Art History Everyone Should Know: Geometric, Orientalizing and Archaic Greek Sculpture and Architecture

Geometric, Orientalizing and Archaic Greek Sculpture and Architecture

Geometric Period     1050BCE - 700 BCE (700 BCE) 
Orientalizing Period     700 BCE - 600 BCE (600 BCE) 
Archaic Period     600 BCE - 480 BCE (600 BCE) 


Centaur, from Lefkandi, Euboea,
c980 BCE or after
terra-cotta, height 14 1/8"
Archaeological Museum, Eritrea
Form:  The creature is a composite of a horse and human referred to as a centaur.  Stokstad comments that this work exemplifies the Proto-Geometric style because the body and forms painted, in slip, on this sculpture are geometricized.  Some of the overall geometric shapes are further broken down into cross hatched designs.  The face as well as the limbs while recognizable are still not very naturalistic.  The sculpture was made on a potter's wheel and the body and limbs are hollow. Context:  Stokstad relates that this sculpture was found broken in two and placed in adjacent graves.  This may indicate that the duality of the centaur's nature may represent or have something to do with the development of Greek ideas concerning duality and symmetry.
Iconography:  Images of the centaur are almost always associated with the story of the Lapith's battle with the Centaurs or centauromachy ( a battle between centaurs and humans).  The Lapiths and and centaurs do battle after a wedding celebration. The centaurs, drunk after the celebration become unruly, and attempt to rape (in this case it means sexually and to abduct or steal them) the young boys and young girls. Apollo stops the battle and sends the centaurs home.
Overall the mythological scenes on this vase are designed to instruct or indoctrinate the viewer into the ideologies and behaviors symbolized in the tales.  More specifically, the centauromachy, whose main antagonists are half-man half-beast, represent the struggle against man's bestial nature.
Man and Centaur, perhaps from
Olympia. c 750 BCE
Bronze, height 4.5".
Metropolitan Museum, NY
Iconography: In this version of a centauromachy, the scale is out of proportion with reality probably intentionally.  The exaggerated size of the human figure is probably symbolic of the imminent victory of the human over the centaur.  Which in turn might represent the victory of humanity over its bestial nature. Gardner's proposes that this particular sculpture represent Hercules' battle with the centaur Nessos.  After volunteering to carry Hercules' bride across a river, Nessos attempts to abscond with the bride at which point they battle.
Context:  Small sculptures like this were probably used as votive figures either in the home or a shrine.  Perhaps they were given to shrines as gifts or sacrifices.  The inscription on the Mantiklos Apollo (below) would tend to support this.  Probably even more significant about small solid cast bronzes such as this is that they are the beginning schemas to much more complex large scale sculptures developed during later periods.
Form: This sculpture, while still a bit more naturalistic than the Centaur, from Lefkandi, is still somewhat stylized.  The rendering of the forms is not so much geometric as it is inaccurate.  Not the problem the artist had with attaching the human form to the horse.  This works is truly a composite because the entire front end of the form is human including the genitalia which on later representations of the centaur are located in the rear regions and belong to the horse component.
This small sculpture was made with thecire perdue or lost wax process.   The process is referred to as lost wax not because we have lost the process, but because the figure is originally sculpted from wax which is lost in the process.  The original is encased in clay.  Two drainage holes are placed in the clay and when the clay is heated, the wax runs out of the hole leaving a cavity.  Bronze is then poured into the cavity and when the bronze cools the clay mold is broken open revealing the bronze sculpture.  Since the bronze is a fairly soft metal, details can be etched and molded while the bronze is cool.

For large hollow sculptures the process is different.  See this diagram.


Mantiklos Apollo, statuette of a 
youth dedicated by Mantiklos 
to Apollo, from Thebes, 
c 700-680 BCE
Bronze, Approx. 8"
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Form:  This nude  figure of an idealized young man is made of solid bronze using cire perdue. The sculpture is said to be orientalized in appearance because it looks similar to Persian or Assyrian designs from the same period.  Note the hair and the brow and how similar these look to the sculptures from Tell Asmar.  The rendering of the anatomy is still based on geometric forms such as triangles and squares and elements, such as the neck and the facial features are distorted, however, this sculpture is still very naturalistic. On Apollo’s leg is an inscription "Mantiklos dedicated me as tithe to the far-shooting Lord of the Silver Bow; you, Phoibos (Apollo), might give some pleasing favor in return." (Translation quoted from Gardner's)  Perhaps the sculpture originally had gems placed in the eye sockets. Iconography:  This sculpture demonstrates the desire of the Greek artist to move towards a more naturalistic or realistic style.  The figure's body is the idealized and perfect looking youth figure that will later on be referred to as a kouros figure.  Naturalism and specifically depicting the male human form accurately is linked to the fact that the Greek gods look human.  Man for the Greeks was created in their gods' image and therefore it is almost a form of representing the divine if the work is naturalistic
The figure is also beautiful and this is an icon of goodness for the Greeks.  In Greek epic poetry the hero is always described as handsome or beautiful and their physical appearance is a reflection of the character's virtue.  The idealism or beauty of the Greek figure is linked to the concept that you can judge a book by its cover.  The Greek term for beauty is kalos (calos).  The term kalos can also be interchanged with and is synonymous with goodness.  Therefore, to call someone or something beautiful also means that that thing is also "good."
Context:  Art historians believe that these vases  have an "eastern" or "oriental" or asian kind of feeling.   Stokstad states, "the source of these motifs can be traced to the arts of the Near East, Asia Minor, and Egypt.   The term "orientalized" although an accepted art historical term seems to have a rather Eurocentric meaning.  The term seems to lump all the cultures east of Greece in this blanket term and therefore tends to generalize a bit too much. 


Pediment from the Temple of Artemis c580 BCE
Gorgon Medusa, detail of a sculpture from 
the west pediment of the Temple of Artemis, 
Korkyra (also called Corfu)
limestone, ht. 9'2"
Archaeological museum, Corfu
Form:  This high relief sculpture is part of the pediment (the triangular section on top of the columns) of a larger doric style temple.  The organization of the pediment is symmetrical.  The large figure, which depicts Medusa, at the center is sculpted in an orientalized style and is flanked by two lions that also look orientalized.  Gardner's makes the comparison that the lions are very similar in style to the lions on the Lion Gate at Mycenae.  Medusa's body is stylized and organized into a kind of pinwheel or swastika like design.  The limbs radiate out from the center of the form as if she is in motion.  She has fangs and snakes coming out of her hair and snakes entwined on her belt.  Originally, she was flanked, between her body and the two lions were two smaller figures. Iconography:  The Doric style of the temple is considered to be one of the most masculine, dignified, and oldest styles of Greek temple architecture.  The main figure of Medusa was one of the three Gorgon sisters who had snakes for hair and were so hideous that if one looked upon them you would be transformed into stone.  Medusa, committed and act of hubris or hybris (an act of disrespect, excessive pride or arrogance) by lying down with Poseidon in Athena's temple.  In the tale of Perseus, he encounters the Gorgon Medusa, decapitates her and uses her head to freeze his enemies.  After Perseus decapitated Medusa she gave birth to two legendary creatures from her blood or her neck, Chrysaor and Pegasus.
The use of the Gorgon on shields and temples serves an apotropaic function but also serves a didactic (instructive) one as well.  The monsters' physical attributes depicted in these tales summarize their failings.  For example, the Cyclops is short of vision and the Gorgons are ugly of spirit and the snakes represent their deceit.  The heroes are idealized versions of soldiers.  They instruct us to be clever, loyal and be a soldier.  (compare to the Eleusis Amphora)
Context:  Corfu is a small island off the coast of Greece and was an important stopping off point for Greek trade.  Therefore, it would makes sense that any towns and temples on that island might benefit from the wealth and be able to decorate and furnish their temples lavishly.
An interesting element in the decoration is that the decoration serves a more heraldic purpose.  Meaning that is is more symbolic than narrative and this is supported by the anachronistic (out of sequence or not in time) narrative of the story of Medusa.  The sculpture depicts a sort of composite view of time.  The children that spring out of her neck should not be there if Medusa has not been slain yet.
In the lower left and right hand sections of the pediment were separate sculptures that might have represented other narratives.  As Janson's points out, the battle between the narrative scene and the heraldic one, as well shall see, is later won by the narrative in Greek temple relief sculpture.


Kouros from Attica (the region surrounding Athens)
c600 BCE 6' 4" marble
polychrome, encaustic
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Form:  Originally, this larger than life figure would have been polychromed (painted poly- many, chroma- color) in bright colors  with a combination of hot wax and ground up earth pigments known as encaustic.  Although stylized in a somewhat orientalizing fashion, still is an idealized and fairly naturalistic representation of a young male figure.  The archaic smile the figure exhibits is one of these distortions.  Furthermore, the musculature is simplified and the proportions of the body are still somewhat inaccurate.  In many ways this sculpture shares much with its Egyptian and Sumerian counterparts.  The hair is stylized and the eyes are over large and share a similar structure of nose and brow to the statues from Tell Asmar.  The Kouros also stands and is posed in the same blocky manner as Egyptian sculptures. (Go to this link to compare visually.) Despite these obvious distortions, this sculpture marks a strong shift towards realism in Greek art. Although these sculptures are sculpted "in the round," meaning they can be viewed from every angle, they are still really meant to be viewed from the front.  When viewed from the back and sides they are a bit awkward.
Iconography:   These sculptures are idealized representations of the perfect young male who possesses kalos.  Stokstad asserts that the Greeks might have viewed these as fertility figures.  More specifically they may have been portraits of specific people.  Gardner suggests that the archaic smile is a convention meant to symbolize that the figure is alive.
Context: We cannot fully explain what the meaning or function of these kouroi (plural for kouros and kore).  Most historians seem to believe that these were probably grave markers, portraits or votive figures.  The inscription on the Anyvasos Kouros (in Stokstad) does seem to support that they would have been used as gravemarkers.  Another question raised is that the female counterparts or Kore figures are always clothed while the males are always nude.  Most likely this is an indication of some sort of chauvinism on the part of Greek males who controlled the production of art. 
Calf Bearer (Moscophoros)560 B.C.E. 5'5"
marble, encaustic found on the Acropolis
(click for close up detail)
  Form:  Like the earlier Kouros from the Metropolitan, this sculpture possess the archaic smile, would have been polychromed and is stylized in a orientalizing fashion.  Unlike the Kouros the is figure probably had precious stones placed in the eyes and the beard and clothing would indicate that this it is an attempt at a more naturalistic representation of a middle aged or older male figure.  The calf the sculpture holds is very realistic and the naturalistic representation of it is somewhat similar to the Vapheio cups.  The base of the sculpture is inscribed.
Iconography:   The inscription is from an individual named Rhonbos who dedicates the statue to Athena.  Gardner suggests that this sculpture's clothing is an invention of the artist and does not represent accurately the clothing of the times but is probably meant to dignify the sculpture in some way.  The beard is probably meant as an icon of age and therefore wisdom.
Context: We cannot fully explain what the meaning or function of these kouroi (plural for kouros and kore), however, the inscription on this sculpture and the fact that it was located in the rubble of the Acropolis (it was used as land fill) indicates that it was probably a sculpture gifted to the religious complex and was used as a votive figure.  It is also likely that Rhonbos was an important individual, or at the very least a wealthy one who in being a patron also raised his own status somewhat.


Peplos Kore 
(also called the Peplophoros)
c 530 BCE 
Marble and encaustic
48" (found on the Acropolis)
Acropolis Museum

Kore from Chios (?)
Kore wearing a Chiton
c 520 BCE Marble and 
encaustic 22" 
(found on the Acropolis)
Acropolis Museum
Form:  Although much later, these two sculptures share many qualities with the Kouros figure.  Originally, they would have been polychromed with encaustic. They have orientalized features, are idealized and fairly naturalistic representation of a young female figure that exhibit the archaic smile but they depart from this schema in that they are clothed and both have one arm bent at the elbow.  These sculptures are even more naturalistic and accurate in the portrayal of the human anatomy and this marks a strong shift towards realism in Greek art. Iconography:   These sculptures are idealized representations of the perfect young female who possess kalos.  Perhaps as Stokstad asserts that the Greeks might have viewed these as fertility figures or more specifically they may have been portraits of real individuals, but, the most engaging component seems to be that they are clothed.  The clothing each wears is real clothing from the period unlike the Moscophoros.  These figures then are slightly more real because they are perhaps as they would have existed in the real world.  The real clothing might be a fashion statement or maybe a statement of another kind.  Perhaps the act of covering the figure indicates that the female body is to be respected and is mysterious.   A contrary point of view might indicate that since the culture is male oriented and dominated the covering of the female form indicates a lesser status.
Context: We cannot fully explain what the meaning or function of these kouroi (plural for kouros and kore).  Most historians seem to believe that these were probably grave markers, portraits or votive figures.  The inscription on the Anyvasos Kouros (in Stokstad) does seem to support that they would have been used as gravemarkers.  The question raised by the female counterparts indicates a clear difference as to how the sexes were viewed.
Both of these sculptures were found in the rubble beneath the Acropolis as modern excavators worked.  The Kore wearing a Chiton is a sculpture which stylistically looks closer to figures from the small island of Chios while the Kore wearing the Peplos is closer to Athenian works.  I personally can't see the difference but if this is the case, this indicates a complex and almost international trade route. 
Summary of the development of Greek Art. (Borrowed but edited from this page:
  • It went from the geometric to the anthropomorphized to the illusionistic. This transition is more commonly refered to as the transition from Archaic to Classical. Classical Art essentially last from a little before 400 to the fall.
  • An example of the primarily geometric was the Dipilon Amphora. It was a five foot tall grave offering. It was geometrically proportioned into 2/3rds base 1/3rds top. It was a burial marker that depicts a grave scene. There is no use of perspective or foreshortening.
  • Human figures are first introduced as the Kouros and Kouri. Kouros are male, Kouri are female. They are not lifelike looking, but they have the beginnings of techniques such as perspective. They were usually grave markers. They represented a homeric ideal, not the actual physical reality of the person whose grave they marked. However, they were intended as a kind of portrait. An example of this is the Calf Bearer.
  • The Parthenon is Illusionistic or Classical. Some development can be seen on the Parthenon itself, as the south side was completed first. Inside are the most illusionistic statues that appear to have weight in addition to perspective and foreshortening. The main theme is of us vs. the other.
  • Art went from decorative to serving as function in politics as propaganda, as well as a medium in which to bring up messages.
    • Why Greek art is special?
      • It shows the relationship between the individual and the community
      • It was not a technical revolution
    • It had a new purpose and this is what had far reaching consequences for the rest of western art.

Schema and correction:     A theory developed by Ernst Gombrich.  Schema refers to the original plan or idea of something and correction refers to the changes that were made to that original plan.
 polychromed To polychrome something is to paint it in many colors.  (poly- many, chroma- color)
encaustic Encaustic is a combination of hot wax and ground up earth pigments that are applied hot.

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