Greek Sculpture Made Simple
History, Timeline, Characteristics of Statues, Reliefs From Ancient Greece.

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Sounion Kouros (c.600)
National Archeological Museum
of Athens. By unknown sculptor.
Notice the formulaic, rigid, design.

Greek Sculpture Made Simple (650-27 BCE)


Where Did Greek Sculpture Come From?
What is the Timeline of Greek Sculpture?
What is the History of Early Greek Sculpture?
Was Greek Sculpture Primarily Religious?
Why did Greek Sculpture develop more rapidly during the Archaic Period?
What are the Characteristics of Archaic Greek Sculpture?
What are the Most Famous Greek Statues from the Archaic Period?
What Materials did Greek Sculptors Use?
Were Greek Sculptures Painted?
What Happened to Greek Sculpture During the Classical Period?
What are the Main Types of Classical Greek Sculpture?

Kritios Boy (490-480)
Acropolis Museum, Athens.
By unknown sculptor. Notice the
advances in realism from improved
anatomy, better modelling and more
naturalistic distribution of weight.

What are the Characteristics of Classical Greek Sculpture?
Who are the Most Famous Classical Sculptors?
What is the Most Famous Classical Architectural Sculpture?
What are the Most Famous Greek Statues from the Classical Period?
What Happened in the Greek World during the Hellenistic Period?
What Changes did Hellenistic Greek Sculpture Introduce?
What are the Main Characteristics of Hellenistic Greek Sculpture?
What are the Most Famous Greek Statues from the Hellenistic Period?
Where are the Best Collections of Original Greek Sculpture?

More Details
Our Knowledge of Ancient Greek Sculpture
Sculptural Materials
Sculptural Methods

The Farnese Heracles (5th Century)
Museo Archeologico Nazionale,
Naples. By unknown artist.
Notice the muscle-detail and
natural-looking stance.

Note About Art Evaluation
In order to appreciate 3-D art
from ancient Greece, see:
How to Appreciate Sculpture.
For later works, see:
How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

Where Did Greek Sculpture Come From?

Greek art as a whole is believed to be a mixture of Egyptian, Syrian, Minoan (Crete), Mycenean and Persian cultures - which (judging by language) are themselves derived from Indo-European tribes migrating from the open steppes north of the Black Sea. Greek sculptors learned both stone carving and bronze-casting from the Egyptians and Syrians, while the traditions of sculpture within Greece were developed by the two main groups of settlers from Thessaly - the Ionians and Dorians. (For more about stone masonry in Ancient Egypt, see: Egyptian Architecture.)

What is the Timeline of Greek Sculpture?

The chronology of sculpture in Ancient Greece is traditionally divided into three main periods:

The Archaic Period (c.650-500 BCE)
Greek sculptors start to develop monumental marble sculpture.
The Classical Period (c.500-323 BCE)
The creative highpoint of Greek sculpture
The Hellenistic Period (c.323-27 BCE)
The "Greek" style of 3-D art is practiced across the Eastern Mediterranean.

[Note: For information about ceramic art, including the Geometric, Black-figure, Red-figure and White-ground technique, please see: Greek Pottery: History & Styles.]

Apollo Belvedere (330) by Leochares
Museo Pio Clementino, Rome.
Suddenly Greek sculpture is
utterly life-like.

Doryphorus (440) by Polykleitos.
Museo Archeologico Nazionale,
Naples. Notice the contrapposto
stance, creating tense and
relaxed parts of the body
on opposite sides.

What is the History of Early Greek Sculpture?

Bone and ivory carving had been produced in Egypt since about 5,000 BCE, as part of cultural traditions established during the late Stone Age (10,000-5,000 BCE). Then, from 2,600 BCE onwards, came various strands of Aegean art, notably Minoan civilization on Crete, with its stone sculpture (notably seal stones), fresco painting, ceramics and metalwork. Following a series of earthquakes, Minoan culture collapsed around 1425 BCE, and the mainland-based Mycenean art became the dominant type of Greek culture - known for its ceramic pottery, carved gemstones and glass ornaments - until about 1150 BCE, when they too were taken over - this time by invading Dorians. After this came the Greek "Dark Ages" - a 400-year period of chaos and fighting, when little if any art was produced. During the calmer 8th century BCE, however, a new culture of visual art began to emerge, involving pottery and some painting and sculpture, while Homer's Iliad and The Odyssey were also written around this time. However, sculptural development remained extremely slow until the Archaic Period (c.600-500 BCE). For more about the earliest Archaic styles, see: Daedalic Greek Sculpture (650-600). For a wider ambit, see: Etruscan Art (c.700-90 BCE).

Was Greek Sculpture Primarily Religious?

Yes. During the Archaic and Classical periods, most important Greek sculpture was of a religious character, made for temples which were usually dedicated to a single divinity. Divine statues were sculpted in the likeness of man, and were made in various materials and sizes. Other votive statues stood inside and outside the temple as well as urns, images of sacred animals, and other objects of a sculptural nature.



Why did Greek Sculpture develop more rapidly in the Archaic Period?

A key feature of the Archaic period was the renewal of commercial contacts and maritime trade links between Greece and the Middle East (especially Egypt, as well as the city-states of Asia Minor), which inspired Greek artists to begin establishing a tradition of monumental marble sculpture. In addition, it was during the Archaic era that the Greeks began using stone for their public buildings, and started to develop their three Orders of Architecture (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian), each comprising a column, with a base, shaft, capital, and entablature with Architrave frieze, and cornice. Most importantly, it was during this period that the Greek stone temple attained its essential form, allowing for plenty of architectural sculpture, including: reliefs and friezes on the temple's pediments (the triangular gable under the roof of a building) and metopes (the rectangular panels above the colums), as well as statues of all kinds. It's worth bearing in mind that the history of sculpture shows a clear correlation between architecture and plastic art: the more buildings that are constructed, the more sculptures are commissioned. This occurred in Classical Antiquity, and also in Medieval sculpture (Romanesque and Gothic), Renaissance sculpture (Early and High), Baroque Sculpture (17th century) and Neoclassical sculpture (18th century).

What are the Characteristics of Archaic Greek Sculpture?

In general, during this period, Greek sculptors made friezes and reliefs of varying sizes (in stone, terracotta and wood), as well as many different types of statue (in stone, terracotta and bronze), and miniature sculptures (in ivory, bone and metal). Archaic free-standing figures have the solid mass and frontal stance of Egyptian models, but their forms are more dynamic: see, for instance, the Torso of Hera (660–580, Louvre).

From about 620, the three most common statues were the standing nude youth (kouros, plural kouroi), the standing draped girl (kore, plural korai), and the seated woman. (The kouros remained popular until about 460.) To begin with, these figurative works - like most other free-standing Greek sculptures from the Archaic era - resembled Egyptian statues in both shape and posture (frontal, wide-shouldered, narrow-waisted, arms hanging close to body, fists clenched and both feet on the ground, left-foot slightly advanced, facial expression limited to a fixed "archaic smile"). However, as Greek appreciation of human anatomy improved, these kouroi and korai became less rigid and artificial-looking, and more true-to-life, whereas Egyptian sculptors adhered strictly to the rigid hieratic designs laid down by their cultural authorities.

Another distinctly Greek characteristic was that, unlike Egyptian figures, the kouroi had no explicit religious purpose: they might be used as commemorative markers or tombstones, or votive statues, or to portray local heroes like athletes, or to represent the God Apollo or Heracles. The Greeks had long decided that the human body was the most important subject for any artist, and since they gave their Gods human form, they made no distinction between the sacred and the secular. Also, kouroi were nude, while Egyptian male figures were shown clothed.

The female statue, the kore, was seen as less important. In its creation, Archaic sculptors focused mainly on proportion and the pattern of drapery, rather than physical anatomy. Ionian artists were the best at depicting the folds of the loosely draped dress (chiton) and overmantle (himation). Most korai were votive sculptures, standing as dedications in sanctuaries, such as the Acropolis in Athens.

What are the Most Famous Greek Statues from the Archaic Period?

Famous examples of Archaic Greek Sculpture include:

- Kleobis and Biton (610-580 BCE) Archeological Museum of Delphi
- Kouros (c.600) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- The Strangford Apollo of Anafi (c.600-580) British Museum, London
- The Dipylon Kouros (c.600) Athens, Kerameikos Museum
- The Moschophoros or Calf-bearer (c.570) Acropolis Museum, Athens
- The Anavysos Kouros (c.525) National Archeological Museum of Athens
- Frieze of the Siphnian Treasury, Delphi (c.525) Archeological Museum, Delphi

To see how Greek designs advanced, compare, for instance, the limestone statue Lady of Auxerre (c.630 BCE, Louvre, Paris), with the "Peplos Kore" (c.530, Acropolis Museum, Athens); compare also, the Sounion Kouros (c.600, National Archeological Museum of Athens), with the "Kritios Boy" (490-480, Acropolis Museum, Athens).

What Materials did Greek Sculptors Use?

The most popular sculptural materials used in Ancient Greece included: marble and other calcareous rock, bronze, terracotta and wood. It is worth noting that about half of all statues created during antiquity were made of bronze, despite the fact that the metal was only used widely in sculpture from about 550-500 onwards. Whatever material was used, the final surface of the statue was made to look more life-like by being coated with oil and hot wax, before being coloured and gilded. Even relief sculpture was not considered finished until polished and coloured.

Were Greek Sculptures Painted?

Generally, Yes. Whether made from marble, bronze, wood, terracotta or metal, most Greek sculptures (statues and reliefs) were painted in polychrome. Amazingly, this key feature was largely dismissed for several centuries due to the prejudices of influential art historians like the Neoclassical expert Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), who remained resolutely opposed to the very idea of "painted" Greek sculpture. It wasn't until the German archeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann recently proved that the entire Parthenon was in fact painted, that the colouring of ancient Greek sculptures was accepted as fact. See also: Archaic Greek Painting (c.625-500).

What Happened to Greek Sculpture During the Classical Period?

The Classical period witnessed a rapid improvement in Greek statuary. There was a dramatic rise in the technical skills of Greek sculptors in their ability to depict the human body in a relaxed rather than rigid posture. Classicism improved on the rigidity of the Archaic idiom and brought a more natural sense of movement and corporeality to the human figure, as exemplified, for instance, in the metopes and pediments of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Also, bronze became the predominant medium for monumental free-standing statues, not least because of the metal's ability to hold its shape - no matter how complex - which enabled the creation of less rigid poses. As well as being stronger and lighter, a bronze figure could be stabilized by placing lead weights inside its hollow feet. This permitted the creation of new poses, which, if sculpted in marble, would have caused the statue to fall over. Unfortunately, bronze was so important for the creation of weapons, and so easy to melt down, that most Greek bronze statues have vanished, making it difficult to properly appreciate the Greek artistic achievement, and leaving us dependent on Roman copies of Greek originals.

What are the Main Types of Classical Greek Sculpture?

Classicist sculpture continued to be primarily connected with religion, and included the full panoply of Greek divinities and mythological figures. Thus, in addition to the twelve Olympian Gods and Goddesses - Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, Demeter, Hera, Artemis, Hephaistos, Athene, Ares, Aphrodite, Hermes, and Hestia - sculptors carved minor divinities such as, Dionysos, and his cycle of satyrs, nymphs and centaurs; Pluto and Persephone; Eros, Psyche and Ariadne; the Muses, Graces, Seasons, and Fates; as well as heroes, including Achilles, Herakles, Theseus, Perseus, and others.

In addition to religious works, Classical artists also produced a range of three-dimensional sporting figures, depicting athletes of various kinds, including discus-throwers, runners, wrestlers and chariot-racers. Curiously, however, historical sculpture as practiced in Egypt and Assyria was almost unheard of in Ancient Greece. Important events were depicted in mythological terms, rather than through factual narrative.

What are the Characteristics of Classical Greek Sculpture?

The main characteristics of Classical statuary concerned the accuracy of its anatomy and the realism of its stance. However such improvements did not happen overnight. Thus, in Early Classical Greek Sculpture (c.500-450), sculptors concentrated on making figures that were seen as moving through space, rather than merely standing in it. (A masterpiece of early Classicism is Discobolus (c.450) by Myron.) Next, during the phase of High Classical Greek Sculpture (c.450-400), they applied a Platonic canon of proportions to their figures. The human body was portrayed in an "ideal" form - an idea that was rekindled by Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael during the High Renaissance. In addition, High Classical sculptors developed the contrapposto stance, in which the subject's body weight is shifted onto a single foot, leaving the other slightly bent. An example is Doryphorus (c.440, marble copy in Museo Nazionale, Naples). More natural than previous poses, contrapposto for the first time allowed the influence of gravity to affect the relationship between the subject's muscles and limbs. Invented by the Greeks, this type of posture was the foundation for European sculpture up until the 20th century. Finally, during the period of Late Classical Greek Sculpture, figures came to be seen as three-dimensional forms, which occupied and enclosed space. They could be viewed from any angle. This late stage of classicism (4th century) also produced the first free-standing female nudes. (Late Classical statuary is exemplified by Aphrodite of Knidos (350-40) by Praxiteles.)


Who are the Most Famous Classical Sculptors?

Another characteristic of Greek Classical sculpture is the emergence of named sculptors, although their works are known almost entirely through later Roman copies. The greatest sculptors included: Kalamis (active 470-440), Pythagoras (active c.440-420), Phidias (488-431 BCE), Kresilas (c.480-410), Myron (active 480-444), Polykleitos (active c.450-430), Callimachus (active 432-408), Skopas (active 395-350), Lysippos (c.395-305), Praxiteles (active 375-335), and Leochares (active 340-320).

What is the Most Famous Greek Architectural Sculpture from the Classical Period?

It was during the fifth century (c.480-400) that Greek art (notably that of Athens) reached its highpoint. It witnessed the creation of the Athens Parthenon (447-422) - universally acknowledged as one of the great masterpieces of Classical Greek sculpture, with its 500-foot frieze, hundreds of reliefs, and the colossal chryselephantine sculpture of Athene, by Phidias - as well as many other celebrated examples of Greek architecture, including: the Acropolis complex (550-404), the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (468-456), the Temple of Hephaistos (c.449), the Temple of Athena Nike (c.427), and the Theatre at Delphi (c.400). All these important buildings needed decorating with fresco painting and a wide range of sculpture, in marble, bronze and sometimes even chryselephantine goldsmithery. Where reliefs were needed to decorate specific architectural elements, sculptors created narratives incorporating stories from Greek mythology, like the Labours of Hercules, The Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs, and many others: see, for example, the famous Parthenon Frieze, as well as the later Bassae Frieze (420-400).

What are the Most Famous Greek Statues from the Classical Period?

Here is a short list of the greatest sculptures from the Classical era:

- Leda and the Swan (500-450) by Timotheus.
- The Tyrannicides Hamodius Aristogeiton (c.477) by Critios.
- The Charioteer of Delphi (c.475) by unknown artist.
- Discobolus (c.450) by Myron.
- The Farnese Heracles (5th Century) by unknown artist.
- Zeus or Poseidon (c.460) by Phidias.
- Riace Bronze A (c.450) by Phidias.
- "The Apollo Parnopius" (c.450) by Phidias.
- Athena Parthenos (c.447-5) by Phidias.
- Statue of Zeus (c.432) by Phidias.
- Wounded Amazon (440-430) by Polykleitos.
- Doryphorus (440) by Polykleitos.
- Statue of Zeus in the Temple of Zeus, at Olympia (c.432) by Phidias.
- Aphrodite (Venus Genetrix) (5th Century) by Callimachus.
- Youth of Antikythera (4th Century) by unknown artist.
- Apollo Sauroktonos (4th Century) by Praxiteles.
- Hermes and the Infant Dionysos (4th Century) by Praxiteles.
- Aphrodite of Knidos (350-40) by Praxiteles.
- Apollo Belvedere (c.330) by Leochares.
- Artemis with a Hind (c.330) by Leochares.
- The Farnese Hercules (350-300) by Lysippos.
- The Victorious Youth (350-300) attributed to Lysippos.
- Apoxyomenos (Youth scraping down) (c.330) by Lysippos.

What Happened in the Greek World during the Hellenistic Period?

Hellenism, the outward spread of Greek culture to neighbouring areas of the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, traditionally begins with the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE), when his huge empire was divided into three: Antigonus I (Monophthalmus) and the Antigonid dynasty took over Greece and Macedonia; Seleucus I (Nicator) and the Seleucid dynasty controlled Anatolia, Mesopotamia and Persia; and Ptolemy I (Soter) and the Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt. As well as Athens, cities like Alexandria in Egypt, and Antioch, Pergamon and Miletus in Asia Minor (Turkey), became wonders of the ancient world. Eventually, however, all these regions came under the control of the Romans - the last to fall was Egypt in 31 BCE, and it is this event which marks the end of Hellenism and the start of Roman sculpture. For a look beyond the borders of Greece, see: Mesopotamian art (4500-539 BCE) and the Art of Ancient Persia (3500-330 BCE).

What Changes did Hellenistic Greek Sculpture Introduce?

Hellenistic Greek Sculpture introduced a number of changes to the type of art produced during the Classical era. To begin with, monumental sculpture was no longer created primarily to serve an austere religion, but became an important promotional tool to reinforce autocratic regimes set up throughout the region (in Pergamon, in Alexandria, and so on). In addition, as new centres of Greek culture sprang up in Egypt, Syria, Anatolia and further afield, there was a huge increase in demand for both architectural and monumental sculpture to decorate local temples and public places. This combination of increased demand and expansion of function led to sculpture becoming (like Greek Pottery) less of an art and more of an industry. As a result, designs became standardized, and quality declined.

Even so, plastic art became more interesting. This was because the general rise in demand led to a call for more variety. Thus sculptors broadened their subject-matter, and no longer restricted themselves to the idealized heroics of Classical sculpture, but depicted a wider range of personalities, moods and scenes. Acceptable subjects now included: a wounded barbarian, a child removing a thorn, a huntress, an old woman, children, animals, and domestic scenes. Even caricatures appeared.

What are the Main Characteristics of Hellenistic Greek Sculpture?

Most importantly, there was a major change in aesthetics: in particular, Hellenism replaced the serene beauty of classicism with a more emotional type of sculpture, which also included an intense realism. In this new era of expressionism, statues exuded energy and power - see, for instance, The Farnese Bull, or The Winged Victory of Samothrace (220-190); human figures began to radiate suffering and emotion - see, for instance, The Dying Gaul (c.240 BCE) or Laocoon and His Sons (c.42-20). Genuine sensuality also appears, in works like Aphrodite, Pan and Eros (c.100), excavated at Delos, while for a more subtle version, see the exquisite "Aphrodite of Cyrene" (c.100). In portraiture, Hellenism witnessed an increasing fascination with individual psychology: see, for instance, the melancholic, introspective sculpture of Demosthenes (c.280) by Polyeuktos.

Some serenity endured, however, in sculptures like The Three Graces (2nd Century) and Venus de Milo (c.100).

If the High Classical period set the standard for the High Renaissance, the Hellenistic period was the prototype for sculptors of the Mannerist and Baroque movements. Not surprisingly, therefore, size became an important factor, with sculptors vying to create bigger and more awesome sculptures: a process which culminated in the Colossus of Rhodes, by Chares of Lindos - a structure roughly the same size as the Statue of Liberty.

Perhaps the most extraordinary monument to the "Baroque expressionism" of Greek Hellenistic sculpture was the huge Pergamon Altar of Zeus, built over 30 years (c.180-150). (See also: Hellenistic Statues and Reliefs.) The monument celebrated the crucial role of the Kings of Pergamon, as frontier guards of Greek civilization in Asia Minor, and illustrates their numerous triumphs over barbarian forces encroaching from the east. Second only to the Parthenon frieze, the Pergamon Altar is the most extensive example of Greek monumental sculpture known to art. The outer frieze depicts The battle of the Gods and the Giants in all its unrestrained violence, while the internal reliefs exhibit a more controlled style of narrative, pointing to later developments in relief sculpture, such as Trajan's Column in Rome, 250 years later: for more details, see: Relief Sculpture of Ancient Rome. For more about early phases of Italian sculpture, painting and architecture, see: Hellenistic Roman Art.

What are the Most Famous Greek Statues from the Hellenistic Period?

Here is a short selection of the greatest sculptures of the period:

- Colossus of Rhodes (292-280 BCE) By Chares of Lindos.
- Crouching Hermaphrodite (3rd Century) Louvre. By unknown artist.
- Menelaos with the Body of Patroklos (3rd Century) By unknown artist.
- Dying Gaul (c.240 BCE) Musei Capitolini, Rome. By Epigonus.
- Ludovisi Gauls (c.240) National Museum of Rome. By unknown artist.
- Winged Victory of Samothrace (Nike) (220-190) Louvre. By unknown artist.
- The Barberini Faun (c.220) Glyptothek, Munich. By unknown artist.
- The Pergamon Altar (c.180-150) Pergamon, Asia Minor. By unknown artist.
- Jockey of Artemision (c.140) Archeological Museum, Athens. Unknown artist.
- "The Farnese Bull" (2nd Century) By Apollonius of Tralles.
- Sleeping Hermaphrodite (2nd Century BCE) Louvre. By unknown artist.
- The Three Graces (2nd Century) Louvre. By unknown artist.
- "The Medici Venus" (150-100) Uffizi, Florence. By unknown artist.
- "Aphrodite of Cyrene" (c.100) Museo delle Terme, Rome. By unknown artist.
- Borghese Gladiator (c.100) Louvre. By Agasias of Ephesus.
- Aphrodite, Pan and Eros (c.100) National Archeological Museum, Athens.
- "The Venus of Arles" (c.100) Louvre. By unknown artist.
- Venus de Milo (Aphrodite of Melos) (c.100) Louvre. By Andros of Antioch.
- Spinario (Boy removing thorn from foot) (c.80) Palazzo dei Conservatori.
- Laocoon and His Sons (42-20 BCE) By Hagesander, Athenodoros, Polydorus.

Where are the Best Collections of Original Greek Sculpture?

Most surviving statues and reliefs from Classical Antiquity are Roman copies of Greek originals. These can be seen in many of the best art museums in Greece and Italy, as well as further afield. Here is a short list of the best collections.

National Archeological Museum, Athens
Acropolis Museum, Athens
Archeological Museum, Olympia

Vatican Museums
Musei Capitolini, Rome
Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome
Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples
Museo Nazionale, Calabria

Pergamon Museum, Berlin
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
Glyptothek, Munich
Louvre, Paris
Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
British Museum, London

Art Institute of Chicago
Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh)
J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Our Knowledge of Ancient Greek Sculpture

Monumental sculpture in Ancient Greece started about 650 BCE, and by about 600 BCE was a major element in Greek art with an established and growing market. It supplied cult figures of gods, dedications in sanctuaries, monuments to stand above graves, architectural decorations, and eventually statues and reliefs for wealthy private houses. Of all this relatively little remains: much has perished from natural causes, but still more was destroyed deliberately during medieval times. The reason was not usually religious zeal, but the value of marble as raw material for lime and of bronze for scrap, so that in order to survive, sculpture had to be out of sight and reach.

Thus, what we now have is a sample unevenly distributed in time, type and quality. Architectural sculpture, while still in place, was not likely to be removed and, when the building collapsed, might be buried under a mass of masonry. Independent reliefs, especially gravestones, were liable to fall down and, if covered over, be forgotten; and any slab carved in low relief could be reused as a structural block. Free-standing statues had poorer chances, since they were less likely to be hidden sufficiently by debris, especially in populous places. Metal, of course, was worth digging for and so less than a score of Greek bronzes have turned up that are reasonably complete, several of them dredged up from the sea. As for marble, works from the Archaic period survived best; being less admired it was less carefully conserved by later Greeks and Romans and so could be lost before the period of destruction set in, and there is also the big cache from the Acropolis of Athens where much of the statuary which the Persians broke in 480-79 was used as in-fill during the restoration that followed.

At the other end, Roman art provides us with a surfeit of copies of popular Greek sculptures from both the Classical and Hellenistic eras. These copies, some Late Hellenistic but more of them Roman, hinder as well as help the enjoyment and study of Greek sculpture. Though the copyists fixed points by measurement, the points were much sparser than those used in modern practice and the intervening spaces and the details were carved freehand and usually without much care, as can be seen when comparing different reproductions of the same original.

In general copies are fairly reliable for pose, but mostly so harsh and insensitive in their treatment of surface that they more often repel than interest the unprejudiced viewer; and with the finer examples there is the problem whether the copyists may not also have been creative. Unfortunately very few first-rate Classical stautues or ones from the Hellenistic period of Greek sculpture have survived in the original and those that are known through copies are far more numerous, so that copies are an essential reference in any stylistic survey of Greek sculpture.

Besides the surviving originals and copies there is another source of information in the remains of Greek and Latin literature. Pliny the Elder (the Roman author, 23-79 CE) includes a continuous account of Greek sculpture in the Naturalis Historia he compiled around the middle of the first century CE, while Pausanias a century later mentions many of the works he saw when travelling round for his Description of Greece. In addition, there are casual references to sculptors and sculptures by other authors. Pausanias was quite uncritical, reporting faithfully what was told him but he was more interested in mythology than in art. Pliny's account, mainly second-hand, is compounded of colourful but untrustworthy anecdotes, lists of sculptors and their most famous works, and a series of stylistic judgments that were probably taken from a Greek critic of the third century with a good and sensitive knowledge of Classical sculpture (c.500-323 BCE) but not Archaic sculpture (650-500 BCE).

In practice our understanding of the development of Greek sculpture depends on the stylistic analysis of surviving works, supported by a miscellany of dates from historical records and inscriptions. The most important of these dates are the Persian capture of the Acropolis of Athens in 480, which gives a lower limit for the works they damaged; the completion of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia not later than 456; the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon, carried out in sequence from 447 to 432; the Nike of Paionios, commissioned about 420; the gravestone of Dexileos, killed at Corinth in 394; the building of the Mausoleum, which was going on in the 350s; the embellishment of the Great Altar at Pergamum, which is very probably of the early 2nd century; the destruction of Delos in 69; and the dedication of the Ara Pacis Augustae at Rome in 9 BCE.

The present state of knowledge of ancient art in Greece is very uneven. For the Archaic period, where there are no lists in Pliny to distract students, the examination of style has produced a reasonably credible evolution, as it has too - in spite of Pliny - for the Classical period till near the end of the fifth century; but even here, experts are liable to disagree by as much as twenty years over the dating of particular works. The fourth century is obscure, whatever the text-books say, and the Hellenistic period still more so, except perhaps towards its end. Though in time there should be more precision about trends, it does not seem that we shall ever have enough material to understand the personalities of Greek sculpture, not that that will deter the many students who remain devoted to their Natural History.


Sculptural Materials in Ancient Greece

The principal materials for Greek sculpture were stone (especially marble) and bronze - limestone, terracotta and wood being much inferior - and there were several famous examples of ivory carving, notably the chryselephantine statues made by Phidias from gold sheeting and ivory mounted on a wooden core.

Marble, which was used from the beginning, occurs in several places in and around the Aegean, though not in South Italy and Sicily. The Greeks liked white, medium to fine-grained varieties, with much more sparkle than the Carrara (or Luna) later exploited by the Romans and still familiar in the cemeteries of Western Europe. Limestone, which Classical archaeologists often call 'poras', is plentiful in most Greek lands and some of it is of very fine quality; it was the commonest stone for statues in the seventh century, but afterwards passed as reputable only for architectural sculpture in places like Sicily, where marble was too expensive. Terracotta too was an economical material for architectural work, particularly antefixes and acroteria. Wood, of course, had little chance of surviving, and to judge by ancient records was never in regular use for finished sculpture, though possibly the molds for bronze statues were formed on wooden figures. Bronze was not important till the second half of the sixth century, when the hammering of sheet metal was replaced by hollow casting, but by the early fifth century it was the preferred medium for most types of free-standing statue (though not for reliefs and architectural sculpture). Chryselephantine statues, which were too expensive and perhaps also too easily damaged to be common, go back at least to the middle years of the sixth century: they were appreciated particularly as cult images in temples. There are other instances, also infrequent, of combinations of materials: some large statues were 'acrolithie', that is of stone for the flesh and wood for the other parts, and occasionally the hair of marble statues was completed in stucco.

Greek sculpture was coloured, as was most sculpture till the Renaissance, and indeed if the ancient marble statues which were found and admired at that time had kept their paint, the more conservative of us would probably still expect colouring on sculpture. Of the details of the Greek painting of marble, as well as limestone and wood, our information is patchy. For the sixth century, the finds on the Acropolis of Athens give good samples and there are later sarcophagi from Sidon and Etruria where the colours are well preserved, but usually we are lucky if we have traces even of the boundaries of painted areas. On terracotta the paint has survived much better, since it was fired on, but unfortunately because of the firing the range of colours was limited and rather crude. There is the difficulty too that through chemical action some colours may have changed - in particular blues have sometimes turned into greens - and red, which is the most persistent pigment, may sometimes have served as an undercoat. Still one may assert that eyes, hair, lips and nipples were regularly (and cheeks sometimes) painted, that female flesh was left in the natural white of the marble or only tinted lightly, that male flesh was often coloured a warm brown, and that drapery was usually painted over completely unless for a garment was left white for contrast. Generally, until the fourth century, there was a continuous progress towards subtler and more natural colouring, though later it became commoner for hair to be gilded.

For more about painting techniques in Ancient Greece, please see: Classical Greek Painting (c.500-323) and Hellenistic Greek Painting (323-31 BCE).

With this taste for polychromy it is not surprising that the Greeks were ready to add such accessories as earrings and weapons in metal - how extensively may be judged by the holes drilled for their attachment. The result of all this was to make ancient sculpture much more vivacious, most obviously in giving sight to the eyes. It is harder to calculate the effects in drapery, but sometimes the composition must have been clarified or strengthened by contrasting colour, as on the Nike of Paionios (c.420 BCE), where one thigh was naked and the other covered. On reliefs, the background was painted red or blue, and on pediments, blue. As for bronze, Greek taste preferred to keep it shiny, and patination (green or brown sheen) was a sign of neglect, although in the Roman period some collectors considered patina a certificate of antiquity. Eyes were regularly filled with paste or some other substance, and lips and nipples were often inlaid with copper or silver, but experts still dispute whether hair and other areas were darkened artificially or even painted. So when one looks at Greek sculpture it is worth making the effort to remember that there was more to it than form.

Greek Sculptural Methods

For reliefs it is natural to sketch the subject on the prepared surface and to work from that sketch, but until well into the Hellenistic period Greek marble sculptors did not use detailed models when carving statues, or so it can reasonably be inferred from finished and unfinished works. First, it is not till the last century BCE that there are traces of any system of pointing - the method by which positions determined on a model are transferred precisely to the block from which the final statue is to be carved - and even then the points were far enough apart for large areas to be left to freehand carving. Secondly, in pedimental sculpture, where at least the relationship of the figures had to be planned accurately before-hand, the various sculptors of the team could develop the drapery of their figures as they chose; this is very clear in the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, where on some figures the treatment of folds is old-fashioned and on others discordantly progressive.

From the identity of style with that of marble statues, bronze statues too must usually have depended on carving, presumably here of the preliminary figure, and it is hardly before the second century that there is any suggestion in finished work of that fluid kind of modelling which is encouraged by soft clay or wax. More surprisingly there is no such plastic modelling in terracottas either. Evidently the Greek sculptural tradition was founded on and fixed by carving.

Surviving originals which were abandoned at various stages of progress show that the normal procedure of carving a marble statue was not to finish one part at a time (as usually happens with pointing from a scale model), but to work round the figure stage by stage. This meant that there was not much that the sculptor-could delegate safely to an assistant and that he was continually reminded of the effect of the whole as he dealt with the detail. Presumably he began by drawing the outlines of his figure on all four sides of the block. This would have been practicable enough with the uncomplicated, four-square poses that were regular for statuary till the fourth century.

Next he removed the surplus stone to within an inch or so of the intended final surface, using first the pick-hammer and the drill and then increasingly the punch. There followed the rough shaping of the figure with the point, a fine punch which can be recognized by the pitting it leaves, and awkward cavities (such as the space between an arm and the body or deep folds of drapery) were partly hollowed out by the drill. The drill, which had a round chisel for its bit, was used in two ways, either to bore single holes or series of holes, or (as a 'running' drill) travelling obliquely forward to cut a furrow. The method of the running drill seems to have been invented little, if at all, earlier than the 370s BCE and, since it saved labour, soon became very popular.

The next and most decisive stage of the carving was the detailed modelling of the surface by chisels of various types - the claw chisel (which seems to have been invented around 560 BCE), the flat chisel and the round chisel. These chisels were used both obliquely and vertically, as was the point, and normally with short, gentle strokes.

After the modelling the surface was smoothed with rasps of suitable shapes and gauge, and then came a finer smoothing with abrasives, probably emery chips and powder followed by powdered pumice. This smoothing did not produce the high gloss of much Roman and recent sculpture. For a gloss finish, the surface needs to be polished with finer abrasives, such as putty powder or rouge. Finally the statue was painted - from 500 BCE onwards, in the encaustic technique - and any metal accessories were attached.

For reliefs the procedure was much the same. First the subject must have been sketched on the prepared block. Then the outline was cut out, on deeper reliefs often by a drill, and after that the point, chisel, rasp and abrasives were used in sequence. Generally Greek sculptors of reliefs carved no part much further back from the front plane than was required by the effective modelling of that part. So the background tends not to be level and the depth at which figures and parts of figures are set is governed more by optical than natural relationships.

For pedimental figures practice varied. Sometimes the procedure was that used for free-standing statues, though often the back was unfinished, but sometimes - as with the bodies of the Centaurs at 0lympia - they were treated much like high relief. The standard of finish was very high and all visible tool marks of one stage were expected to be cleared away in the next, though there were awkward places where abrasives or the rasp could not be used properly and very occasionally a tool dug too deep on an open surface. Taste in finishing varied, but was less exacting as time went on. On reliefs, backgrounds and large neutral areas like seats were often rasped, but not smoothed further by abrasives. In the fourth century, some sculptors chose to leave drapery only rasped, for contrast of texture with the fully smoothed flesh; and in lesser pieces there was an increasing tendency to negligence. Even so, the difference between even mediocre Greek carving and the average Roman copy is obvious; the copyists only occasionally took trouble over the chisel work. Incidentally, a Greek sculptor typically took from six to nine months to carve a full-size marble statue.


Bronze statues are rare, so it is much more difficult to deduce the methods by which they were made, compared with marble statues. Thus the summary account that follows may be wrong in parts. During the seventh and the early sixth centuries some sizable statues were constructed in the 'sphyrelaton' technique - that is, thin sheets of bronze hammered into shape and fastened with nails to a wooden frame or core - but the results were not satisfactory; and though small figurines were cast solid in molds, solid casting was too expensive (even if practicable) for large figures. Then, probably about the middle of the sixth century, a process of hollow casting, which had been used for some time for smallish objects, was borrowed and developed for full-size statues. The Greeks were not advanced enough in their metallurgy to construct large frames as rigid as is needed for sand-box casting and so they must have depended on a 'lost wax' process.

The regular sequence of work seems to have been something like this. First the sculptor prepared his preliminary figure in full and precise detail; the material is likely to have been wax, or perhaps clay or wood, but anyhow the effect suggests carving rather than modelling of the surface. Then this figure was coated with clay (or possibly plaster) to make a mold. Next the mold and the preliminary figure had to be separated, and here more uncertainty intrudes. The following stage required the mold to have been slit open, and also it was usual to cast large statues in several parts. If then the material of the preliminary figure was soft - that is wax or clay - it could be prised or dug away or perhaps run or washed out; or else the figure was removed intact and, since under-cutting was frequent, especially in folds of drapery, this means either that the figure had already been dissected into many separable pieces or that an equally complex dissection was now performed on the mold; although if the mold was so dissected, most of the smaller pieces must have been reassembled before the next stage. In this, the open mold was lined with wax to whatever thickness was wanted for the bronze wall of the finished statue. In turn the wax lining was lined with clay to form a core, which was connected to the mold by metal pegs (chaplets), so that mold and core would keep their relative positions when the wax was melted out. This clay core may have been slapped on moist, or poured in liquid, and depending on the process used the mold was reassembled in its complete parts after or before the making of the core. If the mold was of plaster an extra operation was necessary, since the plaster had to be removed carefully from the wax-covered core and replaced by a thick coating of clay. (Note: The procedure described so far is that of indirect 'lost wax' casting, but Greek sculptors sometimes used the less economical direct procedure instead: here the preliminary figure, which is of clay and also serves as a core, is itself coated with a layer of wax and this layer, which is finished in full detail, is enclosed in a casing of clay.)

All was now ready for the firing. The molds with their cores were warmed so that the wax melted out and molten bronze was run into the cavities left by the wax; but since air-dried clay will not take molten metal without at least buckling, one assumes that after the wax had melted the molds and cores were fired to the temperature required for terracotta or even higher, and the metal was run in while they were still at this heat. Then, when everything had cooled, the bronze casting was freed by breaking off the outer mold or coating. It was not, of course, necessary to pick out all the core and in fact lumps of core have been found still surviving inside bronze statues.

There was still plenty of work to be done. At this stage the casting has a granular skin, which needed scraping off; cracks were plugged and faults made good by cutting out and filling with strips of metal plate (the rectangular depressions visible on some surviving statues are such cuttings from which the fillings have fallen out). The separately molded pieces were joined together, by tongue and groove if large, or by welding or soldering if small. Details were engraved, eyes were inserted and fixed, often lips and nipples were inlaid in copper or some other metal, and the whole surface was burnished thoroughly to conceal the edges of joins and patchings and to produce a proper shine. The shine was maintained, as records show, by applications of oil or resin, and perhaps bitumen. Altogether the making of a bronze statue was a complicated job and the risks of failure in firing the mold and founding the metal must have been serious, it was the greater cost of the materials that made bronze statues dearer than statues of marble.

Some statues, especially smallish ones, were put on high pedestals or even columns or piers, but the most normal type of Greek base was relatively low, rectangular and made from marble. In the fifth century, for a full-size statue the base was commonly rather less than a foot high and its surface might be finished only with the point, though later there was a tendency to produce something taller and more ornate. Standing marble statues were carved with a small plinth round the feet and this was let into the base and fixed with lead, often untidily. Bronze statues were pegged. See also: Greek Metalwork.

The setting was usually in the open air and, since by the fifth century Greek sculptors were sophisticated enough to make optical corrections for the angle of viewing, one assumes they also took account of the nature of the lighting. These very important factors are often ignored in the exhibiting of Greek sculpture in both old and new museums, where statues are mostly set too high above the ground and their illumination tends to be one-sided and oblique. Nor is the arrangement altogether correct, in long rows or studied groupings; the Greek habit was to consider each statue as an independent entity and to site it in some conveniently vacant place without much concern for its aesthetic relationship to neighbouring statues or buildings.

There is one more warning. Most ancient statues have been mutilated in the passage of time. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century it was usual to restore at least the more obvious deficiencies and though the current fashion abhors any restoration, many pieces are still exhibited which have been restored, sometimes misleadingly. There is a fairly reliable rule for distinguishing what is original in a marble statue and what is not. When two pieces of stone are joined, it is very hard to disguise the line of the join. Now a natural break leaves an irregular edge and, if a line of joining is irregular, the two pieces can be taken as belonging to each other. But since one needs a regular surface to fit a new piece onto another, a straight joining line shows that one of these pieces is new and one may suspect that the jagged surface of an old break has been cut down and smoothed to make a clean fit for a replacement. Occasionally such replacements were made in ancient times, but generally a straight join is evidence of modern restoration in modern times. The National Museum at Naples, which inherited the magnificent Renaissance collection of the Farnese family, is an admirable place for practising this test of authenticity.

Uses For Ancient Greek Sculpture

The Greeks used statues for so-called cult figures of deities, dedications, monuments on graves and architectural decoration, but it was not until the Hellenistic period that they acquired or commissioned more than statuettes for private enjoyment. The uses of reliefs were similar, except that they did not serve as cult figures.

Cult statues, sometimes colossal, were comparatively rare. Normally one such statue, of the patron god or goddess, stood within the inner area of a temple, but the term 'cult statue' is misleading. These sculptures were regarded as works of human craftsmanship, illustrating but not embodying the deity. Thus, although admired, they were not worshipped.

Dedications were set up in sanctuaries and other public places, by private persons or by communities, to celebrate victory in athletic competitions or war, to pay a vow or a fine, to express gratitude for success or safety, and to advertise a donor. Others, from the fourth century onwards, included statues commemorating distinguished citizens. Some popular sites became crowded with these dedicatory statues, as is very evident from the surviving bases in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. Reliefs were usually less imposing and cheaper; they vary widely in size and quality and were especially popular as votive offerings, like the painted wooden or terracotta plaques offered by the poor. Much the most numerous class of statues were dedications.

Grave monuments were another important class of sculpture. Most of them were in relief. But those who could afford it sometimes preferred a statue, especially in the Archaic period. Though the Greeks respected the graves of their dead, the memorials above them satisfied family feeling and ostentation rather than religious necessities; and so in a public emergency grave sculptures could be demolished to provide stone for fortifications, and at Athens on two occasions funerary expenditure was restricted successfully by civil legislation. Again in the siting and choice of monuments not much notice was taken of those on neighbouring plots. The main cemeteries ran along the roads out-side the city gates, with the dead competing (sometimes explicitly) for the notice of every passer-by.


In Greek architecture, especially for temples, sculpture in the round could be used for acroteria and antefixes, and spouts often took the shape of lion heads. Further, the figures of pedimental sculpture soon came to stand clear of their background, though in composition and poses they were still close to reliefs. Other uses for architectural sculpture are found among foreign peoples who admired and followed Greek art; in particular, statues were sometimes put by Etruscans along the ridge of a temple roof and by Lycians in the intervals of the raised colonnade embellishing an aristocratic tomb.

Most of these uses of sculpture were connected with sanctuaries and graves, but even if religion permeated Greek life, Greek art was in no significant sense religious. Representations of gods and goddesses, who were conceived as only too fully human, gave them their appropriate maturity and attributes - so Zeus was regularly bearded and Athena usually wore helmet and aegis. But Greek artists, unlike Egyptian, were not cramped by hieratic regulations concerning how gods and people should be depicted. The standard by which an artist's work was judged was its aesthetic value within, of course, the limits allowed by public opinion. This limitation applied particularly to sculpture - and to statues more than reliefs - since sculpture of any consequence was set up only in public places. That presumably is why the first statue of a nude female did not occur till the middle of the fourth century, though in vase painting and for figurines (and indeed in relief sculpture) nudes had been accepted long before. But painted vases and figurines were made for private customers and, even if dedicated in a sanctuary, they were not exhibited conspicuously. Sculptors only became free of such restraint in the Hellenistic period, when public opinion had changed and they were at last enabled to exploit without disguise their own or their customers' tastes for the un-heroic, the erotic and the sentimental.

It is much the same with sculptural types and subjects. Throughout the Archaic period the two principal types were the 'kouros' (standing nude male) and the 'kore' (standing draped female), and these could serve as cult statues, or dedications, or grave monuments. So too to a lesser degree did the Classical successors of the kouros and kore. Some gods and heroes had a characteristic attribute to identify them - Asklepios a snake, or Heracles his club - but generally till the Hellenistic period the subjects of statues were unspecialized types, and convenient vehicles for artistic expression. For instance the kouros is a regular type of statue on Archaic graves, but there is no good reason to think that these expensive sepulchral monuments were put up only for very young men who had not lived long enough to grow a beard. Again, in the later sixth century the standard dedication on the Acropolis at Athens was a kore, but because of its dress this figure did not represent Athena, to whom it was dedicated, nor because of its gender the donor. It is interesting that 'agalma', one of the two common Greek words for a statue, had an original meaning of 'a thing to take pleasure in'.

Reliefs, of course, where several figures are included, require some coherent subject to avoid dullness, but in the tablets and friezes of temples, the subject, commonly mythological, was not often one particularly appropriate to the patron deity. The battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs, which occupies the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and the south set of metope tablets of the Parthenon at Athens, took place far away in Thessaly and was a minor incident in Greek myth; but it gave artists a convenient excuse for practising their skill in human anatomy, both male and female, and varying the effect with horses. Grave reliefs developed their own conventions of domestic scenes of pleasure or grief and votive reliefs often depicted the appropriate divinities with worshippers approaching them, but the figures of the dead or the donors remained standard types. Even in portraits, or what pass as portraits, it was not until the Hellenistic period that sculptors tried seriously for a speaking likeness of their sitter. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in the choice and even more in the treatment of types and subjects the dominant motives were aesthetic, and so one may with good conscience enjoy Greek sculpture as art without worrying about any esoteric meaning.

Origins of Greek Sculpture

During the eighth century BCE, at least in Crete, some simple reliefs of soft limestone show an Oriental and particularly Syrian manner, but this was a false start and is ignored here. Greek sculpture as we know it began with the so-called Daedalic style, which appeared towards the middle of the seventh century.

The problem of origins is best split into two - how did the Greeks get the idea of large statues of stone and how did they get the style? To the first question there is a ready answer: at that time Greeks were certainly visiting Syria, which had some stone sculpture, and perhaps Egypt, which had more. On the source of the style there are various theories.

The one most widely held is that early Greek sculpture was based on Egyptian sculpture- because of the pose (especially of the male figure), the wig-like coiffure, and perhaps the technique of carving hard stone. Yet the Greek male pose differs from the Egyptian in tilt and stance, while the coiffure was familiar in Syrian art as well, Moreover, Greek masons may already have been used to marble, and Egyptian forms are full and rounded and to some degree individualized, while Daedalic figures have a spare and unnaturally simplified structure.

Another notion, that the Daedalic style of stone sculpture continued an earlier Greek style of carving in wood, has few supporters, since the Greek figurines of the early seventh and late eighth centuries are radically different from Daedalic in style and so too are the very rare stone carvings that may be of the same date.

If these objections are good, then the style of Greek sculpture cannot have been derived from that of any sculptural school. And in origin, it may be simply an enlargement of the style of the contemporary Daedalic figurines of clay, which appeared suddenly at the beginning of the seventh century, whose style and technique appears to have derived from a class of cheap Syrian plaques and figurines. Still, not everyone can stomach so humble an ancestry for so high an art.

If, though, Egyptian art had no direct part in the creation of Greek sculpture, it may yet have had some influence later. The kouros in New York, which was sculpted about 600 BCE, conforms in some points to the standard grid used by the Egyptians for plotting out a statue and this may not be coincidence. Even so, the sculptor of the New York kouros was an eccentric, and more orthodox kouroi of the time show no such conformity. By 600 BCE, sculpture - like other fine arts of European Greece - was well established, and what borrowings it made from outside were only casual.

It may have been different in the East Greek region, along the west coast of Turkey, where a new and distinct style appears at the beginning of the sixth century, perhaps inspired by ivory statuettes from the Syrian region. But as more early sculpture is discovered, the problems or origins and influences will no doubt become more complicated.

• For more about the evolution and chronology of the visual arts, see: History of Art.
• For more about reliefs, friezes and statues in Ancient Greece, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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