published on 20 January 2013
Greek sculpture from 800 to 300 BCE took early inspiration from Egyptian and Near Eastern monumental art, and over centuries evolved into a uniquely Greek vision of the art form. Greek artists would reach a peak of artistic excellence which captured the human form in a way never before seen and which was much copied. Greek sculptors were particularly concerned with proportion, poise, and the idealised perfection of the human body, and their figures in stone and bronze have become some of the most recognisable pieces of art ever produced by any civilization.
Influences & Evolution
From the 8th century BCE, Archaic Greece saw a rise in the production of small solid figures in clay, ivory, and bronze. No doubt, wood too was a commonly used medium but its susceptibility to erosion has meant few examples have survived. Bronze figures, human heads and, in particular, griffins were used as attachments to bronze vessels such as cauldrons. In style, the human figures resemble those in contemporary Geometric pottery designs, having elongated limbs and a triangular torso. Animal figures were also produced in large numbers, especially the horse, and many have been found across Greece at sanctuary sites such as Olympia and Delphi, indicating their common function as votive offerings.
The oldest Greek stone sculptures (of limestone) date from the mid-7th century BCE and were found at Thera. In this period, bronze free-standing figures with their own base became more common, and more ambitious subjects were attempted such as warriors, charioteers, and musicians. Marble sculpture appears from the early 6th century BCE and the first monumental, life-size statues began to be produced. These had a commemorative function, either offered at sanctuaries in symbolic service to the gods or used as grave markers.
The earliest large stone figures (kouroi - nude male youths and kore - clothed female figures) were rigid as in Egyptian monumental statues with the arms held straight at the sides, the feet are almost together and the eyes stare blankly ahead without any particular facial expression. These rather static figures slowly evolved though and with ever greater details added to hair and muscles, the figures began to come to life. Slowly, arms become slightly bent giving them muscular tension and one leg (usually the right) is placed slightly more forward, giving a sense of dynamic movement to the statue. Excellent examples of this style of figure are the kouroi of Argos, dedicated at Delphi (c. 580 BCE). Around 480 BCE, the last kouroi become ever more life-like, the weight is carried on the left leg, the right hip is lower, the buttocks and shoulders more relaxed, the head is not quite so rigid, and there is a hint of a smile. Female kore followed a similar evolution, particularly in the sculpting of their clothes which were rendered in an ever-more realistic and complex way. A more natural proportion of the figure was also established where the head became 1:7 with the body, irrespective of the actual size of the statue. By 500 BCE Greek sculptors were finally breaking away from the rigid rules of Archaic conceptual art and beginning to re-produce what they actually observed in real life.
In the Classical period, Greek sculptors would break off the shackles of convention and achieve what no-one else had ever before attempted. They created life-size and life-like sculpture which glorified the human and especially nude male form. Even more was achieved than this though. Marble turned out to be a wonderful medium for rendering what all sculptors strive for: that is to make the piece seem carved from the inside rather than chiselled from the outside. Figures become sensuous and appear frozen in action; it seems that only a second ago they were actually alive. Faces are given more expression and whole figures strike a particular mood. Clothes too become more subtle in their rendering and cling to the contours of the body in what has been described as ‘wind-blown’ or the ‘wet-look’. Quite simply, the sculptures no longer seemed to be sculptures but were figures instilled with life and verve.
Materials & Methods
To see how such realism was achieved we must return again to the beginning and examine more closely the materials and tools at the disposal of the artist and the techniques employed to transform raw materials into art.
Early Greek sculpture was most often in bronze and porous limestone, but whilst bronze seems never to have gone out of fashion, the stone of choice would become marble. The best was from Naxos - close-grained and sparkling, Parian (from Paros) - with a rougher grain and more translucent, and Pentelic (near Athens) - more opaque and which turned a soft honey colour with age (due to its iron content). However, stone was chosen for its workability rather than its decoration as the majority of Greek sculpture was not polished but painted, often rather garishly for modern tastes.
Marble was quarried using bow drills and wooden wedges soaked in water to break away workable blocks. Generally, larger figures were not produced from a single piece of marble, but important additions such as arms were sculpted separately and fixed to the main body with dowels. Using iron tools, the sculptor would work the block from all directions (perhaps with an eye on a small-scale model to guide proportions), first using a pointed tool to remove more substantial pieces of marble. Next, a combination of a five-claw chisel, flat chisels of various sizes, and small hand drills were used to sculpt the fine details. The surface of the stone was then finished off with an abrasive powder (usually emery from Naxos) but rarely polished. The statue was then attached to a plinth using a lead fixture or sometimes placed on a single column (e.g. the Naxian sphinx at Delphi, c. 560 BCE). The finishing touches to statues were added using paint. Skin, hair, eyebrows, lips, and patterns on clothing were added in bright colours. Eyes were often inlaid using bone, crystal, or glass. Finally, additions in bronze might be added such as spears, swords, helmets, jewellery, and diadems, and some statues even had a small bronze disc (meniskoi) suspended over the head to prevent birds from defacing the figure.
The other favoured material in Greek sculpture was bronze. Unfortunately, this material was always in demand for re-use in later periods, whereas broken marble is not much use to anyone, and so marble sculpture has better survived for posterity. Consequently, the quantity of surviving examples of bronze sculpture (no more than twelve) is not perhaps indicative of the fact that more bronze sculpture may well have been produced than in marble and the quality of the few surviving bronzes demonstrates the excellence we have lost. Very often at archaeological sites we may see rows of bare stone plinths, silent witnesses to art’s loss.
The early solid bronze sculptures made way for larger pieces with a non-bronze core which was sometimes removed to leave a hollow figure. The most common production of bronze statues used the lost-wax technique. This involved making a core almost the size of the desired figure (or body part if not creating a whole figure) which was then coated in wax and the details sculpted. The whole was then covered in clay fixed to the core at certain points using rods. The wax was then melted out and molten bronze poured into the space once occupied by the wax. When set, the clay was removed and the surface finished off by scraping, fine engraving and polishing. Sometimes copper or silver additions were used for lips, nipples and teeth. Eyes were inlaid as in marble sculpture.
Many statues are signed so that we know the names of the most successful artists who became famous in their own lifetimes. Naming a few, we may start with the most famous of all, Phidias, the artist who created the gigantic chryselephantine statues of Athena (c. 438 BCE) and Zeus (c. 456 BCE) which resided, respectively, in the Parthenon of Athens and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. The latter sculpture was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Polykleitos, who besides creating great sculpture such as the Doryphoros (Spearbearer), also wrote a treatise, the Kanon, on techniques of sculpture where he emphasised the importance of correct proportion. Other important sculptors were Kresilas, who made the much copied portrait of Pericles (c. 425 BCE), Praxiteles, whose Aphrodite (c. 340 BCE) was the first full female nude, and Kallimachos, who is credited with creating the Corinthian capital and whose distinctive dancing figures were much copied in Roman times.
Sculptors often found permanent employment in the great sanctuary sites and archaeology has revealed the workshop of Phidias at Olympia. Various broken clay moulds were found in the workshop and also the master’s own personal clay mug, inscribed ‘I belong to Phidias’. Another feature of sanctuary sites was the cleaners and polishers who maintained the shiny reddish-brass colour of bronze figures as the Greeks did not appreciate the dark-green patina which occurs from weathering (and which surviving statues have gained).
Greek sculpture is, however, not limited to standing figures. Portrait busts, relief panels, grave monuments, and objects in stone such as perirrhanteria (basins supported by three or four standing female figures) also tested the skills of the Greek sculptor. Another important branch of the art form was architectural sculpture, prevalent from the late 6th century BCE on the pediments, friezes, and metopes of temples and treasury buildings. However, it is in figure sculpture that one may find some of the great masterpieces of Classical antiquity, and testimony to their class and popularity is that copies were very often made, particularly in the Roman period. Indeed, it is fortunate that the Romans loved Greek sculpture and copied it so widely because it is often these copies which survive rather than the Greek originals. The copies, however, present their own problems as they obviously lack the original master’s touch, may swap medium from bronze to marble, and even mix body parts, particularly heads.
Although words will rarely ever do justice to the visual arts, we may list here a few examples of some of the most celebrated pieces of Greek sculpture. In bronze, three pieces stand out, all saved from the sea (a better custodian of fine bronzes than people have been): the Zeus or Poseidon of Artemesium and the two warriors of Riace (all three: 460-450 BCE). The former could be Zeus (the posture is more common for that deity) or Poseidon and is a transitional piece between Archaic and Classical art as the figure is extremely life-like, but in fact the proportions are not exact (e.g. the limbs are extended). However, as Boardman eloquently describes, ‘(it) manages to be both vigorously threatening and static in its perfect balance’; the onlooker is left in no doubt at all that this is a great god. The Riace warriors are also magnificent with the added detail of finely sculpted hair and beards. More Classical in style, they are perfectly proportioned and their poise is rendered in such a way as to suggest that they may well step off of the plinth at any moment.
In marble, two standout pieces are the Diskobolos or discus thrower attributed to Myron (c. 450 BCE) and the Nike of Paionios at Olympia (c. 420 BCE). The discus thrower is one of the most copied statues from antiquity and it suggests powerful muscular motion caught for a split second, as in a photo. The piece is also interesting because it is carved in such a way (in a single plain) as to be seen from one viewpoint (like a relief carving with its background removed). The Nike is an excellent example of the ‘wet-look’ where the light material of the clothing is pressed against the contours of the body, and the figure seems semi-suspended in the air and only just to have landed her toes on the plinth.
Greek sculpture then, broke free from the artistic conventions which had held sway for centuries across many civilizations, and instead of reproducing figures according to a prescribed formula, they were free to pursue the idealised form of the human body. Hard, lifeless material was somehow magically transformed into such intangible qualities as poise, mood, and grace to create some of the great masterpieces of world art and inspire and influence the artists who were to follow in Hellenistic and Roman times who would go on to produce more masterpieces such as the Venus de Milo. Further, the perfection in proportions of the human body achieved by Greek sculptors continues to inspire artists even today. The great Greek works are even consulted by 3D artists to create accurate virtual images and by sporting governing bodies who have compared athletes bodies with Greek sculpture to check abnormal muscle development achieved through the use of banned substances such as steroids.
- Boardman J. Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period. Thames & Hudson, London, 2005.
- Boardman J. Greek Sculpture: The Classical Period. Thames & Hudson, London, 2005.
- John Peter Oleson. The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World. Oxford University Press, USA, 2009.
- Kinzl K.H. (ed). A Companion to the Classical Greek World. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.