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Greek Sculpture

Randy H. Sooknanan & Elvira Valentina Resta

ASAG Journal

November 13, 2020

Ancient Greek sculpture art is characterized by its idealized representations of the human form, often depicting gods, goddesses, and mythological figures in heroic and grandiose poses. The sculptures were typically made from marble or bronze and were often created to commemorate important events or individuals. Greek sculptors are known for their attention to detail, anatomy, and realism, as well as their mastery of the techniques of proportion and perspective. Some of the most famous examples of Greek sculpture art include the Parthenon frieze, the Discus Thrower, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Let's survey and discuss some art from various Greek periods...

'Laocoön and His Sons'

The statue of 'Laocoön and His Sons', is also called the 'Laocoön Group', which in Italian is translated from 'Gruppo del Laocoonte'. It is one of the most famous ancient sculptures we have today and was excavated in Rome in the 16th-century. This sculpture has since attracted archaeologists and art lovers alike for its awe-inspiring craftsmanship for centuries. It is a Roman copy of an ancient Greek piece but yet it is interestingly reminiscent of later 17th-century Baroque style sculpture. 

What we see here is an artwork that historians have concluded to be a marble copy of a bronze original from the Hellenistic Period (323 BCE – 31 CE). Roman's melted down bronze they found for other uses, but not before copying. In turn, this marble version may not be completely true to form, as it has been heavily restored. Nevertheless, it has been celebrated for its technical mastery and for the intense emotion it conveys. We see it in true Hellenistic fashion, as it showcases an interest in the realistic depiction of movement. In its action-packed scene, we see three figures frantically try to free themselves from the grasp of sinuous serpents. No matter how much they twist and turn, however, they remain entangled, culminating in a swirling mass of snakes and limbs. In Virgil's stories, Laocoön was a priest of Poseidon who was killed with both his sons after attempting to expose the ruse of the Trojan Horse from the mythos of the Greek Illiad. In this story, Laocoön struck the Greek horse with a spear to prove deception and then he was punished by the opposing gods. 

This incredible statue and depiction was found in a Roman vineyard in 1506 and later housed in the Vatican Museum, where it remains today. But for some time it was taken elsewhere. Like many conquerors, Napoleon helped himself to artistic treasures of conquered territories, which included masterpieces of Greco-Roman sculpture, such as the 'Medici Venus' from Florence and 'Laocoön and His Sons' from the Vatican. Napoleon gave the looted treasures to the Louvre in Paris, as a symbol of France's and his own greatness, and to associate the French Empire with the glories of its ancient Roman predecessor. After his defeat in 1815, the looted treasures were returned to their original owners, leaving the Louvre's grand halls filled with plaster casts including this wonderful work. 

'Laocoön and His Sons', Greek Sculpture, c. 50 BCE, marble, h. 184 cm, Vatican Museum, Rome.
(📸 @art_storia on Instagram)

*This is a plaster cast of the group Laocoön and his Sons by Hagesandrus, Polidorus and Athenodorus of Rhodes from around the 1st century BC to the early 1st century AD, itself a copy of an earlier sculpture. It was found at the Esquiline Hill in Rome in 1506.


'Laocoön and His Sons'

Greek Sculpture Paint Colouring

In the Classical age, Greek sculptures were actually brightly painted, however, today most of the original pigments used to add vibrancy to these exceptional artworks have long since faded, flaked off, or completely disappeared leaving the bare white marble exposed. Still we are left with orginal stonework, so we may be thankful for that. When one thinks of a traditional Greek statues from millenias ago, they often think of pure white marble statues, but as we can see here, some of the sculptures from antiquity still retain traces of their original colouration. Because of surviving artifacts such as these, we can fill in the blanks to how such other sculptural artworks and even certain architectural decorations found on Greek Corinthian or Doric columns from the time were most likely colored, thus ultimately improving our visual representation and understanding of the past.


Greek Sculpture Paint Colouring

Ancient Greek Theatre Masks

There were three specific uses for masks in Ancient Greek theatre: enabling actors to play multiple roles (or gender); making them appear like miniature megaphones for people in distant seats (with large mouth holes so that the actors could effectively project their voice); and defining characters within the cast. Greek masks were typically made of materials such as stiffened linen, leather, wood, or cork. 🎭


Onkos Greek Theatre Masks.
Credit: @archaeologyart

The Helmet of Metaponto

THE HELMET OF METAPONTO, Matera, Basilicata, 4th century. BC 🇮🇹
Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri, USA 

The splendid bronze and ivory helmet, with the stoic and regal ram symbolizing a fierce call to arms, can be dated back to the 6th century BC. The artifact was birthed in the Greek colony of Metaponto, Matera, Basilicata. And, according to archaeological studies, the helmet that was uncovered from a tomb in 1942 during excavations in the Necropolis of Crucinia, was once part of a complete suit of armour. The exquisite piece, that clearly holds the most artistic value of the remnants found, now resides in America at the Saint Louis Art Museum in Missouri. Today, a few fragments of this decorum of courage are preserved at the Archaeological Museum of Metaponto in South Italy, with the rest having disappeared into the international antique market.

The Necropolis, where the large tomb was found, consists of a total of 600 burials, with some belonging to the aristocratic elite, based on the grand sizes, and was located in the Crucinia district along a road leading out of town. According to archaeologist Antonio de Siena, the discovered helmet and armour could be that of the tomb of the tire Archelaus, promoter of the first important urban structure of Metaponto. He was an establisher of an absolutist regime that caused the conspiracy of his murder by the two lovers Antileon and Ipparino. 

The helmet, given its size, and design was to serve ceremonial purposes not for real military protective function. It was constructed of a single bronze foil, making it extremely light and unsuitable for the battlefield. The decoration that characterizes parts of the surface, has been obtained using a series of metalworking techniques such as overhang, punching, tracing, engraving. Traces of ancient restoration work are present on the horns, ears and eyes of the ram head that serves as a cimiero-a crest.

The choice of the ram for the aesthetic meaning of the parade helmet was not random. The ram is a symbol of strength, power, and regeneration and rebirth-solar symbol of the god Amon in Karnak. The ram is also illustrated in the myth of the Golden Fleece, conquered by Jason, who delivers it to Pelias in memory of the glorious expedition of the Argonauts. For this, a ram was assumed in heaven and dedicated to him as a constellation.


Helmet from Metaponto. Greek, South Italian, Archaic Period, 525-500 BC. Bronze with ivory and Bronze restoration.
Image: St. Louis Art Museum

Hellenistic Snake Bracelet


Gold Snake Bracelet with garnet, from the Greek-Hellenistic period, 3rd-to-2nd century BC
Pforzheim Jewellery Museum

The Ionic order

A Greek revival ionic order column with a Roman sundial on top located at the Temple of Apollo ruins in the ancient city of Pompeii (circa 80 BC)


Roman sundial on top of an Ionic column in the Temple of Apollo, Pompeii, Italy
Photo:d0gwalker on Flickr


The sᴘнιɴx of Naxos in front of a reconstruction of the facade of the "Siphnian Treasury"
Photo credit: Archaeological Museum of Delphi, 1910

Why is Classical art so important to art history?

Classical art is significant to art history for several reasons. It marks the beginning of Western art, which has had a long-lasting influence on art across the world to date. The period from the 5th century BCE to the 4th century CE saw some of the most influential artworks ever produced. The period is marked by great advancements in the styles, technique, and subject matter in visual arts.
One of the most notable contributions of classical art is its realism. Classical artists were keen observers of nature, and their art reflects this. They produced works that accurately captured the human form, texture, and details. This realist approach was groundbreaking at the time, and it opened up new possibilities in the art world. The realism also helped to establish canons of beauty, proportions, and balance that formed the basis of artistic standards and ideals.
Another reason classical art is important is its representation of cultural values and ideals. The classical artists sought to capture the essence of their civilization in their artworks. Their art reflects the ideals of strength, courage, wisdom, and power that were revered in their time. For instance, the Hercules sculpture by Lysippos captures the ideal image of power and strength that the ancient Greeks admired. Similarly, the Parthenon temple in Athens represents the epitome of cultural, political, and religious order during the time.
Classical art also played a significant role in promoting art education and the transmission of artistic techniques to future generations. Classical artists produced artworks that were not only meant for aesthetic purposes but also served educational and instructional purposes. Their art was used as models to teach students the proper techniques and styles. Additionally, these artworks were copied by other artists for practice and to learn from the masters.
The discovery and appreciation of classical art also marked the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman cultures. The medium of art was a powerful tool in exposing the world to the civilizations, cultures, and philosophies of these ancient societies. Classical art, therefore, represents a revival of cultural roots and traditions, and the urge to reconnect with the past, which is a theme that still resonates today.
Finally, classical art has played a significant role in the development of modern art. The principles of balance, proportion, and symmetry that were so fundamental to classical art continue to influence contemporary artists worldwide. Modernists such as Matisse and Picasso, for example, drew inspiration from ancient art and incorporated classical elements into their work. In this way, classical art has continued to shape the evolution of visual art from antiquity through to today.
In conclusion, classical art is immensely important to art history for its realism, cultural significance, educational value, and influence on modern art. It serves as a testament to the enduring power of human creativity and the ability of art to transcend time and space. Without classical art, the world of art might look completely different today. Its legacy continues to inspire and influence artists worldwide, and its profound impact on the history of art remains firmly entrenched.

Evolution of Ancient Greek bronze statues; Archaic, Classic and Hellenistic periods

During the Archaic period (800-480 BCE), Ancient Greek bronze statues underwent a significant evolution. Initially influenced by Egyptian and Near Eastern art, the statues were rigid and stylized, reflecting a sense of stiffness and formality. These early statues often depicted male and female figures known as kouros and kore, respectively. The kouros statues were characterized by their idealized and frontal poses, with arms straight at their sides. The korai statues, on the other hand, displayed a more naturalistic stance, often with one foot slightly forward and a gentle smile on their faces. As the Archaic period progressed, the statues became more lifelike, displaying subtle contrapposto and anatomical details.

The Classical period (480-323 BCE) witnessed a remarkable shift in Ancient Greek bronze statues. Inspired by the ideals of harmony, balance, and proportion, the sculptors of this era sought to capture the essence of human beauty and perfection. Statues during this period became more dynamic and naturalistic, moving away from the rigid forms of the Archaic period. The iconic example of this evolution is the statue of Zeus at Olympia by Phidias, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Classical statues showcased idealized human forms, with an emphasis on athletic bodies, flowing drapery, and serene facial expressions.

The Hellenistic period (323-31 BCE) marked a further progression in the evolution of Ancient Greek bronze statues. This era was characterized by a shift towards dramatic and emotional expressions, as well as a focus on realism and individuality. Sculptors during this period aimed to evoke strong emotions and capture dynamic moments in their artworks. A famous example is the "Laocoön and His Sons," a masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture that portrays the agony and despair of the Trojan priest and his children as they are attacked by sea serpents. The statues of the Hellenistic period also showcased intricate details, such as intricate drapery, realistic facial features, and delicate expressions, highlighting the artistic advancements of the time.

In all, the evolution of Ancient Greek bronze statues from the Archaic to the Hellenistic periods demonstrates a progression from rigid and stylized forms to dynamic and emotionally charged sculptures. These statues not only reflected the changing artistic styles and techniques but also conveyed the shifting cultural and philosophical values of the Ancient Greek civilization.
Greek bronze stature evolution.jpg

Evolution of Ancient Greek bronze statues; Archaic, Classic and Hellenistic periods
Photo credit: Museum of Artifacts, 2023

Period: Ancient Greece
Medium: Goldwork, Garment
Location: Housed in Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim in Germany 

As the legend goes, Heracles, a demigod because he was the son of Zeus, father of the Greek gods, performed great feats even in childhood and infancy. While still in his cradle, he killed the two serpents sent to him by Hera, wife of Zeus, who was jealous of Alcmene, Heracles’ mother.

In jewellery, this heroic deed performed by the infant Heracles is represented in artistic and amulet-like magical form in what is known as the Heracles knot, with two serpents elegantly entwined, as shown on this bracelet from the Hellenistic period.

This bracelet was probably worn, as such jewellery usually was in the third and second centuries B.C., paired with a second identical bracelet on an elegant lady’s upper arm.

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