Greek Classical Art and Architecture

Greek Classical Art and Architecture
Greek Classical Art and Architecture

The Greek Classical Period began with a war. In 499 b.c.e. the Ionian cities along the coast of Asia Minor revolted against the Persians under whose rule they had lived.

In retaliation the Persians, led by Darius I, crushed the rebel cities and moved against Athens and Sparta, which took part in the revolt. When the Persians moved onto the mainland in 490 b.c.e., the Athenians defeated them at the Battle of Marathon, a few miles from Athens.

Darius died (486 b.c.e.) and his son Xerxes I, who succeeded him, moved against Athens with an army of 200,000 soldiers, 1,200 warships, and 3,000 smaller craft, and burned the city down. As Xerxes retreated, the Athenians, aided by the Spartans, followed the Persians to Plataea, and there they defeated the Persians again.


In 477 b.c.e. the Ionian and Aegean coastal cities formed the Delian League with Athens to unite themselves against this enemy. In 454 b.c.e. the military defense treasury was moved from Delos to Athens, and the annual payments collected from each member was spent on rebuilding the city. Under the leadership of Pericles, Athens became the world’s cultural center.

The Parthenon

The destruction of Athens by the Persians meant that the temples and statues of the Acropolis, the sacred hill in the city, had to be rebuilt. This major project introduced classical Greek art and architecture.

The grand main gate to the new Acropolis is the Propylaea, a Doric structure constructed by Mnesicles in 437–432 b.c.e. It contained a pinakotheke (picture gallery), the first known in history, and a library where visitors could rest after the steep climb.

Visitors would next see the impressive Parthenon, the ultimate expression of the classical Greek architectural style. It was built by Ictinus and Callicrates in 448–432 b.c.e. Plutarch writes that the structure was dedicated to Athena Parthenos (Athena the Maiden), who was the patron goddess of Athens.

The Parthenon housed a colossal 40-foot-high statue of Athena Parthenos, who held a winged victory figure in her hand. The sculptor Phidias created the sculpture, covered with ivory and gold. It has since been destroyed.

The Parthenon is a Doric structure, which includes Ionic features, specifically the continuous frieze that originally ran along the top of the exterior. The frieze depicts a procession of figures in motion with their draperies fluttering in response to their movements.

This new art style using the expression of motion defined classical Greek art. This was a change from the earlier Greek Archaic Period with its stiff, frozen style of art.

The classical figures were deeply carved and twist and turn within the pictorial space. Their draperies were composed of small, repetitive folds, seemingly pulled by gravity and motion and revealing the body forms underneath. This treatment of drapery is often called the Phidian style.

The genius of Phidias’s counterparts, Ictinus and Callicrates, lies in the fact that they added optical enhancements to the Parthenon to give it an impressive sculptural quality. When a viewer enters an area they expect to see a front view of a building.

The structure was placed at an angle so that when entering the Acropolis through the Propylaea, the viewer looks upon the corner of the large structure, seeing both the front and the side at the same time. This enhanced the three-dimensional aspect of the building.

An optical illusion was created by building a foundation, bowed higher in the center of a wall and lower at each corner, making it appear that the corners of the building are even farther away. The columns all lean uniformly inward at the top, making them appear taller then they actually are.

This calculated design was done in order to give to the viewer an impression of the Parthenon as being ethereal and otherworldly in appearance. The building was painted in several bright pastel colors, which enhanced the architectural elements and allowed the relief sculptures on the exterior to be seen from a distance.

The Parthenon today is a shell of its original design. It remained intact until 1687 when Venetians shot at the structure that was then being used by the Turks to house their ammunition. The ammunition exploded, destroying a significant portion of the building.

Temple of Athena Nike and Erectheum

temple of athena nike
temple of athena nike
The Temple of Athena Nike, built by Callicrates in 427–424 b.c.e., stands next to the Propylaea. It is a small Ionic temple, the first on the mainland. A continuous frieze depicts the Battle of Plataea, when the Athenians defeated the Persians.

The Erectheum, like the Temple of Athena Nike, is an Ionic temple and was built to house the statue of Athena Polias. The Erectheum, named after the Athenian king Erectheus, was built by Mnesicles in 421–405 b.c.e. on the site where the contest between Athena and Poseidon is said to have taken place.

It is also the site of Poseidon’s mythological well, believed to lie far below the building’s underground crypt. To add visual interest Mnesicles added three porches.

This includes the famed Porch of the Maidens, where caryatids (human figure columns) are standing in contrapposto (counterpoise; literally, a counter pose where the shoulders are leaning to an angle in one direction and the hips are angled counter to that direction).

This counter-angular stance of body creates an S-shaped stance, rather than a figure standing straight and stiff. These caryatids support the architrave (a beam that extends across the columns of a temple).

Early Classical Sculpture

Early Classical Sculpture
Early Classical Sculpture
Contrapposto was a Greek classical invention, first seen in a freestanding statue called the Kritios Boy (c. 480 b.c.e.). It was found in the Acropolis and named after the sculptor thought to have rendered it.

This figure, a kouros (youth) type, is a transitional piece that falls somewhere between the Greek Archaic and Early Classical Periods. The male youth stands with one leg supporting him and the other leg relaxed, thus the hips are at an angle.

His shoulders lean at an opposite angle. The shoulders and hips form two counter, or opposing, angles—a natural pose that represented a major breakthrough in sculpture as it implied movement. Also new in the Kritios Boy is the rejection of the usual archaic smile in favor of a neutral expression.

True early classical sculptures are the two Riace Bronzes (c. 460 b.c.e.), among the few Greek original bronze statues to have survived. Most are known only through Roman marble copies. The reason the Riace Bronzes survived is that they were on a ship that sank in the fifth century b.c.e. and only found in the 1980s.

Both of these bronze figures have the fluid, seemingly live motion of their relaxed counterpose. To enhance realism the sculptor of these pieces used glass for the eyes and silver and copper inserts to highlight the figures’ teeth, lashes, lips, and nipples.

Their contrapposto stance is more emphatic than in the Kritios Boy, as are the details of anatomy. The left arm in the Riace Bronzes moves forward to break into the viewer’s space, also breaking from the rigidity of the kouros-type figures of the Archaic Period.

In c. 450 b.c.e. Polyclitus took the elements of these statues one step further when he rendered his Doryphoros, or Spear-Bearer, known only through Roman copies. With this work Polyclitus established the proportions for the Early Classical Period. This resulted in muscular, athletic figures.

He wrote a treatise on the subject of human proportions that he based on a Pythagorean mathematical method. The ratio of these human proportions were based on the fifth finger, as a unit of measure. To him the harmonious ratio between the various elements of a sculpture were imperative.

Once contrapposto was fully mastered, the figure could take on any pose, including the most complex. Myron, who specialized in the depiction of athletes, rendered the Discobolos (c. 450 b.c.e.), a figure throwing the discus, the composition based on two intersecting arches.

The anonymous Dying Niobid (c. 450–440 b.c.e.), originally part of a temple pediment, shows the female on one knee as she tries to remove the arrow of Apollo from her back.

She has been shot because her mother Niobe boasted of her seven sons and seven daughters during a festival in honor of Letona, Apollo’s mother. As she sinks to the ground, her head, torso, and left thigh form a straight line while her lower left leg, right thigh, and arms diagonally break away from that central axis.

The contortions of her arms as she tries to remove the arrow have caused her drapery to slip off to reveal her youthful nude body, becoming the earliest female nude in Greek art.

Emotion is conveyed, not through grimaces, but pose, and even then the pathos is restrained. For this, the sculpture of the Early Classical Period is normally qualified as the Severe Style.

Late Classical Period

Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
In 431 b.c.e. the Peloponnesian War between the Peloponnesian League, headed by Sparta, and the Delian League, headed by Athens, broke out, lasting for 27 years. Sparta, with the help of the Persians, defeated the Athenians, who lost their preeminence as the strongest power in Greece.

In the 350s b.c.e., Philip of Macedon invaded the Greek cities one by one, and by the 330s b.c.e. he unified them, establishing the first European nation. Philip was murdered in 336 b.c.e., and his son Alexander the Great succeeded him.

Alexander engaged in a conquering campaign that took him as far east as India. These events marked the Late Classical Period. In this period Skopas, Lysippos, and Praxiteles became the leading masters.

To this Late Classical Period belongs the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, built in 350 b.c.e. by Satyrus and Pythius. It is one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. The building of the colossal mausoleum was commissioned by Queen Artemisia of Caria. It was to be a worthy royal funerary monument built for Mausolus, her brother and her consort, whom she loved.

Artemisia summoned the greatest of Greek masters. The Mausoleum was destroyed in the 15th and 16th centuries but has since been reconstructed in the British Museum based on ancient descriptions and including fragments from the original structure.

It combined Greek Ionic elements, including voluted columns (columns capped by a spiral ornament) and a continuous frieze, with non-Greek elements like a tall base, hipped roof, and colossal scale. In between the columns were statues depicting lions, and above the roof was a chariot with the portrait of Mausolus and Artemisia by Skopas.

The portrait of Mausolus still exists and presents a different view on each side, denoting that, unlike most of the sculptures of the Early Classical Period, which focused on the frontal plane, this one invites the viewer to walk around it.

The continuous frieze that crowned the monument shows a battle between the Greeks and the Amazons (an Amazonomachy), the battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs, and chariot races. The sculptors in charge of the reliefs were Bryaxis, Leochares, Timotheus, and Skopas, the most famous.

Here the figures are in higher relief, in fact, almost completely in the round, in aggressive, vigorous poses, their draperies responding more emphatically to their violent movements.

The second major figure of the Late Classical Period was Lysippos from Sikyon, Alexander the Great’s official sculptor. Douris of Samos reported that Lysippos had asked the painter Eupompos where he obtained his inspiration.

The painter pointed to a crowd to answer the question and then admonished the sculptor to follow nature instead of imitating other artists. His attitude reflects the Aristotelian approach of empirically observing nature and its phenomena and then replicating those observations on the pictorial or sculptural surface. Lysippos followed the advice.

His Apoxyomenos of c. 330 b.c.e., a copy of which is housed in the Museo Pio-Clementino at the Vatican, presents an athlete scraping the oil and dust off his body after a contest, a common occurrence in Greek everyday life.

Lysippus introduced a new set of proportions for the depiction of the human form resulting in more slender figures than those of the Early Classical Period.

The body, when depicted, is eight, not seven, times the length of the head, supplanting the more muscular mode of representation introduced by Polyclitus a century earlier.

As the arms of his figure lift to engage in the action of scraping, they break into the viewer’s space and offer an unobstructed view of the torso. This feature emphasizes the sculpture’s three dimensionality and grants it a greater sense of movement.

Each side offers a different view, forcing onlookers to walk around to fully experience the sculpture. As the arms move forward, the back takes on a convex form, typical of the art of Lysippus.

The final major figure in art of the Late Classical Period was Praxiteles, his signature work being the Hermes and the Infant Dionysus of c. 330 b.c.e. It presents Hermes, the messenger of the gods, taking the infant Dionysus, god of wine, to the Nymphs, who reared him.

In Praxiteles’ work, Hermes teases Dionysus by holding up a bunch of grapes that have since broken off along with his right arm. The sculpture represents the humanization of the Greek gods and their portrayal as having the same weaknesses and faults as humans.

The work uses the proportions established by Lysippos, but its elegant quality is Praxiteles’ own. He achieved this by exaggerating the S curve of Hermes’s body, idealizing its forms, and giving a dreamy expression to his face.

Alexander the Great died in 323 b.c.e. and his conquered lands were divided among his generals. Egypt went to Ptolemy; Mesopotamia, Persia, Syria, and most of Asia Minor to Seleucus; and Macedonia and Greece to Antigonus.

The outside influences brought by Alexander’s conquests resulted in an art that combined Eastern and Western idioms, marking the end of the Late Classical Period and the beginning of the Hellenistic era, when less restraint and more drama were infused into art.