Ancient Greek sculpture

Ancient Greek sculpture

Athena in the workshop of a sculptor working on a marble horse, Attic red-figure kylix, 480 BCE, Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Inv. 2650)

Ancient Greek sculpture is the sculpture of Ancient Greece. Modern scholarship identifies three major stages. They were used to depict the battles, mythology, and rulers of the land known as Ancient Greece.


  • Materials 1
  • Painting of sculpture 2
  • Development of Greek sculptures 3
    • Geometric 3.1
    • Archaic 3.2
    • Classical 3.3
    • Hellenistic 3.4
  • Drapery 4
    • Female 4.1
    • Male 4.2
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • External links 8


Natural marble

Ancient Greek monumental sculpture was composed almost entirely of marble or bronze; with cast bronze becoming the favoured medium for major works by the early 5th century; many pieces of sculpture known only in marble copies made for the Roman market were originally made in bronze. Smaller works were in a great variety of materials, many of them precious, with a very large production of terracotta figurines. The territories of ancient Greece, except for Sicily and southern Italy, contained abundant supplies of fine marble, with Pentelic and Parian marble the most highly prized, along with that from modern Prilep in Macedonia, and various sources in modern Turkey. The ores for bronze were also relatively easy to obtain.[1] Marble was mostly found around the Parthenon and other major Greek buildings.

Both marble and bronze are fortunately easy to form and very durable; as in most ancient cultures there were no doubt also traditions of sculpture in wood about which we know very little, other than acrolithic sculptures, usually large, with the head and exposed flesh parts in marble but the clothed parts in wood. As bronze always had a significant scrap value very few original bronzes have survived, though in recent years marine archaeology or trawling has added a few spectacular finds, such as the Artemision Bronze and Riace bronzes, which have significantly extended modern understanding. Many copies of the Roman period are marble versions of works originally in bronze. Ordinary limestone was used in the Archaic period, but thereafter, except in areas of modern Italy with no local marble, only for architectural sculpture and decoration. Plaster or stucco was sometimes used for the hair only.[2]

Chryselephantine sculptures, used for temple cult images and luxury works, used gold, most often in leaf form and ivory for all or parts (faces and hands) of the figure, and probably gems and other materials, but were much less common, and only fragments have survived. Many statues were given jewellery, as can be seen from the holes for attaching it, and held weapons or other objects in different materials.[3]

The Victorious Youth (c. 310 BCE). A remarkably weather-preserved bronze statue of a Greek athlete in Contrapposto pose.

Painting of sculpture

By the early 19th century, the systematic excavation of ancient Greek sites had brought forth a plethora of sculptures with traces of notably multicolored surfaces, some of which were still visible. Despite this, influential art historians such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann so strongly opposed the idea of painted Greek sculpture that proponents of painted statues were dismissed as eccentrics, and their views were largely dismissed for more than a century.

It was not until published findings by German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann in the late 20th and early 21st century that the painting of ancient Greek sculptures became an established fact. Using high-intensity lamps, ultraviolet light, specially designed cameras, plaster casts, and certain powdered minerals, Brinkmann proved that the entire Parthenon, including the actual structure as well as the statues, had been painted. He analyzed the pigments of the original paint to discover their composition.

Brinkmann made several painted replicas of Greek statues that went on tour around the world. Also in the collection were replicas of other works of Greek and Roman sculpture, and he demonstrated that the practice of painting sculpture was the norm rather than the exception in Greek and Roman art.[4] Museums that hosted the exhibit included the Glyptotek Museum in Munich, the Vatican Museum, and the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, et al. The collection made its American debut at Harvard University in the Fall of 2007.[5]

Development of Greek sculptures


It is commonly thought that the earliest incarnation of Greek sculpture was in the form of wooden cult statues, first described by Pausanias as xoana.[6] No such statues survive, and the descriptions of them are vague, despite the fact that they were probably objects of veneration for hundreds of years. The first piece of Greek statuary to be reassembled since is probably the Lefkandi Centaur, a terra cotta sculpture found on the island of Euboea, dated c. 920 BCE. The statue was constructed in parts, before being dismembered and buried in two separate graves. The centaur has an intentional mark on its knee, which has led researchers to postulate[7] that the statue might portray Cheiron, presumably kneeling wounded from Herakles' arrow. If so, it would be the earliest known depiction of myth in the history of Greek sculpture.

The forms from the geometrical period (c. 900 to c. 700 BCE) were chiefly terra cotta figurines, bronzes, and ivories. The bronzes are chiefly tripod cauldrons, and freestanding figures or groups. Such bronzes were made using the lost-wax technique probably introduced from Syria, and are almost entirely votive offerings left at the Hellenistic civilization Panhellenic sanctuaries of Olympia, Delos, and Delphi, though these were likely manufactured elsewhere, as a number of local styles may be identified by finds from Athens, Argos, and Sparta. Typical works of the era include the Karditsa warrior (Athens Br. 12831) and the many examples of the equestrian statuette (for example, NY Met. 21.88.24 online). The repertory of this bronze work is not confined to standing men and horses, however, as vase paintings of the time also depict imagery of stags, birds, beetles, hares, griffins and lions. There are no inscriptions on early-to-middle geometric sculpture, until the appearance of the Mantiklos "Apollo" (Boston 03.997) of the early 7th century BCE found in Thebes. The figure is that of a standing man with a pseudo-daedalic form, underneath which lies the inscription "Μαντικλος μ' ανεθε̅κε ϝεκαβολο̅ι αργυροτοχσο̅ι τας {δ}δε-κατας· τυ δε Φοιβε διδοι χαριϝετταν αμοιϝ[αν]", written in hexameter. The Latinized script reads, "Mantiklos manetheke wekaboloi argurotoxsoi tas dekatas; tu de Foibe didoi xariwettan amoiw[an]", and is translated roughly as "Mantiklos offered me as a tithe to Apollo of the silver bow; do you, Phoibos [Apollo], give some pleasing favour in return". The inscription is a declaration of the statuette to Apollo, followed by a request for favors in return. Apart from the novelty of recording its own purpose, this sculpture adapts the formulae of oriental bronzes, as seen in the shorter more triangular face and slightly advancing left leg. This is sometimes seen as anticipating the greater expressive freedom of the 7th century BCE and, as such, the Mantiklos figure is referred to in some quarters as proto-Daedalic.


Kleobis and Biton, kouroi of the Archaic period, c. 580 BCE. Held at the Delphi Archaeological Museum.

Inspired by the monumental stone sculpture of Egypt[8] and Mesopotamia, the Greeks began again to carve in stone. Free-standing figures share the solidity and frontal stance characteristic of Eastern models, but their forms are more dynamic than those of Egyptian sculpture, as for example the Lady of Auxerre and Torso of Hera (Early Archaic period, c. 660–580 BCE, both in the Louvre, Paris). After about 575 BCE, 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.

Three types of figures prevailed—the standing nude 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. The youths were either sepulchral or votive statues. Examples are Apollo (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), an early work; the Strangford Apollo from Anafi (British Museum, London), a much later work; and the Anavyssos Kouros (National Archaeological Museum of Athens). More of the musculature and skeletal structure is visible in this statue than in earlier works. The standing, draped girls have a wide range of expression, as in the sculptures in the Acropolis Museum of Athens. Their drapery is carved and painted with the delicacy and meticulousness common in the details of sculpture of this period.

The Greeks thus 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 no distinction between the sacred and the secular in art—the human body was both secular and sacred. A male nude without any attachments such as a bow or a club, could just as easily be Apollo or Heracles as that year's Olympic boxing champion. In the Archaic Period the most important sculptural form was the kouros (plural kouroi), the standing male nude (See for example Biton and Kleobis). The kore (plural korai), or standing clothed female figure, was also common; Greek art did not present female nudity (unless the intention was pornographic) until the 4th century BCE, although the development of techniques to represent drapery is obviously important.

As with pottery, the Greeks did not produce sculpture merely for artistic display. Statues were commissioned either by aristocratic individuals or by the state, and used for public memorials, as offerings to temples, oracles and sanctuaries (as is frequently shown by inscriptions on the statues), or as markers for graves. Statues in the Archaic period were not all intended to represent specific individuals. They were depictions of an ideal—beauty, piety, honor or sacrifice. These were always depictions of young men, ranging in age from adolescence to early maturity, even when placed on the graves of (presumably) elderly citizens. Kouroi were all stylistically similar. Graduations in the social stature of the person commissioning the statue were indicated by size rather than artistic innovations.


Riace bronzes, examples of proto classic bronze sculpture, Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia, Reggio Calabria
Artemision Bronze, thought to be either Poseidon or Zeus, c. 460 BCE, National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Found by fishermen off the coast of Cape Artemisium in 1928. The figure is more than 2 m in height.

The Classical period saw a revolution of Greek sculpture, sometimes associated by historians with the popular culture surrounding the introduction of democracy and the end of the aristocratic culture associated with the kouroi. 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 (see the Charioteer of Delphi for an example of the transition to more naturalistic sculpture). From about 500 BCE, 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 statues of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, set up in Athens mark the overthrow of the aristocratic tyranny, and have been said to be the first public monuments to show actual individuals.

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. The difficult aesthetic and technical challenge stimulated much in the way of sculptural innovation. Most of these works survive only in fragments, for example the Parthenon Marbles, roughly half of which are in the British Museum.

Family group on a grave marker from Athens, National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Funeral statuary evolved during this period from the rigid and impersonal kouros of the Archaic period to the highly personal family groups of the Classical period. These monuments are commonly found in the suburbs of Athens, which in ancient times were cemeteries on the outskirts of the city. Although some of them depict "ideal" types—the mourning mother, the dutiful son—they increasingly depicted real people, typically showing the departed taking his dignified leave from his family. This is a notable increase in the level of emotion relative to the Archaic and Geometrical eras.

Another notable change is the burgeoning of artistic credit in sculpture. The entirety of information known about sculpture in the Archaic and Geometrical periods are centered upon the works themselves, and seldom, if ever, on the sculptors. Examples include Phidias, known to have overseen the design and building of the Parthenon, and Praxiteles, whose nude female sculptures were the first to be considered artistically respectable. Praxiteles' Aphrodite of Knidos, which survives in copies, was often referenced to and praised by Pliny the Elder.

Lysistratus is said to have been the first to use plaster molds taken from living people to produce lost-wax portraits, and to have also developed a technique of casting from existing statues. He came from a family of sculptors and his brother, Lysippos of Sicyon, produced fifteen hundred statues in his career.[9]

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia and the Statue of Athena Parthenos (both chryselephantine and executed by Phidias or under his direction, and considered to be the greatest of the Classical Sculptures), are lost, although smaller copies (in other materials) and good descriptions of both still exist. Their size and magnificence prompted rivals to seize them in the Byzantine period, and both were removed to Constantinople, where they were later destroyed.


The transition from the Classical to the Hellenistic (or Hellenic) period occurred during the 4th century BCE. Greek art became increasingly diverse, influenced by the cultures of the peoples drawn into the Greek orbit, by the conquest's of Alexander the Great (336 to 323 BCE). In the view of some art historians, this is described as a decline in quality and originality; however, individuals of the time may not have shared this outlook. Many sculptures previously considered classical masterpieces are now known to be of the Hellenistic age. The technical ability of the Hellenistic sculptors are clearly in evidence in such major works as the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Pergamon Altar. New centres of Greek culture, particularly in sculpture, developed in Alexandria, Antioch, Pergamum, and other cities. By the 2nd century BCE, the rising power of Rome had also absorbed much of the Greek tradition—and an increasing proportion of its products as well.

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. At the same time, new Hellenistic cities springing up in Egypt, Syria, and Anatolia required statues depicting the gods and heroes of Greece for their temples and public places. This made sculpture, like pottery, an industry, with the consequent standardisation and (some) lowering of quality. For these reasons, quite a few more Hellenistic statues survive to the present than those of the Classical period.

Alongside the natural shift towards naturalism, there was a shift in expression of the sculptures as well. Sculptures began expressing more power and energy during this time period. An easy way to see the shift in expressions during the Hellenistic period would be to compare it to the sculptures of the Classical period. The classical period had sculptures such as the Charioteer of Delphi expressing humility. The sculptures of the Hellenistic period however saw greater expressions of power and energy as demonstrated in the Jockey of Artemision.[10]

Some of the best known Hellenistic sculptures are the Winged Victory of Samothrace (2nd or 1st century BCE), the statue of Aphrodite from the island of Melos known as the Venus de Milo (mid-2nd century BCE), the Dying Gaul (about 230 BCE), and the monumental group Laocoön and His Sons (late 1st century BCE). All these statues depict Classical themes, but their treatment is far more sensuous and emotional than the austere taste of the Classical period would have allowed or its technical skills permitted. Hellenistic sculpture was also marked by an increase in scale, which culminated in the Colossus of Rhodes (late 3rd century), thought to have been roughly the same size as the Statue of Liberty. The combined effect of earthquakes and looting have destroyed this as well as any other very large works of this period that might have existed.

Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek culture spread as far as India, as revealed by the excavations of Ai-Khanoum in eastern Afghanistan, and the civilization of the Greco-Bactrians and the Indo-Greeks. Greco-Buddhist art represented a syncretism between Greek art and the visual expression of Buddhism. Discoveries made since the end of the 19th century surrounding the (now submerged) ancient Egyptian city of Heracleum include a 4th-century BCE depiction of Isis. The depiction is unusually sensual for depictions of the Egyptian goddess, as well as being uncharacteristically detailed and feminine, marking a combination of Egyptian and Hellenistic forms around the time of Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt.





  1. ^ Cook, 74-75
  2. ^ Cook, 74-76
  3. ^ Cook, 75-76
  4. ^ Gurewitsch, Matthew (July 2008). "True Colors". Smithsonian: 66–71. 
  5. ^ October 2007, Colorizing classic statues returns them to antiquity: What was really on that Grecian Urn? Harvard University Gazette.
  6. ^ The term xoanon and the ascriptions are both highly problematic. A.A. Donohue's Xoana and the origins of Greek sculpture, 1988, details how the term had a variety of meanings in the ancient world not necessarily to do with the cult objects
  7. ^ [2]
  8. ^ The debt of archaic Greek sculpture to Egyptian canons was recognized in Antiquity: see Diodorus Siculus, i.98.5-9.
  9. ^ Gagarin, 403
  10. ^ Stele, R. Web. 24 November 2013.


  • Cook, R.M., Greek Art, Penguin, 1986 (reprint of 1972), ISBN 0140218661
  • Gagarin, Michael, Elaine Fantham (contributor), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, Volume 1, Oxford University Press, 2010, ISBN 9780195170726
  • Stele, R. Web. 24 November 2013.


  • Andrew Stewart: Greek Sculpture, Yale, 1990.
  • John Boardman: Greek Sculpture:The Archaic Period, 1978.
  • John Boardman: Greek Sculpture:Classical Period, 1987.
  • John Boardman: Greek Sculpture:The Late Classical Period, 1995.
  • R.R.R Smith: Hellenistic Sculpture, 1991.
  • Jenifer Neils: The Parthenon Frieze, 2006.

External links

  • Classic Greek Sculpture to Late Hellenistic Era, lecture by professor Kenney Mencher, Ohlone College
  • Sideris A., Aegean Schools of Sculpture in Antiquity, Cultural Gate of the Aegean Archipelago, Athens 2007 (a detailed per period and per island approach).