Greek Sculpture

The sculpture of Ancient Greece is the main surviving type of Ancient Greek art. Modern scholarship identifies three major stages in sculpture in bronze and stone: the Archaic (c. 650-480 BC), Classical (c. 480-323 BC) and Hellenistic.

Riders from the Parthenon Frieze, c. 440 BC.

The Ancient Greeks decided very early on that the human form was the most important subject for artistic endeavour. Seeing their gods as having human form, there was little distinction between the sacred and the secular in art; the human body was both secular and sacred. The statue, originally singular but by the Hellenistic period often in groups was the dominant form, though reliefs, were also important.

Archaic

 Free-standing figures share the solidity and frontal stance characteristic of Eastern models, but their forms are more dynamic than those of Egyptian sculpture. After about 575 BC, figures such as these, both male and female, began wearing the so-called ‘archaic smile’. This expression, which has no specific appropriateness to the person or situation depicted, may have been a device to give the figures a distinctive human characteristic.

Kleobis and Biton, kouroi, c. 580 BC. Delphi Archaeological Museum.

Three types of figures prevailed—the standing nude male youth (kouros, plural kouroi), the standing draped girl (kore, plural korai), and the seated woman. All emphasize and generalize the essential features of the human figure and show an increasingly accurate comprehension of human anatomy.

Classical

The Classical period saw changes in the style and function of sculpture, along with a dramatic increase in the technical skill of Greek sculptors in depicting realistic human forms. Poses also became more naturalistic, notably during the beginning of the period.

Artemision Bronze, thought to be either Poseidon or Zeus, c. 460 BC Athens National Archaeological Museum.

From c. 500 BC, Greek statues began increasingly to depict real people, as opposed to vague interpretations of myth or entirely fictional votive statues, although the style in which they were represented had not yet developed into a realistic form of portraiture.

The Classical Period also saw an increase in the use of statues and sculptures as decorations of buildings. The characteristic temples of the Classical era, such as the Parthenon in Athens, and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, used relief sculpture for decorative friezes, and sculpture in the round to fill the triangular fields of the pediments.

Hellenistic

Ancient Greek art became increasingly diverse, influenced by the cultures of the peoples drawn into the Greek orbit, by the conquests of Alexander the Great.

The Laocoon Group. Vatican Museum.

During this period, sculpture again experienced a shift towards increasing naturalism. Common people, women, children, animals, and domestic scenes became acceptable subjects for sculpture, which was commissioned by wealthy families for the adornment of their homes and gardens. Realistic figures of men and women of all ages were produced, and sculptors no longer felt obliged to depict people as ideals of beauty or physical perfection.

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