Hellenistic Art
Hellenism: Greek-style Sculpture, Architecture and Painting in Classical Antiquity.

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Laocoon and His Sons, Antiphas
and Thymbraeus. (42-20 BCE)
Vatican Museums, Rome.
A characteristic example of sculpture
from the Hellenistic era of classical

Hellenistic Art (c.323-30 BCE)


What is Hellenism?
Death of Alexander the Great
Hellenistic Architecture
Hellenistic Sculpture
Paintings & Mosaics
Related Articles

For an introductory guide to arts and crafts from the wider Aegean area,
see the Art of Classical Antiquity (c.1000 BCE - 450 CE).

Altar of Zeus at Pergamon
(c.166-156 BCE)
Detail from North Frieze: the giant
Agrios being clubbed to death.

Fayum Mummy Portrait (Louvre)
A rare example of painting from
the Hellenistic era of classical
antiquity (1st Century BCE).

What is Hellenism?

In Classical Antiquity, the meaning of the term "Hellenism" can be summed up as: "an admiration for, or an imitation of, the ideas, style, or culture of classical Greek civilization." Hellenism was widespread during the "Hellenistic Age", traditionally defined as lasting from 323 BCE (the death of Alexander the Great) to 30 BCE (shortly after the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE and the subsequent conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt). The Hellenistic age was characterized by a profound respect, if not reverence for Greek culture, which was felt throughout the civilized world in the West. Countries and colonies around the Eastern Mediterranean, for instance, were greatly impressed by Greek art - including all types of Greek sculpture and Greek pottery - and Greek architecture, especially the architectural 'Orders'. Generally speaking, Hellenistic styles of sculpture and architecture were practiced in all Greek colonies, notably the mainland of Anatolia (present day Turkey), while Hellenistic painting is exemplified by the Egyptian Fayum Mummy Portraits (from 50 BCE). Egypt however did not take to Greek building designs, and the Ptolemaic dynasty (305-30 BCE) which was established in Egypt by the Macedonian Greek general Ptolemy I, adhered to traditional Egyptian designs. On the European mainland, both Etruscan art and Roman art were heavily influenced by Greek styles. This is particularly noticeable in the field of Roman sculpture, although Roman relief sculpture was almost as good as that produced by the Greeks. As for Roman architecture, this was responsible for a number of critical improvements on Greek designs, including the invention of the arch, the vault, the dome and concrete.

Death of Alexander the Great

When Alexander the Great died in June, 323 BCE, he left behind a vast empire stretching from Greece to India. It included parts of present-day Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, most of Persia, much of Afghanistan and a chunk of Pakistan. Control of this empire was then fought over by Alexander's principal generals (known as the "Diadochi"), who duly established a number of ruling dynasties. They included: the "Seleucids" in Mesopotamia and Syria; the "Ptolemies" in Egypt, the "Attalids" in Pergamon, and so on.



Hellenistic Architecture

This was directly affected by the splitting-up of Alexander's empire, since each of these dynasties had significant patronage, as well as the need to establish themselves in the eyes of their subjects. This combination led to a number of major urban developments, like Antioch, Pergamon, and Seleucia on the Tigris. Pergamon is especially characteristic of Hellenistic architecture. Originally a modest stronghold located on an Acropolis, it was redeveloped by the Attalid kings into a colossal architectural complex. It included the monumental Altar of Zeus at Pergamon (c.166-156 BCE), adorned with a 370-foot long marble frieze depicting the Gigantomachy from Greek mythology. Hellenistic architectural gigantism is also exemplified by the (incomplete) second temple of Apollo at Didyma, Ionia (begun around 305 BCE), designed by Daphnis of Miletus and Paionios of Ephesus.

In addition to those works cited above, other notable examples of Hellenistic architecture include the following:

• Temple of Dionysus, Teos, Asia Minor (193 BCE)
Ionic hexastyle temple designed by Hermogenes of Priene.

• Temple of Apollo Didymaeus, Miletus, Asia Minor (310 BCE - 40 CE)
Ionic decastyle temple with Corinthian elements, designed by the architects Paeonius of Ephesus and Daphnis of Miletus.

• Temple of the Olympian Zeus, Athens (174 BCE)
Monumental Corinthian octastyle temple designed by architect Ossutius.

NOTE: For later designers and movements inspired by Hellenistic architecture , see: Classicism in Art (800 onwards).

Hellenistic Sculpture

In contrast to the calmness and serenity of High Classical Greek sculpture (450-400 BCE), as exemplified by the statues and reliefs of the Parthenon, Greek sculpture from the Hellenistic era was more exciting, and typically featured more movement and stronger emotion. Hellenistic sculptors no longer restricted themselves to the idealized subjects of Classical sculpture, but portrayed a wider range of personalities, moods and scenes. The best example of the drama of Hellenistic plastic art is the marble relief sculpture at Pergamon, while another famous example is Laocoon and His Sons (42-20 BCE, Museo Pio Clementino) by Hagesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus). See also: Pergamene School of Hellenistic Sculpture (241-133 BCE).

But although more active than classical forms, Hellenistic works retained several classical features such as all-round viewability of statues, meticulous drapery, and suppleness of posture - see, for instance, the twist of the hips on the Venus de Milo (c.130-100 BCE), and the relaxed posture of the sleeping satyr known as the Barberini Faun (c.200 BCE, Glyptothek, Munich). Sensuality was also depicted, in works like Aphrodite, Pan and Eros (c.100 BCE, National Archeological Museum, Athens), or Aphrodite of Cyrene (c.100 BCE, Museo delle Terme, Rome). Hellenism also led to an increasing interest in individual psychology: see, for instance, the melancholic statue of Demosthenes (c.280 BCE) by Polyeuktos.

Compare the reliefs on the Ara Pacis Augustae, Rome (c.13-9 BCE)

Advances in bronze casting facilitated the creation of monumental bronze sculpture, such as the 32-metre tall Colossus of Rhodes - one of the famous Seven Wonders of the World (292-280 BCE), made by Chares of Lindos (fl. 300-280 BCE). Unfortunately, most Hellenistic bronzes were melted down and used in the manufacture of weapons or coins.

Hellenistic Greece also witnessed the widespread use of terracotta sculpture, both for funerary and decorative purposes. New molding techniques enabled artists to create highly detailed miniature statues, with a high level of naturalism. In contrast to these relaxed figurines, Hellenistic sculptors in Greece and Egypt produced a variety of "grotesques" - hunchbacks, epileptics and other deformed or tortured characters - which appear to violate most canons of "Greek beauty". An early form of caricature art, possibly.

Hellenistic plastic art also had a major influence on Indian sculpture, especially Greco-Buddhist statuary of the Gandhara school around Peshawar, and later at Taxila, in the Punjab.

For more about the influence of Hellenism on 20th century artists, see: Classical Revival in modern art (1900-30).

In addition to those works cited above, other notable examples of Hellenistic sculpture include the following:

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.
Jockey of Artemision (c.140) Archeological Museum, Athens. Unknown artist.
The Punishment of Dirce ("Farnese Bull") (2nd C.) By Apollonius of Tralles.
The Three Graces (2nd Century) Louvre. By unknown artist.
The Medici Venus (150-100) Uffizi, Florence. By unknown artist.
Borghese Gladiator (c.100) Louvre. By Agasias of Ephesus.
The Venus of Arles (c.100) Louvre. By unknown artist.
Spinario (Boy removing thorn from foot) (c.80) Palazzo dei Conservatori.

Related Articles

- Hellenistic Greek Sculpture (c.323-27 BCE)
- Hellenistic Statues and Reliefs (c.323-27 BCE)
- Hellenistic-Roman Art (c.27 BCE - 200 CE)
- Sculpture of Ancient Greece: A General Guide

Hellenistic Paintings & Mosaics

Almost no Greek painting has survived. Those few murals or fresco paintings that have survived are typically in bad condition. As a result, it is only through a study of Roman paintings that it is possible to see the influence of Greek art. Probably the best examples of Hellenistic painting are the Fayum Mummy Portraits - a large series of panel paintings excavated from sites around the Faiyum Basin, south of Cairo, dating back to the first century BCE.

Mosaic art gained significant popularity during the Hellenistic period, thanks to mosaicists like Sosos of Pergamon, active in the 2nd century BCE, as cited by Pliny (23-79 CE) (XXXVI, 184). His skill at trompe l'oeil works can be seen in the "Unswept Floor" in the Vatican museum, and the "Dove Basin" at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Related Articles

Greek Painting: Archaic Period (c.600-480 BCE)
Greek Painting: Classical Period (480-323 BCE)
Greek Painting: Hellenistic Period (323-27 BCE)

Hellenistic Pottery

Unlike most other types of art of the Hellenistic period, pottery suffered a decline in standards, notably in the quality of its painting and colour. Hellenistic vases are typically black and uniform, with a shiny almost varnished appearance, adorned with motifs of flowers or garlands. Pots with more complex reliefs also appeared, with images of animals or mythological creatures. Hellenistic pottery can be found as far east as the Pakistani city of Taxila, which remains a centre of ceramic art to this day.

Related Articles

For more about Greco-Roman art of classical antiquity, please see the following articles:

Minoan Art (c.3000-1100 BCE)

Aegean Art (c.2600-1100 BCE)

Mycenean Art (c.1650-1200 BCE)

Ancient Persian Art (3,500 BCE onwards)


• For more about Hellenistic arts and crafts, see: Homepage.

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