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Hellenistic sculpture

The art of the Hellenistic period differed greatly from that of the period before. In this post we will be exploring some of the typical characteristics of Hellenistic sculpture via some of its most famous statues.

Alexander’s conquests and the creation of the Hellenistic kingdoms created a cosmopolitan environment which influenced the art as well. It no longer depicted just the gods or idealized subjects. Instead art was made for a variety of reasons, appealing to an increasingly diverse audience. A new style of statues moved away from idealized beauty and instead focused on extreme realistic depictions of the every day person and extreme emotions, experimenting even with issues such as disability, gender, drunkenness or old age.

Portraits became more and more popular and naturalistic and statues were also found in theatrical and grandiose compositions such as the Altar of Pergamon. The creation of statue groups with dramatic compositions was another Hellenistic innovation, probably dated the third century. The epic battles of earlier temple pediment reliefs had been off their walls, and placed them in life‑size groups of statues.

The winged Nike of Samothrace

It was discovered in 1863 on the island of Samothrace by Charles Champoiseau, the French Vice‑Consul of Turkey. The winged goddess of victory was seen on top of the prow of a ship with strong winds blowing through her clothes. The work had been placed into a niche inside a hill overlooking the theatre of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. This sanctuary was dedicated to the Cabeiri, gods who were supposed to protect sailors and seafarers and gain victory in war. The creation of the statue of Nike was most likely commissioned to commemorate a naval battle. The type of ship and the base of the statue indicate that it was created by the Rhodians and perhaps suggesting a battle during the second century BC.

The winged Nike of Samothrace shows the Hellenistic tendency for drama and extreme composition very well as we can see from the angles of the wings, the placement of the leg and flowing of the clothing. The realism of Hellenistic art is evidenced by the wet clothing hanging from the goddess’ naked body. The drama, intense composition and movement as well as the realistic depiction of the goddess clearly explain why this is such a favourite statue among the visitors of the Louvre.

The hanging of Marsyas

The hanging of Marsyas was a Hellenistic sculpture group created at Pergamon in the third century BC. Depicted in the post are three Roman copies, one from the Louvre in Paris,a second from the Capitoline Museum in Rome and the last one in several pieces from the Altes Museum in Berlin.

Marsyas was a Silenus, an avid follower of Dionysos who boasted that he was a better musician than Apollo. After a musical contest, Apollo was declared the winner and Marsyas was punished: he was hun from a tree and skinned alive by a Scythian slave.

The Berlin torso was part of a statue group, probably including Apollo and the Scythian. The Hellenistic sculpture shows a remarkable eye for detail: the pain on his face, his tortured body. This once again displays the tendency to focus on realism, older subjects and dramatic composition.

Statue of dying Gaul

This is statue of a dying Gaul is made from Parian marble. It was found on the agora of the Italians on the island of Delos. The warrior who has fallen to the ground on his right knee, he has a wound in his thigh. He was attempting to defend himself against his enemy with his left hand. On the ground next to him, you can see a Galatian helmet.

It is a typical example of Late Hellenistic Art with the influences of the Pergamene school, which was marked by a high degree of emotion and a pronounced naturalism, creating a sense of reality in the spectator. The sculpture was probably made by the sculptor Agasias around 100 BC.

Laocoon and his sons

The famous Roman copy of a Hellenistic original is dated to the first century BC but is in the traditional style of “Pergamene baroque” which became popular in Greek Asia Minor around 200 BC. The best known example of this style is the Pergamene Altar.

Venus of Milo

One of the most famous Greek statues in modern times and was discovered in 1820 on the island of Milos, buried within a hidden niche inside the ancient city. The statue itself was found in two pieces together with several herms. The arms were never found.

The marble sculpture was created by Alexander of Antioch between 130 and 100 BC and is 203 cm tall. It is thought to represent the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite. Although some scholars have also argued that she is actually a sea goddess called Amphitrite, who was widely popular on the island of Milos. The identification of the goddess is made very difficult by the lack of arms and attributes.

The statue has often been thought to be a replica of an original of the fourth century because of the similarities to the Aphrodite of Capua. While she does have classical characteristics such as impassivity, idealised features and hairstyle, there are certain innovations that make this a typical Hellenistic statue: such as the spinal composition, the elongated body and the placing of the figure in the three‑dimensional space.

Crouching Venus

This statue shows a crouching Venus or Aphrodite. The Roman copy of a Hellenistic original dates back to the second century AD ‑ the original was made around 200 BC ‑ shows the goddess crouched down with her hair loosely bundled on her head and hanging on her shoulder. While it looks like a Classical Greek statue, the dynamic swing of her hips puts this statue into the Hellenistic period.

Torso of a fisherman

This torso of a old fisherman is the embodiment of Hellenistic art, even though it is another Roman copy of a Hellenistic original. The tendency of Hellenistic sculptors to pursue and perfect naturalism led to an increasing depiction of the everyday Greek such as fishermen, shepherds or beggars.

This fisherman is depicted with an unparalleled sense of the frailty the comes with old age and the sculptor clearly moving away from the idealism typical of the Classical period. Clear attention has been paid to the anatomy of the old fisherman making it an extremely interesting portrait of an ‘ordinary’ subject. The head is a plaster copy of the original head which was found later than the torso (found in 1905) near the baths of Aphrosidias in 1989 in Turkey.⠀

Aphrodite and Pan

This Hellenistic marble statue group of Pan, Aphrodite and Eros dates around 100 BC and was found on Delos. The goddess appears to be holding a shoe in her hand which is quite unusual. Aphrodite is covering het genitals while Pan is attempting to force her hand away. Eros, the God of love is flying in between them and is pulling Pan by the horns away from Aphrodite.

Knuckle playing girl

The girl playing astragalus or the knuckle bone game comes from the Eastern slope of the Caelian hill. Made from marble, the body is dated around 150 AD, while the head was constructed around 200 AD. While the theme of a seated young girl is a typical example of the late Hellenistic tendency to realism, the addition of the girl playing astragalus is a Roman supplementation. The fact that this scene was featured often in funerary settings and on grave staled, points to a sepulchral purpose of the statue.

Jockey of Artemision

The so‑called jockey of Artemision, displayed at the archaeological museum in Athens, is a rare example of Hellenistic bronze statue that survived the passing of time. Made around 150 BC, this cast of a race horse ‑ which is already an unusual choice of subject in Hellenistic sculpture ‑ was found in an ancient ship wreck in the bay of Artimision by two fishermen at the start of the 20th century.

Some parts of the horse have been restored. On it you can see an image of Nike holding a wreath in her raised hands, a common brand for thoroughbreds in antiquity, engraved on the animal’s right thigh. Mounted on the horse is a small boy wearing a chiton, creating clear contrast between the huge horse and the small boy.

Bronze statue of Artemis

This bronze statue of Artemis was found together with the bronze Athena of Piraeus in a storeroom in the harbour where it was store in 86 BC for safekeeping during Sulla’s raid of Piraeus. The statue is dated to the mid-fourth century BC and is attributed to the sculptor Euphranor because of it similarity to the Apollo Patroos on the Agora.There is an attachment on the back of the statue for Artemis’ famous quiver. Before this was discovered, the robust figure was thought to have been a muse or poetess of some kind.

Athena of Piraeus

This is the Piraeus Athena. It is a bronze statue of the goddess who is wearing a Doric peplos with a large overfold to cover her back and a diagonal aegis covered in tiny snakes. Two owls adorn her Corinthian helmet. In her hands she would normally hold a spear and a libation bowl.

The statue has been attributed to Kephisodotos or Euphranor and was either created in the late 4th century BC or a classisizing work from the Hellenistic period. It was found in 1959 in Piraeus in a storeroom of the old harbour together with other bronze statues, having been put there for safekeeping during Sulla’s siege of Piraeus in 86 BC.

Bronze statue of a young man

This is a bronze statue of young man. It was found off the coast of Marathon in Attica and was made around 340‑330 BC. He was most likely an athlete and the winner of a contest as is suggested by the band on his forehead which ends in an upright leaf above his forehead.

His right hand is raised up straight but the object he was holding in his hand is not preserved. Not is the object he is looking at in his left hand. This had was replaced at a later date with the palm worked into a lamp. It is a good example of Late Classical/Early Hellenistic sculpture and is associated with school of Praxiteles.

Further reading

Andreae, Bernard. 2001. Skulptur des Hellenismus. Munich: Hirmer.

Moreno, Paolo. 1994. Scultura ellenistica. 2 vols. Rome: Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato.

Pollitt, J. J. 2002. Art in the Hellenistic age. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Ridgway, Brunilde Sismondo. 1990. Hellenistic sculpture. Vol. 1 The styles of ca. 331–200 B.C. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

Ridgway, Brunilde Sismondo. 2000. Hellenistic sculpture. Vol. 2, The styles of ca. 200–100 B.C. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

Ridgway, Brunilde Sismondo. 2002. Hellenistic sculpture. Vol. 3, The styles of ca. 100–31 B.C. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

Smith, R. R. 1991. Hellenistic sculptureA handbook. World of Art. London and New York: Thames & Hudson.



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