Legacy of Greek Painting
Influence of Greek Painters on Roman, Byzantine, Medieval & Renaissance Art.

Legacy of Greek Painting


Roman Era
Byzantine Art
Medieval Art
Italian Renaissance

Roman Era

There is no genuine distinction between Greek and Roman painting (that is panel or mural painting), unless it is relevant that by the end of the first century BCE creative impulses had failed. In the Augustinian period (202 BCE - 96 CE) an academic style was cultivated, which neatly balanced the claims of figures and background, and during the next three hundred years fashion shifted between that and the more full-blooded imitation of earlier Hellenistic Greek painting. But see the fabulously preserved Fayum Mummy portraits, painted in Egypt during the Hellenistic and early Empire period.

In general, originality was diverted into adaptation or whimsicality. It is not surprising that in the midddle of the first century CE Pliny the Elder described painting as a dying art. By the fourth century CE, technical standards were falling and, while - for two hundred years longer - some respectable work was done in the old tradition (mainly by miniaturists and the illustrators of expensive manuscripts), the hieratic style of Byzantine art was becoming established.

Byzantine Art

By Greek standards, Byzantine painting is a depraved art - less technically competent, contemptuous of the ideal beauty of figure painting, and ignorant of the rules of optics. And although it developed a mystical theory of its own, there seems always to have been a consciousness of its Greek heritage - evident in the modelling of forms by shading and high lights, in the use of foreshortening, and in the retention of a sort of linear perspective - so that it was always turning back towards Greek models, dimly preserved in the illustrations of manuscripts.

[Note: For information about ceramics from ancient Greece, including the Geometric, Black-figure, Red-figure and White-ground technique, see: Greek Pottery: History & Styles.]

Medieval Art

In Western Europe except for Italy, which kept a connection with the Byzantine world, the barbarian invasions (c.350 CE onwards) more or less obliterated painting. But as it revived, it inevitably borrowed much from the art of Byzantium, then culturally the most sophisticated centre of Christendom. Even so, although Greek painting was the basic ingredient of Medieval painting, both Western and Byzantine, it was not a fertile ingredient. Byzantine painting may have developed, but it did not progress; and the progress of late Medieval painting in the West was due almost entirely to native originality.

The Italian Renaissance

The Renaissance began in the 15th century in Central Italy, and the casual observation of ancient Greek art, or that of ancient Rome, which had appeared erratically in works of the later Middle Ages, developed into a systematic study by the artists of the time. (See also Classicism in Art.) But the objects of this study, by painters as well as sculptors, were ancient Greek sculptures (statues and reliefs), not pictures.

There is an obvious reason for this. The Renaissance search for antiquities turned up plenty of sculpture, but very little painting, and that generally of a quality both artistically and technically inferior to the standard of Renaissance artists. This study of ancient sculpture remained a basic part of the academic training of painters till the nineteenth century, and continually showed its effects in their figures. But the effects of ancient painting were always negligible. The minor technique of grisaille (a style of monochromatic painting in shades of gray) was imitated from mural decorations found in Rome, some subjects recorded or described by ancient writers were reinterpreted according to the canons of the time, and from the middle of the eighteenth century a few neoclassical artists - for instance Anton Raphael Mengs - produced an occasional pastiche of wall paintings from Herculaneum or Pompeii. But no more. (See also: Neoclassical Painting.) Ancient Greek painting was ill-fated: very little of its achievement has survived and its useful legacy amounted only to a few, though important, technical devices. The greatest contribution of Greek culture to Western art remains its legacy of myths and legends, which dominated mythological painting in the West, as well as sculpture and literature.

Note: For details of colour pigments used by Greek painters in fresco, tempera, encaustic and watercolour painting, see: Classical Colour Palette.

For more articles about the art of classical antiquity, see:

Sculpture of Ancient Greece (Introduction)
Archaic Greek Painting (c.600-480)
Early Classical Greek Sculpture (c.480-450 BCE)
High Classical Greek Sculpture (c.450-400 BCE)
Late Classical Greek Sculpture (c.400-323 BCE)
Classical Greek Painting (c.480-323 BCE)
Hellenistic Greek Painting (c.323-27 BCE)
Greek Metalwork Art (8th century BCE onwards)

• For more about the evolution of the visual arts, see: History of Art.
• For more about panel painting in Ancient Greece, see: Homepage.

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