Ancient Greek Art

An expedition to discover Ancient Greek Art and Architecture from around the world.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by SmartHistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Facade of the Altes Museum Berlin (1830) by Karl Friedrich SchinkelAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Ancient Greek art in the Altes Museum, Berlin

This Museum houses an amazing collection of ancient art. 

This particular room is devoted to Greek sculpture and pottery. During the classical period, the Greeks primarily made bronze sculptures which were later copied by the Romans in marble.

Frequently the original bronze sculptures don’t survive (bronze is valuable, so it was melted down and recast for other purposes). As a result, much of what we know about ancient Greek sculpture comes from Roman copies.

The Berlin Athlete (-320/-310) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

This athletic figure (damaged over time) demonstrates the artist’s idea that beauty resides in the relationships between the parts of the body. The figure has his weight on his right leg (a pose called contrapposto) and is typical of the classical period.

The spear-bearer of Polykleitos (-25/200) by UnknownAltes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Both the athlete and this Spear-Bearer stand in contrapposto, but a century later, sculptors created figures with thinner and taller proportions. The ancient Greeks often depicted athletes—an indication of their admiration of the human body (the ancient Greeks created the Olympics).

The Temple of Neptune, Paestum (about 1855–1865) by Giorgio SommerThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Paestum, Italy

Even though we are in the south of Italy, this was once a Greek colony called Poseidonia (after the God of the sea, Poseidon). Three beautiful and well-preserved ancient Greek temples can still be seen here.

Two date from the archaic period (500s B.C.E.) and one from the classical period (400s B.C.E.). This allows us to see how the ancient Greeks were continuously adjusting the proportions of their temples in a search for beautiful, harmonious proportions.

This is the oldest of the temples, and, given that this is more than 2500 years old, it’s amazingly well preserved (though it’s missing the roof and much of the interior). Greek temples were houses for a god (or gods), and worship took place outside.

We can see how the Greeks were adjusting proportions since there is a greater sense of verticality here. It was at this time that the Greeks invented democracy. The architecture of many museums and libraries are influenced by ancient Greek architecture.

East Frieze of the Parthenon, Acropolis Museum, Athens

We’re looking at sculptures that once decorated one of the most important buildings in all of  Western art—the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to Athena on the Acropolis in Athens. 

About 65% of the sculptures survive and the majority are in the Acropolis Museum and The British Museum.

The frieze depicts approximately 378 figures and more than 200 animals (mainly horses). We seem to see the Athenians taking part in a procession, likely the procession in honor of the goddess Athena.

Poseidon (god of the sea) sits in profile on the far left, conversing with Apollo (god of music and poetry). The Parthenon sculptures were overseen by Phidias, and here you see his style—ideal figures rendered with drapery that clings to the form of the body underneath.

West Frieze of the Parthenon, 442–438 B.C.E.

We’re looking at the west frieze of the Parthenon where we see horses and riders preparing for the procession.

All the blocks from the West frieze are here in the Acropolis Museum, except for two which are in The British Museum. Here, at the Acropolis Museum, the absent sculptures are represented by casts, so that we can still get a sense of the whole frieze.

Here we see a figure trying to bridle his horse. The sculptor perfectly described the movement and anatomy of both the horse and the figure. The incredible realism we see here was unprecedented in Western art to this time.

The sculptor has carefully observed not only the anatomy of the horses, but how they move. The chaos of the horses’ and riders’ legs, and the different positions of the horses, gives us the sense of a very real procession taking place before us.

Parthenon Frieze and Pediment Sculptures, British Museum

In the early 1800s, Lord Elgin (with permission), removed about half of the remaining Parthenon sculptures and transported them to England (they were later acquired by The British Museum).

Central scene of the east frieze of the Parthenon (-438/-432)British Museum

Some argue that Elgin saved these treasures from further damage, while others argue that he robbed Greece of its cultural heritage. On the long walls are sculptures from the frieze, and at the ends of the gallery are sculptures from the pediments (triangular spaces at the ends of the temple).

These figures in profile are helping to prepare for the sacrifice to the gods and goddesses seated nearby. The parallel folds of drapery, and the slow movement of the figures creates an air of solemnity appropriate for a sacrifice in the presence of the gods.

Here we see the sculptures from the east pediment that tell the story of the birth of Athena. The figures fit the triangular pediment — the figures stand upright in the center and then sit and even recline toward the corners to fit the space.

Pediment sculptures, Parthenon, c. 438-32 B.C.E., British Museum

These are the sculptures from the west pediment. They tell of a contest between Poseidon and Athena for who would become the patron of Athens (Athena won). Very little survives thanks to a Venetian general who attempted to remove them (they fell to the ground).

Figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon (-438/-432)British Museum

In this sculpture of Iris, we see a great example of the style associated with Phidias, the artist in charge of the sculpture on the Parthenon. The drapery creates complex folds around the figure’s torso, revealing the form of her body underneath.

Caryatid and Column

We’re standing in a gallery in The British Museum devoted to another important monument on the Acropolis in Athens, the Erechtheion. 

This is perhaps the most complex building on the Acropolis and it houses shrines to several different deities, including Athena, Zeus, and Poseidon. It is named for the mythic King Erechtheus who judged the contest between Athena and Poseidon for who would be the patron deity of Athens.

Caryatid from the Erechtheion (-415/-415)British Museum

Six elegant female figures supported the roof of the south porch of the Erechtheion (figures who do the work of columns are called caryatids). The belting causes the drapery to bunch up and pour over the belt. Her nobility is typical of the classical period.

Here are beautiful carvings from the Erechtheion. From bottom to top: a palmette and lotus pattern, a pattern called bead and reel, and then egg and dart. Imagine these brightly painted and you start to get a sense of the elegance of this temple.

The Erechtheion is an elegant temple. The scroll forms at the top of the column (the capital) indicate that this is the Ionic order. Just above and below the scroll shapes are decorative moldings, including one called “egg and dart” (egg shapes alternating with V-shapes).

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