Ancient Greek Art | The Art Institute of Chicago


The ancient Mediterranean, and Greece in particular, was home to a wide variety of artistic communities. Over 3,000 years ago, these makers used natural resources such as stone, clay and metals to create new shapes, styles and techniques that remain iconic to this day. Check out some highlights from the Art Institute’s collection of ancient Greek art here.

Note: Artwork sometimes disappears to be photographed, processed or loaned to other institutions. Click on the images to ensure the artwork is currently viewable.

ancient greek

Among the earliest works of art in the museum’s collection, this stark depiction of a nude woman was carved around 5,000 years ago from a single piece of white marble taken from the rocky coast of the Cyclades islands. , just off mainland Greece. Statuettes like this show that they were once decorated with red, blue and black pigments. Although their exact function remains a mystery, they were probably used in religious rituals or funerary rites given the considerable effort required to carve them. The vast majority also depict pregnant women, suggesting an association with fertility or regenerative forces.

ancient greek

Small statuettes like this have been found buried in the floors of ancient Greek shrines and temples. These precious items were most likely offered to the gods in hopes of granting favors or answering prayers. These devotional gifts took many forms, but statuettes of horses were particularly popular as the creatures were associated with wealth. The use of precious bronze is further evidence of the value placed on such objects. Following the stylistic preference of the time, the sculptor of this statuette used simple geometric shapes to capture the essence of his subject.

ancient greek

Greater devotional gifts, including ornate bronze cauldrons like these two griffins, survive from the great holy sites of ancient Greece. Mythical creatures revered for their protective powers, griffins were depicted with the body of a lion, the head of a bird, and large horse-like ears. Both of these examples seem very agitated – their mouths are open wide and their tongues are curled up, evoking a bloodcurdling scream. Their watchful eyes, encrusted with bone or ivory, are particularly notable for having survived for thousands of years since the creation of griffins.

Chicago painter

As the unique ceramic styles of ancient Greece developed, Athens became a center of artistic innovation. Master potters created vases in a multitude of shapes, each carefully crafted to serve a specific purpose and decorated by a painter with designs gracefully adapted to its shape. This type of vase, called stamnos, was used to mix and serve wine. His scene depicts women with a calm and serene air, characteristic of the style of the painter of the vase.

While the identity of most ancient Greek artists is unknown, some painters can be recognized by their distinctive styles. Scholars often name these artists after the museums or institutions where their work was first identified. One of these artists, known today as the Chicago Painter, was identified and named thanks to this vase.

Learn more about the Chicago painter.

ampersand painter

On the body of this ship is painted a formidable mythical creature: the sphinx. This pyxis was created in the wealthy port city of Corinth at a time when trade between Greece and Egypt was flourishing, and the sphinx reflects this developing relationship and the worldliness of Corinth. Corinth was best known for exporting fragrant oil across the Mediterranean, and the city’s artists produced large numbers of earthenware vessels like this to transport this luxury item. They also developed a host of new forms and methods of decoration, including strong lines, the black-figure technique, and the application of rich red and purple engobes seen on this vessel.

Like the Chicago Painter, the artist who decorated this vessel was recognized by a distinctive stylistic feature – the depiction of the curling tail of the sphinx in the form of an ampersand. As such, the artist is now called the Painter Ampersand.

ancient greek

The coinage system was invented in western Asia Minor (now Turkey) in the early 7th century BCE. In order to communicate a coin’s city of origin, Greek artists used a variety of designs, often referencing myths associated with the city’s history and featuring a guardian deity, hero or a mythological creature. The most famous of these civic regalia in the Mediterranean region was the profile of Athena, patron goddess of Athens, stamped on the front (obverse) of the city’s coinage. On the back (reverse), its symbolic owl accompanies the inscription AΘE, specifying that it was the currency “of the Athenians”. While other cities have changed the look of their coins over time, Athens has retained these “owls”, as they were called even in antiquity, with only minor variations for over 300 years, from the end of the 6th century BC until the middle of the 2nd. century before our era. Athens was a dominant economic trading power at this time, and its coinage therefore circulated widely in the eastern Mediterranean.

ancient greek

By the middle of the 5th century BCE, artists in Athens had developed a new decorative technique known as “white ground”, named for the application of light-colored engobe that covers the body and the shoulder of this vase. The shiny, clear surface allowed artists to draw freehand figures and scenes, practically sketching them in action on the body of the ship. These scenes were often painted in bright colors, some of which can still be seen today. This type of vessel, called lekythos, was made to hold oil and to be buried with the dead or left on their graves. Because of this, lekythos were usually decorated with scenes depicting tombs and farewell moments. On this vase, an old man dressed in a blue garment, a young man dressed in a dark orange himation (coat), and a red-haired woman wearing a chiton (clothing down to the ground) to pay a solemn visit to a grave. Learn more about clothing in the ancient Mediterranean world on our blog.

ancient greek

This footed plate, designed to serve pieces of grilled seafood, is decorated with sea creatures that are depicted in such detail that it is possible to identify most of them by species. Look closely at the decorative pattern in the center and you will see a small scallop attached to the outer band. This scallop shell separates two large fish: a gilthead seabream (left) and a rock mullet (right). In front of them, a scholarly perch confronts a thorny scorpion fish. These larger fish are surrounded by spiral murex shells, a small fish and a mollusc or crustacean. A pattern of waves around the central concavity, which presents a slightly inclined surface to collect juices or serve sauces, recalls the sea, source of this aquatic richness. Similar decorated fish plates were also created by Greek colonists in southern Italy, but this example can be identified as Athenian because of a characteristically Athenian feature: the belly of the fish is turned upside down. ‘outside.

ancient greek

Syracuse was one of the oldest and ultimately most powerful cities founded by the Greeks who colonized Sicily. Founded in 734 BCE by Corinthian colonists, the city was situated around the bays of a natural double harbor and at its peak in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE it was second only to Athens itself in the Greek world . Due to its maritime assets and coastal landscape, its coinage features an abundance of maritime motifs. On the front (obverse) of this coin is the profile of the sea nymph Arethusa, surrounded by four dolphins. It is fitting that Arethusa is the subject of this play, for she escaped the unwelcome attention of the river god Alpheus by swimming under the sea to the island of Sicily, where she found refuge and found refuge. transformed into a spring of fresh water that bears his name and still exists today. The Greek inscription around his face, beginning with his forehead, identifies “the Syracusans” as the issuing authority of the coin.

ancient greek

This type of large cylindrical container with spiral handles was characteristic of the Puglia region in southern Italy. As this vase was created as Greek influence spread through the region, its surface decoration shows the influence of Athenian artists in the use of black glaze and the red-figure technique, and that of the style local in elaborate decoration and white and yellow. details. Scenes from this vessel feature beautifully dressed, hair-dressed and bejeweled women – appropriate images given that vessels like this were traditionally used to hold water to bathe a bride before her wedding ceremony, an important ritual. signaling his transition from childhood to adulthood. Such vases were also sometimes placed in the tombs of young girls who died before reaching marriageable age, which could have been the case with this example since the reverse represents a woman in a funeral service. naiskosor temple-like structure.

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