Ancient Greek Sculpture
Statues, Reliefs: Chronology, Types, Materials Used.

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Sculpture of Ancient Greece

The Capitoline Venus (375-35 BCE)
Roman copy of the Cnidian Venus.
By Praxiteles. Capitoline Museums.


The Study of Greek Sculpture: Some Background
Damage to Greek Statues
Chronology and Identification of Greek Sculptures
The Value Placed on Sculpture By the Greeks
The Most Precious Sculptural Materials in Ancient Greece
Painting of Greek Sculpture
The Disappearance of Original Greek Sculptures
Types of Sculpture in Ancient Greece: Statues and Reliefs
Art and Craftsmanship
Sculptural Commissions
The Social Rank of Sculptors
Training of Sculptors
How Statues Were Used
Religious Purpose of Greek Statuary
Sculpture Commissioned as Votive Offerings


With the architecture of many antique civilizations reduced to ruins and their painting lost without trace, sculpture, particularly Greek sculpture, has assumed a position as the predominant form of ancient art. Many spectacular fragments are exhibited at archeological sites or hold pride of place in the best art museums; they are viewed as prime evidence of artistic creation, that is of man's power over raw matter and nature.

Since the era of Italian Renaissance sculpture, the art of Classical antiquity has been taken as a fixed reference point and 18th-century theorization of Classical sculpture bred a kind of "Hellenomania", which has resurfaced with every Classical revival. (See also: Roman Architecture.) We have still to discern the true nature of this ancient greek sculpture, which is known to us, for the most part, only through copies; such was their success in bridging the centuries that these came to be seen as originals. NOTE: For later artists and styles inspired by the classical sculpture of ancient Greece, see: Classicism in Art (800 onwards).

In recent decades, our understanding of the Classical world has been extended and refined by new archeological finds (particularly on the sea-bed) and by a systematic study of the written evidence. A rewriting of the history of Classical sculpture has become the more necessary since museums, which necessarily alienate works of art from their original setting, have tended to present them merely as objects of contemplation.

In the history of sculpture, the art of Classical antiquity - beginning with Aegean art - is vitally important. It still determines our definition of what sculpture is, our present-day techniques are derived from it, and it still serves as a point of reference for the use we make of art and the value we ascribe to it.

In our eyes, Greece remains above all the civilization to which we owe the highpoint of anthropomorphic representation. But, though it was taken as a model of Classical harmony, ancient Greek sculpture was not concerned solely with the idealization of beauty. As we trace its history, we find that sculpture fulfilled a multiplicity of functions: religious (to a greater extent than people have been willing to believe), votive, commemorative, and political. We are also obliged to consider the origins of the concept of art, a concept that remains with us today. Greek city states owed their fame and prestige to the genius of their artists; artists saw in sculpture the means of ensuring their survival beyond the grave; collectors and patrons were reputed for the boldness of their commissions. These issues are still topical in the modern world.

Greek Sculpture Resources:
For articles about the art of classical antiquity in Ancient Greece, see:

Daedalic Style Sculpture (c.650-600 BCE)
Archaic Sculpture (c.600-480 BCE)
Archaic Greek Painting (c.600-480)
Early Classical Greek Sculpture (c.480-450 BCE)
High Classical Greek Sculpture (c.450-400 BCE)
Late Classical Greek Sculpture (c.400-323 BCE)
Classical Greek Painting (c.480-323 BCE)
Helenistic Sculpture (c.323-27 BCE)
Hellenistic Style Statues and Reliefs (c.323-27 BCE)
Greek Painting of the Hellenistic Period (c.323-27 BCE)

The Study of Greek Sculpture: Some Background

Since the 18th century, Greek sculpture has been the object of something akin to idolatry, and only recently have we been able to put it more in context. This is not to say that sculpture was the only form of Greek art generally appreciated, but the widespread success of books by Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), followed in 1700 by that of Lessing's Laocoon, with its extensive theorization of the famous Vatican group, Laocoon and His Sons (42-20 BCE), served to focus interest on sculpture. It is mainly in connection with sculpture that we have tended to speak of "the Classical beauty of Greece". It is sculpture that is currently held to be the most representative and indeed the most excellent of the arts of ancient Greece. And it is an art with which we have the good fortune to be particularly well acquainted. It certainly produced some of the greatest sculptures ever.

This emphasis of ours would appear to be justified. Our admiration for vase paintings and mosaics was not shared by the Greeks, who considered them of minor importance, but they really did consider sculpture to be an outstanding feature of their civilization, worthy of the critical and historical interest attested to in many texts. And whereas buildings that have survived reasonably intact are few and far between, and major paintings have virtually disappeared, works of sculpture have been preserved in vast numbers. To be convinced of this, one need only cast an eye over the reserves of a great museum such as the Paris Louvre. Chronologically, surviving works of Greek sculpture cover a good thousand years, without a break - from Archaic times to the Imperial period - and geographically extend from the Italian colonies to Asia Minor.

To this abundance of statues, statuettes and relief sculpture must be added written sources of two kinds. First, inscriptions on the works themselves: during the Archaic period, these were commonly engraved on the statue itself, in particular on the thigh, but are more usually found on the pedestal; this eventually became the established custom. These inscriptions give, in whole or in part, the identity of the work, the date, the name of the votary or patron, and that of the sculptor. Most statues have been separated from their original pedestals, but attempts to match them are none the less instructive, making it possible to sketch out the careers of certain artists. Secondly, there are many texts concerning sculpture and sculptors, some literary, and some in the form of inscriptions: particularly lists of wages paid. Apart from Pliny the Elder. who wrote at length on Greek statuary in bronze and marble, there are no continuous histories of Classical sculpture. but Greek and Latin writers often touched on the subject from various points of view. In the 19th century, the German J. Overbeck made a collection of such passages, which, though not exhaustive, runs to some three hundred pages.

Damage to Greek Statues

Given the abundance of surviving monuments and a mass of textual information, archeologists of Greek sculpture would appear to be in a strong position. But much more than this is required if we are to obtain a complete and reliable picture.

The first obstacle is one common to the study of all relatively ancient civilizations: the older a work, the more likely it is to have been damaged, and the less we tend to know of its date, function and so on.

It might reasonably be claimed that the fame of the Venus de Milo is owing to the loss of her arms; from this derives her strange fascination. But in ancient times, there was nothing unsual about her. Her arms would have been posed in natural fashion; she may have held some object in her hands. She is by no means unique in this respect. The outstretched arm of the Ephebe of Antikythera, for instance, seems to make so striking a gesture only because he was grasping or holding up for inspection something that has since disappeared. Unfortunately, the restoration of missing parts of statues is virtually impossible. In Greek Architecture, the recurrence of basic elements often means that the whole can be reconstructed from a relatively small fragment. (See also Egyptian Architecture.) Sculptors on the other hand, being subject to no consistent rule, were free to impart to an arm any movement they saw fit and to place in an outstretched hand anyone of a number of objects. Reconstructions are therefore a matter of conjecture. We will never solve the mystery of the arms of the Venus de Milo, unless of course the originals one day come to light! Indeed, the only hope of restoring the integrity of statues lies in identifying broken fragments. And some sharp-eyed archeologists have achieved miracles in this field. With the gradual addition of hitherto scattered fragments, an isolated head kept at the museum in Delphi has been transformed into a statue of Dionysos, while the kneeling Gaul of Delos has recently recovered his head and shoulders. But such operations may be jeopardized by unwise interventions: for example, in order to fit replacement parts, the Neo-Classical sculptor Thorvaldsen sawed off the broken stumps of the statues from the pediments at Aegina - now displayed in Munich - and so destroyed all possibility of restoring heads or other fragments discovered at a later date.

The mutilation of statues is particularly unfortunate because it often makes identification difficult. In fact a work may fall into one iconographic category or another, depending on its proposed reconstruction: if the out-stretched arm of the Ephebe of Antikythera was brandishing the Gorgon's head, he was a Perseus; if his curved hand was plucking an apple, he was Herakles in the Garden of the Hesperides. In the same way the great bronze found in the sea near Cape Artemisium is a Zeus if his hand is restored to hold a thunderbolt, or a Poseidon if it is grasping a trident, for apart from any name which may be inscribed on the base of a statue, now often separated from it, it is the attributes which usually make identification possible. This loss of identity leads to a series of confusions that can sometimes affect the attribution of a work to one sculptor rather than another.

[Note: For information about ceramics from ancient Greece, including the Geometric, Black-figure, Red-figure and White-ground technique, see: Greek Pottery: History & Styles.]

Chronology and Identification of Greek Sculptures

Besides the problems of restoration, identification and attribution, there is the difficulty of ascertaining two other important details in the history of a work: the date and place of its origin. To take chronology first: our knowledge of Greek sculpture is now good enough for us to be able to date most works unhesitatingly to within some fifty or a hundred years. But there are always difficult cases: there has been uncertainty over the date of the Venus de Milo, the Apollo of Piombino has varied between the sixth and the first century BCE, and the statues of the temple of Lykosoura have been ascribed to various dates between the second century BCE and the second century CE. It would not be too unkind to say that specialists regard it as their professional duty to find reasons, whether well-founded or otherwise, for contesting the generally accepted chronology.

We shall be accepting the usual chronology here, but it must be admitted that the evidence for dating works is reliable only up to a point. Ideally, the date is indicated by a text, such as the passage in Herodotus which tells us that the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi was built around 525 BCE, or it may be inscribed on the work itself, for instance in the case of the funerary stele of Dexileos, with its inscription saying that the young man had died "during the archonship of Eubulides", namely, very precisely, in 394 BCE, but such good fortune is unusual. As information provided by the context of the archeological excavation is not much more frequent, we can date works only by their style, that is, by their resemblance to or difference from works which have definite dates. When taken to extremes by scholars who believe they can pin a date down to the decade or even the half-decade, this method can be very dangerous, because the works used as points of reference are not always incontestably dated themselves, and most of all because stylistic similarities and differences do not necessarily depend on period. They can equally well be explained, firstly by the differences between craftsmen of varying skill, tastes and ages; although the building of the Parthenon took only fifteen years, and work on the metopes seems very likely to have been completed in an even shorter period, their style is more archaic than that of other parts of the temple. Secondly, there are regional differences: not all parts of Greece developed at the same rate, and some lagged behind others, so that stylistically similar works may be of very different dates because they were not made in the same place.

Note: a modern museum specializing in Greek marble sculpture, and other classical antiquities is the Getty Museum Los Angeles, founded by J Paul Getty (1892-1976).

We know that artistic chronology and geography affect the dating of a work; unfortunately we do not always always have a good idea of where any individual work was made. Indeed, apart from those relatively numerous cases where a work has come down to us through a trade in antiquities of doubtful legality, and those who profited by it have good reason to keep quiet about provenance, the first thing we know about a work is where it was found and consequently what it was used for. Very often, of course, when it was made for an everyday purpose, it must have been made where it was found: a funerary stele found and therefore used in Boiotiu is very likely to have been carved there. However, the situation is different with more important works, for two main reasons. First, as we shall see, from archaic times onwards leading sculptors worked far from their native cities, and second, the great temples received votive offerings from many different cities, which may have produced and transported the work rather than commissioning it at its destination. On Delos, for instance, statues given by Naxians stand side by side with statues given by Parians, and only debatable differences of style allow us to distinguish them.

The Value Placed on Sculpture By the Greeks

Over and beyond these difficulties, common to all archeological research, the study of Greek sculpture is more specifically subject to a kind of misapprehension quite frequent in Classical studies, which inclines to suppose that what is available to us now was important in Classical antiquity: Pompeii, for instance, was one provincial town among many, and owes its archeological significance solely to its exceptional state of preservation. The same applies to sculpture, from two points of view, First, we are willing to grant sculpture pre-eminence in Greek art because a great deal of it has survived; yet there are good grounds for thinking that the Greeks themselves ranked painting much higher, and very few paintings have survived. Above all, in the field of sculpture itself we tend to believe that the items now extant are the very best that were produced. We take insufficient account of two major losses - of materials that have perished, and of originals by famous sculptors - which can be assessed only by the comparison of the surviving works with the evidence of literary texts.

For a guide to the impact of Greek sculpture and stone art on modern artists and designers, see: and Neoclassical Sculpture (1750-1850); Neoclassical Architecture (1640-1850); and Neoclassical Painting (c.1750-1860).

The Most Precious Sculptural Materials in Ancient Greece

In the first place, some of the materials used in statuary which has perished were those most highly prized by the Greeks. White marble - from Mount Pentelikos, Paros, Naxos or elsewhere - and stone in general were not as exclusively used as we might be tempted to think from what we see today in our galleries of Classical antiquities. Greek sculpture employed many other materials. Wood carving was employed chiefly in the erection of very ancient works, mainly the cult statues often called xoana, It was also used for making an extremely famous piece which has not been preserved: a cedarwood chest ornamented with figures of ivory and gold, presented to Olympia by Cypselos. The combination of gold and ivory occurs in the technique described (from the words for those two materials) as chryselephantine, and literary tradition traces its origin back to the beginnings of the Archaic period. In this technique, a wooden core was overlaid with carved ivory representing flesh, and plates of gold representing clothing. Several cult statues of the Classical period were examples of chryselephantine sculpture, among them the Zeus in the temple at Olympia and the Athena Parthenos in the Parthenon, regarded as the two masterpieces of Phidias. Then there were other metals: iron, mentioned several times in the texts: lead, used for small figurines often made for magical purposes: and above all bronze, in which most of the famous statues were cast, including the Diskobolos of Myron, the Doryphoros of Polyclitus, and the Satyr of Praxiteles. Finally, various plastic materials seem to have been in restricted use: these included clay, the usual material for figurines of the kind traditionally called Tanagra figures, but not common for large works of sculpture except in Cyprus, although there are several famous pieces such as the figure of Zeus carrying off Ganymede at Olympia, and the head of a Theban Sphinx; and, lastly, stucco, principally used in private houses to add relief ornamentation to polychrome walls.

There is no universally accepted hierarchy of the materials used in sculpture, any more than there is of the different arts, but it is unusual for a civilization not to arrange them on a scale of values. The Greeks had their own scale; they rated chryselephantine most highly - because it was the most expensive and thus rarely used - then bronze, and then possibly wood because of the great antiquity of its use in sculpture. Marble came after these. Great sculptors did of course carve some of their masterpieces in marble, and Pliny tells us that Praxiteles worked better in marble than bronze, but of the three categories into which Classical sculpture as a whole was divided, marble came last, after chryselephantine and bronze. This is suggested by its constant use for works of secondary importance: for copies of famous bronzes, which will be described below; for votive or funerary reliefs provided by minor craftsmen, no doubt at a moderate price, to anyone who wanted them; and for monumental sculpture. The fact that architectural sculpture was viewed as work of secondary importance often surprises non-specialists. For instance, we customarily associate the statues on the pediments of the Parthenon and the Panathenaic frieze with the name of Phidias. However, though Phidias oversaw the construction of the Parthenon, his own contribution was the chryselephantine Athena Parthenos, and there is no evidence that he worked on the architectural decoration of the temple. In fact it is unusual for Classical authors to give the names of the sculptors of pedimental statues, as they do in crediting those of the temple of Zeus at Olympia to Paionios and Alkamenes - information provided by Pausanias and often disputed by modern scholars, who regard it as retrospective local glorification of the pediments - or in attributing the statue of the temple of Tegea to Skopas. The names of those men who carved the reliefs on friezes are not given at all.

So what is left? Wood is preserved only in very dry or very wet soil, and only a few remnants of wooden sculpture survive, including a large statuette from Samos. Very little chryselephantine statuary remains: the combination of ivory and gold was very fragile - mid way through the era of Hellenistic art, the inventories of the temple treasuries at Delos tell us that a piece of gold had already come away from the statue of Apollo - and when paganism came to an end it was tempting to reuse these two precious materials. We still have various small ivories and plaques of worked gold, but of the vast chryselephantine statues mentioned and sometimes described in ancient texts, the only parts now exist are three heads and some other life-size Archaic fragments, much restored, which were discovered at Delphi in a trench dug beneath the Sacred Way. Finally bronze - easy to melt and therefore to re-cycle for other purposes - has largely disappeared. We owe the preservation of bronzes to special circumstances. The Charioteer of Delphi was found where it had been buried ever since Classical times; the Zeus of Cape Artemisium, the Ephebe of Antikythera and the Ephebe of Marathon, owe their survival only to the shipwreck of the vessels taking them to Rome. In contrast to the almost total disappearance of any chryselephantine work and the rarity of sculpture using wood and bronze, thousands of marble works fill our museums. In short, the material most commonly found today was regarded as relatively mediocre in Classical antiquity. Unfortunately for the archaeology of Greek sculpture, the durability of materials is in inverse proportion to their status in ancient times.

Note About Art Evaluation
In order to appreciate plastic art from ancient Greece, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

Painting of Ancient Greek Sculpture

Moreover, we do not usually see extant works as they were in antiquity; colour contrasts have usually been obliterated. Such effects were the raison d'etre of chryselephantine statuary, but in all Greek sculpture such contrasts were obtained by painting the main material and/or by mixing materials. Bronze could be coloured: Pliny tells us that a statue of the Hellenistic period used an alloy of bronze and iron to express blushing shame. Much earlier however, the Benevento Ephebe, now in the Paris Louvre, had red lips, and other materials were frequently combined with bronze. The eyes of the Charioteer of Delphi were rendered by white stone inlaid with black stone for the iris, and as an exceptional refinement a strip of silver was inserted between his lips to suggest white teeth. In a great many cases, the eye is now missing, giving many bronze statues the empty-eyed look so striking in the Benevento Ephebe and the Zeus of Cape Artemisium.

Marble has also suffered. It too was painted: the texts of antiquity unequivocally say so, and in the few cases where circumstances have favoured its preservation, the paint is still visible. As we shall see, part of the outstanding interest of the Archaic statuary of the Acropolis is that it offers factual evidence about the archeologically delicate problem of polychrome statuary. But the great majority of marble sculptures have lost the paint which partly covered them. They have also lost their bronze attachments for which our only evidence is now the mortises where they were fixed in place, visible on works as diverse as the Naxian Colossus of Delos, the friezes of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi, and the funerary stele of Dexileos.

The Disappearance of Original Greek Sculptures

Our second loss - linked in part to the first, since it is often connected with chryselephantine and bronze statues - is that of originals by famous sculptors: works admired in Classical antiquity and mentioned in ancient texts. For instance, when a book shows a photograph of Diskobolos by Myron, the lay reader is not always aware that this is not the 5th-century bronze made by the sculptor himself. but one of several marble copies made five or six centuries later.

The loss of so much sculpture is particularly detrimental because it does not fit the pattern of random loss common to ancient art forms. The more ancient a body of works of art, the fewer surviving pieces will there be, but what is preserved will be a representative sample of its culture. Alas, in the field of Greek sculpture, entire areas are almost wholly unknown to us.

In this unfortunate situation, the total loss of original works by famous sculptors has very specific methodological implications. Whether the texts of Classical antiquity merely reflected the fame of those sculptors, or whether they partly created it, the fact remains that their authors were interested only in the artists; the history of Greek sculpture as written in ancient times is basically a history of Greek sculptors. This is not surprising: whether the historians of Classical antiquity were concerned with politics, war or art, the history they wrote was always the history of great men. In the case of art, however, a concept of Romantic origin has now taken over from the concentration on notable personalities customary in antiquity. Whereas studio collaboration was the norm in earlier times, this Romantic concept emphasizes solitary creativity, and it again reduces the history of art to a history of artists. Not only do books on Greek sculpture devote a great deal of space to Phidias, PolyKleitos/Polyclitus and Skopas, but entire monographs on those masters are still published, particularly in Germany, where - thanks to a tradition going back to Winckelmann - interest in great Hellenic sculpture is particularly lively. This practice is questionable. We have, in general, no reason to think that the study of individual artists is the best way of studying an art. In the case of Greek sculpture in particular, it is especially pointless to concentrate on a completely insoluble problem, for we know nothing about these great artists, and accounts of Alkamenes or Phidias depend on the construction of unverifiable hypotheses from scraps of text which are often almost unintelligible, and on sculptural copies of uncertain fidelity.

Types of Sculpture in Ancient Greece: Statues and Reliefs

The single modern word sculpture in reality encompasses two different arts; similarly, in ancient Greek, words of the glyphein family designate any form of carving and words of the graphein family any form of drawing.

On the one hand we have sculpture in the round: free-standing statues which can be seen from any point of a 360-degree circle. On the other hand we have relief work, in which the sculpted forms are a fixed part of the block or plaque which constitutes their background. Here, angles of vision only move through 180 degrees, since after that all we can see is the back of the work. The relief carving may be of greater or lesser depth, and the difference is often described in terms of "high" and "low" relief. However, it might be better to use those terms for a more important technical distinction. In what is called the "sunken relief" of Egyptian art - but might more appropriately be called "low relief" - the figures are often on the same plane as the background or carved deeply into it. An excellent example of high-relief is the Pergamon Altar of Zeus (c.166-156 BCE). In Greece, however, the figures were never carved into the background. but projected from it. (Please see also the Pergamene School of Hellenistic Sculpture 241-133 BCE.)

Understood in this way, relief includes more genres than are covered by the term "sculpture"; relief actually includes "sculpture", coins and pottery with moulded or applique ornamentation. We shall not be discussing such genres here, for reasons of space, but this extension of the category of "relief" does point up the technical diversity of the methods used to produce it. Whereas marble relief was carved with a chisel, relief work on coins was stamped on metal, and ceramic relief was either moulded with the vessel itself or applied to its side later. Applique is found just once in marble relief, on the frieze of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens, where figures of white marble were attached to the bluish background of the frieze, in a striking effect of contrasting colours.

Of course it is their common features that enable us to embrace the two distinct arts of sculpture in the round and relief-work in the single term "sculpture". These features are fundamentally technical: both sculpture in the round and relief derive from glyphein, not graphein. They are carved, not drawn, and exploit the third dimension. Statuary and relief work were also related in their use of the materials and tools; they were carved in the same marble, with the same kind of chisel, by means of similar manual skills, or they were cast in the same bronze. There may also have been common sociological ground between the two crafts. Unfortunately we are not well enough informed about the professional organization of Greek sculpture to know whether the men who made sculpture in the round also made reliefs.

There is also a thematic relationship. Our own contemporary art has taught us that sculpture in the round need not represent a human figure. Greek art can easily give us the impression that sculpture and figurative statuary were one and the same thing. It is true that the human figure. as in all Greek art, is dominant. However, the Greek column, for example, although traditionally regarded as architecture, may also be seen as a piece of non-figurative sculpture in the round when it is carved from top to bottom and left standing in isolation as a pedestal or votive offering. Similarly, relief work is not confined to scenes with human figures, but may present geometrical motifs, particularly on building, where such features as the regular, the triglyph and the mutule appear - or sometimes it may be incorporated into the ornamentation of mouldings or door frames with ovolo patterns, roundels, palmettes and rosettes.

The two kinds of sculpture, statuary and relief work, are closely related by their use of the materials as well as by their subject matter. Throughout Classical antiquity, marble statues are found standing on bases also made of marble, the sides of which often bear relief work. Statues and reliefs could also alternate with each other, for instance in pediments: while some architectural pediments had relief decoration, the tympanal frame usually contained statues. Standing over thirty feet from the ground on the front of the pediment wall, however, where no one could observe them from behind, such statues were actually in a position better suited to relief. Although at first they were fully sculpted, for instance in the temple of Zeus at Olympia or in the Parthenon, it is hardly surprising that the unseen back parts of the statues came to be neglected in the fourth century BCE, as at the temples of Delphi and Tegea.

An interesting relationship between statuary and relief is the transcription of the same subject from one genre to the other. However, transcription from relief to statuary is in fact very rare; far more frequent is the move from statue to relief, as we shall see in those ceramic or numismatic reliefs that illustrate statues now lost. It is not difficult to find reasons for this one-way traffic: sculpture in the round was much more expensive, which encouraged the reproduction of expensive items in the cheaper format, and the iconographic resources of relief were much greater.

Relief work can present one or several people against a background which will accommodate accessories or landscape features, and is suited to showing a very precise scene, such as the centauromachies or Amazonomachies (battles with centaurs and Amazons) from various temples, the Panathenaic procession on the Parthenon, the farewells of a dead person to his family on funerary stelai, as well as less challenging scenes: a god or human at rest.

Sculpture in the round, on the other hand, is suited to the depiction of an isolated figure but has very little narrative potential, unless it resorts to the formula of the so-called "statuary group". This term is an ambiguous expression designating two very different technical procedures: either the same block is sculpted to show two or more figures, whose relation to each other is thus permanently fixed, as in the Laocoon and the abduction of Antiope by Theseus, or separate statues are placed together to form a scene, as in the group of Harmodios and Aristogeiton.

In short, the isolation of figures sculpted in the round and the incorporation of figures in relief work into their background, combined with the different iconographic possibilities that result from this, make for very distinct genres. Nor are the relationships of the two genres with the other arts necessarily the same.

Relief stands firmly with painting from at least two points of view. First, it shares with painting a certain similarity of procedures and iconography. When the 6th century sculptor of the metope on the Sicyonian Treasury at Delphi depicted a cattle raid and wanted to depict several cattle walking forward in profile, he was faced with a problem that also confronted contemporary vase painters, and solved it as they did. He moved the animals slightly out of alignment so that their legs were not superimposed but formed parallel lines. Also in the 6th century, painted inscriptions on vases identified the characters depicted: the sculptor of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi painted the names of the gods on the marble of the background. These inscriptions are now obliterated, but a special photographic technique has recently allowed us to read them. Iconographically also, relief work, because it too shows figures against a background, draws naturally on the same repertory as painting: in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, most of the Labours of Heracles, illustrated on twelve metopes, elicited original designs, but the episode of the Erymanthian boar is shown exactly as in contemporary vase paintings.

Secondly, relief alternated with painting on items such as vases. We think primarily of "painted" vases, which constitute a majority, but we should not forget that ceramic relief had an important role in vase decoration, particularly during the Archaic period (in such works as the vase showing the Trojan horse discovered at Myconos) and the Hellenistic period. Painting also alternates with architectural relief. The oldest example dates from the seventh century BCE and comes from the metopes of the temple of Thermos, which are plaques of painted terracotta showing Perseus, Orion, Chelidon, etc. All later temples had their metopes in relief work. Alternation was equally common in funerary art: here there are countless reliefs - enough good examples to fill several rooms in the National Museum at Athens - but painted stelai must also have been frequent from the Archaic to the Hellenistic periods. We simply happen to have relatively few of them, for the usual reason that painting can not withstand the ravages of time and is obliterated or very indistinct unless special circumstances have preserved it for us; this is the case with the stelai now in the Volos Museum, which were re-used in a fortification not many years after they were made.

Relief and painting are related in showing figures against a background, statuary is related to architecture. It was pointed out above that statue and column are basically both rounded plastic forms, one figurative and the other not. In fact statues sometimes replaced columns in the architectonic function of supports for an entablature, under names which became traditional and are known to us from authors of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. They describe masculine statues as "atlantes", with reference to the myth of Atlas who carried the world on his shoulders, or as "telamons", meaning simply "supports", while feminine statues were called "caryatids", literally "women of Caryae", a city in Laconia. This term has never been fully explained, and in the fifth century the administrators of the building works on the Acropolis called the caryatids of the porch of the Erechtheion just "korai" ("young girls").

At least two monuments of the last quarter of the 5th century, one of them the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi, had two caryatids where similar buildings usually had columns, and there were two sets of twelve atlantes in the Temple of Olympian Zeus at Akragas (modern Agrigento) at the beginning of the 5th century. The practice of using such figures was never abandoned, and it was imitated in the middle of the Imperial period by a caryatid from Eleusis, the tritons of the Odeon of Agrippa in the agora at Athens, and the barbarian prisoners in a monumental facade at Corinth.

Art and Craftsmanship

Although the texts and the monuments which have survived give us a full idea of the materials used in sculpture, they tell us little about the methods of working them. Classical literature provides almost no information on the subject, and votive inscriptions still less; finds of tools are rare, and so are depictions of sculptors at work. And it is not easy to interpret the depictions that do exist. For instance, the bottom of a cup now in Copenhagen, dating from the earliest period of red-figure pottery (late sixth to the early fifth century), shows a sculptor carving a herm, and the two outer sides of a cup now in Berlin depict several bronzesmiths working around a furnace, while others are finishing off a large statue. Such sparse information is complemented chiefly by what study of the works themselves can tell us. Moreover, technique varied from period to period.

We know that solid bronze casting and hammering was the practice in ancient times, and that subsequently the technique known as cire perdue or "lost wax" casting became widespread - some of the moulds used in casting have survived. The completed work was then artificially patinated. As for the techniques of working stone, particularly marble, the unfinished sculptures which have come down to us in considerable numbers - such as the relief from a house at Delos - retain tool marks and so provide information about the intermediate stages of carving. Many examples throughout antiquity show that it was common to use additional sections for projecting parts such as outstretched arms (as with the Archaic korai of the Acropolis) or the male organ. Work in marble was finished by polishing with wax or encaustic, a process called ganosis, in the same way as bronzes were finished by patination. Even in Archaic times sculptors were very skilful: the three great unfinished Archaic kouroi at Naxos, left lying where work began, show that enormous monoliths could be carved where the block of stone was quarried, and the dedication of the Naxian Colossus of Apollo at Delos, though enigmatic, suggests that working such huge blocks gave sculptors much satisfaction. We may set beside this the famous achievement of Telekles and Theodoros, who made the statue of Pythian Apollo at Samos in two halves, fitting them together when they had finished the work.

The sculptor does not simply practise an art - in sociological terms he also exercises a craft. Here again there are great gaps in our knowledge. In principle. nothing was more foreign to ancient Greece than the idea of art for art's sake. Sculpture. therefore, was usually the outcome of a commission from a public body such as a city or confederation or (with increasing frequency in the Hellenistic and Imperial periods) from an individual. We may assume that it was not Phidias's own idea to create the chryselephantine statue of Zeus at Olympia; dedications regularly confirm that patrons commissioned works, although the details of the procedure are usually vague. We do not often get even as much information as is provided by a decree of Delos in the third century, which tells us that "Telesinos of Athens was commissioned by the people to make the statues of Asklepios and Queen Stratonice, and he made the people a present of them, having executed the statue of Asklepios in bronze and the statue of the Queen in marble, and at no charge he also saw to the preservation and restoration of all the statues in the sanctuary which required it."

Commissions can provide information about relationships between famous sculptors. Literary tradition mentions several competitions: one such, according to Pliny the Elder, was held to provide the votive offering of Amazons at the temple of Artemis at Ephesus. The artists who competed gave Polyclitus the verdict over Phidias and Kresilas, and on that basis modern criticism rather fruitlessly endeavours to attribute the wounded Amazons in our museums to one or other of those sculptors. Similarly, the story goes that Phidias and Alkamenes were each required to make an Athena to stand on a tall column. To correct the optical effect such a height would produce, Phidias gave the goddess a large head which shocked viewers when they first saw it, while Alkamencs, respecting the natural proportions of the body, drew high praise at first, but then laughter when his statue was put in place on top of its column. These stories of rivalry, however authentic, are complemented by accounts of collaboration; the most famous case is the Mausoleum which Artemisia, wife of the Carian ruler Mausolos, commissioned at Halikarnassos mid-4th-century BCE. Pliny tells us that Skopas, Bryaxis, Timotheos and Leochares worked together on the carving of its decoration.
Skopas was from Paros and the other three sculptors were from Athens. At the Ephesian competition, similarly, Polykleitos was from Argos, Phidias from Athens and Kresilas from Kydonia in Crete.

In all the cases just cited, we find sculptors working outside their native cities. Votive dedications confirm this mobility: the funerary statue of Phrasikleia, a woman of Athens, dating from Archaic times, is the work of a Parian, and it seems that an itinerant way of life was widespread in the Hellenistic period, when numbers of bases bore signatures. For instance, we have seven signatures of Thoinias who describes himself as from Sicyon: two are in Sicyon itself, two in Oropos, one in Tanagra, another at Delos, and there is probably a seventh at Pergamum. However, it was not essential to travel: in the second to first centuries BCE there was much signed statuary on Delos, and the sculptors were all Delians. This was because Delos had a large, prosperous population, providing sufficient custom.

Sculptural Commissions in Ancient Greece

Getting commissions was the important factor. The market had its ups and downs. The great building works eventually undertaken by Pericles on the Acropolis after its total destruction by the Persians in 480 BCE are a good illustration. The accounts of the expenses for the Erechtheion frieze have come down to us, engraved on marble; they describe the payment of fees to sculptors for carving various additional figures, as follows:

- to Antiphanes of the Kerameikos quarter, who made the chariot, the young man and the team of two horses: 240 drachmae;
- to Phyromachos of Kephisia, who made the man leading the horse: 60 drachmae;
- to Soklos of Alopeke, who made the figure holding the bit: 60 drachmae;
- to Phyromachos of Kephisia, who made the man leaning on his stick by the altar: 60 drachmae; etc."

The accounts go on for several columns. But work on this scale could not last indefinitely, and in any case the decline of Athens, sucked dry by the Peloponnesian War, put an end to it. All those obscure sculptors whose pay is recorded in the accounts were now out of work, and it is very probable that they had recourse to what we might now call "retraining": this is the usual explanation for the sudden reappearance of funerary stelai, absent since the end of the Archaic period and no doubt forbidden by the laws which restricted ostentatious funerals. Sculptors employed on public works had to switch over to the private sector, and it seems likely that pressure from such unemployed craftsmen contributed to a disregard for the sumptuary law which the piety (or vanity) of the bereaved in any case predisposed them to infringe. If so, it is not surprising that the funerary stele of Dexileos rivals the reliefs of horsemen on the Panathenaic frieze.

Commissions mean fees, but again, there is very little information about sculptors' financial status. We have seen. for instance, that the Erechtheion accounts give the price paid for each separate figure, but we need to know what costs the craftsman bore and how much time he spent on a piece of work. However, the pay seems quite good if we remember that 60 drachmae for a statue is 180 times the sum of the two obols paid at the same period to judges as their daily fee. It is true that the judges' fee must have been very low, since it was also the daily allowance made to the needy a little later. But in the next century Menander says that a man can live on twelve drachmae for a month and six days. Famous sculptors must have been in very comfortable circumstances; even a man like Telesinos, unknown to us from any source but the single decree cited above, was in a position to make the Delians a present of the two statues they had commissioned from him and throw in further restoration works, also at no charge. The same applies to the Mausoleum of Halikarnassus: Pliny tells us that "the queen died before the work was finished" but that Skopas, Bryaxis, Timotheos and Leochares "did not, however, leave until their work was finished, believing that it would be a memorial to their glory and their art", which suggests that they were working for nothing. At around the same time, however, Plato reports Socrates as saying that the sophist "Protagoras had earned far more money than Phidias and ten other sculptors put together".

The Social Rank of Sculptors in Ancient Greece

As for the social status of sculptors, it must have varied from one individual to another: the men who made the separate figures for the Erechtheion were not on a par with Phidias, who was a personal friend of Pericles. We need to know more about the social circles frequented by sculptors, but it is noteworthy that Plato, not a lover of the imitative arts, allows both sculptors and painters, whose position in society was certainly a comfortable one, to occupy the sixth rank of the social hierarchy, instead of relegating them to the seventh rank with other manual workers. And yet they still seem to have been regarded as manual workers.

Sculptors, or at least the makers of statues, may not have had a desirable position in society as a whole, but they seem to have enjoyed high status among artists. The artistic hierarchy is well illustrated by the use of signatures, reflecting the status and renown not only of the signatory himself but of his entire professional category. The extreme scarcity of signed mosaic art suggests that the men who made it were of no social standing, a fact continued by the lack of interest in them shown by Classical historians. In the same way, vase painters signed their work only during a relatively short period. On the other hand, inscribed bases show that throughout antiquity even the least famous sculptors usually signed their works.

[Note: For biographical details of other important sculptors from ancient Greece, see: Callimachus (Active 432-408), Lysippos/Lysippus (c.395-305 BCE), Praxiteles (Active 375-335).]

Training of Sculptors in Ancient Greece

Moving from the professional activities of sculptors to their training, what little information we have is as sporadic as it is incomplete. The authors usually tell us that such and such a sculptor was the pupil of this or that man. We know that Myron and Polykleitos studied together, and the question of finding a teacher of sculpture comes up once in Plato. We may assume that sculptors were not self-taught but we have no details of how a pupil might find a master, how he would pay that master, and so on. In any case, despite the suggestion conveyed by the general terms "Argive school" or "Attic school", there is unlikely to have been any teaching of the fine arts such as exists in today's colleges and universities.

Finally we may also suppose that a man known for his work in sculpture was not obliged to devote himself to it exclusively: Phidias was also overseer of the architectural projects on the Acropolis, and Euphranor was said to be as good a painter as he was a sculptor.

How Statues Were Used

If every work of sculpture was the result of a commission, either public or private, it was because the patron who commissioned the work had a use for it. Only at a late date, and even then sporadically, was a statue simply to be displayed for admiration as if in a museum. Monumental and architectural sculpture was obviously intended to furnish images for parts of temples and other notable buildings which would otherwise have remained bare. The same applies to most reliefs, whose imagery clearly conveys the purposes for which they were made: funerary, votive, etc. It is the purpose of the isolated statue which calls for special attention.

We need not expect much information from studying the Greek words for statues. About ten of them have come down to us in literary texts, but their archeological relevance is limited. Sometimes the actual meanings of these words are uncertain: kolossos, for instance, was not always used for what we now call a colossus, and the most famous specimen of the genre, the Colossus of Rhodes, did not necessarily owe its name to its enormous dimensions. Rather, it was the other way round. Kolossos was a Western Asiatic word for a statue, and was used by the Dorian Greeks from about 1000 BCE. It was applied to the statue of Helios the sun god in Rhodes harbour (the Colossus of Rhodes), and subsequently came to denote any gigantic statue. We must even beware of words with an obvious etymology but a specialized sense, such as eikon, "image", a term which we know was applied in Roman Imperial times to portrait busts of the emperor. The same imperial busts were also called protomai, a term which instead of emphasizing human resemblance indicates that the head is parted from the body; similarly xoanon "carved [piece, especially of wood]" refers to the technique of manufacture, while andrias "human [image]" describes configuration, and agalma means primarily a "set of ornaments" reserved for kings and gods. In the circumstances, the Classical terminology for statuary may well supply useful information on individual points, but the semantic distribution of concurrent terms is not systematic enough to give us principles for classifying either the configurations or even the uses of statues.

Since we cannot expect much help from the terminology, we must rely on an examination of the statues themselves to discover what they were for. However, a distinction should first be drawn between two questions which are often confused.

Q. Greek Statues: What Do They Depict?

The first and easiest is the thematic question: what are the sculptors showing, who or what do statues depict? Primarily they show the human body, images of which constitute an overwhelming majority. However, Greek art never distinguishes between deities and mortals by those artifices found elsewhere, such as the animal heads of many Egyptian gods, which prevent us from confusing Horus and the Pharaoh, or the halo of Christian iconography. Also, there is no equivalent in Greek art to the medieval gisant. Thus the same young man carved in marble could be a god or a living or a dead mortal. Only the environment (sanctuary, cemetery or public place) and the inscription accompanying the statue allowed the viewer in ancient times to recognize the statue for what it was - and the same is true for the viewer today. For instance, if the kouros from Anavysos and the statue of Phrasikleia had not been found with their inscribed bases, we could not know that they were funerary statues.

Dating from the Archaic period, with its 'kouros' (standing nude male) and 'kore' (standing draped female), Greek statuary was predominantly but not wholly devoted to the human figure. It sometimes showed animals. Myron's Heifer, a bronze now lost, was so famous that we know about it from some fifty texts, including dozens of epigrams composed centuries later and retrospectively serving it as dedications. The lions of Delos are equally famous today. Statues of lions were also placed on tombs, in particular those still visible today on the mass graves of the soldiers who died at Chaeronea and Amphipolis.

No statues depicting the vegetable kingdom have been preserved, but literary texts and inscriptions at Delphi and Delos mention palm trees in bronze. Then there are the images of monsters: sirens and in particular sphinxes, the latter found principally in the Archaic period. Finally, there are more startling subjects: the hennaic pillar, usually just called a herm, which consists of a squared column surmounted by a head and with a penis, often shown erect; or omphaloi (navel), images of a large stone surrounded by a wide-meshed net; or sculptures of an isolated phallus. A fragment of a marble phallus of enormous dimensions still stands on a tall pedestal at Delos, and according to its votive inscription was offered to Dionysos around the year 300 by a victorious chorus-leader. Similar phalluses, carved for similar occasions, have been found at Athens.

Q. Greek Statues: What Were They For?

Naturally, we find such works unexpected, and seek their raison d'etre in our second question: what were the statues for? What advantage did the patron expect? Why did he agree to the expense? Here we encounter a basic misunderstanding which still impedes the layman's appreciation of Greek statuary. In his book Laocoon, Lessing claimed that there was no Greek art except where the imagery of sculpture had cast off religious constraints. In fact those constraints were relaxed only very late and to a very partial extent, so that the reasons ancient Greeks had for going to the expense of commissioning a statue in the round were by no means those we think of as presiding over the sculptor's "creativity". Greek statues were hardly ever uncommissioned work made solely for aesthetic reasons of the kind that we now call art. It is not that the works discussed here had no aesthetic purpose, nor even that Greece ignored the aspects of form or value (including commercial value) in works of the past which we see as components of art, but the most famous works were made for purposes which were pragmatic and specific - certainly not initially for the admiration of enlightened art-lovers.

Religious Purpose of Greek Statuary

Above all, and in a manner remote from our modern concept of art, those purposes were religious. Famous as the chryselephantine Zeus of Phidias was throughout antiquity, so famous that it was counted as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it was made to be the idol inhabiting the main temple at Olympia; the same sculptor's Athena Parthenos was made for the Parthenon. The Greek temple was not like a church where the faithful gather; it was the house of the god, that is, of the statue in which the god was thought to reside, and whose main role was thus to ensure the god's presence.

There are plenty of indications that this belief was very real, at least in early times, The word hedos expressly designates the statue as the divinity's place of residence; authors such as Pausanias in his "Description of Greece" tell us that certain very old statues of gods had no feet, or had their feet chained down to prevent the divinity from escaping and thus removing its protection from the city; conversely, there was the transfer or even theft of cult statues, a subject which constitutes the plot of Euripides's Iphigenia in Tauris, where Orestes and his sister steal a statue of Tauric Artemis to take it home to Attica. Of course belief in the presence of the god in the statue must have faded after the 5th century, with the rise of rationalist criticism and atheism. And in any case the people of the ancient world treated cult statues in a way which strikes us as cavalier, in terms of religion and aesthetics, but which did not seem to them impious. At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, for example, Thucydides credits Pericles, who is anxious to reassure the Athenians, with the idea that in dire need the city always had the "garments in gold of the (chrysclephantine) statue of Athena, amounting to forty talents of refined gold, which could be removed".

The idols in temples, worshipped like the gods themselves, did not always look as we imagine Greek statues to look. Though some cult statues were the work of Phidias and other sculptors of the Classical period, many of the xoana, going back to a very ancient past and preserved out of religious respect, must have been nothing but rough-hewn pieces of wood. The story of the Pythagorean philosopher Parmeniskos bursting into laughter before the Leto of Delos tells us a good deal about the appearance of the statue, described in the administrative accounts of the temple as being dressed in shoes, a linen tunic and a purple cloak. Even when a cult statue did look Classical, the sculptor did not have complete iconographic freedom, but had to bow to theological requirements and show what had to be shown. Phidias did not invent the curious outfit of his Athena Parthenos; we can see what she looked like from the statuette known as the "Varvakeion Athena", and the description by Pausanias provides confirmation. Similarly, with the statue of Delian Apollo, it would not have been the idea of Tectaios and Angelion themselves to place the Graces on the god's right hand and the bow in his left hand, in order to show that he was more inclined to reward worshippers than punish them.

Worship did not merely imply making a statue of the god; it also demanded that votive offerings should be made to him, offerings of very diverse kinds, some of them in the form of statues and statuettes. Their subjects were varied: sphinxes, lions, palm trees, phalluses, etc., but above all anthropomorphic images. This explains the many statues populating sanctuaries, of which we have evidence both from the works themselves and from many inscribed bases now separated from the statues they once bore. In the absence of explicit dedications, the difficulty is how to identify each statue, but on the whole statuary offerings fall into four recognized groups. First, the statue may represent the divinity to which it is dedicated, as suggested by the normal custom of offering masculine statues to gods and feminine statues to goddesses. In the temple of Zeus at Olympia the god was offered effigies of himself, the zanes, meaning "Zeuses" in the local dialect. It is because of this possible divine identity that the statue in the Paris Louvre described in its dedication as "offered by Cheramyes to Hera" is known as the Hera of Samos.

Alternatively, the statue might depict an individual human, either the person dedicating it or someone else, like the statues of Kleobis and Biton at Delphi, offered by the people of Argos. Several statuettes of little girls of a kind unusual in Greek art must belong to one or other of these categories; they were found in the excavation of the temple of Brauron where such girls took part in liturgical service and were called arkrai or "bears". Fourth and last, there is some reason to think that certain statues were substitutes for humans whom the divinity might claim to own. But in an iconography where there is nothing to distinguish between human and divine images, the inhabitants of the ancient world are unlikely to have been much better able than ourselves to disentangle cases of thematic ambivalence, and probably took no pains to do so.

Sculpture Commissioned as Votive Offerings

Votive inscriptions and accounts by historians tell us the occasions for votive offerings. They were often congratulatory: a state would dedicate a statue out of gratitude for a military victory, or a private individual might do so after winning a prize in an athletic competition (the group to which the Charioteer of Delphi belonged), or in a musical contest (as with the phalluses offered to Dionysos). The offering could also be expiatory: under Solon we hear of Athenian magistrates promising to offer Delphi a gilded statue of their own at Delphi if they offended against one of Solon's laws. The zanes of Olympia were paid for out of the fines imposed by judges at the Olympic Games. Finally, many offerings were made for no other reason than propitiatory or even spontaneous devotion, no doubt mingled with the less admirable purpose of self-advertisement: the custom of offering a statue of oneself or a close kinsman was a useful way of putting up an individual effigy in a public place without having to get permission for it.

However, it was not gods alone whose presence was established by statues; the dead too could be commemorated. Although at tombs stelai with reliefs or painting were much more common, funerary statues also occurred. Identifiable to us only from their epitaphs, they frequently represented the dead person. Examples of these are the statues of Phrasikleia and Kroisos. The statue thus had the dual purpose of depicting the dead person as well as marking his tomb, whereas other funerary figures such as lions and sphinxes only marked the grave.

These were the principal uses of statuary: the function of the honorary portrait later became increasingly important too. Not all materials seem to have been equally suitable: there do not seem to have been any cult statues in marble, although it was the usual material used in the case of funerary statues.

A statue usually had a base and the forms and dimensions of bases were very varied; in later times sizes were expanded to accommodate such groups as those of the eponymous Heroes of the Agora of Athens, or the Thessalian kings at Delphi the bases were very often inscribed and sometimes decorated with reliefs like the Archaic scenes showing ephebes "boys" (young men in military training) reproduced here. But putting a statue on a base was not the only way of presenting it: from the Archaic period onwards, statues were sometimes placed on tall columns - at the price of optical distortions such as those illustrated by the failure of Alkamenes. Later on, they were frequently set in groups on the sides of the marble public benches called exedrae. While a statue needs something to support it, it can also be a support itself: not only may it take the place of a column, but the huge Archaic water basins known as perirrhanteria had stone statuettes as their feet, and at a later date small bronze figures were often used as the handles of mirrors.

Roman Painting and Sculpture: Resources
For articles about the art of classical antiquity in Ancient Rome, see:
Roman Art
Hellenistic Roman Art
Roman Sculpture
Relief Sculpture of Ancient Rome
Early Roman Art
Late Roman Art

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from the seminal work on early European Sculpture, namely Sculpture: From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Edited by G. Duby and J-L Daval (1989-91) (published by Taschen GmbH), a publication we strongly recommend for any serious students of sculpture and architecture of this era.

• For a list of the world's best ever stone/wood-carvers, see: Greatest Sculptors.
• For more about the evolution of the visual arts, see: History of Art.
• For a detailed chronology, see: Timeline, History of Art.
• For more about the sculpture of Praxiteles, Polykleitos and Leochares, see: Homepage.

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