The Art of the Greeks



The First Realism

In 479bc, the Athenians re-established their territorial security with a victory over the Persians at Plataea. Fragments of statues left in ruins by the Persians were religiously gathered up and buried on the Acropolis. Fire had completely destroyed paintings by the "primitives" which had for so long provided the models for the portrayal of gods and heroes. The resultant need for the Athenians to rethink their institutions combined with their victory, meant that they were able to plan the future of their city with confidence. For the first time. artists depicted their subjects in realistic situations and characterized them according to surrounding events.


The Severe Style

In sculpture, the transition to realism can be seen in the works of Kritios, Nesiotes, and Egia in Athens, and Agelades at Argos. Using dynamic, fluid outlines, Micon and Myron rejected the solidity of the work of Polygnotos and Kalamis, and in painting. Micon developed spacial concepts, depicting the area between figures and landscape, lifelike gestures and movements. and the tangled tumult of battle. In Myron's statue of Ladas at Olympia (460bc), the runner looks as though he is about to leap off his pedestal; his Timanthes (456bc.) raises his arms to his head to fasten his leather cap; and the legs and torso of his Discus Thrower (c.450bc) are long, the body lean and tense, and the muscles taut. The head echoes the oval shape of the Bronze A, one of two bronze warriors found off Riace, in southern Italy. The pose and physique of Myron's colossal statue of Zeus, on Samos, imitate the work of Agelades. Influenced in Athens by the imagery of the theatre, Myron arranged his sculptures like paintings, using the type of layout that culminated in his group Apollo and Marsyas.


Attributed to Agelades
Tydeos (better known as Bronze A),
from the sea at Riace, southern Italy.
National Museum, Reggio Calabria

Niobid Painter, Slaughter of the Niobids,
detail on an Attic vase showing Apollo and Artemis with bows and arrows.
Musee du Louvre, Paris





An influential sculptor from Eleutherae in Boeotia, Myron (c.480-455bc) was a student of Agelades of Argos, The dynamic linear style of his work in bronze contrasted with the solidity of Kalamis1 work. His Timanthes, Ladas, and Discus Thrower are thought to date from the early Peloponnesian period, and his Lycinos at Olympia from a later phase. The group of Zeus, Athena, and Herakles was sculpted at Samos, white his Perseos, Erechtheos, Athena, and Marsyas groups, and Theseos and the Minotaur, were made in Athens. His famous cow was reproduced as a bronze statuette.


Discus Thrower, copy after Myron
Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome





Attributed to Myron,
Athena and Marsyas group (Vatican Museums)
marble copy after 5th century BC original





The painter Polygnotos (c.510-460bc) came from Thasos. He freed art from the craft tradition and rivalled the poets in reviving mythology as a basis for aristocratic virtues. His Punishment of the Suitors at Plataea (479bc) was followed by Odysseos and then Achilles in Skyros (475bc), painted in Athens while in the political entourage of Kimon. He also began the decoration of the Stoa Poikile, which may have remained unfinished until the introduction of democracy (462-461BC). His Destruction of Troy and Odysseos Visiting Hades adorned the large "meeting room" at Delphi.

Red-figure Colyx-krater,
attributed to Polygnotos
Athens, c.450bc

Athenian, Red Figure, Krater, Fragment Polygnotos
Greek Ceramic, Red Figure
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Art attique,  Agrigente,  Attribue au Groupe de Polygnotos
Thesee et les Amazones
Londres, British Museum





As Greek expansion continued with the defeat of the Persians at Salamis, the victory over the Carthaginians at Himera in Sicily, and the rout of the Etruscan fleet at Cumae by the Syracusans in 474bc, the quality of life in Greece improved. The power of Athens was consolidating, Persia was collapsing as a serious threat, and a new level of comfort and sophistication had been achieved. Paintings on the ceiling and slab of the Tomb of the Diver at Poseidonia (as the city of Paestum was then known) reflect these improvements. Guests recline in front of tables decorated with foliage, with a wine-krater at the centre. A naked boy offers drinks with a long ladle, as drunkenness spreads through the crowd: one man sings, another plays the flute, others talk. An old man arrives, preceded by a flautist and followed by his son, who carries his stick. As in contemporary paintings by Polygnotos, the narrative element of the decoration engages the spectator with its depth of meaning. This is a parting with no return. The youth following his father is the same figure that reappears in the painting on the ceiling - there, amid the tree branches, he dives into the rolling sea. His athletic glory highlights the destiny of the departed, whose soul will cross the sea to reach the Isles of the Blessed.


painting from the slab of the Tomb of the Diver, Paestum
National Archaeological Museum, Paestum, Italy


Flautist, Dancer, and Deceased,
painting from the lateral slab of the Tomb of the Diver, Paestum
National Archaeological Museum, Paestum, Italy




This tomb offers a rare example of Hellenic painting, decorated as it is with scenes of a funeral banquet held in honour of the departed. On the interior and exterior of the lid of the tomb is a depiction of the diver after whom the tomb is named. This part of the slab portrays a section of the banqueting chamber, and shows a row of three banqueting couches, with arm supports on the right, each of which has a low serving-table in front of it. Five figures are shown reclining on the couches. To the right is a singer, who is performing with a youth who accompanies him on the flute. In the centre, a bearded man and another youth are talking, each holding a goblet in his hand, and on the third couch, to the left, a lyre-player has stopped playing and is resting the instrument on his lap and has turned to face his companions who are listening to the song. The scene is skilfully composed and animated by the artist. Each figure is involved in an activity that relates him both to another figure and to the overall action taking place There are no women in the picture. Instead, this is a world of relationships between the old and young, a society of men gathered together in private solidarity.

Painting on a slab on the southern side of the Tomb of the Diver
National Archaeological Museum, Paestum, Italy



Apollo Alexikakos,
copy after Kalamis
National Archaeological Museum, Athens

The Art of Athens

After the Doric phase of the Severe style, the vigorous Athenian style became even more firmly established with Phidias, who portrayed the gods in open communication with the city that they protected. His Apollo (Kassel version) differs from Kalamis' Apollo Alexikakos in the broad structure of the body and the crisp outline. Compared to the oblong heads of Myron's statues, the forehead has a rectangular quality, and a sense of forward motion creates a powerful effect of immediacy. Whereas Kalamis interpreted the ideals of Kimon, Phidias followed the democratic path of Perikles, who gave him the post of superintendent of new monuments.
The building of the Acropolis gave rise to the style of dynamic narration that lies at the heart of European figurative language. The hierarchy of the subjects, progressively enlivened with colour, is revealed by their different levels above the ground: the Panathenaic festival on the frieze around the inner temple, rising to the mythological and epic subjects on the metopes, and culminating in the pediments. The sacred element increases from west to east, the direction taken by visitors arriving from the Propylaea. In the metopes to the west and south. there are no deities. Some appear on the northern side. while in the gigantomachia on the facade of the Parthenon there is an Olympian god for each metope. Similarly, the frieze contains deities on the eastern side only. The western pediment is peopled by heroes, with just two deities - Poseidon and Athena - shown competing for the ownership of Attica; the eastern pediment contains Zeus and the birth of Athena as well as the divine court.
The architectural narrative of the Parthenon progresses from isolated episodes in the metopes to the processional continuity of the frieze and the heavy mythology of the pediments; the cella once held a colossal gold and ivory statue of Athena. The Parthenon, a monument to democratic co-existence, combines the Doric style with Ionic elements. It celebrates the coming together of citizens ruled by different political systems, and brings together mortals, heroes, and deities. The decoration of the metopes alludes to the threat posed by the constant struggle between Greeks and barbarians. The hand of the Lemnian sculptor Alcamenes can be seen on the slab in the eastern frieze. Poseidon's flowing hair has the same softness found in the Bronze B, one of the two statues of warriors found off Riace, and the wide, staring eyes are also familiar. A similar use of drapery can be seen in Alcamenes' marble group of the mythological Procne and Itys on the Acropolis.



Attributed to Alcamenes,
Hero in Arms (better known as Bronze B),
from the sea off Riace, southern Italy
National Museum, Reggio Calabria, Italy

Drawing of the Acropolis,
Athens, from the Hellenistic age



For the Greeks, beauty was not simply a cultural ideal connected with art and the gods, but was also a personal pursuit. This is clearly demonstrated in the decoration of many artifacts, including this oil jar.

Oil jar with decoration showing a woman holding a mirror
National Museum, Reggio Calabria, Italy




Acropolis, Athens, Greece
Architects:Iktinos, Kallikrates, Phidias 
447-432 BC

Friezes (entablature components) Parthenon Acropolis, Athens, Greece
Iktinos, Kallikrates, Phidias 
447-432 BC



The great artist of the classical age, the Athenian sculptor Phidias (c.490-430bc) was the one most copied by the Romans. After studying bronze-working with Aegios in Athens and Agelades in Argos, he was the probable creator of The Apollo Parnopios (Kassel version). He was commissioned by Perikles to supervise work on the Acropolis and the Parthenon to plans by the architects Ictinus and Callicrates. He designed (and may have part executed) the Parthenon's 92 metopes of mythical battles, a frieze measuring 159 metres (522 feet) of the Great Panathenaea (the most important Athenian religious festival), sculptures for the pediments, and the 12-metre (40-foot) gold and ivory Athena Parthenos (447-438BC). The Wounded Amazon (Mattei version) and The Aphrodite Urania (Doria Pamphili) then followed.

After being put on trial for misappropriating gold and for impiety, Phidias moved to the Peloponnese, where he created a new Urania at Elis. He also set up a workshop at Olympia, where he made a colossal 14-metre (45-foot) gold and ivory statue of Zeus and The Anadoumenos. The originals from the Parthenon, largely kept in the British Museum. London, were an inspiration for European Neoclassical art.

Atributed to the Master of the
Temple of Hera at Selinus,
Melqart-Herakles, marble, c.450bc
Whitaker Museum, Mozia


At the colony of Motya, on the far western tip of Sicily, the cult of Melqart of Tyre was practised by the ruling Carthaginians. Melqart, a Phoenician tutelary god, was generally associated with Herakles in Hellenic times (c.450bc). This statue of Melqart-Herakles is evidence of the maturity of the artist, who was also responsible for the metopes on the Temple of Hera at Selinus (c.465bc); there, his Carthaginian employer allowed him to Hellenize his Eastern subject. As in other statues of Melqart-Herakles discovered on Cyprus, this figure was originally clothed in a lionskin (in this case made of bronze), although it was later removed by Syracusans during the sack of Motya in 397bc. A club in the hero's right hand was raised behind his head, but this threatening pose was softened by the nonchalance of the other hand, which rested on his hip. The sculptor Lysippos, in Alexander's retinue when the sanctuary at Tyre was rebuilt (331bc), was influenced by this statue; his later work of Herakles Overcoming the Lion for Cassander ( 31-tnc) included the original
image of the vanquished animal held in the left hand.

Melqart-Herakles, limestone
Nicosia Museum, Cyprus

Hercules Overcoming the Lion
(detail from the Labours of Hercules), after Lysippos
Pillared sarcophagus, Via Cassia, Rome
Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome

Nicola Pisano, Strenght,
allegorical figure from the pulpit of the Baptistry
Pisa, Italy







Born in Argos, Polycleitos (c.480-420bc), was a scuiptor and a pupil of Agelades. He wrote The Canon on the harmony of proportions and opposition of forces. His Discophoros (c.460) has both feet firmly on the ground, while the Kyniskos is more typically balanced. with one foot partially raised. Doryphorus was an exploration of the distribution of energy between the limbs, as was his Herakles. The Wounded Amazon (Sciarra version), which he is said to have made for Ephesus in competition with Phidias and Kresilas (c.440), and The Diadoumenos. His final bid to compete with the colossal statues of Phidias was the gold and ivory Hera, roughly 5.5 metres (18 feet) high His statues were widely copied during the late Hellenistic and Roman periods.


Polycleitos' Canon

Whereas Myron captured the transient and the fortuitous. Polycleitos inherited Kritios' and Kalamis' interest in volume and metrical rhythm. A native of Argos like Agelades, he investigated the possibilities of illustrating movement in standing figures. The distribution of weight in his Discophoros echoes the Riace Bronze A. In his Achilles or Doryphoros, unlike Phidias' Apollo. Polycleitos paid great attention to the distribution of weight and strength in the limbs. and created a canon

derived from Pythagoras' research into mathematical proportion. The asymmetrical position of the feet is counterbalanced by an intersection of force lines (chiasmos) through the body. The curls of the hair provide the finishing touch to a perfectly balanced work composed of many disparate elements. In about 440bc. Polycleitos moved to Athens, and challenged the dominance of Phidias. The influence of his rhythmical style proved decisive and came to exemplify the classical period.

Doryphoros by Polycleitos, replica, Naples museum

Doryphoros by Polycleitos, Munich university

Kyniskos by Polycleitos, Dresden Museum (reconstruction)


Wounded Amazon,
copies after originals known to have been created by Polykleitos and Phidias
for competition won by Polykleitos in Ephesos (?)

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