Classic Greek Sculpture to Late Hellenistic


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Hellenistic Art

800-700 B.C.= Oriental Influence
700-500 B.C.= Archaic Period
480-350 B.C. = Classic Age
350-100 B.C.= Hellenism (Hellenistic Art)

Hermes (Mercury) and the 
Infant Dionysus.
by Praxiteles or his followers
c340-320 BCE
marble with remnants of
red paint on the lips and hair
height 7'
Classic or Hellenistic

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Form: This statue's anatomy is considerably more realistic than earlier sculptures.  The musculature is softer, and more sensuous and there is even a bit of body fat.  Although the statue is in contrapposto position to indicate slight movement the "S" curve of the body is heightened and the movement is more exaggerated by the arm that is held aloft.  The head of the adult figure is turned towards the infant that is reaching towards the extended arm.  This sculpture although still frontally oriented, is even more in the round than others.  The viewer can begin to move to the far left and right to see a more interesting and complete view of the figure.

Iconography:  This sculpture probably represents Hermes and Dionysus.  Hermes is the wing footed messenger god who served as a temporary "nurse maid" for Dionysus in order to protect the young god from Hera.  Hermes is holding out a bunch of grapes, and young Dionysos's reaching for them is prophetic symbol of  Dionysos's role as the god of wine.  The scene is a bit of a genre scene and probably symbolizes the more humanistic or playful attributes of the gods.

Context:  Stokstad asserts that this is probably a copy because of the anachronistic elements of the footwear and the fact that Romans often used braces and other elements to further support their sculptures.  I believe that this sculpture is really Hellenistic because it exhibits the more dramatic and lifelike qualities of that period. This sculpture represents a break with the earlier periods in the fact that the anatomy is a bit more sensuous and realistic and that the scene is more of a dramatic and interactive moment.

Stokstad (page 210) discusses the idea that Greek art around 320 BCE goes through a marked shift and begins to change into a style that stresses life-like and less general themes.  Hellenistic style art is very similar to the changes in film between the 1950 and the 1980's in the United States.  If one was to think of a gangster film from the 1950's the themes, dialogue, sexual content, and violence were fairly restrained and the moral of the film would usually be that good conquers over evil or something just as high minded.  Today, we have films that are much more violent, more dramatic and the higher moral them is harder to understand.  The same dramatic shift happens in Greek art between the classic age and the later Hellenistic phases.  The sculpture by Praxiteles is an excellent example of this shift.  It is a fine example of a transitional work of art between the two periods.



Nike of Samothrace 190 B.C.E.
by Pythokritos of Rhodes?
Marble, height 8'
Louvre, Paris
Form:  This sculpture is a massive sculpture of a composite creature known as a Nike.  The convincing anatomy is heightened by the use of wind whipped wet drapery of her chiton and the forward moving posture of the figure.  Originally this sculpture would have had extended arms and probably a face with a fierce facial expression.

She is placed on the prow of a stone boat.  Gardner describes that the setting of the sculpture would have been augmented with the sculpture's placement in the upper basin of a two tiered fountain that would have suggested to all the senses that the ship was moving and splashing through the water.

Iconography:  Homer and other poets often described victory as being "winged."  Images of flight and floating above the water are almost part of every culture's collective unconscious.  The iconography of the the figure is clearly defined and augmented by her location on the prow of a stone boat as winged victory leading the navy into victorious battle.  The massive size, movement, and youthful body of the figure are symbols of power as well.

Context:  Stokstad describes the conditions and condition the sculpture was found in her book.


Laocoon and his sons, c1C BCE by
Hagesandros, Polydoros, and Athenadoros 
of Rhodes, marble 8' tall
Vatican Museum, Rome

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Form: The anatomy of each of the three figures are illustrations of ideal anatomy for their ages.  The counterpoise and twisting of the figures, while not contrapposto (which is a standing pose) is a pose that inspired Michelangelo.  Michelangelo referred to such twisting and turning as serpentata (serpentine).  The individuals' faces are highly dramatic and expressive and the figures themselves interact with each other and with the serpent that attacks them.  Overall, this is one of the best examples of how Hellenistic art pushed the envelope from the Classic period.

Iconography:  This sculpture represents an episode out of the Roman poet Vergil's Aeneid. This particular scene recounts an event about the Fall of Troy. Laocoon, a celibate priest in the service of Poseidon, was punished by Poseidon, for acts of hubris against the god. (Hint: Notice he has children)  Another interpretation of this tale and his subsequent punishment was that he warned the Trojans "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" when they opened the gates and were presented with the famous Trojan horse in which Odysseus and his men hid.  Either interpretation of this yields that this sculpture is a warning against interacting with or offending the gods. 

Context:  The origins or provenance of this work is still in question.  One of the questions that arises in the study of this sculpture is, is it a Roman copy or a work of art made by late Greek Hellenistic sculptors Hagesandros, Polydoros, and Athenadoros?  Who was the work made for?  Either way, the work was found in the remains of the emperor Titus in Rome in 1506.  Recently evidence seems to suggest that this work is the original and not a copy.  According to Gardner, there are accounts by a historian from Titus' time named Pliny of the sculpture and several fragments illustrating similar stories from the Odyssey were found 6o miles from Rome in the seaside villa of first century emperor Tiberius.  One of the fragments was signed by Hagesandros, Polydoros, and Athenadoros.

The fact that this work was almost certainly made for a Roman audience by Greek artists inspires another interesting observation.  Greek art under Roman patronage might have been freed to become even more dramatic and violent.  Parallels of this exist in a possible comparison between the accounts of the fall of Troy as portrayed in the literature of the Greek Odyssey, and Roman Aeneid.  The Greek account barely mentions Laocoon while the Roman account is a bit more detailed.  (Hint: This would make an awesome paper topic)


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