Early Classical Greek Sculpture
Early Classical Greek Sculpture (c.480-450 BCE)
Classical Greek sculpture, which spans most of the fourth and fifth centuries BCE, is divided into three periods: (1) Early Classical (480-450); (2) High Classical Sculpture (450-400); (3) Late Classical Sculpture (400-323).
The main difference in appearance between Archaic Greek sculpture and the Classical styles lies in the poses. Typically, most types of Archaic statue were constructed of four strictly frontal or profile elevations and, though usually one leg was advanced and the other drawn back, the left and right halves of the body were rigidly symmetrical. Classical statues are still broadly four-square in design, but the balance of the standing figure is shifted so that the axis of the body becomes a long double curve, and to mitigate frontality the head (except in cult statues) is turned regularly towards the side. In reliefs and pedimental sculpture the Archaic formula always allowed free movement, but each part of the figure was normally shown as fully frontal or profile. The Classical style encourages oblique views and even the twisting of bodies.
This revolution in artistic anatomy, which
probably began among painters, reached the various branches of sculpture
at different times. In low relief it arrives with all the exuberance of
novelty rather before 500 BCE, and in high relief a little later. For
the standing male statue, the relaxed pose appears first in the 480s BCE,
for the standing female statue probably not before the 470s BCE. To preserve
the convenient boundary of 480, one may call the earlier examples of the
new style Transitional, but in essence they are already Early Classical.
This Early Classical style of Greek art, which was dominant till about 450, is also known as the 'Severe' style and with reason. It repudiates conscientiously the decorative detail of much sixth-century sculpture. The Archaic smile is replaced by a frown, hair is rendered by simple strands or flat close curls, and the forms of the face and the body become more unified but with emphasis on a few selected features. Though truer in its general effect to nature, this selection is sometimes arbitrarily 'ideal', most obviously in the Grecian profile which unites forehead and nose in a continuous straight line and in the unguinal ligament which supports the belly and marks the trunk off from the legs.
Yet while severity is characteristic of
Early Classical sculpture, and is evident in several features of the frieze
relief sculpture at the Parthenon, it had
its beginnings in Archaic. During the second half of the sixth century
the kouroi of European Greece were becoming steadily less decorative and
in the korai of the early fifth a similar austerity was invading the old
formulas. The Archaic aim was on the whole a sociable vivacity, the Early
Classical an often vacuous detachment.
was now becoming the standard material for free-standing figures, but
this does not seem to have had much influence on the composition of sculpture.
It is true that since bronze statues (being cast hollow) were lighter
than equivalent stone sculptures
(like those in marble) and had effectively greater tensile strength, their
poses could be extended without as much danger of overbalancing or breakage.
But widely extended poses were uncommon, and indeed later copies show
that they were practicable in marble too. More important perhaps was the
economy of labour: if a statue was to be carved from a single rectangular
block without joining of pieces, then an out-stretched arm meant that
the block must be much larger, with the consequences that the transport
of the block was more difficult and the removal of the surplus stone a
longer job. As for style, the difference of medium had no results, except
in such details as the form of curls. If the Charioteer of Delphi
or the Marathon Boy had been executed in marble, the only considerable
difference would have been in the colour. (Note: the use of precious metalwork
in Greek sculpture, like Bronze, did however encourage the melting down
On the system of colouring for Early Classical sculpture in marble, our knowledge is very patchy, though some sound inferences can be made. To take the pedimental figures of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, one may reasonably suppose that the drapery was painted in flat washes of blue, red and yellow, with a stripe along the borders to clarify the folds; that the bodies of the Centaurs were a reddish brown; that other male flesh was a lightish brown; and that hair, eyes, nipples, fingernails and other details were picked out in appropriate colours. (Note: the early classical chryselephantine Statue of Zeus at Olympia (466-435 BCE) was listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, by the Greek poet Antipater of Sidon.) Whether the flesh of female figures too was tinted is uncertain, though on the contemporary limestone metopes of Temple E at Selinus it probably was not; otherwise there would have been no reason to distinguish it by marble insets. There may of course have been various systems in use, but the general trend was towards more natural effects. The colouring of bronze remains obscure.
For the dating of this ancient art, there are some useful fixed points. The Persian capture of Athens in 480 BCE, gives a terminal date for pieces found in the debris they left. A new pair of statues of the Tyrannicides is said to have been set up in Athens in 477 BCE and we have copies of them. The Charioteer at Delphi commemorates a racing victory probably won in 474 BCE, and (if Pausanias can be believed on this) the Temple of Zeus at Olympia should have been completed by 456 BCE. Since development seems to have been fairly steady and uniform, it is reasonable to date other statues and reliefs by their stylistic relationships to these works, though of course there must have been more conservative and backward sculpture than is allowed for.
Although, as is clear from Pliny and Pausanias, output was large in this period, not much survives. Original Classical statues are rare, since there was no convenient Persian devastation, nor are copies very numerous, since the Early Classical style was too austere for most later collectors. Reliefs and architectural sculpture usually had a better chance of survival, but there was not much building of temples between 480 and 450 BCE, and in Attica the rarity of carved gravestones has made many art historians think that there must at that time have been a law limiting funeral expenses. Still, we are lucky to have four full-size Early Classical statues of bronze, all of them complete and well preserved, and a large part of the architectural sculpture of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.
High relief was by its nature less close
to painting, and so it need not be accidental that our first examples
in the Early Classical style appear a little later. According to Pausanias,
the Athenians built their treasury at Delphi to commemorate the victory
at Marathon in 490 BCE, but many students find this incredible, since
the stylistic stage of its sculpture is little if any later than 500 BCE,
nor does the workmanship look retarded. In the metope panel (of Parian
marble and about two feet square) with Heracles clubbing the Cerynean
hind or stag, there is a confident exaggeration in musculature and posture,
so much so that the hero seems to be bursting out of the field in his
exertion, and the effect must have been even stronger when the sculpture
was complete and the club stretched downwards at the far right. With its
emphatic modelling and the turn of the head this work is much less dependent
on painting than is the Ball-players relief. The contrast with the east
frieze of the Siphnian Treasury, carved by a leading sculptor around
525 BCE, illustrates very clearly the extraordinary development of Greek
figurative drawing and composition
in less than one generation.
The front of the 'Ludovisi Throne', which is 4 feet 8 inches wide, offers an exceptional instance of Early Classical sculpture emulating Greek Classical painting. In contemporary painting it was easy to show the outline of a leg through drapery, but this attempt at transparency in relief is technically inept with its harsh back contour and the illogical diversion of folds of the skirt. There is also the pebbly ground on which the side figures stand. Still, though this 'Throne' - perhaps a fender for an altar or a sacred well - was made of marble imported from Thasos, its style is provincial, concocted in some Greek workshop of South Italy, and provincial art is liable to erratic experiment.
This explains also the odd flavour of archaism in the hair of the central figure and the bodice of the attendant to the right; but the poses of the attendants, the rest of the drapery and the expression of the surviving face are Early Classical and there is an unexpected subtlety in the folds of the cloth discreetly held by the attendants. The subject is obscure, perhaps a goddess or priestess emerging from a ritual bath or even Aphrodite rising from the sea. The date may be about 460 BCE, contemporary with the stylistically more advanced sculptures of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.
The only fairly complete pediments in the Early Classical style are those from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, dated about 460 BCE. The one at the east or front end depicts a static group including the legendary local heroes, Oenomaus and Pelops, preparing for their chariot race, while the west pediment depicts the savage fight at the wedding of Pirithous with the Lapiths rescuing their womenfolk from the drunken Centaurs. As for composition, the Olympia pediments are no more advanced than those of Aegina. In each of them there is a deity standing detached in the centre and the other figures are deployed at either side. The style of course is more advanced at Olympia and in the west pediment the variety of figures - male, female and equine - is more sophisticated.
Throughout the Classical period the standing nude was still the commonest type of male statue, though because of the greater range of poses it was less uniform and less ubiquitous than the Archaic kouros which preceded it. Its principal use was to represent athletes who had won in the major Games, and it served also for heroes and deities and, with the addition of helmet and beard, for successful statesmen (or generals); but statues on graves were now less fashionable. The standard size was a little more than life.
In reliefs and pediments the activity of the figures invited sculptors immediately to apply their new anatomical knowledge, but there was no opportunity for such improvements in the kouros, unless its pose was altered. Such a radical a break with tradition was not acceptable, it seems, before the 480s BCE, and the 'Kritios Boy' is a very early example of the new Early Classical standing male. This statue, which gets its name from a resemblance to the copies of the Tyrannicides of Kritios and Nesiotes, is of Parian marble, about four feet high, and should be a little earlier than 480 BCE, since it was found on the Acropolis of Athens and most probably in debris from the Persian sack.
Originally, as attachments show, both arms stretched down in the old Archaic manner, and the eyes were filled with paste or coloured stones. A curious peculiarity is that the head was made separately from the body and yet the style of both parts is contemporary; presumably then the statue was damaged in the workshop while being carved. What is novel in the Kritios Boy is the shift of its balance, In Archaic statues the feet had taken an unnaturally equal burden, but here the weight is on the left leg, while the right leg hangs free, and in consequence the right hip is lower than the left and the belly (as the navel makes clear) is displaced correspondingly to the side. This swing is not continued in the chest, the shoulders are level and both arms hang down by the sides, but the head is turned slightly to the right. Compared with even the late kouroi, such as that of Aristodikos, the Kritios Boy has a natural liveliness, and besides the liberating effect of the pose there is a more coherent modelling of the anatomy. The deep full jaw is typical of an Early Classical trend that did not last; its successful competitor was a shorter, sparer and more triangular face.
There was not much progress in this type
during the next thirty or forty years. The marble figure of Oenomaus
from the east pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, though
not strictly a free-standing statue, shows the stage reached by 460 BCE.
Again the weight is on one leg, the other (as often) set a little off
to the side, and the effect on the hips and belly is observed, but now
the swing is carried up through the chest, even if the shoulders are still
kept level. The head is turned towards the side, and the sculptor feels
free to move the arms - the left one to be restored bent upwards at the
elbow with the hand grasping a grounded spear. The modelling is anatomically
a little more advanced than that of the Kritios Boy, though because of
its scale and setting much harsher; originally it stood about fifty feet
above ground level and was itself about nine feet high. Since the figure
was in one piece and the block from which it was carved was quarried on
Paros, transport must have been expensive and difficult.
Because of its drapery the kore was a much more intractable problem for the pioneers of Early Classical sculpture. The statue dedicated by Euthydikos is still reluctantly Archaic, in spite of the severe treatment of the face and the simplification of the detail of hair and dress. What was needed was a complete change in the style o( the drapery, replacing the finicky cross-folds and crinkles by a plainer and dominantly vertical system. Such a scheme is displayed with deliberate emphasis on a diminutive kore from the Athenian Acropolis (no. 688), which should be earlier than 480 BCE.
Here the dress is the chiton, but the skirt is not clutched at the side and the himation has been turned into a scarf which hangs down from each shoulder, so that both garments fall straight. Yet though the chiton could be adapted to suit the new principles and indeed continued in sculptural use, the peplos is the standard Early Classical dress, since being of heavier material it could plausibly be disposed in fewer and deeper folds. When first it appears - in the 470s BCE - the result is monotonous. The figure is posed with legs together and the skirt hangs round them like a bell, even concealing the feet. Later, about 460 BCE, the looser stance of the standing male was adapted, as in the Hippodamia of the east pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Here the right leg, which is free of weight, is bent and the knee thrust forward, so flattening out the folds over it. Afterwards the thrust becomes more emphatic and its effects more complex.
In much the same way the early V-shaped folds over the chest give way to a more casual arrangement, on the Hippodamia almost meaninglessly so. The new form of dress appears less happily in low reliefs of this time, where in the profile view the further leg thrusts forward and the different character or even absence of folds across it, makes the limb look disconnected. The turning of the head, so typical of the Early Classical style, seems to have come in about the same time as the peplos, and with it movement of the arms - Hippodamia, without much motivation, is adjusting the shoulder of her dress; but even after the stance was revised the drapery was too heavy for speculation about the bodily forms underneath. The hair now is normally fastened up in a bun, which is sometimes kept in place by a plain snood.
It is sometimes said that the peplos (and severity too) was a Dorian, specifically Peloponnesian, contribution to the development of Greek art. This is naive. In later Archaic sculpture the 'Ionic' chiton was popular universally, and so was the 'Doric' peplos in Early Classical. Freaks like the two statues from Xanthos in Lycia of a standing woman wearing the peplos but still clutching the side of her skirt, are provincial and not racial in their origin. Nor need the change of dress in sculpture reflect a radical change in social custom. Respectable Greek women, other than those of Sparta, wore some sort of wrap over the chiton or peplos when in public and, if for some reason no wrap was worn, would certainly not have left one side of the peplos open, as statues and statuettes of young women sometimes do. In drapery even more than anatomy art tends to make its own rules, and artistic need is a sufficient explanation of the adoption and use of the peplos in Early Classical sculpture.
Besides revising the standing figure, sculptors sometimes experimented with other poses for free-standing statues. The models may have been ultimately in painting, but if so they were transposed in terms of relief. This is obvious if one looks at the full and the end views of the fancifully named 'Penelope', a marble figure, rather under life size, of a sorrowing woman, with head bowed and supported by the right hand, the elbow being propped on the thigh. If one compares the seated deities of the east frieze of the Siphnian Treasury, there is much greater sophistication in the Penelope, and mood is expressed more subtly, but the statue is in effect more two-dimensional than the relief. At least a statue based on the goddesses of the relief would present four, not two, presentable elevations. The copies of Myron's Discobolus (or man throwing a discus) show that this apparently intricate figure was constructed on the same principle as the Penelope, as if a relief had been cut out and completed at the back. So too with the well-known bronze statue fished up off Cape Artemisium, variously interpreted (since in Greek art there is no intrinsic difference between gods and men) as Poseidon, or Zeus, or an athlete throwing a javelin. The intended view is that of the figure in full extension, though the end view which presents a nearly frontal face is also impressive. In figurines active poses are sometimes bolder and more successful, because of the very small scale, but Early Classical sculptors still conceived their statues as exercises in two dimensions or at most two and a half.
The Penelope statue, usually dated about 460 BCE, wears a chiton, showing on the arms, the front of the body and the lower part of the legs; and a cloak which covers her hair, hangs down the back and is brought forward across the thighs. The effect, by later Classical standards, is confused. Over the chest the thick folds have a generally vertical fall, awkwardly so at the breasts, and the small system of V's do little more than emphasize the faultiness of the anatomy. Below the waist the character and direction of the folds changes, making the statue appear even flatter than it is, and then near the knee vertical lines begin abruptly again. At the back the folds are fewer and shallower, with the upper ends of the cloak hanging vertically from the shoulders, and lower down three or four aimless groups of lines which radiate from each hip and under the right buttock. Early Classical sculptors were at a loss when managing drapery, except on standing figures. They were unhappy too over the anatomy of figures in action: indeed the chests of both the Artemisium bronze of about 460 BCE and the still later Discobolus show no muscular response to the action of the arms and could belong to quite static figures. Yet already on the Temple of Zeus at Olympia some sculptors had found these effects unsatisfactory and one or two of those who worked there were experimenting in search of solutions.
Incidentally the Penelope, now in Teheran, is an original work of about 460 BCE, and there are Roman copies of the same type in which the resemblance, even of details, is too close to be fortuitous. Yet the Teheran statue was buried in Persepolis from 330 BCE till 1936 and therefore could not have been a model for copyists in the Roman period. The only reasonable conclusion is that the archetype of the Penelope was duplicated more or less exactly in the workshop that made it, a procedure one might anyhow expect from an economical artist, even in Classical Greece. Cleobis and Biton were another much earlier example of duplication, though admittedly they were commissioned as a pair. It is from evidence such as this that one must try to reconstruct the workshop practices of Greek sculptors.
art the Early Classical style was accepted, though often with an admixture
of Archaic, but a fairly pure Archaic style persisted too. In Lycia, a
non-Greek region of south-west Anatolia, a taste for Greek sculpture had
begun in the sixth century and grew in the fifth, though there is some
provincial lag. More remarkable is the effect of the Early Classical style
in Phoenicia, where marble sarcophagi of Egyptian
type were fashionable from the early fifth till the later fourth century,
many of them made of Parian marble and adorned with faces in more or less
Greek style. The Persians, though, seem to have found the new development
of Greek sculpture too revolutionary to be adopted in the official Persian
art of the Achaemenid court.
of Ancient Greece (Introduction)
For the origins and evolution of
3-D art, see: Sculpture History.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART and CLASSICAL ANTIQUITIES