The Legacy of Ancient Greece

Greek Art


Prev | Next | Contents | Greek History | Roman Empire |

ANATHEMETA works of sculpture occupied a large and important place. The subjects of such sculptures were various. Statues of the god or goddess to whom the dedication was made were common; but perhaps still commoner were figures representing human persons, either the dedicators themselves or others in whom they were nearly interested. Under this latter head fall most of the many statues of victors in the athletic games. These were set up in temple precincts, like that of Zeus at Olympia, that of Apollo at Delphi, or that of Athena on the Acropolis of Athens, and were, in theory at least, intended rather as thank-offerings than as means of glorifying the victors themselves.

  1. Sepulchral sculpture. Sculptured grave monuments were common in Greece at least as early as the sixth century. The most usual monument was a slab of marble--the form varying according to place and time--sculptured with an idealized representation in relief of the deceased person, often with members of his family.

  2. Honorary statues. Statues representing distinguished men, contemporary or otherwise, could be set up by state authority in secular places or in sanctuaries. The earliest known case of this kind is that of Harmodius and Aristogiton, shortly after 510 B.C. (cf. pages 160-4). The practice gradually became common, reaching an extravagant development in the period after Alexander.

  3. Sculpture used merely as ornament, and having no sacred or public character. This class belongs mainly, if not wholly, to the latest period of Greek art. It would be going beyond our evidence to say that never, in the great age of Greek sculpture, was a statue or a relief produced merely as an ornament for a private house or the interior of a secular building. But certain it is that the demand for such things before the time of Alexander, if it existed at all, was inconsiderable. It may be neglected in a broad survey of the conditions of artistic production in the great age.

The foregoing list, while not quite exhaustive, is sufficiently so for present purposes. It will be seen how inspiring and elevating was the role assigned to the sculptor in Greece. His work destined to be seen by intelligent and sympathetic multitudes, appealed, not to the coarser elements of their nature, but to the most serious and exalted. Hence Greek sculpture of the best period is always pure and noble. The grosser aspects of Greek life, which flaunt themselves shamelessly in Attic comedy, as in some of the designs upon Attic vases, do not invade the province of this art.

It may be proper here to say a word in explanation of that frank and innocent nudity which is so characteristic a trait of the best Greek art. The Greek admiration for the masculine body and the willingness to display it were closely bound up with the extraordinary importance in Greece of gymnastic exercises and contests and with the habits which these engendered. As early as the seventh century, if not earlier, the competitors in the foot- race at Olympia dispensed with the loin-cloth, which had previously been the sole covering worn. In other Olympic contests the example thus set was not followed till some time later, but in the gymnastic exercises of every-day life the same custom must have early prevailed. Thus in contrast to primitive Greek feeling and to the feeling of "barbarians" generally, the exhibition by men among men of the naked body came to be regarded as something altogether honorable. There could not be better evidence of this than the fact that the archer-god, Apollo, the purest god in the Greek pantheon, does not deign in Greek art to veil the glory of his form.

Greek sculpture had a strongly idealizing bent. Gods and goddesses were conceived in the likeness of human beings, but human beings freed from eery blemish, made august and beautiful by the artistic imagination. The subjects of architectural sculpture were mainly mythological, historical scenes being very rare in purely Greek work; and these legendary themes offered little temptation to a literal copying of every-day life. But what is most noteworthy is that even in the representation of actual human persons, e.g., in athlete statues and upon grave monuments, Greek sculpture in the best period seems not to have even aimed at exact portraiture. The development of realistic portraiture belongs mainly to the age of Alexander and his successors.

Mr. Ruskin goes so far as to say that a Greek "never expresses personal character," and "never expresses momentary passion." [Footnote: "Aratra Pentelici," Lecture VI, Section 191, 193.] These are reckless verdicts, needing much qualification. For the art of the fourth century they will not do at all, much less for the later period. But they may be of use if they lead us to note the preference for the typical and permanent with which Greek sculpture begins, and the very gradual way in which it progresses toward the expression of the individual and transient. However, even in the best period the most that we have any right to speak of is a prevailing tendency. Greek art was at all times very much alive, and the student must be prepared to find exceptions to any formula that can be laid down.

Prev | Next | Contents | Greek History | Roman Empire |


History of Greece | | Site Map | Privacy

History of Greece Online

Exploring Ancient World Cultures