The Greeks and Art

The end of the Minoan civilization many of the Minoan art forms flowed to the north and west and into the Aegean Islands and Greek mainland. The exact date cannot be accurately established but the period known as the Greek Dark Ages contains the Geometric style, the first of the Greek art period and this style had a great many similarities toMinoan styles. Not a great deal is known about the Geometric Period but the next three periods, the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic, in Greek art development became so popular that examples can be found in styles from as far away as Japan. One of the main reasons for this was the territorial expansion of Alexander the Great, who conquered Persia and nearly India as well. At that time much of the country was Buddhist and the art styles introduced by Alexander´s armies traveled east through Asia to the Pacific Ocean. Many of these styles are still used today by every culture visited by any of the invaders from those regions, from Alexander to Caesar and Augustus and beyond. Many government buildings in the Western world were built on architectural concepts developed in cities like Athens and Lydia Milena ago.

Any degree programs in art or art history will teach that these periods eventually blended into each other and the development of actual communities of artists and regions of art styles, not replacing each other, they merely blending and added to each other. The Greeks had, for instance, five different styles of pottery which were developed over about a 500 year period prior to 1000 BC. The Greeks also worked heavily with metals, brass and bronze mostly, when making vessels and created highly ornamented cups, vases, plates and other objects. During one period a single art sanctuary was able to produce thousands of metal vessels in a single year.

The Greeks also perfected the art of statues, from the small terracotta votive s. The Greeks like to work with high quality lime-stones, like marble, but from smaller pieces they often used terracotta. These small figures were known as “tanagra” figures and were very popular from 400-300 BC and the styles can be traced directly to the Minoan culture.

While the ancient Egyptians started the first real paintings they used large walls and painted epic scenes. The Greeks brought the scale down a great deal with the development “panel paintings” on pieces of wood using either colored wax or tempura. During this period both statutory art and architecture were also colorfully painted but did not survive until modern times. And finally, while not invented in Greece, the art of coinage was perfected by the Greeks and the style they invented 3000 years ago is still the most widely used style in the world today. The Persians were the first people to put profiles on coins but the Greeks were the first to use real, and even sometimes still living people, as models for anything other than statues.

Ars Gratia Artis: Art for Arts Sake

The next jump in mankind´s relationship with art did not come until the development of pottery. There were some developments in jewelry art but this was exclusively made for religious purposes, this type of “art”, because it was reserved for only a tiny percentage of the population, cannot be considered a divergence of form.

Sometime around the year 3,500 BC the Egyptians developed techniques to glaze their pottery and this led to the art known as Faience. Faience was a thin glassing of pottery, which allowed artists to first use paints do produce designs on the material, which was actually not clay but a quartz like substance, end up with a beautifully designed exterior. While the designs were nearly exclusively religious, its use was not limited to priestly use and all of the people in ancient Egypt were intensely religious. But there are examples of early art in North Africa from as early as 300,000 BCE, little statues that show signs of having been painted as well. The earliest of these was found in Morocco and while they are considered “art”, the stones used were more than likely chosen because of their natural appearance and very little actual tool work is visible.

Much of the art still existing today from before the Christian era was done using sculpting or carving techniques. There may be a couple of reasons for this. Paintings, unless done on a mineral, or even wood, usually do not survive the test of time very well. Another reason is that cultures then were constantly being invaded and invaders usually destroyed any art with religious connections and mineral iconography is much more likely to have survived simply because it is more durable. But from North Africa to Sumer and Babylon, even to the nomadic people in the North Central Asian Steppes, we see many examples of carvings and sculpturing that were painted. The surviving ancient Greek and Roman sculptures that we see as white were originally painted.

The Minoan Civilization however seems to be the first to start breaking out of the religious motifs when they developed the art of fresco and mosaic design. This use of geometric forms instead of religious symbology was a relatively new and revolutionary concept and the practice spread to things like pottery, which began to show scenes depicting animals, flowers, birds and nature scenes. The Minoans actually developed six different forms of potter alone, including some that are still used today by local artists from Greece to Crete. There are several excellent online school courses that teach complete classes exclusively on Minoan Art simply because this culture broke several barriers.

So now, with the perspective of time, we can see art coming down from cave walls and at the same time becoming almost exclusively religious in nature, and then redefining itself again in more populist forms. As we move forward however we will find that they history of Art has had several similar cycles and we will be able to do a more in depth study on not only the types of art but on the artists themselves.

Man Extends His World by Describing it.

Human kind has two main ways to explain the world around it: Art and religion. The fact that these two often intermix should come as no surprise to anyone seeking a college degree in either history or art. We know that from the earliest cave paintings that men used art to know only describe the world around them, mostly in highly symbolic terms, but also his relationship, through that world to the powers he believed moved the Universe. The most common, and still surviving, pieces of art are cave paintings. These paintings mostly features wildlife and images of nature, but many also had strong religious overtones.

The oldest of these paintings yet discovered are in Chauvet-Pont-de Arc, France, and were not actually found until late 1994 by a trio of spelunkers. While this region contains a great number of caves, this particular cave is most certainly the largest and is thought have been used as a central gathering place for quite a large community, many of whom actually lived in other parts of the valley. The paintings here also show a distinct break from other art of the period in that they include pictures of 13 different species of animal, some now extinct and the bones of these animals were found near the paintings themselves, indicating that the artist actually used the animals as models. This is the most logical conclusion since many of these animals were not traditionally used as food animals during that period. This break also indicates a extension from art as a practical tool to art for arts sake and, again, possibly a very early connection with art to religion. Since most of the animals were not food animals and we know that religions of the time were nature based, we can assume that the none food animals might have been connected to spirits of some type.

But Europe was not the only continent that this type of painting was found. In Baja, California, Mexico, there are numerous examples of cave art. There is a great deal of speculation as to when men first penetrated the North American Continent from Asia, and in some cases, whether it was even exclusively from Asia, but these painting are estimated to have been done over a period of between 600 and 1,500 years ago and, artistically at any rate, are much more complex than any of the paintings found in Chauvet. Along with the animal depictions there were also drawings of humans in various poses, some even with arrows drawn across their bodies in what appears to either represent either war or some type of black magic. Another unusual aspect of the human figures in Baja is their total lack of facial features or gender.


In other regions, lack of cave walls did not stop budding artists. Eastern Europe, particularly saw a great many attempts at early sculpturing and engraving using stone, ivory and wood. The early peoples of Siberia and Scandinavia and Arctic North American created a tradition of “scrimshaw” or tiny fine drawings on bone and ivory, some of which still exists today. When we follow arts history through the development of mankind, we can trace its grow and expansion into sentient beings not only conscious of the world around them but with a driving desire to understand and explain it.