A Survey Course about Greek and Roman Art

Period:1200 BCE to 476 CE

There isn’t a high school student or college student on the planet that has not been exposed the Greek and Roman art and art history. These are staples of the academic and scholarly diet. Even if you never intentionally studied them in school, most kids and adults get exposed to some element of Greek and or Roman art and art history. Whether you are a student or an ardent fan of classical art, the following discussion and video links will help you with the following question: What is the least you should know about Greek and Roman painting and sculpture?

This survey discussion will be particularly beneficial to students taking courses in this subject. This is meant only to provide an overview or glimpse of key points and elements in the development and evolution of the subject of Greek and Roman art specific to painting a sculpture. You might consider thins the “Cliff Notes” to Greek and Roman Art from 1200 BCE to 476 CE.

Akhilleus Patroklos Antikensammlung Berlin F2278Credit: User: Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2008

The reason for looking at these two civilizations, Greek and Roman, within the same context of art history is that they are linked together as a result of their sources of influence. Greece was influenced by many cultures either by trade, migration or conquests (Dorian Greeks invasion of Crete and the Aegean Islands; Ionian Greeks absorbing cultural arts from Mesopotamia). Between 2000 and 1400 BCE, Crete was essentially center stage for trading of all kinds to include the arts and culture; this trading included exchanges with Greece, Egypt and Mycenae. Around 1400 BCE, and later, Mycenae began to take the lead in craft works resulting from the influences of long fought wars between Mycenae and the Trojans.[1]

Much later in Greek history, Greece was conquered by the Rome around roughly 168 BCE, although Roman conquest of territories and previously Greek allies fell before that date. Roman art absorbed Greek art styles and techniques as well as those of the lands they (Rome) conquered to include: all the land around the Mediterranean Sea; the whole of Europe from the British Isles to Greece; part of the African continent around the Mediterranean Sea and parts of Asia Minor. As Roman civilization expanded they absorbed and incorporated arts and ideas of those they conquered, especially the Etruscans, Greeks and Mesopotamian civilizations.

Greek painting: Green Dark Ages, Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic Periods

Pottery and frescos represent the bulk of Greek painting that has survived to date, and much of the art collected in museums is connected to Athens, the heart of Greek culture even during the Greek Dark Ages when Athens had yet to fully develop as a city. Greek Dark Age painting, 1200-800 BCE, featured neat and precise concentric circles and patterns of straight, wavy, and zigzag lines for decorations. The Greeks were the first great mosaic artist of Europe and their works flourished with the Romans, finally reaching its zenith with the Byzantines during the Middle-Ages.

Produzione Greco-Orientale, Askos a Ciambella, 650-625 acCredit: Uploaded by Sailko, 2012

Above picture is an example of Greek orientalizing pottery.

Archaic Greek painting 800-500 BCE consists of three forms of jar painting: geometric, orientation, and black-figure painting. Geometric Style includes a variety of patterns: checkers, repeated shapes and meanders, as in a pattern formed by a single contiguous line. Images of people and animals are depicted rigidly and blended into a harmonious artwork. Greek "orientalizing" consists of two styles: bold and splendid designs often included on long figures found mainly on large jars; Corinth styling used light geometric elements and small figures to include rosettes.[1] Later the painting style included black-figures consisting of symbols and ornamentation painted solid black over orange or red glaze. This is the period at which Greek pottery began showing narrative scenes and events.

Greek Vase Paintings

Frescos and Paintings

By the time known as the Archaic Greek period, frescos and panel paintings were flat lacking spatial perspective having instead sharp lines and with little detail; in other words, a two dimensional perspective. This style of fresco painting spread throughout the Etruscans of Italy. One of the most prominent examples of this style of fresco is the well-known Tomb of the Diver.[2]

The most significant painting development of the Greek Classical and Hellenistic Greek period (500-27 BCE) was the painting of subjects in red over black glaze pottery; this is essentially the reverse of the black-figurines style of the Archaic period.

Greek Sculpture

Greek Scupture

The Greek Dark Ages began with the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization around 1200 BCE and essentially became stagnate with little evolution in what can be called the arts of the time. Once the Dark Age of Greek art concluded around 500 BCE, City-States arose with Athens being the center piece of Greece culture; this began the Archaic Age of Greek Sculpture. Following the Archaic Period was the Classical Period as designated from 500-330 BCE and the Hellenistic Period from 330-27 BCE.

Large Greek sculptures were primarily made of marble and bronze. Sculptures are relatively simple, subdued and symmetrical; Hellenistic sculptures, on the other hand, were far more flamboyant and dramatic in both suggestive body positions and emotional facial expressions.

Greek Archaic Sculpture, 800 - 500 BCE

Greek Archaic Sculpture styling is generally ridged and most commonly found as statues called kouros, being male youths which first appear in the Archaic period in Greece. The term kouros is a generic term for the standing male youth figure and kora meaning a maiden. One theory suggests that they represent Persephone the daughter in the triad of the Mother Goddess cults or attendants to the maiden goddess. There are also other various theories as to the history and meaning of kouros and kora; however, they are too many to cover in a brief explanation.

Greek Classical Sculpture, 500 - 330 BCE

The Classic Period brought with it more realism and detail of the human anatomy and positioning, as well as folds in clothing as worn on the subjects of the statues. Additionally, this period is also known for demonstrating the early development styling of configuring a statue to stand on a single leg and or twisted movement giving the additional effect of either being at rest or in an act of movement.

Hellenistic Greek Sculpture, 330 - 27 BCE

As Greek culture flourished and became exposed to more and more regions and cultures resulting from Alexander the Great's many conquests, sculptors incorporated more dramatic subjects that included more detailed and dynamic appearances. This attention to detailing and creating a dramatic feel to art during this period is especially apparent in Greek sculptures of mythological subjects and progressed into the Roman art period.

Museum Tour. No background audio included.

Roman Painting

Roman artisans preferred to duplicate realism into their sculptures and paintings; this was in contrast to the Greek artists efforts to create idealistic images and features in their subjects. Roman sculptured busts included the actual flaws or realistic traits of the subjects themselves. This effort of realism was also a goal in Roman portrait painting as seen in the colorful and realistic portraits called Fayum or Faiyum mummy portraits painted on wooded panels and inserted over the faces of recently deceased Roman citizens. The Romans most likely picked up this practice from the Egyptians, eventually improving upon it from around the 1st century BCE or 1st century CE onwards. This Fayum practice most likely ended around the mid-3rd century CE.[1]

Late Republic Painting, 250 - 27 CE

Roman style frescos during the Late Republic Period 250-27 BCE consisted of two primary styles. The first style was to paint walls in such a way as to creating the appearance of configured textured blocks of fine stone and marble. The second style of fresco during this period involved applying paint to the walls in angles with varying shades and shadows to create the illusion of being in or peering into a three-dimensional art and space.

Empire Period Painting, 27 BCE - 476 CE

During the Empire period, from 27 BCE through 476 CE, two other fresco styles appear on the scene: one being a block tapestry style and the other being a hybrid. The tapestry style frescos of varying size rectangles were created in somewhat of a wall of blocks with decoration pictures painted interspersed throughout the wall space creating the appearance of one large tapestry. The final style during this period is considered a hybrid by integrating the previous tapestry rectangular method with that of the three-dimensional perspective. This Empire Period is also known for portrait style works such as had previously existed in Egypt and Greek painting; most of the surviving examples are in the form of mummy portraits included in burial.[1]

Early Christian Painting: 180 - 476 CE

Early Christian artwork coincided with the Late Empire Period (180-476 CE). Christian artists adopted Roman art forms. Roman Catacombs frescos, generally flat and smooth, encompass most of the early Christian paintings. To avoid Roman reprisal, Christian symbols were cautiously imbedded into more traditional Roman artwork (Roman religious images and symbols) in order to avoid the problems of Roman intolerance of Christianity; for example, The Good Shepherd painting displays Christ as a beardless Roman youth. In 313 CE when Constantine and Licinius ended the persecution of Christians and issued the Edict of Milan, Christian artist could openly create Christian religious art for public display without the fear of persecution.

Roman Sculpture: The strongest influence on Roman sculpture was from Greece, and thus Roman sculpture is generally considered a continuation and evolving step from earlier Greek sculpture. Portrait sculptures initially adopted the Greek stylistic appearance of youth with classical proportions, later they evolving into realism and idealism. Sculptures and reliefs depicting battles and events also became common in Roman art, especially in Earlier Christian art.

Late Republic Period Sculpture: 250 - 27 BCE

The formative age of Roman art was the Late Republic Period, 250-27 BCE and culminating with the Empire Period around 27 BCE - 476 CE. During the Late Republic Period, Rome often hired Greek artists to create art objects for Roman homes. Whether artists were Roman or Greek, statues were often in the form of busts of emperors, public figures, mythological figures, and narrative reliefs placed throughout the empire to communicate the authority of Rome to the conquered territories. However, Roman busts promoted veristic realism over the more traditional stylistic Greek busts, in other words, Roman sculpture had to include all the subject's flaws, creases, and wrinkles that come with age and experience.

Pax Romana Sculpture: 27 BCE - 180 CE

From circa 27 BCE through 180 CE, other than the continued evolving of detail and volume of Roman art created, this time of Roman Peace saw two kinds of statues that became most common in the empire: standing figures and the mounted figures. The statutes Augustus of Prima Porta (made of marble) and the Equestrian Marcus Aurelius (a life size bronze statue) are famous examples of this period.

The Equestrian Statue of Marcus AureliusCredit: Uploaded by Rosemania

Late Empire Sculpture: 180 BCE - 476 CE

As stated earlier Roman art was influenced by many cultures besides that of Greek artisans. Italic and Etruscan styling and practices also influenced realism in Roman sculpture; styling of dedication and sculptures honoring individuals found its way throughout the Roman Empire. Roman statues dedicated and honoring emperors, politicians, and military leaders set up in public places throughout the empire advertised the person's accomplishments and standing in the empire. Some of these sculptures were larger than life such as the Colossus of Constantine based on estimates resulting from the surviving statue's parts it would have stood roughly 40 feet high.

Pictured below: The Ambrosian Iliad, Battle scenes from Iliad Book Five.

Ambrosian Iliad Battle SceneCredit: Uploaded by Dsmdgold, 2005

Early Christian Art as a part of the Late Roman Empire Painting & Sculpture: 180 BCE - 476 CE

This is the period in which Roman traditional painting and sculpting influenced what was to become Early Christian Medieval art. The earliest examples clearly identified as being Christian art are of the Late Roman Republic circa 2nd century CE and are found throughout the catacombs of Rome. Prior to 313 CE, Christian sculpture generally limited their sculptures to reliefs on sarcophagi and ivory carvings while Christian painters limited their work to the walls and ceilings of the Roman catacombs;[1] these sculptures and paintings incorporated or masked Christian images and messages in Roman iconography. The image of Christ would be hidden in the art as a good shepherd or as Apollo.

After the state-sponsored persecution of Christians ended in 313 CE, when Constantine "officially granting full tolerance to Christianity and all religions in the Empire,"[5] churches were built and decorated with paintings, mosaics and sculptures reflecting more of a stylistic appearance such as had existed in the 1st century CE and earlier of the Greco-Roman art. Paintings were more abstract focusing on the message they intended to convey through innocent eyed subjects and interwoven with Christian symbols; while sculptures were more stylistic in detail with an emphasis on dramatic effect. A common example is the relief sculptures of this period showing the apostles kneeling on either side of Christ.

Final Word

As has been stated in the outset of this discussion, Greek art was influenced by many sources; the product of a melting pot of ideas and skills acquired through trade, invading forces, as well as ingenuity. Roman art was influenced by not just Greek art, but by all the societies they (Romans) conquered. And in turn, Early Christian art was born of Greco-Roman art. A generalized statement as to the evolution of Greco and Roman sculpture would be that it, in the earlier Greek periods prior to the Late Roman Empire period, sculptures were based stylistic imagination not on the later Roman realistic styling, seeing all the wear and tear that life brings to any individuals face and body. Greek painting evolved from simple geometric shapes to simple flat black characters, then more detailed black characters on glazed amphora, then red characters with even more detailed over black glazed surfaces. Roman frescos also started out as flat characters then added the allusion of textured or tapestry on walls followed by a more three dimensional styling of painting subjects along with painting windows and images on walls to create the allusion of looking through the wall at a three dimensional scene.

The intent of this study is to provide any student of art history or a fan of art a base-line, as it were, for the "least you should know" about Greek and Roman art. The material in this survey may be used in any undergraduate 101 or 201 art history course.

Greek Art (Fourth Edition) (World of Art)
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