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.


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