Greek Sculpture – Part 1

PHYSICAL CONDITIONS. Ancient Hellas signified any country where the Greeks lived. It comprised not merely the country now called Greece, but also an insular Greece, consisting of the islands of the AEgean and Ionian Seas; an eastern, or Asiatic Greece, with important cities on the coast of Asia Minor, and extending under Alexander as far east as modern India; an African Greece, with cities in Egypt and on the north coast of Africa; and an occidental Greece, with colonies in Southern Italy, Sicily, France, and Spain. This discontinuity of country tended to produce a diversity of interests and character, but the sea was to the Greeks a bond of union. It was their Nile, their Tigris and Euphrates.

Greece proper is characterized by its diversity of landscape and climate. It has many mountains, rivers, and plains. Its inhabitants lived, therefore, under changeable conditions, and had to adapt themselves to summer heat and winter cold. The clear atmosphere permitted the sharply cut features of the landscape to be seen from long distances. Thus the very configuration of the country was a constant object-lesson in clean-cut forms, and it would be strange indeed if, sooner or later, it had not influenced in part the sculptural sense and the plastic mind of its inhabitants.

SOCIAL CONDITIONS. The history of the Greek world exhibits a lack of continuity similar to that of the land itself. Though springing apparently from the same parent stock, tribal distinctions divided the race. This appears to have been the case in the prehistoric period as well as in later times. That this original stock was Aryan cannot be positively determined by the monuments. A Shemitic and Egyptian impress is apparent upon the earliest Greek art, but from what source springs its independent creative energy is still unrevealed by monumental evidence. Language, mythology, and comparative politics, however, assign to the Greeks an Aryan ancestry.

Geographical conditions led naturally to decentralized forms of government. We find, accordingly, a number of small cities or commonwealths instead of a large, central capital ; local rulers instead of a universal monarch; government by aristocratic councils and popular assemblies rather than by a king. The Greek idea fostered local independence and individual freedom. As a consequence of such a system of government, the artistic energies of the people were stimulated by a healthy rivalry. The temples and other monuments were widely diffused, and local schools of art became established at an early period.

Religion was a factor of prime importance in determining the character of Greek sculpture. Originally a worship of the powers of nature, it became under Greek mytho-poetic fancy a complicated system of polytheism. It contained a supreme divinity, but his functions were limited by the existence of other aristocratic divinities and a larger assembly of inferior gods. Below these were the heroes, of semi-human and semi-divine origin. Greek poetry had long stimulated and fostered these supernatural beliefs. So the sculptor was provided with ideal themes and legends, the common possession and inspiration of his race.

Though separated from each other in a measure by geographical barriers, the Greeks were united not merely by the hereditary bonds of a common ancestry, but by a common warfare against their enemies and by common interests in times of peace. The memorable victories over the Persians effectually preserved Greece from becoming an Oriental province. In the wake of these wars followed a period of unparalleled artistic activity.

The festivals and games, especially the Olympic games, constituted another strong bond of union. Nor was Greek commerce the least important factor in determining the direction of artistic forms. The early intercourse of the Greeks with Egypt brought them many impressions which became indelibly stamped upon their architecture, sculpture, and painting. Their long and often intimate association with the Phoenicians brought Babylon and Assyria to their doors, while their cities in Asia Minor received secondary influences of a similar character.

SUBJECTS. The themes of Greek sculpture were not limited to any one phase of local life. They were religious, civic, domestic, sepulchral, according to the demand.

By far the largest and most important class of Greek sculpture was of a religious character, and more or less closely connected with the temple. Within the temple was the image of the divinity. In the earliest times these images were mere symbols, shapeless stones supposed to have fallen from heaven, or masses of wood or stone hewn in some geometric shape, such as a pillar, column, or pyramid. Even before they assumed human form, these idols were robed, crowned with garlands, and treated as personal beings. Gradually the symbolic stage disappeared, and the gods were fashioned in the likeness of man. Sometimes they were of colossal stature or constructed of costly materials. Other statues, also of a votive character, were placed within and without the temple. These were statues of priests and priestesses or unofficial individuals. Besides statues, there were offered to the gods tripods, vases, images of sacred animals, armor, jewelry, and other objects of a sculptural character.

The sculptor had also much to do with the external decoration of the temples. Into his hands fell not merely the delicate carving of the capitals of the columns, but the figures for the pediments, highly relieved metopes, and the continuous friezes in low-relief. The subjects of the pedimental sculptures were usually, but not always, associated with the divinity to whom the temple was dedicated. In the case of the Parthenon the pedimental subjects were intimately connected with Athene, but in the Temple of Athene at AEgina and of Zeus at Olympia the divinities stand unconcernedly, as if they were invisible spectators of the memorable contests of war and athletic prowess. In some cases the divinity of the temple was not even represented in the sculptures of the pediments. The subjects of the metopes and friezes were usually unrelated to the divinity of the temple. The discontinuous nature of the metopes made the labors of Herakles, contests of the gods and giants, or of Greeks and Amazons, favorite subjects, while processions, assemblies, or battle-scenes were better adapted for the continuous friezes.

In connection with the temples we find represented the whole range of Greek mythology. Here were the twelve Olympian divinities, Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Apollo, Artemis, Hephaistos, Athene, Ares, Aphrodite, Hermes, and Hestia; and the minor divinities, Dionysos, and his cycle of satyrs, seilenoi, nymphs, maenads, and centaurs; Eros, Psyche, and Ariadne ; the Muses, Graces, Seasons, and Fates ; Pluto and Persephone and Thanatos ; Helios and Nyx ; the Winds, Tritons, Nereids, River-gods, personifications of mountains and cities ; and the heroes, Herakles, Theseus, Achilleus, Perseus, and the Dioskouroi.

Besides religious sculpture, there is a class of Greek monuments of purely civic character. These are usually stele recording treaties of alliance, honorary degrees, financial records, and the like. Upon these monuments the state, the senate, or the people are represented in mytho-poetic fashion; thus Athens appears as Athene, the senate as a woman, the people as a man. Of civic character also are the official busts, placed on pillars or columns.

Another group of subjects was furnished by the great national games. This class of sculpture consisted of athletes of various kinds, chariot-racers, discus-throwers, runners, wrestlers, athletes scraping themselves or binding the tenia around their brows, victors in musical contests, or in dramatic or comic poetry. Such occasions furnished one of the early incentives to portraiture, a form of art practised occasionally in Greece from the archaic period onward, but more commonly after the time of Alexander.

Historical sculpture as it had existed in Egypt and Assyria was almost unknown in Greece. Events of importance were commemorated by sculptural monuments, but in mythopoetic, not prosaic fashion. The AEginetans commemorated the victory at Salamis by erecting a temple to Athene, and decorated its pediments by representations of the mythic combats of Greeks and Trojans. The Messenians recorded their victory over the Akarnanians by erecting a lofty pier on which stood a beautiful figure of Nike. Even in the declining years of Greek history, we find at Pergamon the chief memorial of the conquest over the Galatians to have been a huge altar with an enormous frieze representing the Gigantomachia. At the same town, however, a more realistic record was made of the same victories by statues of dying Galatians and fallen PersIans.

When we turn from the public to the private life of the Greeks, we find the sculptor and his associates, the workers in bronze and precious metals, the wood-carvers, gem-cutters, and potters all contributing their share toward throwing into beautiful and permanent form the objects which adorned the home. Such were the tables, chairs, chests, vases, cups, lamps, mirrors, and mirror cases, which artistic workmen ornamented with mythological representations; also the objects of personal adornment—the coronals, necklaces, bracelets, and gems. A large class of objects of domestic character is to be found in the terracotta figurines. At an early date these may have been chiefly votive offerings, or, like the Egyptian oushabti, made expressly for the tomb ; but from the fourth century B.C. they seem certainly to have had a wider function, and to have been made to give pleasure to the living. These figurines, whether in single figures or groups, are like character studies, furnishing valuable evidence of the life and costumes of the period. Subjects of mythological interest and figures of divinities are common, and occasionally copies or variants of famous statues are preserved in the terracottas. Grotesque subjects also occur; but a larger number are of figures of women, sometimes of extraordinary grace and beauty.

The skill of the sculptor was employed also to beautify the memorials to the dead. In various quarters of the Greek world tombs in the form of temples or chapels, or rock-cut dwellings with sculptured facades, existed from the earliest times, but in Attica and in the Peloponnesos and in Northern Greece it was customary to mark the last resting-place of the departed with a stele or sculptured slab. These stele were variously decorated; some by an anthemion, others represented a doorway or aedicula, in which appears the figure of the departed. Sometimes the deceased was represented in his character as a warrior, a shepherd, a knight; again, his relatives gather about him in a farewell scene or are gathered at a funeral banquet. The burial scene itself, or the funeral pro-cession, was less frequently represented.

TECHNICAL METHODS. The Greeks derived from the older civilizations considerable knowledge of the technique of sculpture, but physical, intellectual, and spiritual conditions gave their art a new direction. For stone sculpture they were practically limited to the calcareous rock and to marble. The rougher material (poros or tufa), though frequently used, was not conducive to the development of a fine art; but, fortunately for sculpture, Greece was well provided with marble. Athens had the quarries of Pentelikos and Hymettos at her very doors; there were quarries also in Lakonia and Boiotia; western Asia Minor was rich in various kinds of marble, and the Italo-Greeks could draw upon what are now the quarries of Carrara. But the most brilliant and uniformly grained marble came from the Greek islands. Of these the marble of Paros was most esteemed, while that of Naxos, Thasos, and Andros was not much inferior.

All Greek sculpture until the time of Lysippos, or possibly a century later, was freehand carving. The instruments used were, a saw to prepare the rough block, sharp-pointed punches to give the first vague form, square and curved-edged and claw chisels to define the surfaces, and a drill for the deep cutting of the drapery. A rod was sometimes fastened upon the front, so that the sculptor might more easily preserve the balance of the two sides of his statue. The most famous sculptors did not hesitate to build up their statues from several pieces of marble or to leave portions of the original mass as supports.

The final surface was rendered more life-like by being rubbed down with oil and molten wax, but the statue was not complete until it was colored and gilded. The rough poros statues were first covered with a thin layer of stucco, with which the color was mixed, or on which it was laid. For marble statuary this stucco covering was unnecessary. In crude examples brilliant color was applied generally and in broad masses, but in the finer works color was more specifically applied for the emphasis of details. Praxiteles considered as his best works those for which he had the cooperation of the distinguished painter Nikias. Gilding for marble statuary was applied to details, as upon the wings of the Eros of Praxiteles or the hair of the Venus de’ Medici. Other means were also employed to give color to sculpture, as, for example, the use of bronze for the weapons, etc. The freehand carving of reliefs made that process the reverse of the modern method. The modern conception of relief, based upon the building up of a clay model upon a flat surface, is that of projection from a background. The background is thought of as fixed, and the figured relief varies in projection. The ancient relief was, on the contrary, a carved drawing or picture, the external surface of which is the fixed plane, from which in varying degrees the background is cut away. Reliefs, as well as statues, were not finished until polished and colored.

In metal sculpture the Greeks were well versed from early times. Gold and silver and bronze were used for many purposes, where cheaper materials are now employed. Iron and steel played a smaller part. The metals were given form by various processes. A common class of objects were the thin plates of gold, silver, or bronze applied as superficial decoration upon walls, furniture, robes, etc. These were pressed or hammered into ornamental shape either freehand by the repousse method, or more mechanically by the aid of prepared blocks of wood or stone. In early times even metal statues were constructed of thin wrought plates. Again, form was given to metal in the hard state by chiselling and engraving. To this class belonged small wrought objects, also engraved mirrors and cistae, seals, dies for coins, and inlaid metal-work. The implements used for such purposes were chisels, gouges, burins, files, drills, and polishers. The Greeks were acquainted with various methods of casting metals. They used stone and metal moulds for casting in solid form; and lime, sand, wax, and clay for various methods of hollow casting. As in marble sculpture, they built up bronze statues from a number of parts and welded them together. They understood the gilding of bronze, and the production of bronzes of various shades of color. Thus athletes were of a brownish bronze, and sea figures sometimes of a more silvery hue. Additional polychromatic effect was produced by the inlaying of metals and the use of artificial eyes. But Plutarch’s statement that Silanion’s bronze statue of the dying lokaste had pale cheeks, produced by the admixture of silver, and Pliny’s that the statue of the raging Athamas by Aristonidas had red cheeks, produced by the admixture of iron with the bronze, were probably not based upon personal observation. It is now definitely known that the Greeks sometimes coated their bronzes with an artificial patina.

Wood-carving, an art which the Greeks attributed to their mythical Daidalos, was long held high esteem. Even in the most flourishing period, the crude ancient wooden images of the gods were honored with special reverence. The. methods of carving in wood were also, in a measure, transferred to the earliest attempts in stone. There were many woods in Greece which lent themselves to statuary, such as the cedar, cypress, beech, oak, laurel, myrtle, pear, and olive. These woods were carved in the green condition, were painted, and sometimes covered with thin plates of metal. The latter practice probably led to the production of chryselephantine sculpture, of which the most famous examples were the Zeus Olympios and the Athene Parthenos of Pheidias, and the Hera of Polykleitos. These statues were hollow, With an inner framework of iron upon which was an outer shell of wood. On this shell were laid thin plates of ivory and of gold, to represent, respectively, the nude and draped portions of the statue. By some process, unknown to us, the ivory was probably softened and the separate sections juxtaposed with a skilful concealing of the joints. The ivory was then carefuly polished and probably colored.

As a material for sculpture, terracotta was used as early as wood. Images of the gods and architectural decoration in terracotta were in common use before stone and marble and metal were employed for these purposes. The larger images were sometimes built up in separate parts, but more commonly the clay was modelled around an inner core of wood which acted as a support. The smaller images, or figurines, were sometimes solid and modelled freehand, but usually were cast in moulds. They were, in the latter case, hollow, and ordinarily had a quadrangular opening in the back, which permitted a more uniform contraction when baking. The figurines of finer quality were carefully retouched before they were baked. Special parts, such as the bases, hats, fans, were modelled separately and subsequently affixed. After the baking, color was applied. Sometimes only details were marked by color, but more frequently the original material was entirely concealed. A groundwork of white was first laid over the figure, and upon this the colors and gilding were applied. Thus, in all forms of sculpture—stone, metal, wood, and terracotta—the finished work was polychromatic.