Hellenistic Sculpture

The subtle implications of greatness and humility of the high Classical era (see the Charioteer of Delphi) are replaced with bold expressions of energy and power during the moments of tension as evident in the Boy Jockey.

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Description and Significance

The Hellenistic period begins in 323 with the death of Alexander the Great and ends with the battle of Actio in 31 BC.

While Philip of Macedon conquered and united the Greek city-states, his son Alexander the Great embraced on a campaign that found him the conqueror of a vast empire which included Greece, Persia, the Near East, and Egypt.

During this period the city-states begin to give way to a more global culture, and the entire Mediterranean sea and the Middle East flourish in a background of conflict, commerce, and cross-cultural influence, with the Greek ideals and language dominating the scene.

During the Hellenistic period art underwent dramatic transformations and evolved on the road paved previously by the Classical artist.

While the Classical Greek concepts were not entirely abandoned, the artist of the Hellenistic era expanded his formal horizons with dramatic posing, sweeping lines, and high contrast of light, shadow and emotions.

The conventions and rules of the classical period gave way to the experimentation and a sense of freedom that allowed the artist to explore his subjects from different unique points of view.

During this period, the Idealism of classical art gave way to a higher degree of naturalism which comes as a logical conclusion to the efforts of the great fourth century sculptors (Praxitelis, Skopas, and Lysipos) who worked towards a more realistic way of expressing the human figure.

The subtle implications of greatness and humility of the high Classical era (see the Charioteer of Delphi) are replaced with bold expressions of energy and power during the moments of tension as evident in the Boy Jockey.

While the interest in deities and heroic themes was still of importance, the emphasis of Hellenistic art shifted from religious and naturalistic themes towards more dramatic human expression, psychological and spiritual preoccupation, and theatrical settings.

The sculpture of this period abandons the self-containment of the earlier styles and appears to embrace its physical surroundings with dramatic groupings and creative landscaping of its context.

The Nike of Samothrace for instance was posed at a sanctuary built high at the edge of a cliff with a reflective water pool and rocks as part of the landscape.

Nike of Samothrace is a rare example of the mastery over the rigid materials and deep understanding of the world as expressed through aesthetic conventions and techniques.

The winged goddess appears to be in a process of suspended animation as her outstretched wings labor gracefully to prevent the force of gravity from anchoring the heavy stone to the ground.

The twists and deep undercuts of the drapery conform faithfully to the nude body underneath , and in the process, they reveal the physical human presence they contain as is struggles to resist an invisible external force.

This imaginary wind that shapes the drapery becomes a physical presence and an intricate part of the sculpture itself in a playful interdependence of physical and imagined entities. In this process it is the wind that gives form to the figure and breathes life into the human presence of Nike.

The human condition and state of mind became a popular subject and inconsequential moments of life were transcended into universal signs and immortalized in stone.

The sleepy satyr, the old woman, the swing of Aphrodite’s sandal, a twist of the torso, a humorous grin or a surprised expression gave life to cold marble and bronze.

In the Venus, Eros, and Pan, statue the voluptuous Aphrodite (Venus) contrasts sharply with the grotesque appearance of Pan who tries to seduce her as she attempts to repel him with a smile and a swing of her sandal.

Her immense erotic power personified by Eros has a firm grasp of the creature’s horns playfuly guiding the theatrical setting towards an impossible conlcusion that we are left to create ourselves.

Eroticism gained popularity during this period and statues of Aphrodite, Eros, Satyrs, Dionysus, Pan, and even hermaphrodites are depicted in a multitude of configurations and styles.

Statues of female nudes became popular in Hellenistic art and statues of Venus in various poses and attitudes adorn the halls of many museums around the world.

Venus de Milo (Aphrodite of Melos) is still admired today as the personification of Beauty itself with its ideal proportions, the high waste, the sharp twist of the leg, and the seductive Praxitelean “S” curve of the torso.

Often the Hellenistic sculptor is not satisfied to only depict his subjects in true outward appearance, but he further strives to express their inner world, by the depiction of physical characteristics and postures that betray inner feelings, thoughts, and attitudes.

In portraiture, the imperfections of the subject are often included in an effort to instill individual personality into the statues, or sometimes as a means of betraying the subject’s qualities and attitudes.

The statue of Hygea of which only the head survives, is a good example of how Hellenistic art evolved to carve its own niche into the flow of history without breaking with the traditional values that made its existence possible.

Hygea, the goddess of health, is created with all the subtleties of Classical aesthetic ideals, but her face manages to reveal an expression of concern and understanding towards a peson or a condition that seems to appear before her.

Thus the viewer becomes the subject of her attention in a moment of self-consciousness and role reversal between observer and observed.

Where to See Hellenistic Sculpture

  • National Archaeological Museum in Athens
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, USA
  • Munich Glyptothek in Munich, Germany
  • The Louvre Museum in Paris, France
  • The Vatican
  • The Pergamonmuseum in Berlin, Germany

Also See