High Classical Greek Sculpture (c.450-400 BCE)
Early Classical Greek sculpture gave way to the High Classical style around 450 BCE and the latter developed very quickly. Its end is not defined clearly, but for convenience might be put about 400 BCE, when it becomes known as Late Classical. In the face, a serene detachment replaces the severity of Early Classical; anatomy becomes more accurate both generally and in particular; drapery is elaborated with a novel sense of purpose; and poses - anyhow of statues - are easier but compact. It is a style worked out with much more thorough intelligence than any of its predecessors and, judged by its standards, Early Classical works appear clumsy and both Daedalic and Archaic sculpture appears ridiculous.
In the natural rendering of bodily forms there was steady progress. This is seen at its subtlest on the trunks of figures and more obviously in such details as the eye where the upper lid soon regularly overlaps the lower, but even so some artificial conventions were maintained for the sake of ideal beauty or structural clarity. The Grecian profile for example, which is abnormal in nature, has the merit of making the nose appear an integral part of the face and not a casual excrescence, though High Classical sculptors were more compromising than their predecessors. Another major advance was in the understanding of the female anatomy, which was encouraged by the new and more revealing style of drapery. One may contrast the Nike of Paionios (c.420 BCE) with the central figure of the Ludovisi Throne (c.460 BCE) or, so far as the heavy peplos permits, the Hippodamia of the Olympia pediment (c.460 BCE).
At the same time progressive sculptors studied the effects of activity on the musculation, so giving more importance to the torso at the expense of the face. Whether for this reason or some sense of artistic propriety, facial expression of emotion becomes even rarer than in Early Classical, sometimes absurdly so. On one of the metopes of the Parthenon, which was carved as early as the 440s, the Centaur braining a Lapith has the typical High Classical look of pensive, almost melancholic detachment. Still more curious are the refined, dispassionate faces in the brothel scenes reproduced on some Arretine pots of the late first century.
The typical drapery of the Early Classical style of Greek art had muffled the figure in a system of deep folds which in the main followed the line of the body and legs. If the pose was upright, the folds fell vertically; and if the pose was inclined or bent, so also most often was the direction of the folds. The effects were stately enough in standing figures, but otherwise seemed much too monotonous and restricting for High Classical sculptors, who regarded drapery as a means of explaining or emphasizing the anatomy and action of the subject. Yet though more convincing in appearance, the new arrangements were not more true to fact and they were based less on the observation of draped models than on the study of optical illusions. This is characteristic of ideal sculpture, which represents nature not as it is, but as it should be.
If one looks at the Penelope (c.460
BCE) and then at the Iris (c.435 BCE) of the west pediment of the
Parthenon, both of them carved fully in the round, the forms of the Iris
appear much more rounded. What produces this appearance is the arrangement
of the drapery and here there are two important innovations - 'transparency'
and the 'modelling line'. Transparent drapery, or more accurately drapery
that clings to the figure as if it were some wet thin material, had been
used for the lower parts of late Archaic korai and in the Early Classical
style was attempted by the provincial sculptor of the Ludovisi Throne.
But on the Iris, transparency is much more sophisticated, modelling particularly
the belly and the breasts by smooth surfaces and high narrow ridges; the
purpose of these ridges, incidentally, was not a sop to propriety, since
paint was enough to show that the figure was clothed, but to complete
the general design and also to emphasize the modelling. Whether or not
transparency was suggested to High Classical sculptors by paintings, their
use of the device was thoroughly sculptural.
On a few of the pedimental figures of the
Temple of Zeus at Olympia there seems to be a groping attempt at this
optical trick and there may be something of the sort, though less intelligently
applied, in the folds over the lower part of the further leg of the right-hand
attendant on the Ludovisi Throne. In a more advanced form the modelling
line occurs, though infrequently, in vase painting from about the same
date and so it is likely that it was invented by painters, who at that
time had not developed shading and could indicate roundness and foreshortening
only by linear devices. Anyhow sculptors had mastered its possibilities
by the 440s and the Iris shows it in use not only on the thighs but also
and more subtly on the belly and round the breasts.
'Catenaries' or heavy looped folds, which occur naturally in certain kinds of dress, were used from time to time on the backs of Archaic korai, but High Classical sculptors used catenaries more often and more subtly. On the figure of the Nike Balustrade who is unfastening her sandal, their points of attachment are at different heights - along the left arm and the right leg - and the effect is to bind the figure together and so give coherence and grace to a pose that in the nude would be clumsy and unbalanced. A less important High Classical use of catenaries is, as in Archaic, on the backs of standing draped statues: it is a quiet, dignified and economical way of dealing with their least interesting aspect.
Besides exploiting these special devices High Classical sculptors multiplied and varied the folds of their drapery. The normal practice in the Early Classical style had been for the folds in any major area of the dress to be of nearly equal depth and width and set at nearly equal distances from one another. This is shown most typically in such standing statues as the Charioteer of Delphi and with some modification in the later and more advanced Hippodamia of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia; and for less happy effects there is the Penelope, where the folds are closer, shallower and less regular, but lose grandeur without gaining liveliness.
In the High Classical style of Greek Sculpture, it is broadly the general composition that determines the spacing of the folds as well as their width and depth, now often much greater than before, and to avoid monotony there is more detailed variation in these particulars and also in the contours of each fold. An unfortunate consequence of this treatment of drapery is that when the crests of deep folds are broken away, as has happened often in the course of time, much of the original effect is destroyed, since the pattern of shade and light is altered and the hollows of folds that were invisible and not easily accessible now display their unfinished surfaces.
In the figures of the pediments of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, which seemed to have been carved around 460 BCE, there are only faint intimations of the High Classical style. Within twenty-five years at the most, as the sculptures of the Parthenon demonstrate, that style had been established more or less completely.
If an individual master is needed to account
for the speed and character of this development, the obvious candidate
must be Phidias, whom later Greek
and Roman writers and other historians of ancient
art considered the greatest sculptor of the fifth century. So far
few if any original works of Phidias have been identified with any probability
and only one or two stylistically trustworthy copies; perhaps the so-called
'Lemnian Athena' might reproduce one of his early works, of around
The great sculptors of the High Classical style were assured and inquisitive enough to speculate about their art, and Polykleitos, who was later considered Phidias' nearest competitor, both made a statue and wrote a treatise to explain his theories. Most of the scraps which survive from the treatise are concerned with detailed arithmetical proportions for the parts of the human figure, though measurement of copies of the Doryphorus, which may have been his model statue, and of other works of the time, have not yet produced any coherent numerical system. That Polykleitos' exposition went deeper is suggested by his enigmatic remark that the sculptor's work is most difficult when the clay is in the fingernail. Even so, many of the subtleties of High Classical sculpture were hardly susceptible to theoretical analysis, for instance the adjustments of proportions and angles to correct foreshortening of the upper parts of large figures viewed from below, which some but not all contemporary masters allowed for, was already an old practice, as may be observed in the Charioteer at Delphi of about 470 BCE.
There is almost no evidence about the colouring of marble sculpture in this period, but to judge by paintings or rather vase paintings more delicate and more natural shades were used. One may expect further that the contrasts of colour were more deliberately calculated, and this too needs to be remembered when one is considering the original effect of draped and partly draped figures, as for example the Nike of Paionios. There was also an increase in the practice of leaving minor but tiresome details uncarved and simply painting them in - for instance the straps of the sandal and the feathers of the wings of the Nike of Plate; and metal accessories of course remained in use. In the treatment of bronze sculpture it is unlikely that there was any change.
As for dating, inscriptions inform us that the sculptures of the Parthenon were executed between 447 and 432 BCE, and it is reasonable to allow five years each in succession for the work on metopes, frieze and pediments. For historical reasons the Nike of Paionios should have been carved within a year or two of 420 BCE, and the architectural sculpture of the new temple at the Argive Heraeum must be later than 423, when the old one burnt down. The Caryatids of the Erechtheum at Athens were completed probably only a little before 413 and the frieze certainly between 409 and 406. Once again, these dates come from inscriptions, which for the frieze even detailed payments to particular craftsmen for particular jobs. There are besides a few precisely dated reliefs on slabs recording public decrees at Athens, but their quality is too poor to be of much help. For the rest dating is mostly by subjective comparisons of style or even more subjective inferences from historical events. Still the main trend is clear.
The standing male nude found a classical solution in the Doryphorus or Spear-carrier of Polykleitos, made perhaps about 440 BCE and one of the favourite subjects for copyists in Roman times. The original, which did not have the tree trunk, was of bronze and just under seven feet high, excluding the spear which rested on the left shoulder and was held in the left hand. This, as later writers make plain, was Polykleitos's most famous work and may well have been the 'canon' which was analysed in his treatise; and it is significant, both for the undifferentiated character of much Classical sculpture and for the prevalence of an aesthetic attitude to art, that this statue came to be known by a descriptive name and that we cannot tell what god, hero or man it represented.
In pose, the Doryphorus completes the development begun in the Kritios Boy and continued in the Oenomaus. There, the stance had been freed, but the upper part of the body still looked stiff. Here, the whole figure has a studied ease of balance: taut right leg contrasts with slack left leg ,and conversely taut left arm with slack right arm. The median line of the figure makes a gentle double curve that continues through the face; and the axes through knees, hips, pectorals, shoulders and eyes are inclined in a sort of rotation. Though the head is turned a little to one side, the statue is still composed of four main elevations - front, two sides and back - and not only their contours but also their principal features are planned basically in a linear design. This may be one reason for the retention of the unguinal ligament, which delineates so firmly the boundary between trunk and legs.
For older males, and especially the senior
gods, some drapery had long been considered proper, even when standing.
The usual High Classical formulas left the chest bare (as it had been
in the Zeus of the east pediment of the temple at Olympia) with the garment
tucked in optimistically at the waist and sometimes one end thrown over
the shoulder. The new style of drapery was of course an asset to such
As their skill increased, sculptors looked for new poses or variations of old ones. Besides seated, there are now lounging figures; wounded Amazons appear and occasionally a statue is allowed to step decisively forward. One of the boldest of High Classical inventions is the monument at Olympia made by Paionios for the Messenians and Naupactians. This figure of Nike (or Victory), flying down from heaven, is of Parian marble and rather over life size. Originally it had wings, which rose behind the shoulders, its left forearm was bent slightly up-wards, and an open cloak, held by the two hands, billowed out behind to reach down on each side to about the level of the ankles. The figure is supported on a shapeless lump of stone from which an eagle's head emerges, presumably to represent cloud or perhaps sky, and this in turn rested on a slightly tapering pier, triangular in section and nearly thirty feet high. In the front view the modelling line is used with exuberant mastery, so much so that the draped right thigh looks rounder than the naked left, and in the side view the motion line has its turn; but the two views are not coordinated completely and that of the back has hardly been considered, though of course its tilt made it not very noticeable from the ground. As dress the drapery makes little sense, either in its mass or in the way it laps round the right leg without, though, affectihg the major folds; but its function was to explain and enhance the figure, and this it does admirably in the principal views, even if one has no longer the help of colour to distinguish from each other the nude parts, peplos, cloak, wings and - probably - the support.
The stone sculptures of the pediments of the Parthenon, carved within two or three years of 435 BCE were executed with remarkably detailed care and the composition has a complexity and sophistication which, so far as we know, was not even approached in any earlier or later pediment. The subjects, appropriate to a temple of Athena, are in the east the birth of that goddess and in the west her contest with Poseidon for the land of Attica. In both the action is in the centre and the movement and attention of the surrounding deities dies away towards the corners, so that there is little narrative interest to supplement the aesthetic effect and success depended on the pattern made by the crowded whole and on the excellence of particular figures and groups. Another bold novelty is the transgression of pedimental space; figures project forward beyond the frame, most noticeably in the corners of the east pediment, where the heads of horses represent the chariots of Sun and Moon, about to rise or already sunk beneath the floor of the field. Though it is obvious that the pediments of the Parthenon must have been planned in a very carefully measured design or model, close examination of the drapery suggests that the sculptors who carved the figures still had some freedom in their choice of detail.
The most important reliefs are architectural friezes and metopes, and some gravestones have an equal quality, particularly those from Athens, where carved monuments of this kind reappeared about 440 BCE. Their shape is now broad enough to take two or three figures, normally posed in some quiet domestic scene and suggesting by face and attitude no more than sympathetic resignation. Votive reliefs too become common, dedicated by private individuals to personal and often minor divinities; they are mostly of inferior workmanship, though already a few are interesting for their imitation of the three-dimensional effects of painting. There are also the small reliefs occasionally heading the texts of a public decree, but their style - sometimes old-fashioned - is usually perfunctory.
In the main, High Classical reliefs follow free-standing statuary. with of course a wider range of poses for scenes of battle or other vigorous action. Sometimes these poses have an exaggerated violence, though except in old-fashioned work the face regularly remains impassive; and sometimes, as on one of the metopes of the Parthenon, even the poses have a studied calm. For quiet compositions there are excellent examples at the east end of the frieze of the Parthenon, which was carved around 440 BCE, just after the metopes, and contrasts illuminatingly in the treatment of seated figures with the Archaic onlookers of the Siphnian Treasury. Here, as is usual in good Classical reliefs, the fully profile pose is avoided and further variety is given in the dress. One may note the bunching of material across the lap of the god at the left, a device used more emphatically on seated statues. A naturalistic detail, surprising alongside the formal arrangement of folds, is the selvedge of the hem below the left elbow of the turning figure.
Serious Classical sculptors regarded figures in relief as flattened statues rather than as cut-out paintings. In Etruria the High Classical style was too subtle and difficult for the local craftsmen and had little effect. In Lycia native potentates had employed Greek sculptors since Archaic times, often dictating the themes and sometimes in consequence the composition of reliefs: so the limestone frieze of the Heroon of Gjolbaschi (or Trysa), carved probably between 420 and 410 BCE, includes the storming of a town, with walls and buildings behind them - sometimes in partial perspective - and figures at various levels. Further east in Phoenicia there is among much else some Greek work of better quality and excellent preservation, especially from the burial vaults of the kings of Sidon: even in their old and alien culture the artistic superiority of High Classical art had now been recognized.
Exemplifying the highpoint of the art of classical antiquity, High Classical sculpture had a significant but fluctuating influence on its successors. The Romans continued to revere it - see, for instance, the Ara Pacis Augustae - and in the late second century a fully classicizing style appeared, which adapted or repeated the old formulas and sometimes so skillfully that Classicizing productions have passed and no doubt still pass for genuine works of the fifth century. At the same time straight copying too became an industry, which lasted till the fourth century CE or even longer, even though the quality is not usually better than mediocre. Many of these copies came to light again from the later fifteenth century on, but since they rarely transmitted the quiet subtlety of the High Classical style the painters and sculptors of the Renaissance turned rather to the more dramatic statuary of the Hellenistic period, and it was not till 1807, when Lord Elgin exhibited in London his collection from the Parthenon, that the quality of High Classical was recognized and almost universally appreciated. For sculptors this was too late for any effective influence, though Canova (the chief exponent of the then fashionable Neoclassical style) regretted that he had been born too late to profit by the revelation and casts were bought widely by art schools for their students to draw, as some still do. The critics too were impressed and paid at least lip service to High Classical sculpture, until in the present century the more modish of them found its character too naturalistic or too florid and saw more virtue in its provincial products, such as the Dying Niobid in Rome and especially in views not originally intended.
of Ancient Greece (Introduction)
For the origins and evolution of
three-dimensional art, see: Sculpture
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART and CLASSICAL ANTIQUITIES