It’s a common theme throughout history that once a civilization secures enough food and water to survive, its people start doing other things. Some may specialize in making objects out of metal, some might make barrels, build houses, or lend money. Others make art.
In fact, no matter where you look, all of the world’s most prosperous societies have or have had a flourishing art scene.
Thanks to this, we are able to learn a great deal about the people of the past. Not only does art provide us with insight as to what they thought looked good, but it also allows us to take a snapshot of how they lived.
Ancient Greece was one of the most prosperous and enduring civilizations of the ancient world. For nearly 1,000 years its cities and city-states dominated the ancient political scene. By studying their art, we can learn a little bit more about who these people were and how they helped create the world we live in today.
Striving for Perfection
One aspect of Greek art that is present in almost any piece you might find is the artists’ desire for perfection. It seems that ancient Greek artists were most concerned with showcasing the world as it “ought to be.” In other words, they weren’t interested in recreating the “real” world but rather some perfect, ideal world.
An example of this can be found in Greek architecture, specifically temples. These buildings were large, rectangular buildings with a triangular roof supported by columns in the front.
Using geometry (a field more or less invented by the ancient Greeks), as well as experience, the Greeks figured out that if they built their large horizontal platforms with a slightly-upward U-shape, then the building would not appear to sag when it was completed.
In addition, they figured out that if they made their columns fatter in the middle than at the top, then the columns would not bow out in the middle, allowing them to continue to look straight despite carrying such a heavy load.
For students of art, this is known as perspective, and ancient Greek architects were the first to use this approach in such large buildings. The result: nearly flawless constructions that could not be found elsewhere in the ancient world.
Another area where the Greeks sought to make their art perfect was in their depiction of humans. We know that the Ancient Greeks painted, but not much of this work remains. However, sculptures, made of marble and other stones, are much more durable and therefore have lasted to the present day.
Through these pieces we can see how, over time, Greek artists worked to make their sculptures depict an idealized form of what they were representing. While earlier works were more crude and inaccurate, later pieces are nearly flawless. In fact, the Greeks were so focused on perfection that their sculptures could almost be called unrealistic. After all, there is no such thing as perfection in the real world.
One of the most famous surviving pieces of Ancient Greek sculpture is the Venus de Milo. Although missing arms, this is a perfect example of just how intent the Greeks were on creating something as close to an idealized form as possible.
Part of the reason for this focus may have come from the culture of philosophy that was booming at the time. For example, Plato, one of the most famous of all ancient Greek philosophers, gained considerable notoriety for his Theory of Forms. This was the idea that everything we perceive is a mere copy of some “ideal form” that exists only in our minds.
Many other philosophers spent their lives seeking ideals and utopian societies. Such influence can be found throughout nearly all Greek art, especially sculpture.
Places of Worship
Another area where Greek art flourished was in religion. Similar to other cultures of the time, the ancient Greeks were deeply influenced by their beliefs about the gods. Pleasing and honoring them was seen as necessary for life to continue, and so the Greeks did what they could to show their respect. Mainly, they built massive temples.
But while their purpose was religious, these were also works of art, and a chance for the Greeks to show off their prosperity to the rest of the world.
For example, the Parthenon in Athens, which was a shrine to the patron deity of Athens, Athena, is one of the largest and most ornate temples of the ancient world. It’s lined with columns and decorated with reliefs of various scenes from Greek mythology.
However, it wasn’t always this way. It wasn’t until Pericles, the leader of Athens after the end of the Greco-Persian Wars (c. 450 BC), ordered a massive construction project that the Parthenon became the significant building it now is.
During this time, Athens ruled the ancient world as the de facto leader of the Delian League, an alliance of Greek city-states that formed to keep fighting the Persians and that eventually became the Athenian empire.
Wanting to show off to the world the power and might of Athens, Pericles completely redid the Parthenon and he also ordered numerous other temples built. He financed this all using gold from the Delian League’s treasury, which was growing during the 5th century BC as Athens expanded its influence.
The Prosperity of the Commoners
Most of the art that we find from ancient Greece suggests the prosperity of Greek society as a whole. But there are some pieces that serve as reminders that the commoners lived a pretty good life too.
The best examples of this are the many painted vases ─ often called kraters and amphorae ─ that have been found scattered across the Greek world.
Many of these vases were used in trade. The Greeks were “world famous” for their wine and olive oil, and they shipped these products to faraway lands using these vases. However, the vast majority of these artifacts have been found in Greek cities, suggesting they were a part of daily life.
From today’s perspective, this doesn’t seem like much; so they used vases? But it’s the quantity that matters. For so many people to have access to these vases, there would have been an army of artists living in Greek city-states.
This was long before the time of factories and automation, so the fact that we find these vases, so intricately painted with scenes from life or mythology, in so many places reminds us that the Greeks took prosperity to a level not yet seen in the ancient world.
The Legacy of Greek Art and Architecture
Ancient Greek art was a big deal back in ancient times, but it remains that way today. Much of what the Greeks learnt and did as artists was passed onto other cultures. For example, the Romans took inspiration from Greek buildings to create the three dominant styles of column ─ Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian ─ that are still used today.
The techniques used to make buildings look flat and level are still used, and Medieval and Renaissance artists looked to the ancient Greeks to learn how to paint and sculpt.
So, while the ancient Greeks stopped making art more than two thousand years ago, through their ideas, it has lived forever.
Written by Matthew Jones