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date: 23 April 2024

sculpture, Greekfree

sculpture, Greekfree

  • Andrew F. Stewart


  • Greek Material Culture

Origins (c.1000–c.600 bce)

Of Dark-Age sculpture, only small bronzes and terracottas survive; unpretentious at first, by the 8th cent. they tend to favour the rigorously analytical forms of contemporary vase-painting. Some wooden cult images certainly existed, though most were perhaps aniconic or semi-iconic. Yet Homer describes an Athena at Troy that was probably lifesize and fully human in form (Il. 6. 297 ff.); and a half-lifesize Apollo, a Leto, and an Artemis, bronze-plated over a wooden core, survive from Cretan Drerus (see crete) as confirmation (c.750). This sphyrelaton technique is near-eastern in origin. On close inspection the works reveal a careful attention to proportions, a command of volume and mass, and a strong sense of articulation (based on the natural jointing of the core). Converting the flux of appearance into a regular, harmonious, yet visually credible form, this unknown artist is a true pioneer.

The Cretan poleis (see polis) were socially and politically precocious, and their eastern trade, in which Corinth soon joined, set off a new cycle of experimentation c.700. In sculpture, the most popular of these orientalizing styles is usually called ‘Daedalic’ after the mythical founder of Greek sculpture (see daedalus). Diffused through terracotta plaques and popular in a wide variety of media and scales, Daedalic is characterized by a strict frontality and an equally strict adherence to stylized, angular forms; coiffures are elaborately layered in the Syrian manner. When employed on temples (Gortyn, Prinias), it often follows near-eastern precedent in both placement and iconography.

Meanwhile, Cycladic sculptors were looking to Egypt, receptive to foreigners from 664. After c.650 the walking, kilted Egyptian males were adapted to form the kouros type, nude and free-standing—supposedly a ‘discovery’ of Daedalus (Diod. Sic. 1. 97. 5, etc.). Marble was the preferred medium, and adherence to the shape of the quarried block tended to make the finished work look like a four-sided relief. The type soon spread to east Greece and the mainland. In the earliest kouroi, as in their draped female counterparts, the korai, the Daedalic style predominated, but by c.600 its rigid stylization was breaking down as sculptors sought new ways of communicating male and female beauty, to delight the gods or to commemorate the dead.

Archaic sculpture (c.600–c.480 bce)

Archaic sculpture seeks exemplary patterns for reality, somewhat akin to the formulae of Homeric and archaic poetry. The aim was still to make sense of the phenomenal world, to generalize from experience, but in a more flexible and direct way. Each local school developed its own preferences in ideal male beauty. Naxians liked a sinuous contour and clear-cut, elegantly stylized anatomy; Samians massively rounded forms and powerfully articulated joints; Boeotians a craggy masculinity; and so on. Only in Athens did a thoroughgoing naturalism evolve, as a by-product of a desire to understand the tectonics of the perfect human body in their entirety. By c.500 Athenian kouroi were fully developed human beings, their anatomy closely observed, clearly articulated, and skilfully integrated with the underlying physical and geometric structure of the body.

Korai offered fewer opportunities for detailed physical observation, but just as many for displays of beauty appropriate to their subjects' station in life and value to a male-dominated world. Their sculptors concentrated upon refining the facial features, creating a truly feminine proportional canon, and indicating the curves of the body beneath the drapery. The mainland tunic or peplos offered little here, but from c.560 the possibilities of the more complex Ionian chiton and himation began to fascinate the eastern Greeks. Soon, refugees fleeing from the Persians helped the fashion to catch on elsewhere, particularly in Attica. Yet by c.500, serious interest in the behaviour of cloth had given way to a passion for novelty: sculptors now pursued a decorative brilliance enhanced by a lavish application of colour.

Both types could be adapted for cult statues (see statues (cult of)), and the sources recount much work in this genre (see archermus; theodorus(1)), often associated with the new stone temples that now served as focal points of polis religion. Gold and ivory (chryselephantine) statues also begin to appear; several have been found at Delphi. From c.600, temple exteriors were often embellished with architectural sculpture, first in limestone, then in marble; treasuries for votives were soon enhanced in the same way. Mythological narratives first supplemented, then supplanted primitive power-symbols like gorgons and lions (Corfu (Corcyra), ‘Hekatompedon’, and Hydra pediments at Athens). Sculptors soon adapted their subjects to their frames, whether triangular (see above), rectangular (Ionic friezes at Ephesus, Samos, and Delphi), or square (metopes of the Sicyonian treasury at Delphi and temples at Paestum and Selinus); to carve pediments in higher relief and even in the round (‘Old temple’ pediments at Athens; Apollo temple at Delphi); and to dramatize the story by judicious timing, lively postures and gestures, and compelling rendering of detail.

By c.500 the drive to narrate convincingly had permeated virtually all sculptural genres, from gravestones to statue-bases. Hollow-cast bronze also began to replace marble (see antenor(2)), at least in free-standing sculpture. Its greater tensile strength now removed any technical restraint in the handling of narrative action poses. Only the kouroi and korai remained aloof—and look increasingly old-fashioned in consequence. A revolution was brewing, and could not be long delayed.

Classical sculpture (c.480–c.330 bce)

‘The dynamic of the subject-matter’—the living body, unencumbered by arcane symbolism or religious inhibitions—had always played an important part in modifying the formulaic style, and surely contributed signally to its abandonment, but other factors also helped. Three stand out: a strong commitment to credible narration, prompting sculptors to think of the body as an integrated organism, not a mechanism assembled from discrete parts; a feeling that naturalism was a mixed blessing, requiring corrective measures to preserve the statue's monumentality; and a new quest for interiority, for exploring man's inner self. Around 480 even the automaton-like kouros gave way to more subtly mobile, narrative-oriented figures, monumental in physique and grave of countenance, pausing as if to think, like the ‘Critius’ boy, or resolute in action, like the Tyrannicides.

This more flexible, holistic, and contextual view of man was abetted by a simultaneous repudiation of late Archaic ‘excess’ in decorative patterning in favour of a rigorously applied doctrine of formal restraint. The new style strongly recalls the sōphrosynē or ‘wise moderation’ urged by the poets. This was an ethic much in vogue after the replacement of aristocracies at Athens and elsewhere by limited democracies, and particularly after the spectacular defeat of the hybristic and excessive Persians in 490 and 480. This early Classical phase is often (appropriately) called ‘Severe’.

Sōphrosynē is best exemplified in the sculptures of the temple of Zeus at Olympia, carved between 470 and 457 (Paus. 5. 10). Their themes bespeak hubris overcome by divinely-inspired wisdom, and the participants act out their characters like participants in a tragedy. The expansive rendering brings power to the narrative, while a self-imposed economy of means allows bold distinctions in characterization, unhampered by distracting clutter. The same is true of bronzes like the Zeus from Artemisium and Riace Warrior A, whose carefully calculated postures are eloquent, respectively, of divine might and heroic potency; and of works known only in copy like the Discobolos of Myron (1), whose swinging curves capture the essence of athletic endeavour.

Throughout, the aim is to find forms or modes that express the general or typical, yet are open to some variation for individuality's sake: witness the differences between the two Riace war-riors. Further progress was the work of two geniuses, Polyclitus of Argos and Phidias of Athens (active c.470–420). In his bronze Doryphoros or ‘Spearbearer’, Polyclitus created a new standard or canon (also written up as a treatise) for the youthful nude male. Powerfully muscled, proportioned with meticulous exactitude, composed around carefully-calibrated cross-relationships among the limbs, and finished with painstaking precision, it was a paradigm of measured humanity. The Mean personified, it was restrained yet limber, self-controlled yet ever-ready for action. Polyclitus produced many variations on this theme and future generations were to follow it ‘like a law’ (Pliny HN 34. 55).

Polyclitus was remembered as supreme in the rendering of mortals, Phidias as the unsurpassed interpreter of the divine, master of chryselephantine, and propagandist for Periclean Athens (Quint. 12. 10. 9; cf. pericles (1)). In his Athena Parthenos and Zeus at Olympia he sought to convey the majesty of the gods by subtle manipulation of the rendering, and by surrounding them with mythological sagas to demonstrate their power. On the Parthenon (447–432) he extended this technique to the exterior sculpture. Athena's power and reach are proclaimed by a closely co-ordinated programme of narratives, and her chosen people, the Athenians, are exalted by a rendering unsurpassed in Greek sculpture for its fluency, grace, harmony of body and clothing, and perfection of formal design. In this way the typical became the citizen ideal.

Phidias' followers, active during the Peloponnesian War (431–404) both pressed his style to its limits and turned it to other ends (see agoracritus; alcamenes; callimachus(2); paeonius). Paeonius' Nike and the parapet of the Nike Temple on the Athenian Acropolis manipulate drapery to create a surface brilliance that seduces the spectator into believing that what he sees is truth: victory scintillates before his eyes. Hitherto a more-or-less objective analysis of reality, here sculpture becomes a vehicle for the subjective and rhetorical, initiating yet another phase of restless experiment. The pendulum was to swing back somewhat with the 4th-cent. masters, but henceforth, as the ancient critics realized (Quint. 12. 10. 9), it is the phenomena that tend to coerce the sculptor, not vice versa. The war was not wholly to blame: the sophists had done their work well, particularly in Athens.

Whereas in the Peloponnese the war only benefited the conservative pupils of Polyclitus, in postwar Athens, demand for sculpture was virtually restricted to gravestones, revived around 430 (see art, funerary, greek). Not until c.370 could the Athenians celebrate recovery by commissioning a bronze Eirene and Plutus (Peace and Wealth) from Cephisodotus (1), a work that exudes Phidian majesty and harmony (see also retrospective styles). Also seeking new ways to the divine, Cephisodotus' son Praxiteles created his revolutionary Aphrodite of Cnidus, proclaiming the power of the love goddess through total nudity and a beguiling radiance of feature and surface. Meanwhile, his contemporary Scopas sought to perfect an acceptable formula for conveying the passions of gods and men.

Scopas was a leading sculptor in the team engaged by Mausolus of Caria for his gigantic tomb, the Mausoleum. Its unparalleled magnificence announced the advent of the Hellenistic world; a pointer, too, was the hiring away of the best artistic talent by a ‘barbarian’ patron. The real revolutionary, though, was Lysippus (2) of Sicyon (active c.370–310), who radically transformed Greek sculpture's central genre, the male nude. His Apoxyomenos or ‘Body-scraper’ not only rocks back and forth before our eyes and extends an arm into our space, but was planned according to a new canon which sought slimness, elegance, and the appearance of greater height (Pliny HN 34. 65). This and his minute attention to details made him popular as a portraitist, particularly with Alexander (3) the Great (reigned 336–323), from whose features he created a new ideal that was firmly rooted in reality. Greek portraiture, which had hitherto veered between slight modifications to standard types and a sometimes trenchant realism, was transformed at a stroke (see portraiture, greek).

Hellenistic sculpture (c.330–c.30 bce)

The phenomenal expansion of the Greek world under Alexander created a bonanza of opportunity for sculptors. Lysippus' pupils and others were hired to create commemorative, votive, and cult statues for the new kingdoms (see eutychides; lysippus, school of). Portraitists were particularly in demand to render and where necessary improve the features of Successor kings (see diadochi), generals, and dignitaries.

Yet the political chaos after Alexander's death, together with the transformations being undergone by the independent polis in old Greece, sculpture's homeland, undermined the art's social and religious foundations. Furthermore, Lysippus' commitment to the subjective had severely compromised whatever shared artistic values still existed; together with a feeling that little now remained to be discovered, this often tended to promote either eclectic blends of Scopaic, Praxitelean, and Lysippic (in portraiture) or a cautious neo-classicism.

Lysippus' school dominated the Peloponnese and was popular with the Successors, while more conservative patrons could choose the Athenians. As Athens declined, her sculptors increasingly sought permanent employment abroad: Alexandria (1), Rhodes, and the Asian cities were the main beneficiaries. In Alexandria (1), Attic-style gravestones were popular for a while, and the comfortably-off soon became avid consumers of grotesques; meanwhile, Ptolemaic royal portraits (see Ptolemy (1)) exude an aura of suprahuman calm. In Pergamum, a liking for the vigorous realism of the local sculptor Epigonus, in monuments celebrating the defeats of the Celts and Seleucids (237 and after), did not preclude the hiring of the Athenian Phyromachus to create cult-images, portraits, and battle-groups in a turbulent ‘baroque’ style derived from late 4th-cent. art. Style was now a matter of choice, and form could follow function—or not, as the patron wished.

The devastating wars of the years around 200 mark a watershed in Hellenistic sculpture. Following Pergamene precedent, the victorious Romans looted hundreds of statues and began to entice Greek sculptors west to work directly for them; realistic portraiture and Athenian neo-Classical cult-images were most in demand (see polycles). As the Roman market grew, Greek workshops also began to respond with decorative copies and reworkings of Classical masterpieces for direct shipment to Italy (see agasias(1); apollonius(6) and (7); cossutii).

Meanwhile the main beneficiaries of Rome's intervention, Pergamum and Achaea, celebrated in style. Eumenes II of Pergamum built the Great Altar, probably after Macedon's final defeat in 168, embellishing it with a ‘baroque’ Gigantomachy (see giants) and a quasi-pictorial inner frieze narrating the life of the city's mythical founder, Telephus (1). He also installed a copy of the Athena Parthenos in the Pergamene library to advertise his claim to rule the ‘Athens of the east’. Neo-classical sculpture was also favoured in the Achaean cities, where Damophon of Messene sought to update the style of Phidias. Athens preferred an even more rigid classicism, while on Delos from 166 to Mithradates VI's sack of 88 the Italian business community erected hard-boiled portraits of each other and bought dainty statuettes for their homes.

*Attalus III of Pergamum willed his domains to Rome in 133, bringing its sculptural tradition to a close, but the most crushing blow was dealt by the Mithradatic Wars (88–66), which left Greece and Asia devastated and impoverished. Though some striking work was still produced, largely in portraiture, sculptors now moved to Italy in large numbers (see hagesander; menelaus(2); pasiteles), creating the last of the great Hellenistic schools, but now on foreign soil and pledged to foreign masters. When the Carrara quarries opened c.50 and Augustus officially endorsed imperial classicism after Cleopatra VII's defeat in 31, the west at last reigned supreme.

See imagery; sculpture, roman.


  • B. S. Ridgway, The Severe Style in Greek Sculpture (1970).
  • B. S. Ridgway, Fifth-Century Styles in Greek Sculpture (1981).
  • J. J. Pollitt, The Art of Ancient Greece: Sources and Documents (1990).
  • A. F. Stewart, Greek Sculpture (1990).
  • J. Boardman, Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period (corrected ed., 1991).
  • J. Boardman, Greek Sculpture: The Classical Period (corrected ed., 1991).
  • R. R. R. Smith, Hellenistic Sculpture (1991).
  • B. S. Ridgway, Hellenistic Sculpture I-III (1991-2002).
  • B. S. Ridgway, The Archaic Style in Greek Sculpture, 2nd edn. (1993).
  • J. Boardman, Greek Sculpture: The Late Classical Period (1995).
  • B. S. Ridgway, Fourth-Century Styles in Greek Sculpture (1997).
  • G. Campbell (ed.), The Grove Encyclopedia of Classical Art and Architecture (2007), s.v. ‘Sculpture, §IV: Greek’.