Greek Art: Superheroes and Gods

MMA's Greek and Roman Art Resources
Hermitage's Antiquity Resources
Penn State's Resources for Greek Art and Archaeology

Geometric Krater - funerary - male shape, c. 750 BCE, terracotta.

Geometric Amphora - funerary - female shape, c. 750 BCE, terracotta.

Geometric Centaur, c. 750 BCE, bronze.

The Theatre of Dionysos at the foot of the Acropolis, mid-4th century BCE. The theatre could seat 17,000 people, making it the prototype for all Theatres of ancient Greece.

Doric column

Ionic column

Corinthian column

When work began on the Parthenon in 447 BC, the Athenian Empire was at the height of its power. Work on the temple continued until 432; the Parthenon, then, represents the tangible and visible efflorescence of Athenian imperial power, unencumbered by the depradations of the Peloponnesian War. Likewise, it symbolizes the power and influence of the Athenian politician, Perikles, who championed its construction. Some historians believe that Athens concluded a peace treaty with Persia in 449, two years before work began on the Parthenon. The significance of this would be that the Delian League/Athenian Empire continued to exist, even after the reason for its existence (a mutual defense league against the Persians) had ceased to be valid. In other words it was now openly acknowledged that Athens was not just the head of the Greek defense league but actually an imperial master over other Greek states. The decision by the Athenians in 454 BC to move the League treasury from the Panhellenic sanctuary at Delos to the Athenian acropolis points in the same direction. Because the Parthenon was built with League funds, the building may be read as an expression of the confidence of the Athenians in this newly naked imperialism. But the piety of this undertaking should not be underestimated; the Persians had sacked the temples on the Athenian acropolis in 480, and rebuilding them fulfilled, in Bury's words, the Athenians' "debt of gratitude to heaven for the defeat of the Mede." [Source:]

Parthenon from the south

Parthenon from the southwest

Metopes in the Parthenon

The metopes of the Parthenon all represented various instances of the struggle between the forces of order and justice, on the one hand, and criminal chaos on the other. On the west side, the mythical battle against the Amazons (Amazonomachy); on the south, the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs (Centauromachy); on the east, the battle between the gods and the giants (Gigantomachy); on the north, the Greeks versus the Trojans. Of the panels the best preserved are those showing the Centauromachy. [Source:]

Detail of a south metope (from the Centauromachy)

Grave stele for a child, c. 450-440 BCE

Lekythos attributed to The Amasis Painter, c. 550-530 BCE.

Funerary plaque, c. 520-510 BCE.

Cup interior attributed to Onesimos, c. 500 BCE.

Lekythos attributed to The Tithonos Painter, c. 480-470 BCE.

Terracotta plaque, c. 450 BCE.

Lekythos, Achilles Painter, c. 440 BCE.

Lekythos, Achilles Painter, c. 440 BCE.

Kylix attributed to The Villa Giulia Painter, c. 470 BCE.

Krater, Persephone Painter, c. 440 BCE.

This vessel, known as a bell-krater, was used for mixing wine and water at the Greek symposium. The scene on the obverse of this bell-krater depicts the return of Persephone to her mother, the goddess Demeter. At the left, Persephone steps up from Hades through a cleft in the ground, as Hermes, messenger of the gods, stands back. The goddess Hekate, "daughter of dark-bosomed night" according to Bacchylides, a Greek poet of the fifth century B.C., occupies the center of the vase holding two flaming torches with which she illuminates Persephone's nighttime journey from the Underworld. Lastly, at the far right stands Demeter. The importance of the nocturnal setting of the scene is underscored by the prominent size of the torches held by Hekate, and emphasized by her central position within the composition.

The scene illustrates one episode from the myth of Persephone's abduction by Hades recounted in the sixth-century B.C. Homeric Hymn to Demeter. From the hymn we learn that Persephone is to spend one-third of the year with her husband in the realm of the dead, and two-thirds of it on earth with Demeter, the goddess who gave the gift of grain to mankind, and who is responsible for the growth of crops. This krater shows Persephone in the midst of her ascent, her return, heralding the arrival of spring and the beginning of growing season. Despite the positive allegorical significance of Persephone's return for ancient Greeks, it was not a well-developed theme in ancient literature. The vivid pictorial conception of this episode, including the deliberate reference to time on this bell-krater, it seems is a strictly visual convention. The root of this iconographical tradition may lie in the fact that the arrival of spring was viewed as an annual, ritual event, and such events were celebrated at night. A clearly defined time therefore was an essential element of the pictorial typology of Persephone's return. Such a detail would have reflected actual cult practice, which would have added a level of tangible realism to the scene for the ancient viewer.

Persephone is seen emerging out of the earth wearing a himation over her pleated linen chiton. Demeter also wears a chiton of crinkled fabric beneath a long himation. With his traveling staff in hand, Hermes dons his characteristic broad-rimmed traveling hat (petasos) and short cloak (chlamys). Hekate, dressed in an open-sided peplos, guides the way with lighted torches.

Women and men in ancient Greece wore the chiton, peplos, and himation in various configurations. With belting, girding, and different methods of draping, they were able to transform the essentially simple construction and configuration of these garments. Many of these variations became codified, and persisted as preferred styles for centuries. [MMA]

Dionysos and Ariadne

Kylix, Exekias, c. 550-540 BCE.

Exekias' signature, c. 550-540 BCE.

Aphrodite and Eros, c. 4th century BCE, terracotta.

The Hermitage possesses a celebrated collection of Tanagra terracottas, figurines of fired clay. Tanagra sculptors were called coraplasters (in Greek, cora -a girl, plastein - to sculpt), as they were particularly drawn to representing women. This statuette, showing Aphrodite amusing Eros with a whipping top, is unique in the collection of Classical terracottas - this is the only known copy of all the copies with such form. This sculpture illustrates a tendency towards genre sculpture which was characteristic of Hellenic art. The paint is so well-preserved that we can easily imagine how effective this figurine must have been originally. [From: State Hermitage Museum]

Eros Sleeping, 3rd-1st century BCE, bronze.

Masked Dancer, 3rd-2nd century BCE, bronze.

Mirror with the head of Pan, late 4th century BCE, bronze.

Laocoon and His Sons or Laocoon Group, c. 160 BCE-20 BCE, marble.

Laocoon and His Sons or Laocoon Group, c. 160 BCE-20 BCE, marble.

Laocoon and His Sons or Laocoon Group, c. 160 BCE-20 BCE, marble.

Nike of Samothrace, c. 220-190 BCE, marble.

Venus, Eros and Pan, c. 100 BCE, marble.

Aphrodite of Milos or the Venus de Milo, Alexandros of Antioch, 130-90 BCE.

Portrait as a Vanité, Joel-Peter Witkin, 1994.

Venus with an Apple, Bertel Thorvaldsen, 1813-1816.

At the nuptials of Peleus and Thetis all the gods were present, with the exception of Eris, goddess of discord. Enraged at her exclusion, the goddess threw a golden apple among the guests with the inscription "for the fairest." Hera, Venus, and Athena each claimed the apple. Jupiter, unwilling to decide so delicate a matter, sent the goddesses to Mount Ida, where the handsome shepherd Paris was tending his flock. To him was committed the decision. The goddesses accordingly appeared before him. Hera promised him power and riches; Athena, glory and renown in war. Venus disrobed and promised him Helen of Troy, the fairest of mortal women. for his wife. Paris decided in favor of Venus. Source:]