The sculpture of ancient Greece has been celebrated throughout the millennia. Today, these works fill the halls of museums worldwide, and many of them are instantly recognizable. These innumerable depictions of gods and goddesses, heroes, athletes, and warriors have been studied and copied, debated, and romanticized by archaeologists, historians, artists, and others. But, what of the artists who made them? This is the story of four of the most famous ancient Greek sculptors, the world they lived in, and the masterpieces that they left behind.
1. Pheidias: Greek Sculptor of the Athenian Golden Age
The fifth century BCE is widely accepted as the Golden Age of ancient Athens. While the Athenian people experimented with democracy, the city’s actors immersed themselves in the biting comedies of Aristophanes and the gripping tragedies of Euripides. Socrates explored the nature of wisdom and the city itself underwent a metamorphosis. According to the Roman writer, Plutarch, the city underwent a glorious transformation, and these magnificent building works were responsible for the city’s enduring legacy as one of the great cities of the ancient world. The man to whom most responsibility for the city’s transformation is normally awarded was Pericles. The Athenian statesman was, however, for all his undoubted talents, not an artist. The responsibility for the beautification of Athens fell to Pheidias, the sculptor.
Unfortunately — as is the case with many artists from the ancient world in general — little is known of Pheidias’ biography. Rather, he is remembered through his works — copied throughout antiquity and beyond — and through his relationship to power. In the latter case, his relationship with Pericles certainly seems to have attracted the attention of critics; jealous of his talents and the fame they attracted, Plutarch notes in the Life of Pericles that Pheidias was accused of embezzling Athenian gold.
Pheidias’ artistic career was closely connected to Athens from the beginning. He was responsible for sculptural monuments that commemorated the Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE). This included the celebration of Attic bravery that was set up at Delphi and included a depiction of the Athenian statesman Militiades. It was in Athens itself, however, that Pheidias produced his most iconic work. As many spilled into Athens in the form of tribute from the Delian League (which was, in effect, an Athenian maritime hegemony over other Greek states), Pericles commissioned Pheidias to create works for the Athenian Acropolis.
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It was hoped that the sculptor’s new works would better reflect the city’s status as the leading polis in the Greek world and beyond. Pheidias’ works in Athens included two colossal statues of the goddess Athena, the patron deity of the city: the Athena Promachos and the Athena Parthenos. The Promachos was a vast bronze depiction of the goddess, which stood between the Propylaea (the monumental gateway to the Acropolis) and the Parthenon.
The smaller of the two, the Athena Parthenos was actually housed inside the Parthenon. Unlike the bronze sculpture outside, the Parthenos was made of chryselephantine — gold and ivory. According to the description of Pliny the Elder, the statue measured almost 12 meters (39 feet) in height (likely including the base), which would have meant that the statue filled the vast space inside the Parthenon structure. In the goddess’ right hand, she held a statue of Nike, goddess of Victory. In her left, she held her shield and spear, with the former decorated with an Amazonomachy, depicting Theseus (the Athenian King) fighting the Amazons.
Notably, according to Plutarch, Pheidias even had himself and Pericles carved into the scene on the shield! Elsewhere on the Acropolis, it is widely held that, although the Parthenon’s construction was the responsibility of the architects, Ictinus and Callicrates, Pheidias nevertheless oversaw the sculptural decoration of the structure, including the frieze.
Pheidias and the Statue of Zeus at Olympia
Despite his efforts in turning Athens into one of the most iconic of all ancient cities, it was at Olympia that Pheidias cemented his legacy as one of ancient Greece’s most significant sculptors. At this Panhellenic sanctuary on the Peloponnese, there was a Temple of Zeus, the king of gods. Although modern readers will now likely associate the sanctuary of Olympia with the Olympic Games — the athletic competitions held there since the 8th century BCE — it was also once home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the statue of Zeus at Olympia. Such was the majesty of the sculpture, that the Roman general Aemilius Paullus, the conqueror of Macedon in the second century BCE, was — according to Livy — so overcome with emotion seeing the statue that he felt as if he had seen the god himself!
The statue of Zeus at Olympia was completed in around 435 BCE. Like the earlier statues of Pheidias at Athens, his vision of Zeus was also not of marble but instead made of chryselephantine. There were other similarities between these statues as well. For instance, the geographer Pausanias described how Zeus — like Pheidias’ Athena — also had a winged Nike in his hand, and the podium upon which the statue was positioned was decorated with an Amazonomachy, much like Athena’s shield.
There were also several notable differences. For instance, the figure of Zeus was seated. The king of the gods was, suitably enough, enthroned on a vast cedarwood throne. This was ornamented with ivory, gold, precious stones, and ebony. It was also vast; the figure of Zeus measured around 12.5 meters tall (41 feet), leading Strabo to later suggest that one had the impression looking upon the statue that, were Zeus to suddenly lift himself from his throne, he would unroof the temple.
By sometime in the fifth century CE the statue of Zeus was, like so many of the Seven Ancient Wonders (except the Great Pyramid), lost. What has been preserved, however, are the remains of Pheidias’ own workshop at Olympia.
2. Polykleitos and the Human Form
Along with Pheidias, Polykleitos is usually attributed with the creation of what art historians, classicists, and archaeologists identify as the Classical Greek style. Taking a broad view of art — and especially the representation of the human form — one can see how the sculptures of Pheidias and Polykleitos moved away from the more rigid forms of the Archaic style, most obviously seen in the kouroi statues. Instead, their emphasis was on creating an idealized human form.
Whereas Pheidias is more renowned for his portrayals of the gods, it is the human beings created by Polykleitos that have been celebrated throughout the millennia. This is despite Polykleitos’ (now lost) colossal statue of Hera erected in the Heraion at Argos being equated to Pheidias’ Zeus at Olympia. One of Polykleitos’ most famous works is the Discophoros (the “Discus Bearer”). This sculpture is not to be confused with the more well-known Discobolus (“Discus Thrower”), which was created by Myron. There was also the Diadumenos, depicting a youth — probably an athlete — tying a headband. This work especially embodied the symmetry that was central to Polykleitos’ work, as well as the idealized representation of the human form.
The most famous of Polykleitos’ work, however, is the Doryphorous (“The Spear Bearer”). This male nude is a classic example of the contrapposto pose. Meaning “counter poise,” this pose is contrived to have the body’s weight leaning on the right leg with the foot planted, with the left hip raised slightly and the foot slightly elevated. Because of this, the pose also shifts the shoulders and arms off axis slightly. The effect is to create a representation of the body that is dynamic, suggesting movement, and also one that it idealized. Although contrapposto had been used prior to Polykleitos’ time, it was his works — and the mathematical basis that underpinned them (the unfortunately lost) that ensured his fame as a sculptor.
3. Praxiteles: The Grace of the Gods
The approach to representing the human form that was introduced during the 5th century by Pheidias and Polykleitos was further refined by Praxiteles, another Athenian sculptor. Active during the 4th century BCE (although the exact dates remain unknown), it is clear from looking at those works attributed to the artist that he was familiar with the stylistic developments introduced by his predecessors. There were several significant changes, however. For one, Praxiteles introduced a deeper “S-curve” into his sculptures, an extension of contrapposto that incorporated more of the body beyond the position of the feet and legs. His work was also most frequently completed in Parian marble (from the island of Paros).
Praxiteles’ subjects varied between the human and the divine. Although gods were sometimes represented, these were often lesser deities, rather than, for instance, Zeus. One of the most famous works attributed to Praxiteles (although not without some controversy) is the Hermes and the Infant Dionysus. It shows Hermes with the infant Dionysus, with the elder god transporting the child to the nymphs who will raise him.
Perhaps the most well-known of Praxiteles’ sculptures is the Aphrodite of Knidos. The sculpture depicts the goddess of love bathing; in many restorations she is naked, reaching for a towel to cover her modesty but leaving her breasts exposed. The infamy of the statue derives from it being one of the first life-sized representations of the nude female form. Many copies of the statue are known, but the general form testifies to the influences that shaped Praxiteles’ work, including the contrapposto position.
In antiquity, the statue was housed in the Temple of Aphrodite at Knidos, heightening the popularity of the sanctuary as a place of pilgrimage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, tales of scandal are attached to the statue and its sculptor. Allegedly, Praxiteles used a hetaira (courtesan) as the model for his Aphrodite. Seedier still, there are accounts of visitors to the temple in antiquity becoming so utterly besotted with Praxiteles’ representation of the goddess of love, that they were overcome with sexual arousal. One rumor even claimed that a young man was so madly in love with the Aphrodite of Knidos that he broke into the temple and attempted to defile the statue!
4. Lysippus and the Power of Images
Where Pheidias and Polykleitos were paragons of the Classical Greek style, Praxiteles’ work marked the transition toward a new aesthetic approach. He, along with Lysippus of Sikyon (a city in the northern Peloponnese), bridged the gap between the Classical and Hellenistic styles. Active in the 4th century, Lysippus was noted for having developed a slightly different, leaner style in comparison to that of his contemporary, Polykleitos. Works that have been attributed to Lysippus include the Victorious Youth and the famed Horses of Saint Mark, which now adorn St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Notably, Lysippus’ pupil — Chares of Lindos — would be responsible for the construction of the Colossus of Rhodes, another of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Most famously, Lysippus would serve as the personal sculptor to Alexander the Great. Indeed, the Macedonian King would only allow his likeness to be reproduced by Lysippus according to Plutarch’s biography; similarly, he notes that Lysippus’ work remained the best way of gleaning an appreciation of how the king and empire-builder once looked, even centuries after his death. It was Lysippus who was responsible for the likeness of Alexander characterized by the tousled locks, parted lips, and upward glance that was mimicked so frequently.
Perhaps because of his role in establishing the canonical portrait of Alexander the Great — and for therefore the archetypal ruler in the ancient world — Lysippus’ work remained popular for centuries after his death. In fact, all of these multitudinous copies have made it especially difficult for art historians and archaeologists to attribute works to him with any great surety.
One work that is commonly attributed to Lysippus’ genius is the Apoxyomenos (“The Scraper”). This sculpture depicts a man in the act of cleaning himself; specifically, he is using a strigil, a curved tool that was used to remove sweat and grime after exercise. According to the account of Pliny the Elder, the Roman General and right-hand man of Augustus, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, had Lysippus’ Apoxyomenos statue installed in the baths he built in the Campus Martius in the late first century BCE. Several decades later, Emperor Tiberius became so enamored with the statue that he had it removed from the baths and installed in his private residences. The people of Rome were furious; at the theatre, they vented their rage at the emperor, chanting “Give us back our Apoxyomenos!” and ultimately shaming Tiberius into returning the work to its public home.
Famously, the Roman poet Horace remarked that “Captive Greece took Captive her savage conqueror and brought her arts into rustic Latium.” He was referring to the way in which the Roman armies, marauding over the Greek states, had been captivated by the artistic treasures they uncovered. In the lives and legacies of these four famous Greek sculptors, the power of images is clear for all to see.