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Greek Classical Sculpture

The Persian sack of Athens in 480 BCE marked a critical turning point in the political and cultural life of Greece. The art produced thereafter, during the Classical period (480-323 BCE), was characterized by restrained harmony, proportional beauty, and idealization. These qualities, remarkable given the relative brevity of the period, emerged as the bedrock of Western art's canon in the ages that followed. The interest in mythology as a vehicle for memorializing historical events, glorification, and even underlying political themes also peaked at this time, as the sculptural program of the Parthenon makes clear.

The Parthenon is a paradigmatic example of the art and architecture of the Athenian Golden Age. Dedicated to the goddess Athena, for whom the city of Athens is named, this renowned temple is prominently situated on the Acropolis, where it could have been seen from any point in the ancient city. Construction on the Parthenon, which was designed by the architect Iktinos with assistance from Kallikrates, began during the reign of Pericles in 447 BCE. The new temple's foundations were laid upon the site of an earlier temple (known as the Older Parthenon), which had been destroyed by the Persians in 480 BCE. The new temple was dedicated in 438 BCE.

Pheidias, famous in his own lifetime for his artistic achievements, was charged with overseeing the project's sculptural programs. This included creating a monumental statue of Athena in gold and ivory for the new Parthenon's interior, in addition to designing and supervising the sculptures that adorned its exterior. The new temple was remarkable for its architecture and sculpture; indeed, it had an unusually large amount of sculptural decoration, including ninety-two metopes showing four mythological battles, and an Ionic frieze surrounding the uppermost level of the cella's entire exterior. This Ionic frieze is unique in that it seems to represent the procession of the Panathenaia, an Athenian festival celebrating the victory over the Giants. The pedimental sculptures, on the other hand, celebrate Athena's birth as well as her victory in the contest for the land of Attica.

These idealized reliefs and sculptures embody an ideal of physical perfection and proportional harmonies that are now regarded as the hallmarks of Classical Greek art. Similarly the Parthenon itself encapsulates, in visual form, the remarkable time and place in Greek history that was 5th-century Athens.


Early Classical

Greece underwent many changes during the Early Classical period, ca. 480-450 BCE. It is framed by the dramatic victories against the Persians in 490 and 480, and the transition to the High Classical period in 450. During this thirty-year period, artists imbued their creations with restraint to heighten the visual expression of what defined Greek civilized conduct. It was a time of some of our most ambitious programs in architecture, sculpture and painting. This is also the time when democracy (demos=people and kratos=power) was developed and implemented as the form of government in Athens.


High Classical

Among the many significant developments in Greek art at this time, 450-400 BCE, perhaps the most prominent is what is known as the Periclean building program on the Acropolis. The statesman Pericles convinced the Athenian assembly in 454 BCE to support his request to relocate the Delian League funds from the sacred island of Delos to Athens to be used in rebuilding architecture on the Acropolis. This decision produced the Parthenon (replacing the Older Parthenon), the Propylaia, Erechtheion and Temple of Athena Nike. The extensive project employed a great number of skilled and unskilled laborers, while attracting the leading artists of the day. Over the course of nearly fifty years Athens expanded as an empire, while enduring military losses, the plague, and a protracted war with Sparta. Nevertheless, the achievements in the visual arts during the High Classical period reverberated throughout Greece and in later centuries. It became the standard to which later powerful cities, Greek and Roman, responded with unique interpretations.


Late Classical

The Late Classical period, 400-323 BCE marked a fascinating time when well known artists were commissioned to make sculpture in the wider Greek arena. Artists worked on the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos (present Bodrum in western Turkey), and the renowned Lysippos traveled to northern Greece as the court sculptor to Alexander the Great. Artists became famous and a new emphasis on the individual in society became the trend.

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