Art History for Normal People: Ancient Greece (Part I)


Art History for Normal People
IntroductionMesopotamia • Egypt

Ancient Greece is where we start to see the development of what we now call “classical art.” I thought in this post we could do a brief overview of the development of Greek art, and in a second post we can examine some parts of the Greek temple that remain integral parts of our architectural language today.

The stages of Greek art — and we are mainly talking about sculpture when we say “art” — can be remembered by the vaguely gross-sounding acronym GOACH. These letters stand for five significant periods in the development of Greek art. Geometric, Orientalizing, Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic. These periods span roughly from 1000 B.C. to 0.

The Geometric period was the time of Homer, and it is the era in which “Greece” as we know it comes together and takes shape. Stone sculpture was not well-developed yet, and so the primary art form that comes to us from this time is pottery. The jugs and jars were filled with geometric designs, hence the name of the period. One of these designs, the meander, is still commonly used.

Art and Liturgy - Ancient Greek Meander pattern in pavement from Rhodes
A very basic meander pattern — By Hannes Grobe 19:09, 3 September 2006 (UTC) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Art and Liturgy - Ancient Greek geometric horse sculpture
Ancient Greek geometric sculpture. A horse, obviously.

Around the year 800 BC, increased contact between the Greeks and Middle Eastern civilizations led to the Orientalizing period. The Greeks, admiring these other societies’ monumental stone sculptures, begin to make their own. They were, well, not so good at first. This sculpture, the Lady of Auxerre, is one of the first known monumental sculptures in Greece. She has stiff hair and a U-shaped face, new developments that historians believe were adopted from these foreign cultures.

Lady of Auxerre

The Archaic period continues as the Greeks make stone sculpture their own, although still heavily influenced by Egyptian and other Eastern art. Two types of sculpture were extremely popular: a nude, standing male (kouros) and a clothed, standing woman (kore). Here’s an Egyptian kouros from about the same time period:


By the end of the 6th century BC, they were crafting really natural figures, although not quite comfortable enough yet to branch out into other poses and actions. During this time the female body was not allowed to be portrayed in the nude, and so the few ambitious statues of women we have are all clothed and not that great, anyway. The really good artists of the time were sculpting kouroi:


As you can see in the examples above, artists were starting with canons they learned in Egypt, Assyria, and other Oriental cultures. The quest for the perfect canon — the perfect system of proportioning the human body — would continue throughout the Greek and Roman eras.

The Classical period continues this progress, now depicting real individuals instead of idealized stereotypes. The Classical period also sees really bold exploration of poses and positions. Subject matter consists of gods and goddesses, beautiful nude men and women, heroic athletes, and other similarly “ideal” things. This is really the high point of Greek originality and skill.


Finally, the Hellenistic period (the name comes from Hellas, which is Greek for Greece) coincides with the reign of Alexander the Great and Greek culture’s massive expansion, stretching as far as modern India. Sculpture becomes extremely dramatic and, at times, a little over-the-top. The content changes, too: we know of Hellenistic sculptures that show old age, sleep, drunkenness — subjects that would have been simply unthinkable in Classical times.


If you’re in the D.C. area, the National Gallery of Art has an exhibition called Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World until March. It looks fascinating!

In the next post we will take a look at some of the artistic and architectural developments of Ancient Greece that influence our own art and worship, 2,500 years later.