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Characteristic of Greek Art

The civilization of the Greeks, based upon a distinctive culture enriched by elements adapted from the ancient Orient, created a world outlook generally in Western Europe at the beginning of the medieval period and has been transmitted to modern times. Because of the coherence, lucidity, and adaptability of the classic ideal, it has been the inspiration periodically for new expressions, political, artistic, and social. Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art formed a single cultural unit, termed the art of the classical world, or the classic tradition.

Despite its apparent simplicity, the art of Greece was very complex. It was essentially a conservative art concentrating upon a few types and problems; in architecture, the temple and the theater; in sculpture, the kouros and the kore (standing male and female figures); similarly, not more than a dozen themes were used in Greek drama, yet great heights of dramatic expression were attained. Monotony was avoided in art as in literature by complicated permutations of the rigidly intellectual restrictions, but the variations on a theme were not mere exercises of ingenuity. Although the Greeks possessed an intensity of imagination that freed them from the aridity of a purely intellectual system, they maintained austere standards of relevance, resulting in the units of time, place, and action in drama and in concentration on the figure and indifference to background in sculpture.

Chronology of Greek Styles

The Hellenic world of the Greeks established the so-called classic tradition of subsequent artistic epochs, perpetuated by Rome, down to the present day. Actually the ancient Greeks had no national unity and were citizen of the various city-states. The Greeks regarded themselves as descendants of a legendary ancestor, Hellen , from whom they took their name, Hellenes ( only the Roman called them “Greeks”), as opposed to barbarians or foreigners whose customs were at variance with theirs. They were residents of Hellas, a vague geographical term applied wherever Hellenes happened to be settled. Now, however, the term generally means the Aegean area. A few centuries after the Dorian invaders had come down from the north, sweeping in the Mediterranean, a purely Greek style began to evolve.

The Archaic Age and The Transitional

By the seventh century B.C. a recognizable style emerged containing most of the characteristics of primitive art but bearing a number of identifiably Greek qualities. That style is now called “Archaic”, and it lasted until the end of the sixth century, surviving , in some place, well into the fifth century B.C. when the Transitional elements because noticeable. The transitional style was relatively short-lived, ca. 510-480 B.C. in Athens, the span varying in length depending on location and on other factors. The art of the Transitional period was occasionally a gradual refinement of the primitive features of the Archaic; otherwise it might be called a subtle precursor to idealized Classic developments, overlapping, like some works of the archaic style, well into the late fifth century B.C in remote regions.

The Classic Age and The Fourth Century

Strictly speaking, the Classic Age was the Age of Pericles or the Golden Age of Athens, from 480-404 B.C. Generally the whole tradition of Greece and Rome has come to be implied by the term “classic,’ but “the Classic Age” is here used to indicate the culmination of purely Hellenic idea; the submergence of the individual in religion and in the city-state. By contrast to the impersonality, the dispassionate severity and magnificent restraint of the art of the Classic Age, the art of the fourth century (404-323) represented an age of individualism. The nascent realism in the art of the fourth century was accompanied by a loss of idealism, reflecting the changed conditions after had been destroyed as a dominant power and Sparta had emerged as the new center of Greek influence.

The Alexandrian Age or the Hellnistic

In some respects the last period of Greek art, the Hellenistic, is the most important, despite the absence of pure Hellenic features, for it was Greek art of this age that was most widely disseminated. Owing to the wide extent of Alexander’s empire (336 B.C) reaching far into the Orient to the borders of China, unifying many divergent elements, the truly Greek art was intermingled with Oriental and barbarian style, producing distinctly different effects which, however, still bore the mark of Hellenic origin. The art of this period is called by various names in different regions: Graeco -Roman in Italy, Ptolemaic in Egypt, and Seleucid in Syria, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia.

A striking feature of Greek art was the almost miraculous sense of proportion. Refinements, such as entasis, the correction of optical illusion in which apparently straight lines were actually curved, were made in architecture and in the other arts such as pottery until Greek art reached the apex of its perfection in the Periclean Age. Anthropomorphism (gods taking the form of men), one of the chief characteristics of Greek religion, not only was revealed in the subject matter of sculpture and vase painting but entered as well into the human scale of the buildings.


Like the Egyptian and, strangely enough, in opposition to the standards of good art in other epochs, Greek architecture was not perfected in wood, the original material of the style. It was successful adaptation in stone, but it was adaptation nonetheless. Greek architecture was based on the trabeated principle of construction and never employed the arch in monumental building; its most distinctive feature, therefore was the use of the column. There were two distinct styles of capitals, the Doric and the Ionic, although a third, the Corinthian, appeared late in the fifth century. The Ionic with its delicate volutes was used contemporaneously with the Doric, although the two orders were not equally popular in the same localities. The Corinthian represented a variation in the Ionic order, differing from it chiefly in its acanthus-leaf motif of the capital, and was used in the fifth century Temple of Apollo epicurius at Bassae (Phigaleia) by Ictinus and in the fourth century Choragic Monument of Lysikrates in Athens. Both Doric and Ionic orders were usually determined according to definite rules of proportion based on the diameter of the column, which regulated not only the details of the columns themselves but also the proportions of all other parts of the building. This interrelationship is knows as “the order.”


The temple was a development of the wooden enclosure which had originally protected the cult statue or had served as a shrine to mark some especially hallowed spot. Gradually the wooden hut was replaced, post by post, with stone shafts, often built up out of series of drums. As in the Heraeum at Olympia of the seventh century, which according to the ancient geographer Pausanius, still contained a few wooden shafts in his day, the second century A.D. The Heraeum, a trabeated structure probably without modifications, was typically Archaic, whereas the Temple of Poceidon and the Basilica at Paestum, a Greek colony in Italy, were Transitional examples of the sixth century in which attempts were made to refine proportions and achieve a balance between function and symbol. The earliest Greek temples were always oriented, generally from eat to west, except in a few specific local instances; they were built on sacred territory, which occasionally accounted for the eccentricities of plan as in the case of the irregular Erechtheion on the  Acropolis of Athens. Highly dramatic as in the precipitous setting of the temple of Nike Apteros of the Parthenon crowning Athens; sometimes the location was merely convenient as in the Hephaisteion situated on a low hill in the agira, dedicated to the blacksmith god of the trades using fire along the Keramaikos street where potters and metalworkers labored.


A few common terms sush as the “order” have already been explained, but the Greek temple presents special problems of nomenclature. The walled-in or solid part of the temple is called the cella, usually composed of two parts, the pronaos (an anteroom) and the naos (the shrine proper). Around the cellas of many temples ran a continuous row of columns, the colonnade, and such temples are called peripteral. The porticoes or porches at each end of the short sides of the invariably rectangular plan are called pro style if there was only one, or amphiprostyle if there was a porch at each end. The number of columns in the portico was determined by the diameter of the shaft. Above the porticoes were bare triangular paces created by necessity through the slope of the gable roof. These are called pediments and were filled with free-standing sculptures and topped by the raking cornice, a sloping molding extending to the ridge of the roof and often decorated by akroteria (palmette motifs and fantastic figures such as the sphinx). The single most important element of Greek principles of construction was the column. The shafts were fluted, and an extra piece was added at the top, originally in early wooden temples to keep the wooden post from splitting. In the Doric order the rectangular block at the top is called the abacus, the lower curved member the echinus. The stone columns were composed of a series of drums held together by different means, either by metal dowels or clamps or by live joints (smooth surfaces sticking together). No mortar was used in Greek building. The Ionic volutes and Corinthian acanthus-leaf designs of the other capitals have already been discussed; these orders had ornate and complex bases, unlike the Doric, which had no base. In the Doric order the shaft rests directly upon the top step, called the stylobate. The entire substructure formed usually by three steps is the stereobate. Steps were uncomfortably high, but few people entered the temples. The architecture reflected the religion, using exterior processions and visual effect, by emphasizing exterior values. The entablature consisted of the entire part above the capitals of the columns, comprising three distinct parts. The lower member, the architrave, was actually the lintel, fairly simple in design, and above it was the frieze. This more elaborate part was a survival of the ends of exposed cross-beams supporting the gable roof of the earlier timber construction. The square metopes of the frieze were well adapted to relief sculpture, and were framed by the vertical bands of the triglyphs in the Doric order. Above the two horizontal sections was a heavily projecting molding called the cornice (crown) supporting the pediment and the raking cornice in Doric temples.

The Parthenon. In the crowning achievement of the Greek genius, the Parthenon, dedicate to the maiden Athena, the city state’s patron deity, Ictinus and Kallilrates employed the greatest skill and judgment in harmonious proportions and details. Built as the local point of the meandering sacred way, close by the other temples each independently oriented, and dominating the highest point of the Acropolis, the continuous colonnade of the Parthenon can be seen to advantage from any point. Its octastyle (eight-columned) porticoes were decorated by pedimental sculptires commemorating the birth of Athena and her struggle with Poseidon for the possession of Attica, in which the surviving sculptures personifying the Three Fates, Mount Olympus, and local rivers are some of the first examples of the Greek style. The interior of the Parthenon is unique among Greek temples having two stories (the lower Doric, the upper Ionic) and three parts to the cella, adding the episthodomos where gifts to Athena were stored. The Parthenon retains its aura of perfection despite the remodeling to conform to Christian usage during the Byzantine period (with its dedication changed to the Virgin Marry), catastrophic accidents (it was used as a powder magazine by the Turks in the seventeenth century and inadvertently blown up), and depredations by warfare as well as by zealous tourist and archaeologists of the past two centuries. Alone of ancient works the Parthenon is often considered the masterpiece of ancient art. Although ostensibly the shrine to house the chryselephantine cult statue of Athena by Pheidias, it was primarily the symbol of Athenian superiority in all things and is, even today, the culmination of the aesthetic ideals and technical mastery of the ancient world. The Parthenon, more than any other building, demonstrates clearly how architecture reflects as well as affects the intellectual life of its age.

Other examples. In building the Erechtheion, Philokles was required to meet a number of special conditions, for this temple enshrined three hallowed spots, including the holes in the ground made by Poseidon’s trident while he contested with his niece for supremacy in Athena. The Erechtheion appears to be three separate temples happily and miraculously united on the rough terrain. The imposing dignity of the tall central portion with its Ionic columns of attenuated proportions relates to the stately hearing of the small female figures forming the columns of the Porch of the Maidens. In spite of their refinement and delicacy of scale, these poised caryatids (so-called from the captive women of Caria, Asia Minor) are reminiscent of the sober Osirid columns of ancient Egypt as well as the architectural character of the cult statues of archaic Greece. The temple of Nike Apteros with its amphiprostyle Ionic columns is one of the gems of fifth century architecture, because of its miniature proportions and delicate details.

It may seem sacrilegious to mention the fact that not all Greek temples offer the spiritual refreshment which is to be derived from contemplation of the Parthenon. For example, although the well-preserved Doric Hephaisteion (formerly known as the refinements and subtleties associated with the Periclean Age, it is surprisingly uninteresting, even monotonous. Its earlier name became attached to it because of the subject matter of the pedimental sculptures dealing with the legendary exploits of the hero, Theseus, who saved Greece from its enemies.


The Greek theater was unique in ancient architecture for it alone placed the emphasis entirely upon the interior; originally, indeed, it had no exterior. The auditorium or koilon was part of the landscape, the seats being formed by the slope of the hillside. Owing to its relation to Greek religious festival drama, music, and the dance, the theater form became fixed early in Greek history. Alterations and developments took place only in the staging area, with minor modifications in the seating, as in the staging area reserved for the priests in the theater of Dionysus at Athens. Like the Greek temple, the theater displayed its heroic proportions and created an aesthetic effect by its close relationship to the site, as in the theater at Epidauros by Polykleitos the Younger. One very remarkable contribution made by the Greeks was their substitution of the experience of the spectacle for that of the procession. This was achieved by inverting the function of the staircase. Stairs were used primarily ( in the Mesopotamian ziggurat and in later Central American pyramids) as an avenue of participation through approach to holy shrines above; the Greeke theater reserved the direction of the stairway, stopped traffic, and focused the attention on the reenactment of religious scenes below.

Other Structures

Although the temple and the theater were the most significant contributions of the Greeks to the architecture of the ancient world, there were other structures, such as the Propylaea (the gateway to the Acropolis of Athens) by Mnesikles, containing both Glyptotheka and Pinakotheka (sculpture and picture galleries), as well as gymnasiums, stadiums, stoas (covered walks), bouleteria (meeting halls), basilicas (courthouses), and domestic buildings. These have not been so well preserved as the temples and theaters, and they have been difficult to restore.


Greek sculpture falls lpgically into two classifications: (1) sculpture created without regard to their ultimate location or method of display (nearly all free-standing figures are in this division expect pedimental groups); and (2) sculptures designed as ornaments for specific positions (usually relief decorations either in the metopes of the entablature frieze or for the continuous Ionic frieze of the cella walls). Although most of the highly prized Greek sculptures which have come down to us are of marble, probably the bulk of the artistic production was cast in bronze. According to descriptions in ancient literature, the sculptor Lysippus alone made over fifteen hundred works in bronze. Since they were hollow, the bronzes were easily carried off by plunderers; not so portable, marble sculptures were eagerly sought by builders in later centuries, as testified to by the limekilns near the sites of ancient monuments. Like the temples, many of the early sculptures were brightly painted, a survival of the primitive custom of simulating life in the wooden cult figures. This practice was gradually superseded because of the exquisite quality of Parian and Naxian marble. Then the color was applied only as accent to eyelids, eyebrows, pupils, hair, and lips; the color enhanced the texture of the stone by contrast rather than concealing the fine material.

Archaic Sculpture

The seventh and sixth centuries B.C. were an experimental period in Greek sculpture, some of the cult statues demonstrated primitive artistic conventions but also revealed advancements in techniques and idea achieved by the sculptors. The conventional kuoros, the standing male figure, has been given the generic term of “Apollo” in Greek art; hence the Apollo of Tenea and the Delian Apollo were not necessarily gods, but possibly donors of votove symbols. Tension was apparent in the rigidity of the figures in which the law of frontality was unfailingly observed; clenched fists were held close to the body, and one foot was invariably advanced with the weight resting equally on both feet. Animation was lent to the faces by the use of a vivacious grimace which we call the “Archaic smile,” but which the ancients called the “Bocotian smile,” for they regarded the rustics of Boeotia who visited the cultured centers in the Peloponnesus as dull wits gawking at the wonders of urban life with a rapt expression of adenoidal vacuity. The Archaic smile was often forced or inappropriate, especially if worn by a wounded warrior or seen as the inexplicable semblance of delight on the face of the “Moschophorous” (call-bearer). The kore (standing female) figure of Greek sculpture was always draped, for the element of female modesty was strong in ancient Greek art. A typical example of the Archaic kore is the monumental Hera of Samos, which through the ridges of her simple gown tapering outward at her feet, the composure of the arms pressed closely to the body, and the splaying out of the enormous feet to form a sturdy base, gives the impression of a massive architectural member, a pillar carved directly from the tree trunk, ponting back to the days when man worshiped sticks and stones. Acropolis “Maidens,” such as that of Antenor, observed the primitive conventions of frontality, tension and the use of the Archaic smile. Works in relief, designed as they were as ornaments for a specific place, such as metope sculptures, revealed greater technical difficulties in the solution of compositional and spatial problems. That of Perseus slaying the Medusa, aside from its good-humored treatment of the gorgon, observed the primitive custom of using descriptive perspective and frontal emphasis.


Characteristic of Mycenaean Art

Mycenaean art like Minoan was based on Mediterranean culture traits, but Mycenaean art was much more naive and barbaric than the guy, sophisticated Minoan art. Flourishing for only a few centuries at the end of the period of Minoan cultural supremacy, it too was not apparently religious in character, and it too borrowed elements from the ancient Orient. Mycenaean artisans imitated Minoan technical skill in handling metals and clay, but were original in architectural construction. They developed a monumental vaulted type of building based on different situations, their need for protection and the availability of good materials.

The secular aspect of Mycenaean art reflected the freedom of the inhabitants of mainland Greece from the hampering restrictions of an art in the service of the gods. Aside from the restrictions of an art in the service of the gods. Aside from the refinement of stone building skills,  the Mycenaean technique in small art objects was much more crude in execution than the polished mastery of material and subject matter associated with Minoan art. The Mycenaeans imported rare and beautiful objects which they copied freely with a resultant caricature treatment of many vase paintings.


Despite the traditional legends that indicate a long and close connection between mainland Greece and the thalassocrazy or sea kingdom that dominated the Mediterranean at that time, the architecture in the Mycenaean area differed greatly from that in Crete. Tiryns and Mycenaea, the heart of the Aegean confederacy and the home of Agamemnon were not cities but rather hill fortresses. The need for protection and the use of stone led to their principle of construction, the corbeled vaulth which is not based on the keystone arch but instead on a cantilever principle with support only on one end of the horizontal member. Gigantic boulders were set in place and the interstices between the polygonal blocks were filled with a kind of clay mortar and small stones. The monumental scale of the buildings led the Greeks of later age to believe that the Mycenaean builders were a race of giants and to give the term cyclopean to this style of stone working for they reasoned only the Cyclopes could have raised such mammoth stones. Mycenaean architecture is like Minoan in the absence of temples but unique in the importance of tombs for its warrior kings.

Hill Fortresses

The citadels of Mycenae and Tiryns were royal residences and administrative headquartres. The vast fortifications of the thock walls, some of them with corbeled passages, were terminated and guarted at Mycenae by the great gate with the lionesses. The citadel at Tiryns is better prepreserved and more strongly fortified, with the walls penetrable at only one point. The whole plan was built on terraced levels, united by long sloping ramps. The fortress at Mycenae was more Minoan, having several entrances and a couple of open porches reminiscent of the palace at Kronnos. The living quarters were arranged on the traditional megaron (great hall) plan, the domestic architecture described in Homer. The enclosed domestic area was preceded by the courtyard (aithousa) with the sheds for the animals, and the portico (aule) with gable and pillars; beyond these stood first the antechamber, then the inner chamber with the hearth, the hearth of the establishment. Each section of the hill fortresses was capable of defense and could be divided off, the inner sections being protected to the last stand. In the warlike society of Mycenae the women seem to have been in a cloistered or segregated position, in contrast to the freedom and lack of restriction in the more open, luxurious palaces in Crete.

Beehive Tombs

There were two types of Mycenaean tombs. The simple perpendicular shaft sunk into the ground seems to have been the earlier form, but the later tombs were excavated from the sloping hillside and reinforced by stone vaults. This second form with the corbelled domed roof presents a beehive (tholos, plural tholoi) aspect when viewed in section despite the fact that the major portion of the plan was underground. The Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae is the most distinct example of the tholos tombs. The plan contained a long vaulted runway or approach, called the dromos, terminating in a rotunda where grave offerings were placed; next to the rotunda at one side was the rectangular tomb chamber. These tombs are not entirely unlike the rock-cut tombs of Egypt in function and idea – the preservation of the memory of the great warriors.

Related Arts

Like the Minoans, the Mycenaeans valued fine accessories to aid in comfortable living, such as gold tableware. To these refinements they added richly decorated weapons and memorial equipment for great warriors, suitable to a culture of warlike people.

Architetctural Sculpture

There was little architectural sculpture on the mainland because, as in Crete, there seems to have been little need for it either in the requirement of religious observances or in the style of the architecture. The only really monumental example of it is the Gate of the Lionesses at Mycenae, which is indistinguishable in style from some of the more miniature sculptures of the same theme in Minoan art. The relief is carved in stone over the pediment-like terminal of the corbelet vault; it shows a typically Minoan tapering column flanked by two rampant (though mild-mannered) lionesses in the heraldic manner of mesopotamia. This animal motif is a borrowed element, found also in some of the Minoan seals, for lions are not indigenous to the Mediterranean area.

Wall Painting

The true fresco technique for mural decoration was used in the Mycenaean painting at Tiryns of the woman bearing an offering casket, as well as at Mycenae. The same secular , colorful, decoretive style prevailed in Mycenaean art as in Minoan. Even the grave steles were not obviously religious in outward appearance; a characteristic form was that with the charioteer and the use of spiral motifs with no overts reference to death.

Pottery and Vase Painting

Although the shapes of the vases were similiar to fine Minoan ware, and the fabric of the pottery was well made, the pictoral decoration revealed a lack of mastery, as can be seen in the crude but lively drawing of the awkward squad proceeding around the Warrior Vase.


The barbaric refinement of a warlike court is revealed in the extensive discoveries by modern archaeologists of objects made of gold, silver, copper, and bronze. There is an abundance of ceremonial weapons, such as the bronze dagger inlaid with ivory, showing the dynamic lion hunt which gradually becomes smaller at the point; face masks for the dead heroes, of beaten gold with herringbone designs on the eyebrows; fine gold table service inspired by the fine Minoan Vaphio Cups ( found in Laconia, Greece, but of undoubted Minoan manufacture); and jewelry, usually decorated with geometric designs and scenes of the hunt or of war.

Charateristic of Minoan Art      

In Minoan art there was a marked preference for recognizable subjects decorative in application but based on observation of marine and floral motifs peculiar to Crete such as on Octopus Vase. Another example of specifically Minoan naturalism is the treatment of the landscape.wall in the Gryphon Mural in the throne room at Knossos. In this mural three decorative wavy lines suggest the actual appearance of the landscape from the northern shore of Knossos where three mountain ranges are superimposed on one another behind a narrow reedy coastline.

The Island of Crete

The remarkable coastline of Crete with its extraordinary number of bays, gulfs, peninsulas and islands offered excelent natural harbor facilities and the early settlers soon turned to shipping as a means of livehood. Their chief income was probably derived from the carrying trade for less venturesome neighbors, but the Minoans were also great metallurgists of the ancient world. Their emergence as a dominant group in the Bronze Age testifies to Minoan skill in metalworking and the full exploitation of natural resources of metal on Crete as well as those of the subordinate cultures in the Aegean are indicates a long period of political supremacy. This dominance is recorded in the traditional legens of the levying of annual tribute, myths which certainly contain a substratum of fact. Important sites on the island which have hoarded treasures to be discovered in modern times are Knossos, Gournia, Palaikastro and Hagia Triada.

The Minoans

The identify of settlers on the island of Crete is as conjectural as are the reasons for thier sudden and apparently mysterious disappearance sometime. The myth of the beautiful Europa, mother of Minos, the traditional founder who was transported to Crete form Greece on the back of Zeus disguised as a bull, points to possible European origin: other theories suggest African and still others favor Mesopotamian ancestors. Minoan art indicates a society predominantly middle class with no strongly entrenced nobility or priest class. The individuality and freedom of the style indicate a social patern without the limitations and restrictions imposed by hieratical tradition. The rulers at Knossos may have had some feudal supremacy over the other maritime powers in Crete, but possibly these sea klings were originally merely sucessful shipping merchants. Perhaps the rambling plan of the palace at Knossos acquired its labyrinthine character in the process of commercial expansion as a combination residence-warehouse with additions. In appearance the Minoans were very sophisticated and elegant in their dress and manners: they were athletically slender and grateful and the present a very smart aspect to modern eyes. The sudden disappearance of Minoan civilization suggests the occurrence of a great catastrophe, perhaps invansion by a plundering tribe while the self confident Minoans slept, secure in their sea supremacy or perhaps fire, tidal wave, earthquake, or systematic pillage and sack. Some evidende of haste in the abandonment of the settlements reinforces the first suggestion.


Because it used a variety of materials, Minoans architecture was quite flexible in its forms. The principle of construction used was the trabeated system, the materials were wooden beams and clay mortar, faced with gypsum in the upper stories with stone used in the massive artificial substructure and foundations. The temple was unknown in Minoan architecture although the rooms around the central court of the palace at Knossos contain the symbols of the Labrys of the probable religious significance and the throne room has lustral bassins for ceremonial usage. In general the scale of the buildings was intimate, the fittings were comportable, modern conveniences were common, and the total effect seems to be an interior emphasis, modern in attitude, rather than a striving for external symbols of grandeur.

The Palace at Knossos

The palace of King Minos at Knosossos was large low, rambling building. Originally it may have been several buildings, later connected. The labyrinth, the  mazelike plan of the rambling palace, led to the development of the myths of the Minotaur and the tradition of its architect, the great fabricator, Daedalus: but it may have been merely a series of storerooms for thr sea kings. The theater like area at the northwest corner of the vast complex with its circular orchestra may have had more than secular and dramatic importance for festival drama anf perhaps the athletic contests of the Minoans originally were part of religious observance. Only the seaside was guarded at Knossos and the general effect of Minoan architecture is one of the openness, freedom and luxury. The large central courtyard was approached by broad stairways open at the sides and supported by columns. The columns always tapered from capital to foot with no base, presenting a mushroom aspect. The abacus or squared block at the top of the capital was like that of the archaic Doric in later Hellenic times. The form was possibly related to tree worship.

Other Palaces

Ruins of less important palaces, smaller in scale and more unified in plan, have been found at Phaistos and Hagia Triada. In these there was a greater use of peristyles, forming more intimate courtyards and of loggias.

Related Arts

Most of the arts of the Minoans were not of monumental scale or symbolic grandeur for they were not used in the service of the gods or in the exemplification of the ideals of a strong government. They arts of painting, sculpture and the object of everyday use were related to other artistic forms. The vitality and freshness of outlook in wall painting were repeated in vase paintings and in the carvel stone vases.

Wall Painting

Wall paintings had no relation to sculpture, as they had had in Egypt. Minoan murals were done in the true fresco technique the color and design were applied directly upon the wet plaster. This technique requires rapid execution and confidence since no corrections are possible once the wall dries.

As a resulth, there are an exceptional animation and a daring freedom in such examples as the Bull Leapers Fresco at Knossos.


There were little architectural sculpture and no monumental free standing sculptures, for the Minoan religion did not require sculpture and there were no temples to decorate. The materials of which the sculptures were made bronze, ivory, gold, copper, silver, terracotta and chryselephantine necessitated the substitution of miniature refinements for the aweinspiring grandeur of Egyptian massive sculptures. Some of the vases were carved in stone, a technique borrowed from the Egyptians and suited to the soft stone such as steatite used by the Minoans and Mycenaeans. The boxer Vase from Hagia Triada with its division of the stirrup cup (ceremonial farewell drinking cup, conical in shape) into diminishing registers, representing possibly sacred bulls, Minoan pillars, and ceremonial gymnasts, can be easily identified as related to other Minoan mediums and techniques. The Harvester Vase with its animated openmouthed hymnasts, their voices raised in thankgiving, reflects the freedom from convention mentioned above, which is noticeable in the artistic productions of the Aegean area in contrast to the restrictions present in the Nile and Tigris Euphrates civilizations. Even the metalwork and the repousse technique of gold tableware reflect a skill in bas-relief, with the representation of figures in landscape and a distinct creation of a sense of mood. The Vaphio Cupsreveal different moods, the contented grazing bulls and the active scene of capture, typically Mediterranean.

Charateristic of Mesopotamian Art

The valley of  the Tigris Euphrates rivers, forming the “Fertile Crescent” in ancient times, was termed mesos-potamus or the middle of the river. Mesopotamia covered roughly the area today called Western Asia (Iran and Iraq) and the area from Asia Minor to the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean. It was in habited successively and concurrently by the Sumerians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Hittites, Hebrew, Assyrians, Achaemenian Persians, Parthians, Seleucids, and Sassanians.

According to tradition, Mesopotamia was the cradle of Man, the site of Eden, and in fact it was a remarkably rich agricultural area which enabled settlers in that region to prosper and develop civilizations at an early date. Its central location made it subject to constant invasion from all sides by peoples of various origins. The decorative coloristic aspects of ancient Oriental art, extending into the Christian era as a part of Byzantine art and surviving today in Moslem art, were first apparent in the Assyrian epoch.

Although less skilled in execution than Egyptian, Mesopotamian art had a number of distinctive features. The observance of primitive conventions, such as the use of descriptive perspective, horror vacui, the arrangement of figures according to rank rather than real size in relief sculpture (except among Assyrians and Persians), and the tense frontality of free standing sculpture, lends a certain superficial resemblance to the art of the contemporary Egyptian style. However, aside from such obvious distinctions as costume and physical types, there are a number of very striking differences. Mesopotamian art presents an entirely different view of life from the Egyptian preoccupation with life after death. In Mesopotamia the freedom from hieratical limitations imposed on Egyptian artists resulted in a much more emotional quality in the art as opposed to the impassivity and impartiality of Egyptian examples. Other extraordinary features of Mesopotamian art include the variety of the backgrounds of the settlers and the freedom of the individual artist to interpret his subject either realistically or symbolically.

The Varied Cultures

Unlike Egyptian art, Mesopotamian art differed from one chronogical division to another, owing to the successive dominance of groups possessing different cultures. The only difference between Sumerian and Babylonian culture was one of language, which does not materially affect visual art except for inscriptions. The Hittites, coming from the barbarian northwest, evidenced little technical skill and demonstrated definite provincialism of style. The Assyrians tended to absorb all the artistic influences in the ancient Orient as well as those in the West. They adopted and elaborated all the earlier culture traits and are often called the Romans of Mesopotamia. The Persians were the cultural heirs of  the Assyrians, and much of their art was influenced by their contemporaries, the Greeks. The Hebrews, owing to prohibitions of Mosaic Law, did not develoved an independent artistic. The nomad Hebrews had no tradition of permanent building, nor the trades of carpenters, blacksmiths, and artisans, untill centuries later. Thus Temple of Solomon was an adaptation of the Mesopotamian palace and courtyards, with its complex plan of sacred precincts built of fine imported materials by Hiram of Tyre.

Individuality of Artist

The variation in the technical character of Mesopotamian art can be explained partly on the grounds of chronology and partly by the divergence in the  degree of sophistication possessed by the many contrasting cultural groups, from the cultural isolation of the remote Hittite outposts at Sinjirli and Boghaz in Asia Minor to the cities on the busy banks of the Tigris Euphrates. But there were also other considerations. In the British Museum there are two Assyrian reliefs from the reign of Ashurbanipal. One is refined and graceful, showing a battle with the nude, camel riding Arabs pursued by clothed Assyrian cavalry. The other is awkward in scale the figures of the king and his wife dining, waited upon by servants, are dumpy and inelegant. This divergence of one national style within limited chronological bounds suggests that such individualism was the result of the freedom from hieratic restriction, with the imposition of no definitive standards.

Emotional Quality

Mesopotamian reliefs expressed feelings, attitudes, and opinions in a manner never revealed in Egyptian art, The stele of Naram Sin, the grandson of Sargon of Akkad shows the Babylonian warrior king striding purposefully and triump up the side of mountain while the fallen warrior at his feet writhes in an attempt to withdraw the spear thrust into his throat. The enemy beyond seeing the hero approach is prepared for any eventuallity and although in position to flee if necessary, turns back to beg for mercy. The wounded beasts in the “Lion Hunt of Assurnasirpal II” attack the chariot in rage. The Assyrian relief of the bleeding lioness, howling in anguish as she drags her paralyzed hind legs, reveals the artist’s recognition of pain and suffering. The realism based on observation is not apparent in the poised never-never land of Egyptian art.

Descriptive Realism and Symbolism

Mesopotamian art combined two divergent elements descriptive realism and symbolism. Real landscape in the mountain forest through which the army of Naram Sin marched was used simultaneously with the superimposed bethel. The bethel was also used in the symbolic footstool or mountain range beneath Marduk in the Hamurabi stele. Purely realistic items were used in Mesopotamian art, such as the quiver of spare javelins at the back of Enneatum’s chariot in the Vulture Stele. The obverse of the same stele, however refers to a figure of speech, a purely literary expression “casting a net over the enemies” referring to conquest.

Decorative Stylization

The theme of composite or imaginary animals, universal in ancient art was especially conventional in Assyrian and Persian art. The winged genie (magical spirits) on walls and the human headed bulls at gateways had a decorative formal elegance unmatched by other Mesopotamian art. The bulls were treated as relief sculpture from the side and as freestanding sculpture from the front, showing four legs from each side. Muscles of both human beings and animals were treated in a decorative and highly stylized way. The fringes on the heavy costumes were presented in full detail but defy the law of gravity for they rarely hang down.

Charateristic of Egyptian Art

Owing to the exceptional fertility of the Nile Valley, resulting in the wealth of ancient Egypt, and to the peculiar geographical situation, Egypt was unified and isolated and thus protected from constant invasion by divergent influences. Ancient Egypt occupied only a narrow cultivated strip on each side of the river: therefore the Nile was a remarkably efficient agency of communication and political unification. The canons of artistic tradition were established by the third millenium. No important advances were made down to the Christian period, except for the brief interval in the 18th Dynasty when art was temporarily freed from the bonds of religious convention.

Baldwin Smith refers to the role of tradition in the development of Egyptian art as sterilized preservation. Even in priods of foreign political control, as in the Ptolemaic era (Egypt was a part of the Greek empire from the third to the first century), the native Egyptian artistic features remained distinctly recognizable and dominant. It is possible that had Egyptian society been totally dislocated by a change of climate or calamity, the persistent traditionalism of art would have ultimately disappeared. However, successive conquests late in its history, even that by the Romans, merely continued the system of monarchical state socialism under which Egypt had prospered for several thousands of years.

Egyptian art had  an independent character distinctly fixed from the earliest times as a result of special conditions in Egypt. Only in the earliest epoch before written records (the prehistoric or predynastic period) did Egypt borrow elements from the contemporary and more advanced civilization, the Mesopotamian. Two of the borrowed devices were the use of heraldic motifs and the portrayal of rampant animals facing each other. Only in the very latest period were foreign influences assimilated. In the Ptolemaic era may be noted a general softening of contour in figure compositions, the triumph of anthropomorphism in the representation of Egyptian deities, and the growth of a certain Hellennistic pictorialsm. In other respects, Egyptian art maintanedits distinctive character, with the observance of conventions found in all forms of primitive art, the world over, and with such qualities as interrelationship among the arts, monumental outlook, varied themes, and above all, the dependence upon forms used in the past.

Interrelationship of the Arts

The arts in Egypt were most unusually interrelated. Sculpture in the round was almost indistinguishable from the solidity of architecture, as in the giant proto-Doric columns at Beni Hasan, the Great Sphinx at Gizeh, and the figures of the pharaoh Rameses and the god Osiris at Abu Simbel. Relief sculpture was inextricably part of the architectural surfaces it covered. Painting was primarily an adjunct of sculpture, for most of the reliefs were painted. As a result, the mural paintings demonstrated the conventions of sculpture rather than pictorial qualities. The negation of space noticeable in Egyptian architecture is apparent also in both plastic and pictorial arts in use of seized space or views achieved by the simultaneous use of registers or panels shown one above another and giving both floor plans and elevations.

Largeness of Scale: Real or Imaginary

By contrast, the masive grandeur of Egyptian art dominates that of all other ancient civilizations. Each example gives the impression of monumental dignity no matter how miniature in actuality, revealing a largeness of concept unequaled in any other epoch. This charateristic reflects the impressive political prestige, financial power, and material wealth of Egypt. It also suggests that the final forms were preceded by long stylistic development through experimentation and manipulation of the materials. The impression of gigantic scale is as striking in small faience (blue green earth enware) ushebti (figurines in the tombs called answerers who were to do the bidding of the dead) as in the tremendous columns of the Hypostyle Hall in the temple of Amon Ra at Karnak.

Variety of Subject Matter

Iconographically Egyptian art was extremely varied. Because of the importance of the death cult and the sacred character of the pharaoh, religious themes were important, but secular motifs were by no means neglected. The tomb decorations were filled with representations of everyday activities on earth and, therefore, are not religious in appearance but merely by indirection, affording a surprisingly contemporary effect. Despite the abstraction of Egyptian art, the portraiture was unusually particularized. The formality of convention was strong, even in genre works. It was only during the rule of Ikhnaton for a short period in the 18th Dynasty that realism flourished in art: for example, the ruler and his wife were portrayed fondling and playing with their small daughters.