Hey folks. Lucas Livingston here at the SCARABsoltuions Ancient Art Podcast. Great to have you back. In this episode, we’ll take a brief look at the historical climate that gave rise to Greek sculpture. Yeah, tall order.
“Gave rise to Greek sculpture” you say? There actually was a time before sculpture in Ancient Greece. Well, between sculpture, actually—the Greek Dark Age—between the relatively advanced Bronze Age and the much later Orientalizing and Archaic Periods. Remember back in episode 5 on the Art Institute’s Corinthian pyxis, we talked about the Orientalizing Period of approximately the 7th century BC—to quote myself, “The Orientalizing Period is a time when the Greeks renew contact and trade with the different civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East after a long period of isolation during the Greek Dark Age and Geometric Period. This is a fascinating time of rediscovery, invention, and assimilation.”
In that episode we looked at a few of the interesting Near Eastern influences in the developing arts of Greece. On Greek vase painting, we start to see fantastical creatures of the Near East, like sphinxes, griffins, and chimeras, and the adoption of long-standing, stock, Near Eastern decorative motifs like rosettes and palmettes. The Orientalizing Period was a time when the Greeks were suddenly thrust onto the world stage through mercantile exchange with Phoenicia, Syria, and other Near Eastern nations. The Greeks became familiar with Near Eastern artistic traditions through all the patterned textiles, decorated vessels, and other ornamentation that these foreign merchants brought with them to Corinth and other ports of trade. But just as the Greeks enjoyed and adopted these Near Eastern designs, they also immediately assimilated and adapted them to suit their own needs. And we discussed one example of this assimilation at length in the decoration of the Art Institute’s Corinthian pyxis.
There are a number of other profound developments in the Greek arts at this time, like the general manner in which the human form is represented on a two-dimensional painted surface. In episode 5 we explored how some areas of the Greek mainland, like Athens, continue in the traditional vase painting design of the previous century, with a stark contrast of the darkly silhouetted geometric figures against a background of meandering patterns. Corinth, however, pushes this aside for a more natural style of gentle curves and elaborate outlines of the figure’s contour with a smoother, flowing brush. We see the detail of human anatomy, facial features, and pleats and folds in the drapery. Coloration also makes its way onto the scene with the use of added red and white. The human form also becomes more dynamic, breaking away from the static paratactic pose of the Geometric Period. Shoulders and the chest might be seen in profile as opposed to the odd rendering of two shoulders and a frontal chest with a face turned in profile. So we start to see an increased attention to the naturalism, the manner in which the reality of the three-dimensional world works and how it can be expressed on a two-dimensional surface, a feat which the Greeks are only now beginning to undertake. But I don’t mean to give all the credit to Corinth. During the Archaic Period of the late 7th and 6th century BC, Athens was breaking new ground too, as we’ll soon see with the advent of sculpture.
The introduction of free standing monumental sculpture stems from another fascinating influence on the developing Greek arts, which deserves a lot of attention—but for this influence we need to look a little south to Egypt. Contemporary to the second half of the Greek Orientalizing Period and first half of the Archaic Period was the Egyptian 26th Dynasty, the Saite Dynasty of the Late Period. We call it the Saite Dynasty on account of the capital of Egypt at this time, the city of Sais in the delta region. And what time is this? We’re talking 664-525 BC. During the prior few centuries of the Third Intermediate Period, Egypt really blew it and lost all the power and influence that it acquired during the New Kingdom. Now during the Late Period, many of the nations surrounding Egypt had become major political and military powers that Egypt had to contend with. Since the Egyptian army wasn’t a whole heck of a lot to boast about, Pharaoh Psammetichus I (or in the Egyptian Psamtik) took the bold leap of hiring foreign mercenaries to fill the void. Psammetichus not only wanted to establish a strong military presence in Egypt, but he also wanted to forge military, political, and economic alliances with sympathetic foreign powers, namely the Greeks.
The Saite Dynasty is one of the coolest time periods in the history of the Mediterranean, because this is when we see for first time a strong Greek presence is Egypt. Psammetichus and other Saite rulers used Greek mercenaries to fight their battles and Greek merchants and craftsmen to support a strong economy of foreign trade in the Mediterranean. We even see the establishment in Egypt of Greek military barracks and the thriving development of a Greek civilian settlement. The port city of Naukratis exploded onto the scene as the short-lived, but preeminent port of trade in the Mediterranean. Sadly, today there’s not much more remaining than a few foundations. Naukratis was a fascinating melting pot of Egyptian and Greek culture. Greek and Egyptian temples were erected side-by-side. Greek merchants and craftsmen set up shop and traveled the Nile, seeing firsthand the splendors of the two-and-a-half thousand year-old Egyptian civilization. And just as the Greeks were inclined to adopt Near Eastern ideas to enhance their artistic repertoire, there are also some very distinct Egyptian influences on the cultural development of Greece in the aspects of domestic and religious art, temple architecture, and even religious belief and ritual. Greeks begin to visit Egyptian temples, dedicating bronze Egyptian votive statuary with Greek prayers inscribed on them. Greek votive statuary begins to take on an Egyptian form like this figurine of a seated woman nursing a child, which closely resembles the very popular figure type of Isis nursing the child Horus.
So, at the beginning of this episode I said we’ll take brief a look at the historical climate that gave rise to Greek sculpture. We did that, the stage is set, and before I start to lose you, we’re going to wrap things up here. We’ll pick up next time with a close look at one of the earliest known and most intact Greek sculptures of a particular statue type called a “kouros”—the so-called “Metropolitan Kouros” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org
Welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. This episode is coming out a little later than I had wanted on account of a cold that I’ve been getting over. But I’m pretty much decongested now and more or less back to normal.
In this episode, I want us to take a look at a cute little pyxis from Corinth. A pyxis is a specific type of Greek vessel used to store cosmetics, jewelry, or other trinkets. They come in a variety of different shapes—squat basket-like, cylindrical jars, box-like, and spherical, as we have here, along with a separate lid and handles. This pyxis at the Art Institute of Chicago is dated to about 580-570 BC, towards the end of the Greek Orientalizing Period, late 8th to mid 6th centuries BC. The Orientalizing Period is a time when the Greeks renew contact and trade with the different civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East after a long period of isolation during the Greek Dark Age and Geometric Period. This is a fascinating time of rediscovery, invention, and assimilation.
Albeit not the most politically correct term, the “Orientalizing Period” has nonetheless stuck. The term refers to the tremendous cultural and artistic impact that the renewed contact with Ancient Near Eastern cultures had on the blossoming civilization of Greece. One particularly successful center for the flourishing of culture and commerce during the Orientalizing Period was the city of Corinth located on the narrow isthmus connecting the Peloponnesus with mainland Greece. Due to its strategic location with ports accessing both the Aegean and Adriatic, Corinth became a rather lucrative port of trade for Syrian, Phoenician, and other Near Eastern merchants. Corinthians saw the influx of exotic metal ware and ivory trinkets, pottery designs, and elaborate textile patterns. Some scholars even think that Near Eastern artisans and craftsmen may have made their way over to Greece to ply their skills. The Greeks themselves began to travel more extensively to foreign lands, including great forays up and down the Nile of Egypt beginning in the mid 7th century. And all this exposure to foreign artistic motifs and conventions, long-standing monumental architecture of ancient civilizations, new stories, cultures, myths, and legends had a tremendous impact on the visual arts of Ancient Greece.
The artisans and consumers of Corinth had a particular appeal for the Near Eastern aesthetic, or at least their spin on what was seen as quote-unquote “Oriental.” While Athens continues to linger in the traditional Geometric vase painting design of the previous century, Corinth quickly pushes this aside in favor of new Oriental designs, like exotic chimeras and sphinxes, ferocious wild beasts and prey, and flowering rosettes and palmettes. The stark contrast of the darkly silhouetted Geometric figure against a background of meandering patterns, gives way to gentler curves and elaborate outlines of the figure’s contour with a smoother, flowing brush. Color also begins to make an appearance in Corinthian Orientalizing vase painting. You can clearly see the use of red, black, and white on the Art Institute pyxis. This pyxis also seems to display a sense of horror vaccui of the earlier Geometric Period. Every possible blank space on the background is strategically filled with some sort of rosette or linear pattern so as not to leave any large portion of undecorated surface.
What’s immediately most striking about this pyxis is, of course, the central decorative scene. In the very center we have a composite monster with the torso and legs of a lion, wings of an eagle, and head of a human female, known in Greeks mythology as the sphinx. This pyxis is attributed to the so-called “Ampersand Painter” because the shape of the sphinx’s tail is that of an ampersand (you know, the “and” symbol). This ampersand-shaped tail is the signature mark of this particular painter or workshop and it can be seen on other works in other museum also attributed to the Ampersand Painted. The earliest account of the sphinx in Greek myth comes from Hesiod’s Theogony, one of the earliest works of Greek literature, composed sometime in the late 8th to early 7th century BC. Hesiod briefly mentions the sphinx among his litany of the origins of all the myriads of hybrid monsters and creatures conjured up in Greek minds or imported by the Greeks from neighboring cultures and myths. Now, it’s hard to argue that the sphinx is a purely Greek invention when you’re faced with all the similar composite creatures of Near Eastern tradition that first started to make their way over to Greece around the time when Hesiod puts pen to paper, creatures like the lammasu, shedu, manticore, griffin, and chimera. But certainly the oriental influence contributes to the new forms of expression and experimentation, with both a profound interest in the ancient civilizations of the Near East and a new interest among the Greeks in their own ancient ancestry.
It’s around this time when the Greeks begin to look more closely at the remains of their own Bronze Age Mycenaean ancestors. At the same time when the great Homeric Epics of the Iliad and Odyssey were being recited, as the Greeks were weaving tales of the heroic warriors Achilles, Menelaus, and Agamemnon, so too were they looking out over the standing ruins of ancient Mycenae, the palace of King Agamemnon. There’s even evidence that the Dark Age and Archaic Greeks excavated Mycenaean tholos tombs, digging down to their entrances with their monumental Cyclopean masonry to establish shrines and offer votives at the tombs of these heroic warriors.
So where are we going with all of this? Well, the central sphinx is conventionally seen as some sort of Near Eastern or Oriental influence. Ok, I’ll buy that. Flanking the sphinx you’ve got a couple feline creatures usually interpreted as lions or leopards. Felines, particularly lions, are very prevalent throughout Ancient Near Eastern art in architectural relief from the walls of ancient Babylon and Persepolis to the smaller decorative arts. But I argue a very different and distinctly indigenous influence taking place here. See how the two lions have their bodies turned inward toward the central sphinx, but their faces gaze outward with giant, blank, piercing eyes fixed upon you, ferocious beasts of prey staring you down. I mentioned how the Greeks of this day and age were interested in exploring and rediscovering their own heroic and mythic past of the Bronze Age Mycenaean Civilization and that the ruins of Ancient Mycenae, the so-called palace of King Agamemnon were readily visible and available to the early Archaic Greeks. The most visually powerful and notable architectural remains at Mycenae is the well-known Lion’s Gate. Here we are confronted by two colossal lions, their muscular bodies rearing up on a central platform. Their faces are now lost and the dowel holes suggest that they were carved separately. The way the dowel holes are positioned and the form of what’s remaining lead most scholars to believe that the faces were likely turned to gaze outward, staring down at the lowly people passing underneath the monumental gateway. Throughout Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures and even well beyond into the Middle Ages of Europe, lions are a common emblem of kingship. The effect of this in-your-face confrontation by these gargantuan beasts conditions the viewers approaching the gate. The Lion’s Gate conveys this message of “Beware! Know that the king within is as mighty as a lion.”
The Lion’s Gate was in plain sight of the Greeks. In the day when monumental art, sculpture, and architecture reemerge from a long period of dormancy, it’s not surprising that they’d look back to their country’s former glory while also incorporating ideas and motifs from exotic civilizations abroad. In the mid 7th century BC the Greeks began creating their first monumental temples in stone. Perhaps the earliest known stone temple in Greece is that of Apollo at Corinth with a date somewhere between 670 and 630 BC. And in a couple generations, the Greeks settled on the sort of temples we think of when we think of Greek temples, with the surrounding columns called a peristyle, the pitched roof, and triangular pediment, all that sculpture above the east and west sides. The earliest known Greek temple of this style is the one to Artemis on the island of Corfu, just off the western coast of Greece. Built around 580 BC, right around the time when the Art Institute’s pyxis was created, the temple of Artemis displayed a magnificent pediment with a sculptural motif that should be pretty familiar to us by now. Seen from their sides, two great cats poise with their muscular bodies ready to pounce. Their faces are turned outward, just as in the Lion’s Gate, gazing at the tiny worshippers below as they make their approach to the house of the maiden huntress Artemis. In the center of the pediment between the lions stands the Gorgon Medusa, a fiendish creature with snakes for hair, said to be so ugly that her gaze would transform you to stone. This presentation of otherworldly ferocity and might is certainly something to give you goose-bumps, if you were an Ancient Greek not used to seeing such incredible displays nor desensitized by modern horror flicks.
And moving along to our darling little pyxis, the Ampersand Painter seems to have jumped on the bandwagon of Orientalism and Mycenaean revivalism (and that’s not a real term. As far as I know, I just made it up.) But why use this confrontational lion motif that might otherwise be more appropriate for temples and royal palaces? I don’t think the message here is “Beware the cosmetics housed within!” No, more likely it’s just meant to give us a little moment to pause … a jarring experience (ugh … pardon the pun). Remember, what we’re looking at here, as with most Ancient Greek ceramics throughout museum collections, is a grave good, something buried with the recently departed. This vessel exists because someone has died. While a pyxis for the living might be plain or decorated with little flowers and prancing deer, this vessel for the dead has a confrontational gaze inducing a moment to pause and reflect. A memento mori. A reminder of our own mortality.
On that cheerful note …
Thanks for listening. And don’t forget to swing by the website, scarabsolutions.com for additional resources, an extensive bibliography on ancient art and civilization, photos, and links to great external resources. And most recently, I’ve added a link that’ll let you subscribe to the podcast in MP4 format, so you can play it with images on just about any digital media player. Check out the website for more details. Take care, stay warm, and see you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.
©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org