Hellenistic Greek Sculpture

Hellenistic Greek Sculpture introduced a number of changes to the type of art produced during the Classical era. Hellenistic architecture, in a manner similar to Hellenistic sculpture, focuses on theatricality, drama, and the experience of the viewer. Public spaces and temples were created with the people in mind, and so were built on a new, monumental scale. To begin with, monumental sculpture was no longer created primarily to serve an austere religion, but became an important promotional tool to reinforce autocratic regimes set up throughout the region (in Pergamon, in Alexandria, and so on). In addition, as new centres of Greek culture sprang up in Egypt, Syria, Anatolia and further afield, there was a huge increase in demand for both architectural and monumental sculpture to decorate local temples and public places. This combination of increased demand and expansion of function led to sculpture becoming (like Greek Pottery) less of an art and more of an industry. As a result, designs became standardized, and quality declined.

During the era of Hellenism, following the death of Alexander the Great, the influence of Greek sculpture spread as far east as India, where it had a major impact on Indian sculpture – notably the Greco-Buddhist statues of the Gandhara school.

Even so, plastic art became more interesting. This was because the general rise in demand led to a call for more variety. Thus sculptors broadened their subject-matter, and no longer restricted themselves to the idealized heroics of Classical sculpture, but depicted a wider range of personalities, moods and scenes. Acceptable subjects now included: a wounded barbarian, a child removing a thorn, a huntress, an old woman, children, animals, and domestic scenes. Even caricatures appeared. For more details of this new style, see: Pergamene School of Hellenistic Sculpture (241-133 BCE).

Main Characteristics of Hellenistic Greek Sculpture

Most importantly, there was a major change in aesthetics: in particular, Hellenism replaced the serene beauty of classicism with a more emotional type of sculpture, which also included an intense realism. During the Hellenistic period art underwent dramatic transformations and evolved on the road paved previously by the Classical artist.

In this new era of expressionism, statues exuded energy and power – see, for instance, The Farnese Bull, or The Winged Victory of Samothrace (220-190); human figures began to radiate suffering and emotion – see, for instance, The Dying Gaul (c.240 BCE) or Laocoon and His Sons (c.42-20). Genuine sensuality also appears, in works like Aphrodite, Pan and Eros (c.100), excavated at Delos, while for a more subtle version, see the exquisite “Aphrodite of Cyrene” (c.100). In portraiture, Hellenism witnessed an increasing fascination with individual psychology: see, for instance, the melancholic, introspective sculpture of Demosthenes (c.280) by Polyeuktos.

Some serenity endured, however, in sculptures like The Three Graces (2nd Century) and Venus de Milo (c.100).

If the High Classical period set the standard for the High Renaissance, the era of Hellenistic art was the prototype for sculptors of the Mannerist and Baroque movements. Not surprisingly, therefore, size became an important factor, with sculptors vying to create bigger and more awesome sculptures: a process which culminated in the Colossus of Rhodes, by Chares of Lindos – a structure roughly the same size as the Statue of Liberty. It was later listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, by the Greek poet Antipater of Sidon.

Perhaps the most extraordinary monument to the “Baroque expressionism” of Greek Hellenistic sculpture was the huge Pergamon Altar of Zeus, built over 30 years (c.180-150). (See also: Hellenistic Statues and Reliefs.) The monument celebrated the crucial role of the Kings of Pergamon, as frontier guards of Greek civilization in Asia Minor, and illustrates their numerous triumphs over barbarian forces encroaching from the east. Second only to the Parthenon frieze, the Pergamon Altar is the most extensive example of Greek monumental sculpture known to art. The outer frieze depicts The battle of the Gods and the Giants in all its unrestrained violence, while the internal reliefs exhibit a more controlled style of narrative, pointing to later developments in relief sculpture, such as Trajan’s Column in Rome, 250 years later: for more details, see: Relief Sculpture of Ancient Rome. For more about early phases of Italian sculpture, painting and architecture, see: Hellenistic Roman Art.

Most Famous Greek Statues from the Hellenistic Period

Here is a short selection of the greatest sculptures of the period:

  • Colossus of Rhodes (292-280 BCE) By Chares of Lindos.
  • Crouching Hermaphrodite (3rd Century) Louvre. By unknown artist.
  • Menelaos with the Body of Patroklos (3rd Century) By unknown artist.
  • Dying Gaul (c.240 BCE) Musei Capitolini, Rome. By Epigonus.
  • Ludovisi Gauls (c.240) National Museum of Rome. By unknown artist.
  • Winged Victory of Samothrace (Nike) (220-190) Louvre. By unknown artist.
  • The Barberini Faun (c.220) Glyptothek, Munich. By unknown artist.
  • The Pergamon Altar (c.180-150) Pergamon, Asia Minor. By unknown artist.
  • Jockey of Artemision (c.140) Archeological Museum, Athens. Unknown artist.
  • Borghese Gladiator (c.100) Louvre. By Agasias of Ephesus.
  • Aphrodite, Pan and Eros (c.100) National Archeological Museum, Athens.
  • “The Venus of Arles” (c.100) Louvre. By unknown artist.
  • Venus de Milo (Aphrodite of Melos) (c.100) Louvre. By Andros of Antioch.
  • Spinario (Boy removing thorn from foot) (c.80) Palazzo dei Conservatori.
  • Laocoon and His Sons (42-20 BCE) By Hagesander, Athenodoros, Polydorus.


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