Ancient Greek Art & Architecture

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  • 0:01 The Ancient Greeks
  • 0:50 Ancient Greek Art
  • 3:20 Ancient Greek Architecture
  • 6:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the fundamental aspects of Greek art and architecture, two disciplines that set standards of style and technique that influence us to this day. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Ancient Greeks

In the beginning, there was nothing. And then the ancient Greeks appeared and brought art and architecture into the world!

Okay, it's not really that simple. There were plenty of people around before the ancient Greeks who had styles of art and architecture. But for the Western world, the cultures of Europe and European America, everything really starts with the Greeks. This advanced civilization, lasting from the 8th century BC to the 7th century AD, set the standards for math, science, literature, philosophy, and government. Above all, they established the foundations of Western art and architecture. The paintings you saw at the museum, the sculptures in the state capital, and even the building where you went to pay off that stupid speeding ticket (which was totally not your fault) were all influenced by the styles of the ancient Greeks.

Ancient Greek Art

One of the major forms of ancient Greek art was pottery. The Greeks were prolific traders of wine and olive oil, and so they developed special styles of vases called amphorae to transport liquids. These vases were of great quality, and they became popular trade items themselves, leading artists in the 6th century BC to start painting them with ornate scenes of nature, history, and mythology. It's not that surprising - we do the same thing. When's the last time you bought a bottle of wine without a decorative label? Greek vases were a major art form that recorded their histories and mythologies, preserving them for centuries.

The Greeks became famous for their pottery. There were two dominant styles, called black figure and red figure. Any guess what the difference is? When a glaze is applied to the vase before being kiln-fired, it turns black. In black figure pottery, the people are silhouettes, drawn in the black glaze. In red figure, the glaze is used to create the background, leaving the figures the same red color of the clay.

While Greek pottery was terrific, their greatest accomplishments were in sculpture. The Greeks were the first to really master sculpture, particularly in marble. Pre-Greek sculptures, like those in Egypt, were often stiff and rigid because the artists had not figured out how to carve more realistic figures that still supported the weight of stone. The Greeks figured it out, carving emotional, complex statues and reliefs of people in dynamic motion. Greek sculptures presented stories from history, notable people, and scenes from their mythology.

The secret was mathematically accurate proportions, modeled into intricate poses. When I say they were mathematically accurate, I mean that the Greeks used geometric formulas to devise ideal standards of beauty and perfection. This formula reflected the golden ratio, a relationship between two parts of a whole that appears commonly in geometry, where the ratio of two lengths equals the ratio of the sum of both pieces compared to the larger length. Sounds confusing at first, I know, but this relationship appears again and again in nature, and it fascinated the ancient Greeks. The golden ratio set Greek art apart and set the standards of aesthetic beauty and harmony that define Western art to this day.

Ancient Greek Architecture

Along with changing the way we look at art, the ancient Greeks were the first true masters of architecture in the Western world. While people built things before the Greeks, nobody had really learned how to make stone buildings. The Greeks did, and they established three styles of building that became the basis of Western architecture. These are the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders of architecture.

The basis of these styles was the column, a vertical support that supported the weight of the stone roof. Major architecture like this was expensive and required lots of advanced engineering, so it was really only used for the most important structures, namely, temples to the gods. In ways, they were like our skyscrapers: expensive, impressive, and advanced forms of architecture that signify an important building. The normal person can't afford to build a skyscraper for their home, and in ancient Greece, purely stone buildings were just as prestigious.

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