HELLENISTIC ART

After the death of Alexander, at the end of the third century BC, Greek art experienced two centuries of surprising developments.  After losing faith in the old gods the art themes became more human, even the most insignificant and misshapen things were expressed by artists.  By then, the Greek world had widened tremendously thanks to the conquests of Alexander.  Peoples of Asia and Egypt renewed their artistic styles based on Greek types.  Greece reborn in these adoptive lands: Alexandria, Pergamon, Antioch, Ephesus were then the new capitals of art.  It is logical that there was a great variety in the Greek art of this time because many people from different origins assimilated the Greek style.  This period was called at first Alexandrian, but now to do justice to the peoples of Asia who contributed much or more than Alexandria to the latest evolution of Greek art, it has been designated by the general name of Hellenistic period.  Therefore, art and Greek history after the death of Alexander are called Hellenistic to distinguish them from the purely Greek or Hellenic from previous centuries.  We’ll see how, during this Hellenistic period, many of the architectural types later imitated by Rome were created.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus or Olympieion at Athens. Construction lasted 638 years (6th century BC to 2nd century AD).
The Tower of the Winds at Ahens ca. 2nd century BC or 50 BC.

There must have been a Hellenistic art in Egypt especially in Alexandria, there was a Hellenistic art in several parts of Asia: Pergamum, Rhodes and Antioch, there was a Hellenistic art in Italy which contributed largely to the formation of Roman art, and there was even a Hellenistic art in Greece itself.  In Athens, for example, it was constructed the Olympieion or Temple of Jupiter.  Although this great building remained unfinished, its gigantic Corinthian columns caused travelers in Roman times the same awe that they produce today.  This temple is often cited as an example of a hypetros temple, that is, in its double colonnade it encloses an open cella as an outdoor patio.  The small octagonal building called Tower of the Winds in Athens also dates from this time.  It must have held a clepsydra (water clock) or gnomon (sundial).  This building’s name is attributed to the eight reliefs with figures representing each of the winds forming a kind of frieze at its top.

During this period, numerous monumental buildings were erected not only in Athens and its territory but throughout Greece.  The sanctuaries of Olympia and Delos are good examples.  In Delos and Priene (famous Hellenistic city of Asia) the urbanization plan followed the trace of the ancient Ionian architect Hippodamus of Miletus which prescribed a grid of streets.

The houses of the Hellenistic period had few openings to the street, if they faced two streets then the door was sometimes located in the less busy street and thus hidden from the gaze of passers-by.  This door opened to a side corridor leading to a square courtyard around which all rooms were located, at the bottom of the courtyard was the main hall always more ornate which served as reception and dining room.

Reconstruction of an ancient Greek house.

The arrangement of the Greek houses at Delos and Priene varied little: all had the central courtyard rather large which is missing in the Roman houses of the Republican period.  This difference reveals different origins: the Greek house was born from the pre-Hellenic constructions with courtyard and megaron, while the Roman house comes instead from the primitive hut of the Lazio made ​​with tree logs and with a ceiling opening to vent the smoke which becomes the atrium.  In the beginning of the first century, an increasing taste for Greek customs introduced the courtyard in Roman houses so most of the houses at Pompeii and imperial Rome were truly Greek in style.  Some houses in Pompeii had several floors and so must have been also the houses in great Hellenistic cities such as Alexandria and Antioch.

The ancient city of Priene had a large porch or stoa as a public promenade.  Porches were very abundant and were one of the most characteristic things of these semi-free cities of the East.  The upper porch ledges were already decorated with reliefs allusive to military trophies from which the art of the Roman Empire had to take great advantage years later.

The library of Celsus at Ephesus, (now part Turkey), construction began in 117 A.D. and was completed in 120.

In the Hellenistic period the municipal libraries were sometimes located in a special building, the library at Ephesus had a sumptuous façade with two orders of openings.  Manuscripts and papyrus scrolls were stored in square niches between columns located around the walls.  This library of Ephesus was imitated in Roman times.  Another building for intellectual purposes was the gymnasium for the education of youth which came to provide the same service of our secondary schools.

Reconstruction of the Bouleuterion of Miletus (ca. 175 BC – 164 BC).

An almost indispensable element of a Hellenistic city was the bouleuterion or Palace of the City Council where the tiny senate met.  The only building of this type known today is that of Miletus.  The entrance was a porch in a Propylaea style with four columns in the front leading to a colonnaded square yard.  In this courtyard was an ara which was an altar or grave of a famous citizen (still as a Heroon) and at the bottom were the premises for administration and meetings.

The Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, one of the earliest preserved in Athens. This theater could seat 17,000 spectators.
Marble thrones in the Theatre of Dionysus (Athens).

The theater was never absent in a Hellenistic city, even the small frontier towns in the desert had one.  Two things distinguish them from the ancient Greek theater: its increasing dimensions and the scene also larger and more luxurious.  Hence we see those big scenes decorated with columns that have sometimes the importance of a monument.  The decoration of the scene was always increasing to become truly magnificent in Roman times.  On each side of the scene was a double door where the actors and the choir made their entrance.  The dimensions of the grandstands for the public reached enormous extent in Hellenistic cities.  In Athens the theater of Dionysus was rebuilt with great magnificence and even magnificent marble chairs were added to accommodate judges and senior officials.  Another example worth mentioning is the theater of Epidaurus.

Theater of Epidaurus (Greece), could accommodate 14,000 spectators.

To complete the idea of ​​a Hellenistic city we should mention the tombs.  Athens continued burying their dead in the Ceramic neighborhood using traditional tombstones, only that topics became increasingly personal and anecdotal which decreased the dramatic interest of the sculpted scenes.  Sometimes the same old issues such as the eternal farewell appeared in small reliefs under a profuse ornamentation of acanthus, sometimes the scenes were purely decorative like in some wonderful jugs that recall a cinerary urn.  In Asia, the monumental tombs of the Mausoleum type were repeated with simpler forms like towers with square or circular bases.  The Romans adopted this tomb model with tower shape.

Many Asian cities had an abundance of sarcophagi, some of them decorated with unsurpassed luxury.  The marble box containing the body is not of Greek origin but oriental and well into the Christian era sarcophagi were exported from Asia to Greece and Rome.  But the topics of the reliefs were originally the favorites of the ancient Greeks, the same we have found in the cinerary urns: mourning women, chariot races for the funeral, fights, hunting and banquets, all carved in stone or marble instead of painted.

In this time of great renewal of architectural forms even religious buildings participated in the change that was taking place.  The faith was then more philosophical, almost pantheistic and gave rise to richly decorated altars.  The altar formerly stood before the temple, it was reminiscent of the Mycenaean altar placed in the courtyard in front of the megaron, but in this time altars of gigantic dimensions were constructed.  They were isolated huge bases sometimes decorated with reliefs showing with their magnificence the piety felt by the new conception of a cosmic Zeus father of heaven and earth.  Later when we discuss Pergamon we will mention its great altar with reliefs depicting the battle of gods and giants.  Note that these huge altars were not intended to make sacrifices or even to keep a sacred fire, the altar was a symbol of the great unity and omnipresence of Zeus then turned into a universal god synthesizing all gods.  However, municipal life continued requiring temples for the local gods which were built according to the old classical models.

From Asia and Egypt, but especially from the Greek cities of Asia, came the new ideas and principles of architecture, that is why it is so important to follow the process of the evolution of classic styles in the East during the Hellenistic period.

The Doric order, when adopted in Asia, was always poorly interpreted.  The capitals,  instead of having the curved molding called echinus, had a straight section; the columns that in the traditional Doric order were shorter and closer became much thinner and separated.  The Ionic order also evolved in Asia, where it acquired the characters familiar to us for its Roman imitations.  The columns stood on high pedestals with elaborate bases and especially the capital, which maintained the volutes, lost its characteristic buds and was decorated with palmettes, acanthus and rosettes.  In the Hellenistic era the Corinthian capital was refined and popularized, given that before it was only timidly employed from the time of Pericles.  An example that will always be mentioned for the Corinthian model in this time is the temple of Zeus, the Olympieion in Athens.

A reconstruction of the Library of Alexandria.
A scale model of the Acropolis of Pergamon.

The city of Antioch, then the capital of the kingdom of Syria, played an important role in art.  Antioch was considered in Roman times as the third city in the world after Rome and Alexandria.  In Antioch began to form a powerful school, which later influenced the origins of Byzantine art.  Still more striking is our spare knowledge about Alexandria, then a center of a court of intellectual and refined spirit, so like a capital of today, an emporium of mystical and scientific curiosity, love and art.  Literary descriptions allow us to know very little of its famous Library and Museum (i.e. the temple of the Muses, a temple of knowledge) and the Royal Palace which occupied nearly a quarter of the city and in which civic sumptuous feasts were held.  The only Hellenistic capital we know well is Pergamon the smallest center of all Macedonian Asian states.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace, a 2nd-century BC marble sculpture (Louvre).

The evolution experienced by the Greek forms during the Hellenistic period can be followed best on the sculpture than on the architecture.  The old types became more realistic and individual.  A typical example of this evolution is the statue called the Winged Victory of Samothrace which seems was ordered by Demetrius of Syria to commemorate his naval victory over Ptolemy the year 306 BC.  The goddess, in the bow of a ship and carrying in her hand a trophy taken from the enemy, has her body facing forward, defying the wind who whips the folds of her dress with the characteristic air flow of the sea breeze.  The artist therefore excelled to express the effects of different phenomena such as gravity, friction, inertia, all affected by the outside agent of the intermittent headwinds of the Mediterranean coasts.  Compare this statue with the types of those early Greek victories that in order to fly had to kneel on the ground…

 

The Venus de’ Medici (Uffizi Gallery, Florence), a 1st-century BC marble copy after a bronze original Greek sculpture by Cleomenes.

The former artistic center of Athens had to survive by reproducing great ancient masterpieces that were exported as a precious commodity.  Many times these copies were so free that attained certain originality such as the Venus of Medici, an adaptation of the one by Praxiteles, because instead of representing the goddess coming out of the bath with the jug and clothing, this time she doesn’t try to hide her nudity and is portrayed in the act of born from the sea waves accompanied by a cupid and a dolphin.  Other Aphrodites are even more sensual, it was famous a type of goddess with one knee on the ground and the other leg bent which seems to be the work of Daedalus of Bithynia.

This is the time of Venus and Love, even in other less common forms as manifested by the innumerable sculptures of hermaphrodites.  The old gods were increasingly forgotten.  Another new divinity which later gain great importance was Serapis the tutelary deity of Alexandria.  He was represented as Zeus some kind transfigured.

The Crouching Venus (Vatican Museum), a marble copy after an original by Daedalus of Bithynia (ca. 250 BC.). The Louvre and the National Museum of Rome also have marble copies of this statue.

Correlative to Aphrodite or Venus, the numen or divinity for the Epicurean philosophy (because according to the school of Epicurus water is the active element in the world), the cult of Dionysus also grew in importance, he was the universal symbol for the Stoics because according to them his active principle is fire which was always imposed on the initiation into the mysteries of Dionysus-Bacchus.  So Venus with her Nereids and Muses and Dionysus with his Bacchae almost equally shared the interest of Hellenistic sculptors and painters.  Dionysus is the leitmotiv of the Alexandrian decoration and was initially represented as an old man with curly beard.  It is curious that Bacchus later appeared younger and ended up being a beardless boy crowned with an ivy wreath.  He was the only god who is rejuvenated with the passing of time, most of the Greek gods, as also the primitive representations of Christ in the early paleo-Christian catacombs, started being beardless young boys to become mature and bearded men.

The increasingly frequent figures of fauns and satyrs supplied new themes to sculpture as well as Centaurs did in past times, see for example the young centaur walking cheerful and chattering his fingers which apparently carried the statuette of Love on its rump.

One of the Furietti Centaurs, known as the Young Centaur (there is another sculpture accompanying this, representing and Old Centaur), (Capitoline Museum, Rome).
Statue of a Praying Boy, ca. 300 BC, a bronze by Boetas ( Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen, Berlin).

Religion was increasingly becoming an intellectual worship of the supreme principle of the universe.  An excellent reflection of this mysticism is the statue of the Young praying, a work of a pupil of Lysippos called Boetas which has been preserved in a bronze copy at the Berlin Museum.  However, instead of the old types of gods and goddesses, representations of the goddess Tyche, or the Chance, the Fortune were more frequent.  These representations were highly esteemed and the Tyche of Antioch, a work of Eutiquides, was much reproduced.  This statue is seated on a rocky outcrop, has in her hand several spikes, and her head holds the crown of towers which will henceforth become an indispensable attribute to represent cities.  The most original aspect of this statue is the topographical allusion with the figure of a boy who runs away from her feet, he is the Orontes River which after running underground comes back to its natural course in Antioch.

 

The Tyche of Antioch, marble Roman copy of a bronze by Eutychides (Vatican Museums), ca. 290 BC.

These topographical representations were becoming very frequent and were the models later used by the official Roman art.  The group of the Nile, perhaps also from Roman times, is an example of this trend.  The great river with his fluent beard is lying resting on a sphinx, appears crowned with spikes, and with a cornucopia.  Sixteen children representing the number of cubits the water raised during its annual flooding, play around him on his very knees and even one of them dared to climb over his right shoulder.

The River Nile (Vatican Museum).

In the provinces, during Roman times, rivers in each region were represented with that same type of a god lying on the ground and indicating his aquatic nature by a jug or amphora being held under his arm and with water flowing from it.  The tradition of the reclining figure on a large jug of water was later transmitted to Christian art to represent local fonts or personifications of places which were female or male depending on whether they represented fonts or rivers.

Boy with Thorn, also called Spinario, a Roman marble copy after a Hellenistic bronze in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome. This copy is at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Beside allegorical compositions, idyllic assumptions also appeared.  Many ancient works of previous centuries were copied during the Hellenistic period with a new funny accent.  The Spinario or Boy with Thorn, an old theme of a young runner that after the race seats to remove a thorn from his feet, is repeated by the Hellenistic sculptors as a teenager with straight hair.  Another theme, copied countless times in the Hellenistic period, is that of the child who fights with a goose as a parody of the athletics of earlier centuries.  The little kid makes effort to choke the goose that defends furious and tries to bring him down.  The Boy struggling with a goose was reproduced many times, the original was from the same Boetas from whom we talked before about his statue of the young praying.

Child playing with a goose, Roman copy of a Greek original of the 2nd century BC. by Boethos of Chalcedon (Louvre).

But the more poetic example of this sympathy for children’s issues is the group of the two children kissing identified as Eros and Psyche and now in the Capitoline Museum.  The two children are hugging innocently without knowing the source of the mysterious force that seal their lips.  The two bodies are almost equally feminine: he smiles in initiating the kiss, she tilts her head surprised by the strange childhood caress.

Eros and Psyche, Roman marble sculpture after a Hellenistic original from the III century BC. (Capitoline Museums).
Alexander The Great deified as Helios, marble Roman copy after an Hellenistic original from 3rd–2nd century BC. (Capitoline Museum, Rome).

Alongside these issues another artistic movement seemed to take pleasure in the more realistic interpretation of nature.  The origin of this trend could be found in portraits which resembled their models in a more accurately way.  The ancient Greek portraits were rare and usually belonged to heroes.  Lysippos with his zeal for the vivid interpretation of nature opened the door to extreme realism.  His portraits of Alexander the Great were famous in antiquity.

Philosophy, drama, oratory, these were the new activities that replaced athletic or military victory to justify a heroic portrait.  Philosophers were depicted standing or sitting wearing their mantle, a distinctive feature of their profession.

Sophocles (Lateran Museum, Rome).

The two superb portraits of Sophocles and Demosthenes, although from different times (Sophocles’ portrait seems to be something older), demonstrate the admirable skill of the sculptors of Athens to elaborate portraits.  The original of Sophocles was made in bronze and perhaps was sculpted to adorn the theater of Athens.  The only known copy rests in the Lateran Museum and, although is in marble, must replicate the original with great fidelity.  This statue gives perfect idea of the intellectual man in full possession of all his physical and moral strength, he is in an attitude of repose distinct from that other position with one leg bent of the heroic athletes and the Amazons, and also different from the position of sensual abandon showed by the satyr of Praxiteles.  Sophocles stands with both feet on the ground, his body leans back in contemplative attitude, the arms appeared with natural elegance.

Demosthenes (Vatican Museum), Roman marble copy after a bronze Greek original from 280 BC by Polieuctes.

The statue of Demosthenes constitutes another step towards naturalism.  In his face we can see wrinkles, restlessness, the tragic anxiety of the illustrious man who wanted to defend with his speech the freedom of Athens.  This figure has been attributed to a sculptor named Polieuctes and his hands were supposed to be together.  His mantle isn’t bent with that ample folds of Sophocles’ but is more wrinkled as if had followed the nervous gesture of the speaker.

Another portrait probably of the Hellenistic era, and previously assumed to represent Seneca, is Callimachus the librarian and grammarian of Alexandria, a portrait showing real virtuosity in presenting extreme personal peculiarities of physiognomy: wrinkles, lips gesture, disorganized hair, even the skin perspiration.

 

 

The “Head of Seneca” (National Museum of Naples) is probably the portrait of Callimachus, librarian and geometer of Alexandria. It is a Hellenistic copy of an original from the second century BC.
Head of a boxer (Dutuit collection), an Alexandrian bronze.

Following this path of naturalism, art tended to show predilection for the decrepit and deformed and even tolerated images of bodies with vicious conformation.  These figures are extremely curious because initially the Greek art had experienced true horror of human nature outside its youth or virile maturity, children and old men were rarely accepted as a theme for the classic sculptors.  Now the Greek artists were inclined perhaps for the sake of novelty for cases in which old age is shown more rudely.  Even the abnormal cases were reproduced with some pleasure and artists showed interest in entering the soul of the unfortunate misshapen.

After describing the main types of Hellenistic art throughout the Greek world we must identify the style of the different schools of Alexandria, Pergamon, Rhodes, and even Greece itself during the reign of Alexander’s successors as it is shown in a series of reliefs with figures and landscapes of country life, finely poeticized and completely different from the art of the classical period.  Nowadays, these bucolic reliefs are among the most beautiful manifestations of Hellenistic art in Greece.  These reliefs are famous for their perspective effects: the foreground figures are presented in full high relief almost completely detached from the marble block, while in the background the figures were carved with the technique of the esfumatura that is barely outlined.

Relief of a landscape with a peasant who goes to the market passing by a wild sanctuary of archaic style (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich), ca. second century BC. Note the “esfumatura” technique in the background, in contrast to the bulk figures of the foreground.

Various art trends of the time and artists from different regions went to Alexandria as happens today in all global cities.  However, two things seem to have been especially peculiar to this capital, the first being the notorious fondness for sensual praxitelic types further softened by a kind of deliquescence in the marble technique, which is conventionally called the Alexandrian esfumatura, the second original aspect of the art of this metropolis was the predilection for street topics, the grotesque types that should abound in that confused agglomeration of peoples of all races.  The small bronzes tell us about this singular art.  Countless issues that Greek art had often despised for being considered too vulgar and simple were treated with exquisite taste by the sculptors of the capital.  Even the eunuchs and the more vile scoundrel were faithfully represented in those bronzes full of life.

But it was not only the city of Alexandria that had these interests, this taste for anecdote was general throughout the Greek world at the time.

It is easier to determine the style of the school of Pergamon.  Pergamon was ruled by a series of philanthropist princes and art enthusiasts.  With a clear romantic tendency for the heroic and the sublime, the artistic tendencies in Pergamon were the opposite as those of Alexandria: the maniera grande was encouraged  with compositions full of giants, heroes and barbarians during fierce combats.  The art of Pergamon always had an emphatic and grandiloquent tone revealing its noble origin.  Due to the great wealth of the city, the princes of the small territory that was the state of Pergamon had a strong army of mercenaries and thus Pergamon won the title of defender of the Greek race when its armies stopped an invasion of Celts, Galatians barbarians, that was like an anticipation of the invasions of barbarian peoples who would later become a concern for the Roman emperors.  The intellectual kings of Pergamon, proud of the effectiveness of their military action, ordered to sculpt several groups of defeated Gauls to erect them as votive offerings in their temple of Minerva Polias at Pergamon and in the Acropolis of Athens.

The Dying Gaul, a Roman marble copy of a lost Hellenistic sculpture probably executed in bronze, ca. 230 and 220 BC. (Capitoline Museum, Rome).

There are various groups from Pergamon representing different episodes of the struggle against the Celts or Gauls.  In one of them, a Gaul mortally wounded stare at the ground with his veiled eyes while rests one of his arms barely on the ground.  Clotted blood is seen in his wounds and his curly hair, and in his face there is an expression of pain that was never before reflected in Greek art.  This statue was of great interest for the Romantics believing it represented a dying Gladiator.  But he’s a Celtic or Gallic because he bears in his neck the collar or torc distinctive of the Celtic warriors.  He has on the ground the horn he has sounded perhaps asking for help.  In these sculptures of Pergamon there is an absolute ethnographic precision to reproduce the character of a particular race.

A new military triumph over neighboring barbarians prompted another king of Pergamon to build a great altar to Zeus with a frieze of sculptures in the base.  The altar itself was within the confines of a portico with Ionic columns but its artistic importance lies in the reliefs of the base of the portico which represented the battle of gods and giants: the Gigantomakhia.  The figures are in high relief, each body is molded with extraordinary detail, and all musculature is accentuated to indicate the superhuman efforts of the giants and the gods.

The Pergamon Altar, ca. 180 BC. (Pergamon Museum, Berlin).

In these reliefs there is a great abundance of themes and episodes making this frieze, which runs for 130 meters, always variant.  In one part appears Athena fighting alongside her faithful Victory, the goddess has to use all her cunning to lift by the hair the giant Alkyoneus because it is known that the terrible monster looses all his strength once he is lifted from the ground, while his mother, the goddess Gea or the Earth, pleads for Athena’s mercy.  In other side Zeus with his pike and rays kills three giants at once.  The Sun and Moon in their chariots are also fighting alongside the gods.  Some giants have lion’s head, others monstrous tails.  The style also varies in different parts of this long frieze but it is always hectic, violent, convulsive.

Relief of the east frieze from the Pergamon Altar depicting scenes from the Gigantomachy: Athena fights with the giant Alkyoneus (Pergamon Museum, Berlin).
An idealized reconstruction of the Colossus of Rhodes.

After Alexandria and Pergamon the most characteristic Hellenistic school had to be that of Rhodes.  Several disciples of Lysippos were established in Rhodes.  One of them, Chares of Lindos, was the author of the Colossus of Rhodes (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) which stood over 30 m high and was built towards 280 BC and later destroyed by an earthquake 56 years later.  Due to the lack of copies or reproductions of the Colossus of Rhodes and other sculptures found in situ we have to rely solely on the data provided by two great works from Rhodes, also mentioned by ancient writers, in order to understand the style of Rhodian sculptors.  One is the group of Laocoön and His Sons found in the Baths of Titus.  It was a work by Agesander of Rhodes in collaboration with his two sons Polydorus and Athenodorus.  In this group of Laocoön the theatrical effect of anatomy seen in the Pergamon Altar is even more exaggerated.  The physical pain of the strangulation caused by the huge serpents sent by Apollo is joined by the immense moral pain that the Trojan priest Laocoön expresses when witnessing the death of his sons.  In this group, the three human bodies appear squeezed by the two snakes: the father’s chest is swollen and muscles and veins are extremely marked on the skin, the faces are also very contracted specially Laocoön’s.

The statue of Laocoön and His Sons (Vatican Museum), showing the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents.

Another work of the Rhodian sculptors who made ​​us know their style even better is the gigantic composition called Farnese group representing the punishment of Dirce doomed to be dragged by a bull tied to its horns.

The Farnese Bull, (formerly in the Farnese collection in Rome, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples), it is the largest single sculpture ever recovered from antiquity to date. Ca. 2nd century BC.

Products of the Rhodian school are the statues of the Muses by a sculptor named Philiscus from which many copies are left.  They are nine single figures that were to surround the figure of Apollo.  Some of these women are truly inspired types, the one called Polyhymnia (Muse of sacred poetry) is wrapped in the folds of her ample mantle and was often reproduced in Roman copies, Urania (Muse of Astronomy) was represented thoughtful, sat, and with her head resting on one hand.

Some of the Hellenistic statues of the Muses at the Vatican Museum, from left to right: Clio, Muse of History, Urania, Muse of Astronomy, and Thalia, Muse of Comedy.
Aphrodite and Mars, fresco from Pompeii (National Museum of Naples).

Finally, we have to mention painting and sumptuary arts of this era.  The pictorial themes were increasingly vulgar and were focused mainly in comic issues interpreted with complete modern style when they derived from the ancient myths.  Such happened, for example, with the theme of Mars and Venus which was reproduced with variations.  While numerous cupids are entertained playing with the weapons and helmet of the god, he tries to set free from his wife’s arms pointing to the distant war fields, but new cupids come with perfumes and so Venus keeps Mars by her side.  This theme was frequently recurred over the centuries and produced timeless works of art in the hands of Renaissance painters like Botticelli.  Another topic that has been reproduced for centuries and created during the Hellenistic era is the Three Graces represented dancing forming a circle, two in front view and the central figure with her back to the viewer.  One of the earlier known examples of this theme is a Pompeian fresco that was apparently inspired by a sculpture from the late Hellenistic era.

Venus and Mars, ca. 1483. Tempera on panel, by Sandro Boticelli.
Three Graces, fresco found at Masseria Cuomo in Pompeii and inspired by a late Hellenistic sculpture (National Museum of Naples).
The Three Graces, marble Roman copy after a Hellenistic original, the heads are modern restoration (Louvre).
Medea, the sorceress (National Museum of Naples), fresco, copy from Herculaneum of an original by Timomacos.

Sometimes the Hellenistic painters tried to represent complex and abnormal states of the soul and manifested, as sculptors did, a strong propensity for extreme tragic situations.  As an example we know a painting of Medea by Timomacos of Byzantium which was reproduced more or less faithfully by two frescoes of Pompeii.  Even the great heroic themes were interpreted with some irony and tragic characters were replaced simply by cupids in costumes.  We know some names of artists famous for their paintings of still life and sometimes showing light effects like those found in the works of the finest modern painters.  Other painters were engaged in portraying landscapes.  In some compositions involving affairs of the Odyssey, now in the Vatican Museum, the different landscapes of rocky mountains and seas were painted with unmatched skill.  The impressionism of these painters can also be understood by the skillful execution of some Pompeian paintings made with simple patches of color without drawing outlines or details.  One of the specialties of Alexandria was painting on glass applied to the wall forming a coating.  On the floor the mosaic involved a colored marble, in the center were reproduced famous paintings, and around them were frames and fringes with geometric and plant motifs.  Some artists worked exclusively on mosaics.  One in particular achieved fame thanks to his reproductions of shells, bones, and other remains of a great feast on the pavement and this style was fashionable at the time.  In fountains and bathrooms the sea depths full of fishes was sometimes represented.

Ulysses’ ships attacked by the Laestrygonians (Vatican Library).
Cameo of Tolomeo II and Arsinoe (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).

There are cups and dishes made of precious metals with reliefs from Roman times undoubtedly inspired by Hellenistic models.  Even certain ornamental themes like ivy or laurel and olive leaves, often employed by Roman art, must had already started in the goldsmith of these courts of Hellenistic Asia and the Egypt of the Ptolemies.  Also in Egypt began to multiply cameos with portraits, an artifact very traditional in this country.  In Alexandria enjoyed great fame Pyrgoteles who created effects on carved stones that were never exceeded or even matched.  The two wonderful cameos with the portrait of Ptolemy II and his wife Arsinoe are the masterpieces of Hellenistic glyptic.  The cameo stored in the Museum of Vienna shows a relief skillfully carved in a superposition of nine white and dark layers.  Greek coins tended to reproduce the portraits of the monarchs successors of Alexander the Great.

The Alexandrian glasses are beautiful with several layers of color sometimes carved forming a singular decoration with figures like a cameo.  Such is, for example, the admirable Portland vase of the British Museum with its milky figures standing out against the dark blue background of the glass.  The Portland vase has the value of a real cameo only that instead of carving a natural stone with several strata, the artist has carved figures in a soft layer of clearer glass superimposed on the dark blue glass that forms the body of the vessel.

The Portland Vase (British Museum).

In contrast, Hellenistic pottery kind of lacked artistic value and it is only interesting for the information that provides about the private lives of the people of those times, especially their predilection for theater.  In the third century BC Athens pottery makers stopped painting figurative compositions in vessels which had then a uniform black varnish.

A Tanager figurine, ca. 260 BC. (Louvre).

The art of miniature ceramic figurines evolving parallel to the general development of Greek sculpture produced its most valuable works during the Alexandrian period.  Countless figurines have survived and are commonly called tanagers because they were found in abundance in an ancient city called Tanagra in Boeotia thought to be the center of their production.  They often reproduced praxitelic types: figures dressed in elegant robes as the Muses of Mantinea, naked Venus, and groups of dancers and cupids.  Some Tanagra figurines seem to have had the character of votive offerings: they represent women dancing as if they practiced a liturgical dance inside a temple.

All the art of the Hellenistic period has something in common whatever the region in which it occurred: always had an appearance of affectation.  In all its art production there is a theatrical aspect of false sentimentality.  But, as we said, this is only appearance: in the bottom there is a strong desire to create, and since there was no strong faith as in ancient times artists relieved their talent with excess of simulated heroism or of absorbed vulgarity.  The philosophical interpretation can explain many aspects of Hellenistic art.

The Hellenistic art has sometimes been decried as Baroque and has been compared to the art of the French Grand Siècle and the rococo of the XVIII century.  Naturally, there is the coincidence that both were periods of intellectual transition. During the last centuries of the ancient history of Greece the culture and the desire for intellectual enjoyment penetrated all social classes.

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