Info Articles > Categories > History > Ancient Greek Art history

Ancient Greek Art history


Greek Architecture
Ancient Greek Art historyHundred fifty years ago it would have been impossible to write with any considerable knowledge of prehistoric art in Greece. The Iliad and Odyssey, to be sure, tell of numerous artistic objects, but no definite pictures of these were called up by the poet's words. Of actual remains only a few were known. Some implements of stone, the mighty walls of Tiryns, Mycenae, and many another ancient citadel, four "treasuries," as they were often called, at Mycenae and one at the Boeotian Orchomenus - these made up pretty nearly the total of the visible relics of that early time.

Thanks to the faith, the liberality, and the energy of Heinrich Schliemann, an immense impetus has been given to the study of prehistoric Greek archaeology. His excavations at Troy, Mycenae, Tiryns, and elsewhere aroused the world. He labored, and other men, better trained than he, have entered into his labors. The material for study is constantly accumulating, and constant progress is being made in classifying and interpreting this material. A civilization antedating the Homeric poems stands now dimly revealed to us. Mycenae, the city "rich in gold," the residence of Agamemnon, whence he ruled over "many islands and all Argos," is seen to have had no merely legendary preeminence. So conspicuous, in fact, does Mycenae appear in the light as well of archaeology as of epic, that it has become common, somewhat misleading though it is, to call a whole epoch and a whole civilization "Mycenaean." This "Mycenaean" civilization was widely extended over the Greek islands and the eastern portions of continental Greece in the second millennium before our era. Exact dates are very risky, but it is reasonably safe to say that this civilization was in full development as early as the fifteenth century B.C., and that it was not wholly superseded till considerably later than 1000 B.C.

It is our present business to gain some acquaintance with this epoch on its artistic side. It will be readily understood that our knowledge of the long period in question is still very fragmentary, and that, in the absence of written records, our interpretation of the facts is hardly better than a groping in the dark. For it seems clear that the "Mycenaean" civilization developed little which can be called artistic in the highest sense of that term. The real history of Greek art - that is to say, of Greek architecture, sculpture, and painting - begins much later. Nevertheless it will repay us to get some notion, however slight, of such prehistoric Greek remains as can be included under the broadest acceptation of the word "art."

In such a survey it is usual to give a place to early walls of fortification, although these, to be sure, were almost purely
utilitarian in their character. The classic example of these constructions is the citadel wall of Tiryns in Argolis. Huge blocks of roughly dressed limestone - some of those in the lower courses estimated to weigh thirteen or fourteen tons apiece - are piled one upon another, the interstices having been filled with clay and smaller stones. This wall is of varying thickness, averaging at the bottom about twenty-five feet. At two places, viz., at the south end and on the east side near the southeast corner, the thickness is increased, in order to give room in the wall for a row of store chambers with communicating gallery. It will be seen that the roof has been formed by pushing the successive courses of stones further and further inward from both sides until they meet. The result is in form a vault, but the principle of the arch is not there, inasmuch as the stones are not jointed radially, but lie on approximately horizontal beds. Such a construction is sometimes called a "corbelled" arch or vault.

Similar walls to those of Tiryns are found in many places, though nowhere else are the blocks of such gigantic size. The Greeks of the historical period Viewed these imposing structures with as much astonishment as do we, and attributed them (of at least those in Argohs) to the Cyclopes, a mythical folk, conceived in this connection as masons of superhuman strength. Hence the adjective Cyclopian or Cyclopean, whose meaning varies unfortunately in modern usage, but which is best restricted to walls of the Tirynthian type; that is to say, walls built of large blocks not accurately fitted together, the interstices being filled with small stones. This style of masonry seems to be always of early date.

Next to the walls of fortification the most numerous early remains of the builder's art in Greece are the "bee-hive" tombs of which many examples have been discovered in Argolis, Laconia, Attica, Boeotia, Thessaly, and Crete. At Mycenae alone there are eight now known, all of them outside the citadel. The largest and most imposing of these, and indeed of the entire class, is the one commonly referred to by the misleading name of the "Treasury of Atreus."

At Orchomenus in Boeotia are the ruins of a tomb scarcely inferior in size to the "Treasury of Atreus" and once scarcely less
magnificent. Here too, besides the "bee-hive" construction, there was a lateral, rectangular chamber - a feature which occurs only in these two cases. Excavations conducted here by Schliemann in 1880-81 brought to light the broken fragments of a ceiling of greenish schist with which this lateral chamber was once covered. The beautiful sculptured decoration consists of elements which recur in almost the same combination on a fragment of painted stucco from the palace of Tiryns. The pattern is derived from Egypt.

The two structures just described were long ago broken into and despoiled. If they stood alone, we could only guess at their
original purpose. But some other examples of the same class have been left unmolested or less completely ransacked, until in recent years they could be studied by scientific investigators. Furthermore we have the evidence of numerous rock-cut chambers of analogous shape, many of which have been recently opened in a virgin condition. Thus it has been put beyond a doubt that these subterranean "beehive" chambers were sepulchral monuments, the bodies having been laid in graves within. The largest and best built of these tombs, if not all, must have belonged to princely families.

At Mycenae also, both in the principal palace which corresponds to that of Tiryns and in a smaller house, remains of wall-frescoes have been found. These, like those of Tiryns, consisted partly of merely ornamental patterns, partly of genuine pictures, with human and animal figures. But nothing has there come to light at once so well preserved and so spirited as the bull-fresco from Tiryns.

Painting in the Mycenaean period seems to have been nearly, if not entirely, confined to the decoration of house-walls and of
pottery. Similarly sculpture had no existence as a great, independent art. There is no trace of any statue in the round of
life-size or anything approaching that. This agrees with the impression we get from the Homeric poems, where, with possibly one exception, there is no allusion to any sculptured image. There are, to be sure, primitive statuettes, one class of which, very rude and early, in fact pre-Mycenaean in character. Images of this sort have been found principally on the islands of the Greek Archipelago. They are made of marble or limestone, and represent a naked female figure standing stiffly erect, with arms crossed in front below the breasts. The head, is of extraordinary rudeness, the face of a horse-shoe shape, often with no feature except a long triangular nose. What religious ideas were associated with these barbarous little images by their possessors we can hardly guess. We shall see that when a truly Greek art came into being, figures of goddesses and women were decorously clothed.

Excavations on Mycenaean sites have yielded quantities of small figures, chiefly of painted terra-cotta, but also of bronze or lead. Of sculpture on a larger scale we possess nothing except the gravestones found at Mycenae and the relief which has given a name, albeit an inaccurate one, to the Lion Gate. The gravestones are probably the earlier. They were found within a circular enclosure just inside the Lion Gate, above a group of six graves - the so-called pit-graves or shaft-graves of Mycenae. The field, bordered by a double fillet, is divided horizontally into two parts. The upper part is filled with an ingeniously contrived system of running spirals. Below is a battle-scene: a man in a chariot is driving at full speed, and in front there is a naked foot soldier (enemy?), with a sword in his uplifted left hand. Spirals, apparently meaningless, fill in the vacant spaces. The technique is very simple. The figures having been outlined, the background has been cut away to a shallow depth; within the outlines there is no modeling, the surfaces being left flat. It is needless to dwell on the shortcomings of this work, but it is worth while to remind the reader that the commemorates one who must have been an important personage, probably a chieftain, and that the best available talent would have been secured for the purpose.