The Legacy of Ancient Greece

Greek Art


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The date above suggested for the beginning of the period with which we have first to deal must not be regarded as making any pretense to exactitude. We have no means of assigning a definite date to any of the most primitive-looking pieces of Greek sculpture. All that can be said is that works which can be confidently dated about the middle of the sixth century show such a degree of advancement as implies more than half a century of development since the first rude beginnings.

Tradition and the more copious evidence of actual remains teach us that these early attempts at sculpture in stone or marble were not confined to any one spot or narrow region. On the contrary, the centers of artistic activity were numerous and widely diffused-- the islands of Crete, Paros, and Naxos; the Ionic cities of Asia Minor and the adjacent islands of Chios and Samos; in Greece proper, Boeotia, Attica, Argolis, Arcadia, Laconia; in Sicily, the Greek colony Selinus; and doubtless many others. It is very difficult to make out how far these different spots were independent of one another; how far, in other words, we have a right to speak of local "schools" of sculpture. Certainly there was from the first a good deal of action and reaction between some of these places, and one chief problem of the subject is to discover the really originative centers of artistic impulse, and to trace the spread of artistic types and styles and methods from place to place. Instead of attempting here to discuss or decide this difficult question, it will be better simply to pass in review a few typical works of the early archaic period from various sites.

The first place may be given to a marble image (Fig. 77) found in 1878 on the island of Delos, that ancient center of Apolline worship for the Ionians. On the left side of the figure is engraved in early Greek characters a metrical inscription, recording that the statue was dedicated to Artemis by one Nicandra of Naxos. Whether it was intended to represent the goddess Artemis or the woman Nicandra, we cannot tell; nor is the question of much importance to us. We have here an extremely rude attempt to represent a draped female form. The figure stands stiffly erect, the feet close together, the arms hanging straight down, the face looking directly forward. The garment envelops the body like a close-fitting sheath, without a suggestion of folds. The trunk of the body is flat or nearly so at the back, while in front the prominence of the breasts is suggested by the simple device of two planes, an upper and a lower, meeting at an angle. The shapeless arms were not detached from the sides, except just at the waist. Below the girdle the body is bounded by parallel planes in front and behind and is rounded off at the sides. A short projection at the bottom, slightly rounded and partly divided, does duty for the feet. The features of the face are too much battered to be commented upon. The most of the hair falls in a rough mass upon the back, but on either side a bunch, divided by grooves into four locks, detaches itself and is brought forward upon the breast. This primitive image is not an isolated specimen of its type. Several similar figures or fragments of figures have been found on the island of Delos, in Boeotia, and elsewhere. A small statuette of this type, found at Olympia, but probably produced at Sparta, has its ugly face tolerably preserved.

Another series of figures, much more numerously represented, gives us the corresponding type of male figure. One of the earliest examples of this series is shown in Fig. 78, a life-sized statue of Naxian marble, found on the island of Thera in 1836. The figure is completely nude. The attitude is like that of the female type just described, except that the left foot is advanced. Other statues, agreeing with this one in attitude, but showing various stages of development, have been found in many places, from Samos on the east to Actium on the west. Several features of this class of figures have been thought to betray Egyptian influence. [Footnote: See Wolters's edition of Friederichs's "Gipsabgusse antiker Bildwerke," pages 11 12.] The rigid position might be adopted independently by primitive sculpture anywhere. But the fact that the left leg is invariably advanced, the narrowness of the hips, and the too high position frequently given to the ears-- did this group of coincidences with the stereotyped Egyptian standing figures come about without imitation? There is no historical difficulty in the way of assuming Egyptian influence, for as early as the seventh century Greeks certainly visited Egypt and it was perhaps in this century that the Greek colony of Naucratis was founded in the delta of the Nile. Here was a chance for Greeks to see Egyptian statues; and besides, Egyptian statuettes may have reached Greek shores in the way of commerce. But be the truth about this question what it may, the early Greek sculptors were as far as possible from slavishly imitating a fixed prototype. They used their own eyes and strove, each in his own way, to render what they saw. This is evident, when the different examples of the class of figures now under discussion are passed in review.

Our figure from Thera is hardly more than a first attempt. There is very little of anatomical detail, and what there is is not correct; especially the form and the muscles of the abdomen are not understood. The head presents a number of characteristics which were destined long to persist in Greek sculpture. Such are the protuberant eyeballs, the prominent cheek-bones, the square, protruding chin. Such, too, is the formation of the mouth, with its slightly upturned corners--a feature almost, though not quite, universal in Greek faces for more than a century. This is the sculptor's childlike way of imparting a look of cheerfulness to the countenance, and with it often goes an upward slant of the eyes from the inner to the outer corners. In representing this youth as wearing long hair, the sculptor followed the actual fashion of the times, a fashion not abandoned till the fifth century and in Sparta not till later. The appearance of the hair over the forehead and temples should be noticed. It is arranged symmetrically in flat spiral curls, five curls on each side. Symmetry in the disposition of the front hair is constant in early Greek sculpture, and some scheme or other of spiral curls is extremely common.

It was at one time thought that these nude standing figures all represented Apollo. It is now certain that Apollo was sometimes intended, but equally certain that the same type was used for men. Greek sculpture had not yet learned to differentiate divine from human beings The so-called "Apollo" of Tenea (Fig. 79), probably in reality a grave-statue representing the deceased, was found on the site of the ancient Tenea, a village in the territory of Corinth. It is unusually well preserved, there being nothing missing except the middle portion of the right arm, which has been restored. This figure shows great improvement over his fellow from Thera. The rigid attitude, to be sure, is preserved unchanged, save for a slight bending of the arms at the elbows; and we meet again the prominent eyes, cheek-bones, and chin, and the smiling mouth. But the arms are much more detached from the sides and the modeling of the figure generally is much more detailed. There are still faults in plenty, but some parts are rendered very well, particularly the lower legs and feet, and the figure seems alive. The position of the feet, flat upon the ground and parallel to one another, shows us how to complete in imagination the "Apollo" of Thera and other mutilated members of the series. Greek sculpture even in its earliest period could not limit itself to single standing figures. The desire to adorn the pediments of temples and temple-like buildings gave use to more complex compositions. The earliest pediment sculptures known were found on the Acropolis of Athens in the excavations of 1885-90 (see page 147) The most primitive of these is a low relief of soft poros (see page 78), representing Heracles slaying the many-headed hydra. Somewhat later, but still very rude, is the group shown in Fig. 80, which once occupied the right-hand half of a pediment. The material here is a harder sort of poros, and the figures are practically in the round, though on account of the connection with the background the work has to be classed as high relief. We see a triple monster, or rather three monsters, with human heads and trunks and arms the human bodies passing into long snaky bodies coiled together. A single pair of wings was divided between the two outermost of the three beings, while snakes' heads, growing out of the human bodies, rendered the aspect of the group still more portentous. The center of the pediment was probably occupied by a figure of Zeus, hurling his thunderbolt at this strange enemy. We have therefore here a scene from one of the favorite subjects of Greek art at all periods--the gigantomachy, or battle of gods and giants. Fig. 81 gives a better idea of the nearest of the three heads. [Footnote: It is doubtful whether this head belongs where it is placed in Fig 80, or in another pediment-group, of which fragments have been found.] It was completely covered with a crust of paint, still pretty well preserved. The flesh was red; the hair, moustache, and beard, blue; the irises of the eyes, green; the eyebrows, edges of the eyelids, and pupils, black. A considerable quantity of early poros sculptures was found on the Athenian Acropolis. These were all liberally painted. The poor quality of the material was thus largely or wholly concealed.

Fig. 82 shows another Athenian work, found on the Acropolis in 1864-65. It is of marble and is obviously of later date than the poros sculptures. In 1887 the pedestal of this statue was found, with a part of the right foot. An inscription on the pedestal shows that the statue was dedicated to some divinity, doubtless Athena, whose precinct the Acropolis was. The figure then probably represents the dedicator, bringing a calf for sacrifice. The position of the body and legs is here the same as in the "Apollo" figures, but the subject has compelled the sculptor to vary the position of the arms. Another difference from the "Apollo" figures lies in the fact that this statue is not wholly naked. The garment, however, is hard to make out, for it clings closely to the person of the wearer and betrays its existence only along the edges. The sculptor had not yet learned to represent the folds of drapery

The British Museum possesses a series of ten seated figures of Parian marble, which were once ranged along the approach to an important temple of Apollo near Miletus. Fig. 83 shows three of these. They are placed in their assumed chronological order, the earliest furthest off. Only the first two belong in the period now under review. The figures are heavy and lumpish, and are enveloped, men and women alike, in draperies, which leave only the heads, the fore-arms, and the toes exposed. It is interesting to see the successive sculptors attacking the problem of rendering the folds of loose garments. Not until we reach the latest of the three statues do we find any depth given to the folds, and that figure belongs distinctly in the latter half of the archaic period.

Transporting ourselves now from the eastern to the western confines of Greek civilization, we may take a look at a sculptured metope from Selinus in Sicily (Fig. 84). That city was founded, according to our best ancient authority, about the year 629 B.C., and the temple from which our metope is taken is certainly one of the oldest, if not the oldest, of the many temples of the place. The material of the metope, as of the whole temple, is a local poros, and the work is executed in high relief. The subject is Perseus cutting off the head of Medusa. The Gorgon is trying to run away--the position given to her legs is used in early Greek sculpture and vase-painting to signify rapid motion--but is overtaken by her pursuer. From the blood of Medusa sprang, according to the legend, the winged horse, Pegasus; and the artist, wishing to tell as much of the story as possible, has introduced Pegasus into his composition, but has been forced to reduce him to miniature size. The goddess Athena, the protectress of Perseus, occupies what remains of the field. There is no need of dwelling in words on the ugliness of this relief, an ugliness only in part accounted for by the subject. The student should note that the body of each of the three figures is seen from the front, while the legs are in profile. The same distortion occurs in a second metope of this same temple, representing Heracles carrying off two prankish dwarfs who had tried to annoy him, and is in fact common in early Greek work. We have met something similar in Egyptian reliefs and paintings (cf. page 33), but this method of representing the human form is so natural to primitive art that we need not here assume Egyptian influence. The garments of Perseus and Athena show so much progress in the representation of folds that one scruples to put this temple back into the seventh century, as some would have us do. Like the poros sculptures of Attica, these Selinus metopes seem to have been covered with color.

Fig. 85 takes us back again to the island of Delos, where the statue came to light in 1877. It is of Parian marble, and is considerably less than life-sized. A female figure is here represented, the body unnaturally twisted at the hips, as in the Selinus metopes, the legs bent in the attitude of rapid motion. At the back there were wings, of which only the stumps now remain. A comparison of this statue with similar figures from the Athenian Acropolis has shown that the feet did not touch the pedestal, the drapery serving as a support. The intention of the artist, then, was to represent a flying figure, probably a Victory. The goddess is dressed in a chiton (shift), which shows no trace of folds above the girdle, while below the girdle, between the legs, there is a series of flat, shallow ridges. The face shows the usual archaic features--the prominent eyeballs, cheeks, and chin, and the smiling mouth. The hair is represented as fastened by a sort of hoop, into which metallic ornaments, now lost, were inserted. As usual, the main mass of the hair falls straight behind, and several locks, the same number on each side, are brought forward upon the breast. As usual, too, the front hair is disposed symmetrically; in this case, a smaller and a larger flat curl on each side of the middle of the forehead are succeeded by a continuous tress of hair arranged in five scallops.

If, as has been generally thought, this statue belongs on an inscribed pedestal which was found near it, then we have before us the work of one Archermus of Chios, known to us from literary tradition as the first sculptor to represent Victory with wings. At all events, this, if a Victory, is the earliest that we know. She awakens our interest, less for what she is in herself than because she is the forerunner of the magnificent Victories of developed Greek art.

Thus far we have not met a single work to which it is possible to assign a precise date. We have now the satisfaction of finding a chronological landmark in our path. This is afforded by some fragments of sculpture belonging to the old Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. The date of this temple is approximately fixed by the statement of Herodotus (I, 92) that most of its columns were picsented by Croesus, king of Lydia, whose reign lasted from 560 to 546 B. C. In the course of the excavations carried on for the British Museum upon the site of Ephesus there were brought to light, in 1872 and 1874, a few fragments of this sixth century edifice. Even some letters of Croesus's dedicatory inscription have been found on the bases of the Ionic columns, affording a welcome confirmation to the testimony of Herodotus. It appears that the columns, or some of them, were treated in a very exceptional fashion, the lowest drums being adorned with relief- sculpture. The British Museum authorities have partially restored one such drum (Fig. 86), though without guaranteeing that the pieces of sculpture here combined actually belong to the same column. The male figure is not very pre-possessing, but that is partly due to the battered condition of the face. Much more attractive is the female head, of which unfortunately only the back is seen in our illustration. It bears a strong family likeness to the head of the Victory of Delos, but shows marked improvement over that. Some bits of a sculptured cornice belonging to the same temple are also refined in style. In this group of reliefs, fragmentary though they are, we have an indication of the development attained by Ionic sculptors about the middle of the sixth century. For, of course, though Croesus paid for the columns, the work was executed by Greek artists upon the spot, and presumably by the best artists that could be secured. We may therefore use these sculptures as a standard by which to date other works, whose date is not fixed for us by external evidence.

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