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

The use of the acanthus leaves as a decorative motif was also widely used in sculpture throughout the V century BCE. 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, with their backs against 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 BCE). But in addition to these traditional forms, the  sculptors of the V century resolved other themes of heroic character. The tragic myth of Niobe, an unfortunate mother who is watching her children die by the gods’ arrows, 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 BCE.

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 representing 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 BCE.
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 artistry which the group of heroes were represented.

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

During the age of Pericles (V BCE) the supremacy of Athens in minor arts was indisputable. Thus, 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 the real artistic 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 painted decoration of ceramic artifacts: the change of black figures on red background (the black-figure pottery*) for the red figures on black background (red-figure pottery*). Sometimes the themes represented in ceramic reproduced the great fresco paintings, other times simple scenes of ordinary life were part of the artistic repertoire. Many vessels were signed by the artist.

The change of the black-figures technique by the 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 in Athens determined the production of a particularly colorful style of 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. This technique is known as white-ground technique*. 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.


Black-figure pottery: (in Greek, melanomorpha). One of the styles of painting on antique Greek vases. It was especially common between the 7th and 5th centuries BCE, although there are specimens dating as late as the 2nd century BCE. Figures and ornaments were painted on the body of the vessel using shapes and colors reminiscent of silhouettes. Delicate contours were incised into the paint before firing, and details could be reinforced and highlighted with opaque colors, usually white and red. The principal centers for this style were initially the commercial hub Corinth, and later Athens.

Hydria: (from the Greek, pl. hydriai). A type of water-carrying vessel in the metalwork and pottery of Ancient Greece. The hydria has three handles. Two horizontal handles on either side of the body of the pot were used for lifting and carrying the pot. The third handle, a vertical one, located in the center of the other two handles, was used when pouring water. If the third handle is missing, the type is called a kalpis. This water vessel can be found in both red- and black-figure technique. They often depicted scenes of Greek mythology that reflected moral and social obligations. As well as holding water hydriai could be used for holding ashes in burials and collecting ballots in elections.

Lekythos: (pl. lekythoi). A type of Ancient Greek vessel used for storing oil, especially olive oil. It has a narrow body and one handle attached to the neck of the vessel, and is thus a narrow type of jug, with no pouring lip. Lekythoi were especially associated with funerary rites, and with the white ground technique of vase painting, which was too fragile for most items in regular use.


Pelike: (from Ancient Greek). A ceramic container similar to an amphora. It has two open handles that are vertical on their lateral aspects and even at the side with the edge of the belly, a narrow neck, a flanged mouth, and a sagging, almost spherical belly. Unlike the often-pointed bottom of many amphorae, the pelike’s bottom is always flanged so it will stand on its own. Pelikes are often intricately painted, usually depicting a scene involving people. The shape first appeared at the end of the 6th century BCE and continued to the 4th century BCE.

Red-figure pottery: One of the most important styles of figural Greek vase painting. It developed in Athens around 520 BCE and remained in use until the late 3rd century BCE. It replaced the previously dominant style of black-figure vase painting within a few decades. Its modern name is based on the figural depictions in red colour on a black background, in contrast to the preceding black-figure style with black figures on a red background. The most important areas of production, apart from Attica, were in Southern Italy.

White ground technique: In pottery, refers to a style of white ancient Greek pottery and the painting in which figures appear on a white background. It developed in the region of Attica, about 500 BCE. It was especially associated with vases made for ritual and funerary use, if only because the painted surface was more fragile than in the other main techniques of black-figure and red-figure vase painting.