Gallery of Ancient Greek Art

Ancient Greek Art and Architecture

The Ancient Greeks made pottery for everyday use, not for display; the trophies won at games, such as the Panathenaic Amphorae (wine decanters), are the exception. Most surviving pottery consists of drinking vessels such as amphorae, kraters (bowls for mixing wine and water), hydria (water jars), libation bowls, jugs and cups. Painted funeral urns have also been found. Miniatures were also produced in large numbers, mainly for use as offerings at temples. In the Hellenistic period a wider range of pottery was produced, but most of it is of little artistic importance.

At the end of the Geometric phase, the Orientalizing phase of vase painting saw the abstract geometric designs replaced by the more rounded, realistic forms of Eastern motifs, such as the lotus, palmette, lion, and sphinx. Ornaments increased in amount and intricacy.

In earlier periods even quite small Greek cities produced pottery for their own locale. These varied widely in style and standards. Distinctive pottery that ranks as art was produced on some of the Aegean islands, in Crete, and in the wealthy Greek colonies of southern Italy and Sicily. By the later Archaic and early Classical period, however, the two great commercial powers, Corinth and Athens, came to dominate. Their pottery was exported all over the Greek world, driving out the local varieties. Pots from Corinth and Athens are found as far afield as Spain and Ukraine, and are so common in Italy that they were first collected in the 18th-century as "Etruscan vases". Many of these pots are mass-produced products of low quality. In fact, by the 5th century BC, pottery had become an industry and pottery painting ceased to be an important art form.

The history of Ancient Greek pottery is divided stylistically into five periods:

  • the Protogeometric from about 1050 BC
  • the Geometric from about 900 BC
  • the Late Geometric or Archaic from about 750 BC
  • the Black Figure from the early 7th century BC
  • and the Red Figure from about 530 BC

The range of colours which could be used on pots was restricted by the technology of firing: black, white, red, and yellow were the most common. In the three earlier periods, the pots were left their natural light colour, and were decorated with slip that turned black in the kiln.

The fully mature black-figure technique, with added red and white details and incising for outlines and details, originated in Corinth during the early 7th century BC and was introduced into Attica about a generation later; it flourished until the end of the 6th century BC. The red-figure technique, invented in about 530 BC, reversed this tradition, with the pots being painted black and the figures painted in red. Red-figure vases slowly replaced the black-figure style. Sometimes larger vessels were engraved as well as painted.

During the Protogeometric and Geometric periods, Greek pottery was decorated with abstract designs. In later periods, as the aesthetic shifted and the technical proficiency of potters improved, decorations took the form of human figures, usually representing the gods or the heroes of Greek history and mythology. Battle and hunting scenes were also popular, since they allowed the depiction of the horse, which the Greeks held in high esteem. In later periods erotic themes, both heterosexual and male homosexual, became common.

Greek pottery is frequently signed, sometimes by the potter or the master of the pottery, but only occasionally by the painter. Hundreds of painters are, however, identifiable by their artistic personalities: where their signatures haven't survived they are named for their subject choices, as "the Achilles Painter", by the potter they worked for, such as the Late Archaic "Kleophrades Painter", or even by their modern locations, such as the Late Archaic "Berlin Painter".

  • Detail of a red-figure amphora depicting a satyr assaulting a maenad, by Pamphaios (potter) and Oltos (painter), c. 520 BC, Louvre
The Vix crater, a late Archaic monumental bronze vessel

Metal vessels[edit]

Especially during the Geometric and Archaic phases, the production of large metal vessels was an important expression of Greek creativity, and an important stage in the development of bronzeworking techniques, such as casting and repousse hammering. Early sanctuaries, especially Olympia, yielded many hundreds of such vessels, deposited as votives. During the orientalising period, such tripods were frequently decorated with figural protomes, in the shape of griffins, sphinxes and other fantastic creatures. Although large metal vessels became less important during the Archaic and Classical periods, their production did not cease entirely. The Vix crater is a famous example dating to c. 530 BC.

Terracotta figurines[edit]

Bell Idol, 7th century BC, Louvre

Clay is a material frequently used for the making of votive statuettes or idols, since well before Minoan civilization until the Hellenistic era and beyond. During the 8th century BC, in Boeotia, one finds manufactured "Bell Idols", female statuettes with mobile legs: the head, small compared to the remainder of the body, is perched at the end of a long neck, while the body is very full, in the shape of bell. At the beginning of 8th century BC, tombs known as "hero's" receive hundreds, even thousands of small figurines, with rudimentary figuration, generally representing characters with the raised arms, i.e. gods in apotheosis.

In later periods the terracotta figurines lose their religious nature, representing from then on characters from everyday life. With 4th and 3rd centuries BC, a type known as Tanagra figurines shows a refined art. Tanagra figurines often preserve extensive traces of surface paint. At the same time, cities like Alexandria, Smyrna or Tarsus produced an abundance of grotesque figurines, representing individuals with deformed members, eyes bulging and contorting themselves. Such figurines were also made from bronze.

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