Ancient Greek Art

Ancient Greek culture was full of different types of art. They decorated almost every part of their lives, from their buildings and streets to the inside of their homes. Many objects were created with beauty in mind and they worked primarily with paints, metalwork, mosaic, sculpture, architecture, and pottery. Ancient Greek art was produced from about 1000BC to about 100BC. Many historians generally accept that Ancient Greece as a distinct culture ended with the establishment of Roman rule over the Greek-speaking world in about 100 BC. After this, art and other forms of cultural expression were labeled more as being Greco-Roman because they were inspired by earlier Greek examples and while the scale of work produced here was impressive, there was a significant decline in quality. Finally, the advent of Christianity brought the classical era to an end in the 5th century AD. However, despite this, Greek art had an enormous influence on the culture of many countries, from ancient times to the present, particularly in the areas of sculpture and architecture.

The art of Ancient Greece is usually divided stylistically into three periods: the Archaic, the Classical and the Hellenistic. The Archaic period is widely regarded as being the start of Ancient Greek art at around 1000 BC. The onset of the Persian Wars in 480 BC is usually taken as the dividing line between the Archaic period and the Classical period and the reign of Alexander the Great is taken as the start of the Hellenistic period, which began around 336 BC. In reality, there was no sharp transition from one period to another, and there very rarely is when it comes to the history of art. Forms of art developed at different speeds in different parts of the Greek world and innovation tended to happen slowly and through experimentation. While we can categorize artworks as being from certain periods, it doesn’t happen overnight and new styles did tend to develop slowly, particularly because there was no such thing as the internet back then.

There is also a question that relates to the word “art” itself in Ancient Greece. There is a word in Ancient Greek culture that commonly translates to “art” but more accurately means “skill” or “craftsmanship”. This word was “tekhni” and was considered an ideal that was highly regarded. Greek painters and sculptures were craftsmen who learned their trade as apprentices. They were not regarded at first as being in a social class of their own. They were considered to be more skillful than talented and It was only really in the Hellenistic period that artists were regarded as being on the level we know today. In fact, poets and playwrights were considered distinguished “artists” before painters were. Artists were typically hired by wealthy patrons rather than having their work in galleries and as such were considered craftsman for a long time.

Ancient Greek art has survived most successfully in the form of sculpture and architecture as well as in more minor arts like coin designs, pottery, and gem engraving, as these are made of materials that have more durable qualities. However, despite this, through writings and recordings, we know that the late Greeks regarded painting as the highest form of art. There was a painter called Polygnotus of Thasos who worked in the mid 5th century BC and was regarded by the Greeks in much the same way that we regard Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo. However, today none of his works survive, even as copies. Greek painters worked mainly on wooden panels and these perished rapidly after the 4th century when they were no longer actively protected. Nothing survives today of Greek painting aside from some examples of painted terracotta and a few paintings on the walls of tombs. Because of the eras that followed, many works from the Greek period have not survived as they were seen as pagan idols.

Even in the fields of sculpture and architecture, only a fragment of the total output of Greek art survives. The acute shortage of metal during the Middle Ages led to the majority of Greek bronze statues were melted down. Those statues which did survive did so primarily because they were buried, forgotten or lost at sea. Many of the buildings too were pillaged in war, looted for building materials or destroyed in Greece’s many earthquakes. Only a handful of temples like the Pantheon and Temple of Hephaestus in Athens have been spared.

Many of the Greek’s sculptures and artworks represented the gods, great heroes of war and the ultimate desire for perfection. Art reflects the society that creates them and nowhere is this truer than in the case of the ancient Greeks. Through their temples, sculpture, and pottery, the Greeks incorporated a fundamental principle of their culture, arete. To the Greeks, arete meant excellence and reaching one’s full potential. Their goal was to reach the pinnacle of their ability to create. It is a pity that so much was lost to history and time but we can take inspiration from the artworks and buildings that remain and strive for our own arete.