Greek sculpture, painting, and ceramic during the age of Pericles

Decoration using acanthus leaves was also widely used in sculpture throughout the V century BC. Such is the case of the votive column found in Delphi holding a group of three female Ionic dancers with a plume on their heads, each one with one arm holding her robe while the other is up.

Young girls dancing around a votive column (Delphi Museum). This statue crowned a marble column of 13 mt. The three young girls, back to the column, dance in a circle, and the wind seems to converge on the capital from three different places, producing the impression of upward and rotational movement.

Simultaneously to decorative works, sculpture continued representing the traditional types of Korai, girls dressed in mantle, and Kouroi, athletic young men often mistakenly called Apollos. In general the sculpture followed the style of the school of Phidias. But in general the masculine type evolved less than the female type: the young athlete naively kept moving his arms forward with both of his feet flat on the floor and his torso had hard lines representing chest and hips, features reminiscent of the anatomical analysis of the previous two centuries (VI and VII BC). But in addition to these traditional forms, the V century sculptors resolved other themes of heroic character. The tragic myth of Niobe, an unfortunate mother who is watching her children die by the arrows of the gods, was an important theme for sculpture. There are several statues of Niobids bent over trying to defend themselves against their terrible fate. These statues represented the artistic expression of fate that overwhelmed the works of the tragic poets of Athens during Phidias’ generation like Aeschylus. These sculptures of Niobids reflected the continuation of the style of Myron and show the same interest for instantaneous movements depicted in the Discobolus.

The Dying Niobid (National Museum of Rome), marble, ca. 440 BC.

On the other hand the master painters had a great influence on sculpture, especially in reliefs. As an example there is a relief of pictorial origin with the sad farewell between Orpheus and Eurydice. Hermes who is accompanying the hapless couple on their journey back from Hades assists with terrible sadness the farewell between husband and wife.

Funerary stele depicting Orpheus saying goodbye to Eurydice (National Museum of Naples), ca. 410 BC.
Funerary stele depicting Hegeso sitting while her maid brings her jewel box (National Museum of Athens).
Greek pelike (a ceramic container similar to an amphora), with the Abduction of Thetis by Peleus (British Museum), illustrates the style of pottery decorated with red figures on a black background.

In previous essays we have mentioned Polygnotus the master in the art of painting who exerted an influence only comparable to that of Phidias in sculpture. In the Stoá Poikilé or Painted Portico of Athens, Polygnotus represented with large frescoes the three favorite heroic themes of that era: the battle with the Centaurs, with the Amazons, and with Persians. Other Polygnotus’ frescoes at Plataea reproduced themes related to the Trojan War. Polygnotus style can be imagined by the descriptions and reviews of philosophers such as Aristotle. The figures were in one plane and the farthest ones had the same magnitude as the ones located in first plane.  Only a few curves indicated the terrain’s features and partially covered up the farthest figures up to medium body height. There was no other indication of landscape besides some trees, and perspective and chiaroscuro were completely missing, the colors were also elementary, and contours were sharply delineated. But the value of these monumental compositions lay in the beauty, novelty, and movement of each of the characters and the layout and art which the group of heroes were represented.

Lekythos (National Museum of Naples), with figures painted over white background.

During the age of Pericles (V BC) the supremacy of Athens in minor arts was indisputable. Thus, it was that by Polygnotus’ initiative the pottery of Athens reached during this period its perfection of style and technique. The scenes completely filled the surface of the vessels. But great progress was primarily focused on making the figures clearly stand out against a black background while the white figures are drawn simply by using very fine brushes.

During this time an important change also took place in the ceramic painted decoration: the change of black figures on red background for the red figures on black background. Sometimes the themes represented in ceramic reproduced the great fresco paintings, other times simple scenes of ordinary life. Many vessels were signed by the artist.

The change of black-figures technique by red-figures represented a great progress, but the simple range of reds and black was not enough to satisfy fans of pottery which at that time saw the appearance of Polygnotus’ frescoes featuring other colors. This is what determined the production in Athens of a particularly colorful ceramics. First the whole vessel was enameled in white and then the figures were painted over this background using the simple but strong tones that Polygnotus also used in his works, which included intense blues, crimson, and ocher. These beautiful ceramic works were used only for gifts and mainly as votive objects for tombs.  They usually had the form of a lekythos, an elongated jar with a narrow body and one handle attached to the neck, primarily used to store oil especially olive oil. In the cylindrical body of these vessels the artists painted figures of the deceased and some of their relatives carrying offerings.  Other vessels were beautiful boudoir objects.

Detail of an Attic hydria (National Museum of Naples), with the Sibyl Cassandra hugging a statue of Athena trying to protect herself against Ajax who attacks her from behind. A work of Cleofrades.