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vase with Greek athlete
Art from ancient Greece and Rome is often called classical art. This is a reference to the fact that the art was not only beautiful and of high quality but that it came from a Golden Age in the past and was passed down to us today. Greek art influenced Roman art and both of them were an inspiration for the Renaissance

The Greeks have been described as idealistic, imaginative and spiritual while the Romans were slighted for being too closely bound to the world they saw in front of them. The Greeks produced the Olympics and great works of art while the Romans devised gladiator contests and copied Greek art. In Ode on a Grecian Urn , John Keats wrote: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, “that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Greece reached its zenith during the Golden Age of Athens (457 B.C. to 430 B.C.) when great temples were built in Athens and Olympia and they were decorated with wonderful sculptures and reliefs. Hellenistic arts imitated life realistically, especially in sculpture and literature.

Greek artists identified themselves for the first time in the eight century B.C., when pottery painting contained statements such as "Ergotimos made me" and "Kletis painted me."

Minoan and Mycenaean Art, See Minoans and Mycenaeans Under History

Ancient Greek Painting

5th century BC psykter
Virtually no Greek paintings or murals have survived until the 20th century. Most of the what we know is based on written descriptions. The paintings that have survived are mostly those on vases that were made during the Archaic Age (750 B.C. to 500 B.C.) not during the Golden Age of Greece (457 B.C. to 430 B.C.).

Greeks used pigments mixed with hot wax to paint their warships. Later the Romans used this technique to make portraits. The Greeks also used paints made from precious stones, earth and plants. The Aristotelean beliefs that all colors were created by mixing black and white endured until the 17th century.

The ancient Mediterraneans obtained blue from a hermaphroditic snail with a gland that produces a fluid that becomes blue when exposed to air and light. The glands only produced the stuff when they were more male than female.

Subjects of ancient Greek paintings include snake-haired Medusas, centaurs, dancing girls, Olympic athletes and gods. A Greek tomb painting from the fifth century B.C. shows an athlete diving from one world to the next.

The Greek painter Zeuxis laughed so hard at one of his own paintings he broke a blood vessel and died.

Art Perspective in Ancient Greece

Alabastron with courtship scene
One of the great advancements of the Renaissance, linear perspective, was actually a rediscovery says Boorstin. In the fifth century B.C., Greek vase painters used "foreshortening" to illustrate depth and Agatharchus of Samos wrote in his book on perspective that "given a center in definite space, the line should naturally correspond with due regard to the point of sight and divergence of visual rays."

Plato however declared that artist who made something smaller simply because it was further away was reckless. Roman architect Viruvius defined scenography in the first century B.C. as "shading of the front and the retreating sides, and the correspondence of all lines to the vanishing point, which is the center of a circle." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Ancient Greek Vase Paintings

The earliest ancient Greek vases were decorated with abstract designs and geometric figures (8th century B.C.). During the 7th century the human figures became larger and more life-like and by the 6th century Greek art had evolved into the classical vase art. Many were painted on kraters-ceramic pots that held about 48 liters and were used for mixing wine and water.

The first vessels with figures were made by Cornithian potters in the 7th century B.C. They featured black figures on the natural color of the pottery. The figures were black silhouette with a design scratched out with a needle. White and purple were painted on the black silhouette to highlight certain features. On the "red figure" vases of the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. the process was reversed with a few red silhouettes and a large black background on which the figures were painted instead of inscribed.

The "red figure" style was invented around 530 B.C. by the Andokides Painter (so named because he was the favorite artist of the potter Andokides). The details of the bodies were often painted and rendered with skill but featured little or no perspective and depth.

Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Vase Painting

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Euphronious krater
The value of these vases during Grecian times is showed in a painting with Athena giving a laurel wreath to a pair of potters, apparently the winners of a pottery competition. One of the most famous and beautifully preserved Greek vases show Hercules putting a lion into a head lock and grabbing his hind leg while Athena with her owl shield look on.

The Euphronious krater at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) is believed by to be the most beautiful ancient Greek vase in the world. Painted by Euphronious around 500 B.C., it features a scene from the Iliad painted with anatomical details, depth and emotion. Harvard art historian Gloria Pinney told National Geographic, "Euphronios and his circle of pioneers show a clear interests in musculatures. And in other respects---experimentation with perspective, depiction of fleeting gestures---there is a sense that red-figure artists were moving towards realism."

Euphronious is one of the few great Greek painters known by name. Only about two dozen works by him are known. The Euphronious krater contains his signatures and was described by Met director Thomas Hoving as “positively the finest work of art I’ve ever seen.” When the Met decided to pay $1 million for it, the move sent the message through the art world that big money could be earned by selling antiquities.

Ancient Greek Sculpture

The Greeks were master sculptors. They were much more highly skilled than the Egyptians that preceded them and the Romans who came afterwards. Their skill and sense of aesthetics was not matched until the Renaissance. Describing a Greek statue of Hercules, Cicero wrote: "I do not know that I have ever seen a lovelier work of art." Its mouth and chin were rubbed, he said, as if the people had not only prayed to it but kissed it.

Athletes were favorite subjects. Fearing the establishment of personality cults, sculptors focused in on the physique and idealized physical features of the athletes they depicted. They did not, except in rare cases, attempt to create individualized portraits. We hardly know any of the names of the artists on most Greek works of art. In the case a sculpture when a work was identified with a name it is not clear whether the name is of a person who did the work by himself or if he was assisted by a school or workshop.

See Separate article

Ancient Greek Pottery

8th century BC jug
Ceramics created by the Greeks were far superior to anything made by civilizations that preceded it. The Greeks produced vases, urns and bowls. They were known for their craftsmanship. The most famous pieces were vases with paintings such as Apollo playing a tortoise shell lyre. Unlike oriental pottery which came in all kinds of shapes, ancient Greek pottery was more limited, comprised of only a few dozen shapes that changed little over time.

Many things--- including grain, olive oil or wine---were stored and carried amphorae (large clay jars) with two handles near the mouth that made it possible to pick them up and carry them. They generally were two to three feet tall and carried about seven gallons. Their shapes and markings were unique and these helped archaeologists date them and identify their place of origin.

Most Greek pottery was connected with wine. Large two-handled amphorae (from the Greek amphi , “on both sides,” and phero , “to carry”) was used to transport wine. Smaller, flat bottom amphorae were used to hold wine on the table. Kraters were amphora-like vessels with a wide mouth used to mix water and wine. From a krater wine and water were retrieved with a metal ladle and placed into pitcher and from the pitcher poured into two-handled drinking cups.

Hydria, with two horizontal handles, were round jars used to carry water from a well to a fountain. Before glassblowing was developed in the 1st century B.C. “core glass” vessels were made by forming glass around a solid metal rod that was taken out as the glass cooled.

The largest ancient metal vessel ever found was bronze krater dated to the sixth century B.C. Found in the tomb of a Celtic warrior princess, it was buried with a chariot and other objects in a field near Vix, France. Almost as tall as a man and large enough to hold 300 gallons of wine, it had reliefs of soldiers and chariots around the neck and a bronze cover that fit snugly in the mouth. Ordinary amphora held only around a gallon of wine.

Ancient Greek Coins and Jewelry

Mint of Alexander the Great
In addition to being legal tender, coins were also regarded as works of art and forums for political views. Every city state struck its own coins, usually from silver, and their designs changed constantly to commemorate victories or rulers. The figures on these coins conveyed emotion, sereneness and strength and some their makers considered them be such works of art the coins were signed.

The first coins appeared in Lydia, a small kingdom in Asia Minor, around 600 B.C. Coinage was introduced to Asia Minor by the Lydians and was used by several Greek city-states on Asia Minor within a few decades after it first appeared. The Greeks made coins of various denomination in unalloyed gold and silver and the stamped them with images of gods and goddesses.

Coins were the primary means of exchange (paper money was first used by the Mongols and the Chinese around A.D.1000). Coins were usually made by striking the smooth gold and silver blanks between engraved dies of bronze or hardened iron. The die for one side usually contained the face of a ruler. The other die was for the back of the coin. Molds were only rarely used.

By the 5th century B.C., Greek craftsmen had raised jewelry-making to a fine art. Greek jewelry and ornaments included gold jewelry, diadems, beads, and intricately carved sealing stones. The Egyptians and Assyrians used enamel bricks to decorate their buildings. The Greeks and Romans were masters of using enamels to make jewelry.

Some of the oldest known rings were used as signets by rulers, public officials and traders to authorize documents with a stamp. Signatures were not used until late in history.Most ancient rings were made of steatite (soapstone) or medals such as bronze, silver or gold. Few were adorned with precious stones. Those that were contained amethyst, coral or lapis lazuli. The Greeks believed that coral protected sailors for storms and amethyst had the power to keep people from getting drunk.

Collection at the Greek National Archaeological Museum

The collection at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens is one of the best archeological museums in the world. The British may have taken the best the Parthenon had to offer but Greece has a lot of historical sites they missed and most outstanding stuff ended up here. In the center of the museum is the Mycenaean collection (circa 800 B.C.) which contains treasures taken from royal tombs including weapons, miniatures, stelae and cups from the famous Vafio beehive tomb.

Minoan painting from Akrotiri

On display from the so-called Agamemnon's beehive tomb are frescoes, gold jewelry and a golden mask which is believed to bear a likeness of Mycenaean commander who led the battle against Troy. Golden object from Mycenaean tombs including a lion helmet (1550 B.C), which looks like something from a science fiction movie. Classical Greek statues include a magnificent bronze of Poseidon casting a spear (which has been removed) and the standing youth. The exquisite bronze portrait head from Delos, with its sad longing eyes, made around 80 B.C., is one of the most expressive pieces of Greek sculpture.

In the Minoan collection (circa 900 B.C.) from Santorini is a collection of frescoes, vases and marble figurines taken from villages buried under volcanic ash. One 3500 year-old fresco shows two young boys in a boxing match, the first depiction of boxing gloves, or for that matter gloves of any kind. In another wing is a huge numismatic collection which contains some of the world's oldest coins.

The museum also contains sculptures of men with fish and a frescos of warships 20 feet long from Akrotiri, Santorini. two golden masks from Mycenae that don't belong to Argammenon, the tablets of Phylos with a chicken scratch written language that showed how the Greek language evolved from Mycenaean, and 44 pounds of gold treasure from the Mycenaean capital,

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Elgin Marbles, east pediment from the Parthenon

Collections at Other Museums in Greece

The Benaki Museum in Athens is a small museum with one of world's best collections of ancient gold objects. Founded in 1930 by collector Anthony Benaki, it contains a late-Archaic gold ring with an image of an archer, a 5th century B.C. gold bull-head pendant, a Hellenistic wreath fashioned from beaten gold “oak leaves,” a Hellenistic gold ring with an image of naked woman and a swan.

The Goulandris Museum of Cycladic and Ancient Greek Art (4 Neophytou Douka St) contains an extraordinary collection of 230 objects, including marble figurines from an isolated civilization that flourished 5,000 years ago on the Cyclades islands. Many of the figures have geometric oval faces with tubular noses that are reminiscent of some of Moor's work. The oldest pieces are violin-shaped stylized female torsos found in cemetery on Naxos that date back to 2800 B.C. Also worth checking out are the clay "frying pans" (whose function is unknown), a bronze hydria (three-handled water jug), and a jointed clay doll from Corinth with movable legs.

The Delphi Museum contains a life-size silver bull, the column of dancing girls and many stone carvings and monuments that once lined the sacred way. Also in the museum is a Roman replica of the sacred stone. The original stone, legend has its, was placed in Delphi by Zeus. To chose the site Zeus released one eagle from east and one eagle from the west. Where they met was where he threw the stone marking Delphi as "the navel of the world." The reconstruction of the Façade of the Treasury of the Siphnians feature a couple of draped women for columns and a frieze depicting The Battle of the Gods and Giants . Notice in particular that one of the lions pulling the chariot of Cybele is devouring one of the giants. The statue of a bronze charioteer is one of the earliest-known large bronze statues in Greek still in existence. Sculptors like bronze because they could lift up arms and defy gravity with more ease than with stone.

Altar of Zeus from Pergamon

The Thessalonki Archeological Museum is regarded as the best archeological museum outside of Athens. It is comprised of classical treasures collected from all over northern Greece. Some of the best pieces are found in Vergina annex which houses items taken from the tomb of King Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, which was excavated in 1977. There are also vases and bronze ornaments from the Geometric age; mosaic floors excavated in Thessalonki; and 1st century Roman sculptures including one of a empower who claimed his seat when he was 14.

There are two museums in Olympia: The archeological museum which contains a sculptures, pottery and bronze figures; and new museum which explains the history of the games and brings them to life. The main attraction at the Olympia Museum are sculptures of Hermes with a child and clothes in one hand, of Hippodamia attacked by a Centaur, and of Apollo.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum; Euphronious krater from New York Times

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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