hint of salaciousness by gesture and facial expression. Another work from about the same period and attributed to the sculptor Leochares, is the Seated Demeter from Knidos. In the same way Praxiteles captured the sensual beauty of Aphrodite, Leochares illustrates the benevolent dignity of the great earth mother herself. Demeter is seated and presenting a tranquil and serene figure gowned in a robe, which suggests the body beneath the covering garment. The artist has realized that the robe can augment the body and has shown by the diagonals that create the flow of a robe across the body. The pull of the upper portion of the garment does more than hint at the covered breasts. The diagonal upward flow of the drape follows the natural contour of a woman’s breasts. The same diagonal flow, this time descending, outline the thigh and the way cloth will pull against a seated body. The culmination of this sculptural tradition was realized in the Hellenistic period. Athenadoros, Hagesandros and Polydoros of Rhodes created an emotional work, which details the final evolution of figural sculpture. The Laocoon group (5–89) represents such a culmination. The dynamics of the movement and the placement of the figures within a real space allow the viewer to witness not only the virtuosity of the sculptors, but also the end result of the development of sculpture from a Greek perspective. The father and his sons suffer a terrible vengeance of the gods and we are witnesses to their suffering. As seen in the sculptural programs developed for pediments of the Greek temples, this work also functions as a tool to detail not only a story but also the penalties the gods exacted when humans dared to countermand their wishes. Laocoon tried to warn the Trojans against bringing in the Greek gift of the Trojan Horse and the gods sought a dreadful punishment against the priest, total annihilation. Another example of this kind of emotional work is from the Ludovisi group, Gallic Chieftain Killing Wife and Self c.220 BC (5–80). The heroism of the Gaul has been memorialized by the Attalids of Pergamon. Even or rather in spite of the combination murder suicide, the Attalids of Pergamon found this attitude, death before surrender noble and worthy. The same dynamic gestures seen in the Laocoon group are repeated in the Gallic couple. The wife, dying or dead is still supported by the chieftain, her husband. He is in the act of plunging his sword into his chest as the final gesture of defiance. The emotional impact of this couple and the rendering of a possible event, give the couple an even greater impact. We the viewer are witnesses to the event. The political impact of this defiance and the formidable character of the Gauls give them the ultimate victory. No Greek is part of this tableau.

  1. Greek architecture shows a development that replaced the wood and mud-brick construction with permanent construction in marble. Contact with Egypt did in fact help change methods of construction. It has been suggested that this contact did impact Greek architecture. This influence can be seen in Djoser’s complex at Saqqara. In the North Palace (3–7), the engaged columns do bear a strong resemblance to the later Greek Doric column. This similarity can be seen in the Temple of Hera I, Paestum c.550 BC (5–13). Temple architecture was developing in a parallel fashion, much the same as sculpture. The architect was creating not only a building to house the cult statue, but also a building, which would reflect the Greek aesthetic vision: symmetry, harmony and balance. The post and lintel structure served this vision very well. The development of the temple lead to refinements that were finally realized in the Parthenon 447–438 BC (5–42). It has been suggested the Parthenon represents the high point of Athenian culture. It became the crowning achievement of Pericles and a symbol of the Delian League. It has also been suggested that this was Pericles’s visible statement on the position of Athens to the Delian League. Athens took on the role as leader and administrative center for the Delian League. Further it has been suggested that if the Delian League treasury had not been moved to Athens the reconstruction of the acropolis (consequence of the Persian invasion and destruction in 480 BC) would not have taken place. The acropolis of Athens (5–40) represents the statesmanship and management skills of Pericles.

The Greek temple was to be not just the house of the cult statue but it also took on the role of sculptural architecture. That is a building, which functions as a monument in addition to a building. Greek temples were dedicated to the gods and goddesses and the pedimental sculptures also served as a text to not only to reflect the glory of the divinities, but also to remind the public of the service they owed to the city–state. The east pediment of the Temple of Zeus, Olympia c.470–456 BC (5–30), serves this purpose. The sculptor has recited in visual format the story of the interaction between the gods and humanity. He has also given a brief glimpse at the foundation of the Olympic Games. In addition to the historical representation, the sculptor has detailed the penalty for perjury and the consequences of such actions. The pediment in calm and tranquil presentation depicts the chariot race and the important characters; the event is known by all and the outcome as well. Only the figure of the seer (5–31) allows the viewer to suspect a different outcome. The viewer recognizes the perfidy of Peplos and his dishonesty and the subsequent penalty he and his heirs will pay. Also indicated on this pediment is the competition between the gods, Ares father of Oinomaos, gifted him with divine horses, unbeatable. Peplos resorted to treachery to win the race and the hand of Hippodameia and further treachery on his part in not rewarding Myrtilos for his part in sabotaging the chariot of Oinomaos. The labyrinthine convolutions of treachery and counter-treachery all indicate the consequences for such behavior, destruction. In the same temple, the west pediment details the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. Once again the calmness of the central figure, Apollo, acting as a referee between the battling Centaurs and Lapiths illustrates the Greek focus of reason over passion. Reason in the personae of the Lapiths are battling the unbridled passion and chaos as represented by the Centaurs. The account of this myth goes further in the explanation of the proper code of conduct for guests and hosts and the centaurs have broken all codes of decent and appropriate behavior by engaging in a fight with their hosts and even attempting to carry off their hostesses. This juxtaposition of reason and chaos can be seen in two details from this pediment, the central figure of Apollo and a centaur and Hippodameia and centaur. Both groups present in a visual tableau, reason, calm and controlled and chaos, uncontrollable and emotional. The centaurs in both details has an open and leering mouths and grimaces, while Apollo and Hippodameia are shown with closed mouths and serene facial expressions.

This kind of layered explanations for pedimental sculpture suggests a sophisticated mode of presenting sculptural material to act both as an augmentation for the temple itself and as a tool to encourage the population in appropriate behaviors.

This Early Classical temple reflects the degree of development that was seen in the three-dimensional evolution of sculpture. It also mirrors the development of the Greek city-state as a political entity co-existing with the other city-states and even further as trading partners in the Mediterranean. The sculptural program developed in the Classical period for the Parthenon also exhibits this sophisticated complexity. The program celebrated the temple as a house for the goddess Athena and also as the pinnacle of Athenian statecraft. In figure 5–45, the same theme seen earlier at Olympia is repeated in the metopes of the Parthenon. In this scene, the triumphant Centaur rears in victory over the recumbent Lapith. Unfortunately, due to vandalism and destruction, the facial expressions of both participants are missing. But based on the Olympia work, it has been suggested that the same types of expressions would be seen on the Parthenon metope as well. Another metope, also found on the south side, shows the reverse, a triumphant Lapith and a defeated centaur. It could be argued that the artist, Phidias, illustrated both sides of this very human activity, reasoned intellect and uncontrollable passion co-existing, balance and counter-balance. The carving is so high that the figures are almost three-dimensional and add to this color, the impact would have most startling.

3) Touched upon earlier is vase painting. As seen in sculpture and architecture, there was a very careful development of figural depiction. Architecture was treated as a three-dimensional work that co-existed with the programs developed to create a dialog with the viewer/worshipper. The programs served as vehicles to explain the activities of the gods and also to show the relationship of the city-state to the gods. These sculptural programs also illustrated, visibly, proper codes of behaviors and conduct.

Vase painting also developed along those same lines. In addition to depicting the heroes and the gods and goddesses, the vases also allowed us a glimpse into their daily lives. Figure 5–1, Geometric krater gave us a view of a funeral and the mourning process. The Archaic Franois Vase c.570 BC (5–18) also give us a selected representation of Greek mythology. In addition to this figural presentation, the vase delineates the impact Greek visual art had on its trading partners. This vase was discovered in an Etruscan tomb, it becomes an import document. The deceased or the family members of the tomb holder considered this vase worthy to become part of the tomb contents, hence the “preciousness” of the vessel. All this in conjunction with the continuing evolution of the figural representation, the vase illustrates the process we saw in sculpture. A late Archaic vessel, a kylix or drinking vessel painted by Onesimos details a servant girl preparing to bathe. This kylix (5–23) gives a brief glimpse into the life of a servant and the artist has even shown us her personal habits of hygiene. Vase painting does allow us to gain a greater understanding of the status of women in Greek society. The depictions of women on Greek vases are usually relegated to the goddesses or to those women who are not members of the aristocracy. They are not the wives, mothers or daughters of the landed and voting Greek male. The kylix of Onesimos details a servant at her bath and not the lady or daughter of the house. A Classical work done by the Achilles Painter (5–56) shows a wife sitting at home awaiting the return of her warrior husband (this lekythos was a funerary offering). This type of representation, patiently waiting at home was one vehicle for the presentation of the woman.

Women working as artists were not usual, but there are accounts of women working in pottery studios. In this hydria (three-handled jar for water storage), the artists who are being recognized are the men who are painting the vessels. They are being acknowledged and rewarded laurel wreaths. However, the woman is ignored, why? There are a number of interpretations that could suggest a reason for this. The first is she is not a vase painter and hence not considered a fine craftsperson consequently no recognition. Another explanation could be the fact that she is a woman and working in a male dominated environment. This could not or would not be recognized. A third suggestion could be that she is indeed, the owner of the studio/workshop and is allowing the recognition to go to her apprentices and assistants.

These are suggestions, which could account for this hydria. But the evolution of the figure continues to focus the work of the artist, whether male or female. It is this contribution to Western tradition that carried the impact of Greek art and architecture.

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