The Legacy of Ancient Greece

Greek Art


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Greek sculpture now enters upon a stage of development which possesses for the modern student a singular and potent charm True, many traces still remain of the sculptor's imperfect mastery. He cannot pose his figures in perfectly easy attitudes not even in reliefs, where the problem is easier than in sculpture in the round. His knowledge of human anatomy--that is to say, of the outward appearance of the human body, which is all the artistic anatomy that any one attempted to know during the rise and the great age of Greek sculpture--is still defective, and his means of expression are still imperfect. For example, in the nude male figure the hips continue to be too narrow for the shoulders, and the abdomen too flat. The facial peculiarities mentioned in the preceding chapter--prominent eyeballs, cheeks, and chin, and smiling mouth--are only very gradually modified. As from the first, the upper eyelid does not overlap the lower eyelid at the outer corner, as truth, or rather appearance, requires, and in relief sculpture the eye of a face in profile is rendered as in front view. The texture and arrangement of hair are expressed in various ways but always with a marked love of symmetry and formalism. In the difficult art of representing drapery there is much experimentation and great progress. It seems to have been among the eastern Ionians perhaps at Chios, that the deep cutting of folds was first practiced, and from Ionia this method of treatment spread to Athens and elsewhere. When drapery is used, there is a manifest desire on the sculptor's part to reveal what he can, more, in fact, than in reality could appear, of the form underneath. The garments fall in formal folds, sometimes of great elaboration. They look as if they were intended to represent garments of irregular cut, carefully starched and ironed. But one must be cautious about drawing inferences from an imperfect artistic manner as to the actual fashions of the day.

But whatever shortcomings in technical perfection may be laid to their charge, the works of this period are full of the indefinable fascination of promise. They are marked, moreover, by a simplicity and sincerity of purpose, an absence of all ostentation, a conscientious and loving devotion on the part of those who made them. And in many of them we are touched by great refinement and tenderness of feeling, and a peculiarly Greek grace of line.

To illustrate these remarks we may turn first to Lycia, in southwestern Asia Minor. The so called "Harpy" tomb was a huge, four sided pillar of stone, in the upper part of which a square burial-chamber was hollowed out. Marble bas-reliefs adorned the exterior of this chamber The best of the four slabs is seen in Fig 87 [Footnote: Our illustration is not quite complete on the right] At the right is a seated female figure, divinity or deceased woman, who holds in her right hand a pomegranate flower and in her left a pomegranate fruit To her approach three women, the first raising the lower part of her chiton with her right hand and drawing forward her outer garment with her left, the second bringing a fruit and a flower the third holding an egg in her right hand and raising her chiton with her left. Then comes the opening into the burial-chamber, surmounted by a diminutive cow suckling her calf. At the left is another seated female figure, holding a bowl for libation. The exact significance of this scene is unknown, and we may limit our attention to its artistic qualities. We have here our first opportunity of observing the principle of isocephaly in Greek relief-sculpture; i.e., the convention whereby the heads of figures in an extended composition are ranged on nearly the same level, no matter whether the figures are seated, standing, mounted on horseback, or placed in any other position. The main purpose of this convention doubtless was to avoid the unpleasing blank spaces which would result if the figures were all of the same proportions. In the present instance there may be the further desire to suggest by the greater size of the seated figures their greater dignity as goddesses or divinized human beings. Note, again, how, in the case of each standing woman, the garments adhere to the body behind. The sculptor here sacrifices truth for the sake of showing the outline of the figure. Finally, remark the daintiness with which the hands are used, particularly in the case of the seated figure on the right. The date of this work may be put not much later than the middle of the sixth century, and the style is that of the Ionian school.

Under the tyrant Pisistratus and his sons Athens attained to an importance in the world of art which it had not enjoyed before. A fine Attic work, which we may probably attribute to the time of Pisistratus, is the grave-monument of Aristion (Fig. 88). The material is Pentelic marble. The form of the monument, a tall, narrow, slightly tapering slab or stele, is the usual one in Attica in this period. The man represented in low relief is, of course, Aristion himself. He had probably fallen in battle, and so is put before us armed. Over a short chiton he wears a leather cuirass with a double row of flaps below, on his head is a small helmet, which leaves his face entirely exposed, on his legs are greaves; and in his left hand he holds a spear There is some constraint in the position of the left arm and hand, due to the limitations of space In general, the anatomy, so far as exhibited is creditable, though fault might be found with the shape of the thighs The hair, much shorter than is usual in the archaic period, is arranged in careful curls The beard, trimmed to a point in front, is rendered by parallel grooves The chiton, where it shows from under the cuirass, is arranged in symmetrical plaits There are considerable traces of color on the relief, as well as on the background Some of these may be seen in our illustration on the cuirass.

Our knowledge of early Attic sculpture has been immensely increased by the thorough exploration of the summit of the Athenian Acropolis in 1885-90 In regard to these important excavations it must be remembered that in 480 and again in 479 the Acropolis was occupied by Persians belonging to Xerxes' invading army, who reduced the buildings and sculptures on that site to a heap of fire-blackened ruins This debris was used by the Athenians in the generation immediately following toward raising the general level of the summit of the Acropolis. All this material, after having been buried for some twenty three and a half centuries, has now been recovered. In the light of the newly found remains, which include numerous inscribed pedestals, it is seen that under the rule of Pisistratus and his sons Athens attracted to itself talented sculptors from other Greek communities, notably from Chios and Ionia generally. It is to Ionian sculptors and to Athenian sculptors brought under Ionian influences that we must attribute almost all those standing female figures which form the chief part of the new treasures of the Acropolis Museum.

The figures of this type stand with the left foot, as a rule, a little advanced, the body and head facing directly forward with primitive stiffness. But the arms no longer hang straight at the sides, one of them, regularly the right, being extended from the elbow, while the other holds up the voluminous drapery. Many of the statues retain copious traces of color on hair, eyebrows, eyes, draperies, and ornaments; in no case does the flesh give any evidence of having been painted (cf. page 119). Fig. 89 is taken from an illustration which gives the color as it was when the statue was first found, before it had suffered from exposure. Fig. 90 is not in itself one of the most pleasing of the series, but it has a special interest, not merely on account of its exceptionally large size--it is over six and a half feet high--but because we probably know the name and something more of its sculptor. If, as seems altogether likely, the statue belongs upon the inscribed pedestal upon which it is placed in the illustration, then we have before us an original work of that Antenor who was commissioned by the Athenian people, soon after the expulsion of the tyrant Hippias and his family in 510, to make a group in bronze of Harmodius and Aristogiton (cf. pages 160-4) This statue might, of course, be one of his earlier productions.

At first sight these figures strike many untrained observers as simply grotesque. Some of them are indeed odd; Fig. 91 reproduces one which is especially so. But they soon become absorbingly interesting and then delightful. The strange-looking, puzzling garments, [Footnote: Fig 91 wears only one garment the Ionic chiton, a long; linen shift, girded at the waist and pulled up so as to fall over conceal the girdle. Figs 89, 90, 92 93 wear over this a second garment which goes over the right shoulder and under the left This over-garment reaches to the feet, so as to conceal the lower portion of the chiton At the top it is folded over, or perhaps rather another piece of cloth is sewed on. This over-fold, if it may be so called, appears as if cut with two or more long points below] which cling to the figure behind and fall in formal folds in front, the elaborately, often impossibly, arranged hair, the gracious countenances, a certain quaintness and refinement and unconsciousness of self--these things exercise over us an endless fascination.

Who are these mysterious beings? We do not know. There are those who would see in them, or in some of them, representations of Athena, who was not only a martial goddess, but also patroness of spinning and weaving and all cunning handiwork. To others, including the writer, they seem, in their manifold variety, to be daughters of Athens. But, if so, what especial claim these women had to be set up in effigy upon Athena's holy hill is an unsolved riddle.

Before parting from their company we must not fail to look at two fragmentary figures (Figs. 94, 95), the most advanced in style of the whole series and doubtless executed shortly before 480. In the former, presumably the earlier of the two, the marvelous arrangement of the hair over the forehead survives and the eyeballs still protrude unpleasantly. But the mouth has lost the conventional smile and the modeling of the face is of great beauty. In the other, alone of the series, the hair presents a fairly natural appearance, the eyeballs lie at their proper depth, and the beautiful curve of the neck is not masked by the locks that fall upon the breasts. In this head, too, the mouth actually droops at the corners, giving a perhaps unintended look of seriousness to the face. The ear, though set rather high, is exquisitely shaped.

Still more lovely than this lady is the youth's head shown in Fig.

  1. Fate has robbed us of the body to which it belonged, but the head itself is in an excellent state of preservation. The face is one of singular purity and sweetness. The hair, once of a golden tint, is long behind and is gathered into two braids, which start from just behind the ears, cross one another, and are fastened together in front; the short front hair is combed forward and conceals the ends of the braids; and there is a mysterious puff in front of each ear. In the whole work, so far at least as appears in a profile view, there is nothing to mar our pleasure. The sculptor's hand has responded cunningly to his beautiful thought.

It is a pity not to be able to illustrate another group of Attic sculptures of the late archaic period, the most recent addition to our store. The metopes of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi, discovered during the excavations now in progress, are of extraordinary interest and importance; but only two or three of them have yet been published, and these in a form not suited for reproduction. The same is the case with another of the recent finds at Delphi, the sculptured frieze of the Treasury of the Cnidians, already famous among professional students and destined to be known and admired by a wider public. Here, however, it is possible to submit a single fragment, which was found years ago (Fig. 97). It represents a four-horse chariot approaching an altar. The newly found pieces of this frieze have abundant remains of color. The work probably belongs in the last quarter of the sixth century.

The pediment-figures from Aegina, the chief treasure of the Munich collection of ancient sculpture, were found in 1811 by a party of scientific explorers and were restored in Italy under the superintendence of the Danish sculptor, Thorwaldsen. Until lately these AEginetan figures were our only important group of late archaic Greek sculptures; and, though that is no longer the case, they still retain, and will always retain, an especial interest and significance. They once filled the pediments of a Doric temple of Aphaia, of which considerable remains are still standing. There is no trustworthy external clue to the date of the building, and we are therefore obliged to depend for that on the style of the architecture and sculpture, especially the latter. In the dearth of accurately dated monuments which might serve as standards of comparison, great difference of opinion on this point has prevailed. But we are now somewhat better off, thanks to recent discoveries at Athens and Delphi, and we shall probably not go far wrong in assigning the temple with its sculptures to about 480 B.C. Fig. 52 illustrates, though somewhat incorrectly, the composition of the western pediment. The subject was a combat, in the presence of Athena, between Greeks and Asiatics, probably on the plain of Troy. A close parallelism existed between the two halves of the pediment, each figure, except the goddess and the fallen warrior at her feet, corresponding to a similar figure on the opposite side. Athena, protectress of the Greeks, stands in the center (Fig. 98). She wears two garments, of which the outer one (the only one seen in the illustration) is a marvel of formalism. Her aegis covers her breasts and hangs far down behind; the points of its scalloped edge once bristled with serpents' heads, and there was a Gorgon's head in the middle of the front. She has upon her head a helmet with lofty crest, and carries shield and lance. The men, with the exception of the two archers, are naked, and their helmets, which are of a form intended to cover the face, are pushed back. Of course, men did not actually go into battle in this fashion; but the sculptor did not care for realism, and he did care for the exhibition of the body. He belonged to a school which had made an especially careful study of anatomy, and his work shows a great improvement in this respect over anything we have yet had the opportunity to consider. Still, the men are decidedly lean in appearance and their angular attitudes are a little suggestive of prepared skeletons. They have oblique and prominent eyes, and, whether fighting or dying, they wear upon their faces the same conventional smile.

The group in the eastern pediment corresponds closely in subject and composition to that in the western, but is of a distinctly more advanced style. Only five figures of this group were sufficiently preserved to be restored. Of these perhaps the most admirable is the dying warrior from the southern corner of the pediment (Fig. 99), in which the only considerable modern part is the right leg, from the middle of the thigh. The superiority of this and its companion figures to those of the western pediment lies, as the Munich catalogue points out, in the juster proportions of body, arms, and legs, the greater fulness of the muscles, the more careful attention to the veins and to the qualities of the skin, the more natural position of eyes and mouth. This dying man does not smile meaninglessly. His lips are parted, and there is a suggestion of death-agony on his countenance. In both pediments the figures are carefully finished all round; there is no neglect, or none worth mentioning, of those parts which were destined to be invisible so long as the figures were in position.

The Strangford "Apollo" (Fig. 100) is of uncertain provenience, but is nearly related in style to the marbles of Aegina. This statue, by the position of body, legs, and head, belongs to the series of "Apollo" figures discussed above (pages 129-32); but the arms were no longer attached to the sides, and were probably bent at the elbows. The most obvious traces of a lingering archaism, besides the rigidity of the attitude, are the narrowness of the hips and the formal arrangement of the hair, with its double row of snail-shell curls. The statue has been spoken of by a high authority [Footnote: Newton, "Essays on Art and Archaeology" page

  1. as showing only "a meager and painful rendering of nature." That is one way of looking at it. But there is another way, which has been finely expressed by Pater, in an essay on "The Marbles of Aegina": "As art which has passed its prime has sometimes the charm of an absolute refinement in taste and workmanship, so immature art also, as we now see, has its own attractiveness in the naivete, the freshness of spirit, which finds power and interest in simple motives of feeling, and in the freshness of hand, which has a sense of enjoyment in mechanical processes still performed unmechanically, in the spending of care and intelligence on every touch. ... The workman is at work in dry earnestness, with a sort of hard strength of detail, a scrupulousness verging on stiffness, like that of an early Flemish painter; he communicates to us his still youthful sense of pleasure in the experience of the first rudimentary difficulties of his art overcome." [Footnote: Pater, "Greek Studies" page 285]

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