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Viewing Archaic Greek Art


Which of these is not like the others!?
Frieze from the temple of Apollo at Bassai (420 B.C.E.)
depicting battle of Lapiths and Centaurs.

Professor Donna F. Wilson






For two hundred years after the collapse of Mycenaean palace culture, there was--as far as we know--no Greek figural art.


This kalyx krater was painted between 520 and 505 by Euphronius. It depicts in synchronic narrative Sleep and Death carrying off the body of Sarpedon. Note that the early red figure vases, although they lend to greater detail, still bear the marks of Archaic style.


About 975 B.C.E., this wobbly long-legged little horse wandered onto the scene, beginning a (new) continuous Greek tradition of figural representation.


By the end of the 7th century B. C. E., monumental architecture had made its appearance in Greece. Architectural sculpture may be found on metopes, friezes, and pediments. Each demanded a different technique for depicting narrative.


Even then, Greek art remained overwhelmingly abstract for almost another 200 years.


This metope relief sculpture from a temple in Selinus depicts, in snapshot style, the story of Herakles and the impish Kerkopes. Note the Archaic features (vertical symmetry, repeated patterns, line, etc.) of the sculpture.


Sometime in the mid-8th century, an Attic painter (known as the Dipylon Master) depicted a funerary scene on a ceramic vase used to mark a grave. Thus was formed a tradition of generic scenes with humans (in composition/groups) as the central figures.


This metope from the 6th century Sikyonian Treasury in Delphi depicts two pairs of heroic brothers--Castor and Polydeuces and the sons of Aphareus--returning from a cattle raid. Again, note the features of Archaic style.


The 7th century was marked by Orientalizing, and for the first half of the century Corinthian painters were unrivaled. This 7th century Corinthian aryballos is a good illustration of Corinthian style and the curvilinear animal and vegetable motifs that were influenced by Near Eastern art. What you cannot tell from this page is that the aryballos is very small, i.e., inches tall as opposed to the monumental Attic pots just above and below.


This frieze, from the 6th century Siphnian Treasury at Delphi, depicts the battle of the gods and giants ("Gigantomachy"). Here you see Artemis and Apollo with their bows and, opposite them, a group of three giants. The schemata and symmetrical patterning (e.g., of groups of gods and giants) serves the elongated shape of the frieze well.


Eleusis amphora (670-650 B.C.E.), an important early depiction of narrative. Note the synoptic technique used to depict the blinding of Polyphemus. This pot was used as a grave marker; it is about 4'6" high.


The pedimental sculpture from the early 6th century temple of Artemis at Corfu illustrates not only the Archaic style, but also the problem of scale on pedimental sculpture (note the small figures in the corners). Note also the synoptic depiction of the Medusa story (she still has her head, yet is accompanied by Pegasus and Chrysaor).


This amphora from about 625 B.C.E., which stands over 4' tall, is a masterpiece of the Black Figure style. Notice the narrative of Herakles and Nessos on the neck and the Gorgons pursuing Perseus (not shown) on the body.


The pediment of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi, built about 535 B.C.E., resolves the problem of scale by arranging the figures in order of descending size from Zeus in the center, to Herakles and Apollo, female figures, and animals. It is not entirely satisfactory.

J. Hurwit's 6 characteristics of Archaic art


The solution reached at the temple of Aphaia on Aigina at the end of the 6th century was to put reclining figures, dying warriors, in the corners. The west pediment was constructed 10 years earlier than the east pediment; notice the changes that occurred in Archaic style during that decade!!


This dinos by Sophilos (the first painter to sign his work whose name survives) depicts the wedding of Peleus and Thetis on the upper register. Note that the viewer reads the narrative around the register (unlike the Corinthian aryballos, which filled registers with images, but not narrative). Note domination of surface in the flat figures and in labels on the vase. Note also convention of painting women white.


In the mid-7th century, the Greeks began to carve large free-standing statues out of stone. The male figure we call a kouros (young man) and the female a korê (young woman). They were commissioned by aristocratic families and were used as dedications to gods, as memorials for (heroized) men, and as funerary markers (taking the place of the monumental pots).


Kleitias was perhaps the best of the early Black Figure painters. The Francois vase, a volute krater from ca. 570 B. C. E. is an excellent example of his work. It is arranged in registers, each of which narrates a myth related to the life of Achilles (and frequently having to do with marriage). There are over 200 characters, most of which are labeled. Note wedding of Thetis and Peleus on widest band and the Ajax and Achilles on the handle area.


It is easy to see how the form of the kouros is indebted to Egyptian sculpture. Egypt became more open in the mid-7th century, and Greeks would have been able to view and appropriate features of Egyptian sculpture. The differences between Greek and Egyptian sculpture are at least as important as the similarities, since the differences fall precisely along the lines of Archaic style (especially linearity, symmetry of pattern, and ornamentality). Note also that the Greek kouros is nude and is sculpted on a slightly different scale of proportion than the Egyptian. The cutting away of the "dead stone" was another important feature of the Greek kouros.


The Amasis painter was active in the last quarter of the 6th century. Note how he uses the whole body of the vase for a few human figures, rather than registers for many. Note the use of symmetry and ornamental pattern on this depiction of Dionysos and two meanads (female worshipers of Dionysos).


How DID they do that?



This belly amphora by Exekias, ca. 530 B.C.E., exemplifies the qualities of Archaic style. Note the use of symmetry, linearity, silhouette detailed with incision, how the figures lie flat on the surface of the vase, and the impassivity of both Achilles (on the right) and Ajax as they play a game before battle.


Kouroi (ca. 580 B.C.E.) in the Delphi Museum that may be memorials to the two aristocratic youths, Kleobis and Biton . Read their story in Herodotus I.31 (handout). Notice not only the Archaic style, but how kouroi embodied aristocratic ideals in Archaic Greece.

We only got as far as Kleobis and Biton in lecture. Click here to see an illustration of the direction Archaic free-standing sculpture took in the 5th century.

FOR YOUR ESSAY QUESTION, you should be able to point out the features of Archaic style in any of the paintings or sculptures above AND briefly discuss Archaic style as a search for order.

[Classics 0.1 page]



Characteristics of Archaic style, from J. Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 B.C. (Cornell University press, 1985)

New York kouros

Acropolis korê

Achilles and Penthesilea (by Exekias)

    • shapes, postures, movements, and gestures are limited and typical
    • goal is legibility, not naturalism
    • artificial and symmetrical rendering of overall composition as well as details
    • repetition of patterns and groups
    • accepts the surface--either of the four sides of a block of marble or the curving surface of a vase--as the foundation of form.
    • leads to "law of frontality"; painted figures are arranged on the plane and are essentially flat
    • depiction of form begins with the outline and lines isolate each part within the form
    • principal features of a sculpture are clearly defined by sharp ridges and shallow grooves
    • highly decorative; not only patterned, but intricate and embellished
    • little is implicit or subjective
    • action is shown at its violent climax or just prior to
    • figures do not express emotion through facial features
    • archaic smile: transcends emotion and mutability