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During the “High Classical Period” (450-400 BCE), there was great artistic success: from the innovative structures on the Acropolis to Polykleitos’ visual and cerebral manifestation of idealization in his sculpture of a young man holding a spear, the Doryphoros or “Canon”.
By the end of this module you will be able to:
Identify and describe the form, content, and context of key Classical works
Define critical terms related to Classical art
Describe the characteristics of Classical art
Classical Greek Architecture Overview
High Classical architecture is distinguished by its adherence to proportion, optical refinements, and its early exploration of monumentality. During the Classical Period, Greek architecture underwent several significant changes. The columns became more slender, and the entablature lighter during this period.
In the mid-fifth century BCE, the Corinthian column is believed to have made its debut. Gradually, the order became more common as the Classical period came to a close, appearing in conjunction with older orders, such as the Doric. Additionally, architects began to examine the proportion and chromatic effects of Pentelic marble more closely. In the construction of theatres, architects perfected the effects of acoustics through the design and materials used in the seating area.
The architectural refinements perfected during the Late Classical period opened the doors of experimentation with how architecture could define space, an aspect that became the forefront of Hellenistic architecture.
Throughout the Archaic period, the Greeks experimented with building in stone and slowly developed their concept of the ideal temple. It was decided that the ideal number of columns would be determined by a formula in which twice the number of columns across the front of the temple plus one was the number of columns down each side (2x + 1 = y). Many temples during the Classical period followed this formula for their peripteral colonnade, although not all. Furthermore, many temples in the Classical period and beyond are noted for the curvature given to the of the temple that compensated for optical distortions.
Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae
The Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae is a hexastyle temple with fifteen columns down its length. The temple was built by Iktinos, known for his work on the Parthenon, in the second half of the fifth century BCE. The temple’s plan is unusual in many respects.
The temple is aligned north to south instead of east to west, which accommodates the landscape of the site.
The temple has a door on the naos that provides access and light to the inner chamber.
It shares some attributes with the Parthenon, such as a colonnade in the naos. However, in this case, the colonnade is a single-story and only the columns of the temple (not the stylobate) have entasis.
The temple has elements of all three architectural orders and has the earliest known example of a Corinthian capital.
Interestingly, the temple has only one , located in the center of the naos. Experts hypothesize that it was placed in that location to replace the cult statue as an representation of Apollo.
Tholos of Athena Pronaia
The Tholos of Athena Pronaia at Delphi (380–360 BCE) was built as a sanctuary by Theodoros of Phoenicia. Externally, 20 Doric columns supported a with and metopes. The circular wall of the cella was also crowned by a similar frieze, , and triglyphs to a lesser extent.
Inside, a stone bench supported 10 Corinthian style pilasters, all of them attached to the concave surface of the wall. The was developed in the middle of the fifth century and used minimally until the Hellenistic era; it was later popular with the Romans. The manifold combination and blending of various architectural styles in the same building were completed through a natural polychromatic effect that resulted from the use of different materials. The materials used included thin slabs of Pentelic marble in the superstructure and limestone at the platform.
When exposed to the air, Pentelic marble acquires a tan colour that sets it apart from whiter forms of marble. The building’s roof was also constructed of marble and housed eight female statues carved in sharp and lively motion.
Theatre at Epidauros
The large theatre located at Epidauros provides an example of advanced engineering at that time. The theatre was designed by Polykleitos the Younger, the son of the sculptor Polykleitos, in the mid-fourth century BCE.
The theatre seats up to 14,000 people. Like all Greek theatres, this theatre was built into the hillside, which supports the stadium seating, and the theatre overlooks a lush valley and mountainous landscape. The original 34 rows were extended in Roman times by another 21 rows.
As is usual for Greek theatres, the view on a lush landscape behind the skênê is an integral part of the theatre itself and is not to be obscured. The theatre is especially well known for its acoustics. A 2007 study indicates that the astonishing acoustic properties may be the result of its advanced design. The rows of limestone seats filter out low-frequency sounds, such as the murmur of the crowd, and amplify high-frequency sounds from the stage.
The Athenian Acropolis
The Athenian Acropolis is an ancient citadel in Athens containing the remains of several ancient buildings, including the Parthenon. The study of Classical-era architecture is dominated by the study of the construction of the Athenian Acropolis and the development of the Athenian agora. The Acropolis is an ancient citadel located on a high, rocky outcrop above and at the center of the city of Athens. It contains the remains of several ancient buildings of great architectural and historic significance.
The word acropolis comes from the Greek words ἄ (akron, meaning edge or extremity) and π (polis, meaning city). Although there are many other acropoleis in Greece, the significance of the Acropolis of Athens is such that it is commonly known as The Acropolis without qualification.
The Acropolis has played a significant role in the city from the time that the area was first inhabited during the Neolithic era. While there is evidence that the hill was inhabited as far back as the fourth millennium BCE, in the High Classical Period it was Pericles (c. 495–429 BCE) who coordinated the construction of the site’s most important buildings, including the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Erechtheion, and the temple of Athena Nike.
The buildings on the Acropolis were constructed in the and orders, with dramatic reliefs adorning many of their pediments, friezes, and metopes.
In recent centuries, its architecture has influenced the design of many public buildings in the Western hemisphere.
Archaeological evidence shows that the Acropolis was once home to a Mycenaean citadel. The citadel’s Cyclopean walls defended the Acropolis for centuries and still remains today. The Acropolis was continually inhabited, even throughout the Greek Dark Ages when Mycenaean civilization fell.
It was during the Geometric Period that the Acropolis shifted from being the home of a king to being a sanctuary site dedicated to the goddess Athena, whom the people of Athens considered their patron. The Archaic-era Acropolis saw the first stone temple dedicated to Athena, known as the Hekatompedon (Greek for hundred-footed). This building was built from limestone around 570 to 550 BCE and was a hundred feet long. It was the original home of the olive-wood statue of Athena Polias, known as the Palladium, that was believed to have come from Troy.
In the early fifth century the Persians invaded Greece, and the city of Athens—along with the Acropolis—was destroyed, looted, and burnt to the ground in 480 BCE. Later the Athenians, before the final battle at Plataea, swore an oath that if they won the battle—that if Athena once more protected her city—then the Athenian citizens would leave the Acropolis as it is, destroyed, as a monument to the war. The Athenians did indeed win the war, and the Acropolis was left in ruins for thirty years.
It was immediately following the Persian war that the Athenian general and statesman Pericles funded an extensive building program on the Athenian Acropolis. Despite the vow to leave the Acropolis in a state of ruin, the site was rebuilt, incorporating all the remaining old materials into the spaces of the new site. The building program began in 447 BCE and was completed by 415 BCE. It employed the most famous architects and artists of the age and its sculpture and buildings were designed to complement and be in dialogue with one another.
The Parthenon represents a culmination of style in Greek temple architecture. The optical refinements found in the Parthenon—the slight curve given to the whole building and the ideal placement of the and over the column —represent the Greek desire to achieve a perfect and harmonious design known as symmetria.
While the artist Phidias was in charge of the overall plan of the Acropolis, the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates designed and oversaw the construction of the Parthenon (447–438 BCE), the temple dedicated to Athena. The Parthenon is built completely from Pentalic marble, although parts of its foundations are limestone from a pre-480 BCE temple that was never completed. The design of the Parthenon varies slightly from the basic temple ground plan. The temple is peripteral, and so is surrounded by a row of columns. In front of both the pronaos (porch) and opisthodomos is a single row of prostyle columns.
The opisthodomos is large, accounting for the size of the treasury of the Delian League, which Pericles moved from Delos to the Parthenon. The pronaos is so small it is almost non-existent. Inside the naos is a two-story row of columns around the interior, and set in front of the columns is the cult statue of Athena. It is the most important surviving building of Classical Greece.
The Parthenon’s elevation has been streamlined and shows a mix of and elements. The exterior Doric columns are more slender and their capitals are rigid and cone-like. The also appears smaller and less weighty than earlier Doric temples. The exterior of the temple has a Doric frieze consisting of metopes and triglyphs.
Inside the temple are columns and an Ionic frieze that wraps around the exterior of the interior building. Finally, instead of the columns, the whole building has an entasis, a slight curve to compensate for the human eye. If the building was built perfectly at right angles and with straight eyes, the human eye would see the lines as curved. In order for the Parthenon to appear straight to the eye, Iktinos and Kallikrates added curvature to the building that the eye would interpret as straight.
The sculpted reliefs on the Parthenon’s metopes are both decorative and symbolic, and relate stories of the Greeks against the others. Each side depicts a different set of battles.
Over the entrance on the east side is a Gigantomachy, depicting the battle between the giants and the Olympian gods.
The west side depicts an Amazonomachy, showing a battle between the Athenians and the Amazons.
The north side depicts scenes of the Greek sack of Troy at the end of the Trojan War.
The south side depicts a Centauromachy, or a battle with centaurs. The Centauromachy depicts the mythical battle between the Greek Lapiths and the Centaurs that occurred during a Lapith wedding.
These scenes are the most preserved of the and demonstrate how Phidias mastered fitting episodic narrative into square spaces.
The interior Ionic processional wraps around the exterior walls of the naos. While the frieze may depict a mythical or historical procession, many scholars believe that it depicts a Panathenaic procession. The Panathenaic procession occurred yearly through the city, leading from the Dipylon Gate to the Acropolis and culminating in a ritual changing of the peplos worn by the ancient olive-wood statue of Athena. The processional scene begins in the southwest corner and wraps around the building in both directions before culminating in the middle of the west wall.
It begins with images of horsemen preparing their mounts, followed by riders and chariots, Athenian youth with sacrificial animals, elders and maidens, then the gods before culminating at the central event. The central image depicts Athenian maidens with textiles, replacing the old peplos with a new one.
The east and west depict scenes from the life of Athena and the east pediment is better preserved than the west; fortunately, both were described by ancient writers. The west pediment depicted the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the patronage of Athens. At the center of the pediment stood Athena and Poseidon, pulling away from each to create a strongly charged, dynamic composition. The east pediment depicted the birth of Athena. While the central image of Zeus, Athena, and Haphaestus has been lost, the surrounding gods, in various states of reaction, have survived.
Mnesicles designed the Propylaea (437–432 BCE), the monumental gateway to the Acropolis. It funnelled all traffic to the Acropolis onto one gently sloped ramp. The Propylaea created a massive screen wall that was impressive and protective as well as welcoming. It was designed to appear symmetrical but, in reality, was not. This illusion was created by a colonnade of paired columns that wrapped around the gateway. The southern wing incorporated the original Cyclopean walls from the Mycenaean citadel. This space was truncated but served as a dining area for feasting after a sacrifice. The northern wing was much larger. It was a Pinacoteca, where large panel paintings were hung for public viewing. The order of the Propylaea and its columns are Doric, and its decoration is simple—there are no reliefs in the metopes and pediment.
Upon entering the Acropolis from the Propylaea, visitors were greeted by a colossal bronze statue of Athena Promachos (c. 456 BCE), designed by Phidias. Accounts and a few coins minted with images of the statue allow us to conclude that the bronze statue portrayed a fearsome image of a helmeted Athena striding forward, with her shield at her side and her spear raised high, ready to strike.
The Erechtheion (421–406 BCE), designed by Mnesicles, is an ancient Greek temple on the north side of the Acropolis. Scholars believe the temple was built in honour of the legendary king Erechtheus. It was built on the site of the Hekatompedon and over the megaron of the Mycenaean citadel. The odd design of the temple results from the site’s topography and the temple’s incorporation of numerous ancient sites. The temple housed the Palladium, the ancient olive-wood statue of Athena. It was also believed to be the site of the contest between Athena and Poseidon, and so displayed an olive tree, a salt-water well, and the marks from Poseidon’s trident to the faithful.
Shrines to the mythical kings of Athens, Cecrops and Erechteus—who gives the temple its name—were also found within the Erechtheion. Because of its mythic significance and its religious relics, the Erechtheion was the ending site of the Panathenaic festival, when the peplos on the olive-wood statue of Athena was annually replaced with new clothing with due pomp and ritual.
A porch on the south side of the Erechtheion is known as the Porch of the Caryatids, or the Porch of the Maidens. Six, towering, sculpted women (caryatids) support the entablature. The women replace the columns, yet look columnar themselves. Their drapery, especially over their weight-bearing leg, is long and linear, creating a parallel to the fluting on an Ionic column.
While they stand in similar poses, each statue has its own stance, facial features, hair, and drapery. They carry egg-and-dart capitals on their heads, much as women throughout history have carried baskets. Between their heads and this capital is a sculpted cushion, which gives the appearance of softening the load of the weight of the building.
The sculpted columnar form of the caryatids is named after the women of the town of Kayrai, a small town near and allied to Sparta. At one point during the Persian Wars, the town betrayed Athens to the Persians. In retaliation, the Athenians sacked their city, killing the men and enslaving the women and children. Thus, the caryatids depicted on the Acropolis are symbolic representations of the full power of Athenian authority over Greece and the punishment of traitors.
The Temple of Athena Nike
The Temple of Athena Nike (427–425 BCE), designed by Kallikrates in honour of the goddess of victory, stands on the parapet of the Acropolis, to the southwest and to the right of the Propylaea. The temple is a small Ionic temple that consists of a single naos, where a cult statue stood fronted by four piers. The four piers aligned to the four Ionic prostyle columns of the pronaos. Both the pronaos and opisthodomos are very small, nearly non-existent, and are defined by their four prostyle columns.
The continuous around the temple depicts battle scenes from Greek history. These representations include battles from the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, including a cavalry scene from the Battle at Marathon and the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Plataea.
The scenes on the Temple of Athena Nike are similar to the battle scenes on the Parthenon, which represented Greek dominance over non-Greeks and foreigners in mythical allegory. The scenes depicted on the frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike frieze display Greek and Athenian dominance and military power throughout historical events. A parapet was added on the balustrade to protect visitors from falling down the steep hillside. Images of Nike, such as Nike Adjusting Her Sandal, are carved in relief. In this scene, Nike is portrayed standing on one leg as she bends over a raised foot and knee to adjust her sandal. Her body is depicted in the new High Classical style. Unlike Archaic sculpture, this scene actually depicts Nike’s body. Her body and muscles are clearly distinguished underneath her transparent yet heavy clothing.
This style, known as wet drapery, allows sculptors to depict the body of a woman while still preserving the modesty of the female figure. Although Nike’s body is visible, she remains fully clothed. This style is found elsewhere on the Acropolis, such as on the caryatids and on the women in the Parthenon’s pediment.
Nike Adjusting Her Sandal: This statue is in the Temple of Athena Nike, c. 425–420 BCE. It is located in the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
Alexander the Great
Alexander III of Macedonia (356–323 BCE), better known as Alexander the Great, very carefully controlled and crafted his portraiture. In order to maintain control and stability in his empire, he had to ensure that his people recognized him and his authority.
Because of this, Alexander’s portrait was set when he was very young, most likely in his teens, and it never varied throughout his life. To further control his portrait types, Alexander hired artists in different media such as painting, sculpture, and gem cutting to design and promote the portrait style of the medium. In this way, Alexander used art and artisans for their propagandistic value to support and provide a face and legitimacy to his rule.
The Alexander Mosaic is a Roman floor mosaic from approximately 100 BCE that was excavated from the House of the Faun in Pompeii. The mosaic depicts the Battle of Issus that occurred between the troops of Alexander the Great and King Darius III of Persia. The mosaic is believed to be a copy of a large-scale panel painting by Aristides of Thebes, or a fresco by the Philoxenos of Eretria from the late fourth century BCE.
The is remarkable. It depicts a keen sense of detail, dramatically unfolds the drama of the battle, and demonstrates the use of perspective and foreshortening. The two main characters of the battle are easily distinguishable and this portrait of Alexander may be one of his most recognizable. He wears a breastplate and an aegis, and his hair is characteristically tousled. He rides into battle on his horse, Bucephalo, leading his troops. Alexander’s gaze remains focused on Darius and he appears calm and in control, despite the hectic battle happening around him.
Darius III, on the other hand, commands the battle in desperation from his chariot, as his charioteer removes them from battle. His horses flee under the whip of the charioteer and Darius leans outward, stretching out a hand having just thrown a spear. His body position contradicts the motion of his chariot, creating tension between himself and his flight. Other details in the mosaic include the expressions of the soldiers and the horses, such as a collapsed horse and his rider in the center of the battle, to a terrified fallen Persian, whose expression is reflected on his shield.
The shading and play of light in the mosaic reflect the use of light and shadow in the original painting to create a realistic, three-dimensional space. Horses and soldiers are shown in multiple perspectives from the profile, to three quarters, to frontal, and one horse even faces the audience with his rump. The careful shading within the mosaic models the characters in a way that adds mass and volume to the figures.
Sculpture in the Greek High Classical Period
High Classical sculpture demonstrates the shifting style in Greek sculptural work as figures became more dynamic and less static.
Polykleitos was a famous Greek sculptor who worked in bronze. He was also an art theorist who developed a canon of proportion (called the Canon) that is demonstrated in his statue of Doryphoros (Spear Bearer) Many of Polykleitos’s bronze statues from the Classical period, including the Doryphoros, survive only as Roman copies executed in marble. Polykleitos, along with Phidias, is thought to have created the style recognized as Classical Greek sculpture.
Another example of the Canon at work is seen in Polykleitos’s statue of Diadumenos, a youth trying on a headband, and his statue Discophoros, a discus bearer. Both Roman marble copies depict athletic, nude, male figures. The bodies of the two figures are idealized. The nudity allows the harmony of parts, or symmetria, to easily be seen and illustrates the principles discussed in the Canon. The Canon focused on the proportion of parts of the body in relationship to each other to create the ideal male form. Both statues demonstrate fine proportion, ideal balance, and the definable parts of the body.
The athletes are shown in stances. The Discophoros shifts his weight to his left leg. His hips and the slightly forward lean toward his right leg exaggerate the weight shift. The figure is balanced on his left leg, which is drawn back, and the rest of his body appropriately responds to this stance.
The Diadumenos also stands in contrapposto, although his movement seems more forward and stable than that of the Discophoros. He ties on a band that identifies him as a winner in an athletic contest. His raised arms add a new dynamic component to the composition. The Discophoros and Diadumenos, along with the Doryphoros, demonstrate the flexibility of composition based on the Canon and the innate liveliness produced by contrapposto postures. Despite the lively aspects and unique poses of the figures, all three still retain the Severe style and expressionless face of early Greek sculpture.
Polykleitos not only worked in bronze but is also known for his chryselephantine cult statue of Hera at Argos, which in ancient times was compared to Phidias’ colossal chryselephantine cult statues.
Phidias was the sculptor and artistic director of the Athenian Acropolis and oversaw the sculptural program of all the Acropolis buildings. He was considered one of the greatest sculptors of his time and he created monumental cult statues of gold and ivory for city-states across Greece.
Phidias is well known for the Athena Parthenos, the colossal cult statue in the naos of the Parthenon. While the statue has been lost, written accounts and reproductions (miniatures and representations on coins and gems) provide us with an idea of how the sculpture appeared.
It was made out of ivory, silver, and gold and had wooden core support. Athena stood crowned, wearing her helmet and aegis. Her shield stood upright at her left side and her left hand rested on it while in her right hand she held a statue of Nike. An artist’s reconstruction is housed in the Parthenon in Nashville.
Reconstruction of Phidias’s Athena Parthenos: This is housed in the Parthenon in Centennial Park, Nashville, TN.
Before he created the statue of Athena Parthenos for Athens, Phidias was best known for his chryselephantine statue of Zeus at Olympia, which was considered one of the wonders of the world. The statue of Zeus at Olympia is said to have been 39 feet tall chryselephantine statue.
As with Athena Parthenos, not much is known for sure about how the statue looked, although written accounts and marble and coinage copies provide possible ideas. Besides being built on a colossal scale, reports indicate that the figure of Zeus was seated and held a sceptre and a statue of Nike. An eagle was perched either at his side or on his sceptre. Besides being decorated with gold and ivory, the sculpture was further embellished with ebony and precious stones. An artist’s conception of the colossal sculpture resides in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Athenian artist Myron also produced bronze sculptures during the mid-fifth century BCE. His most famous work is of the Diskobolos, or discus thrower (not to be confused with Polykletios’ discus bearer, Discophoros). The Diskobolos shows a young, athletic male nude with a face. His body holds a contrapposto pose; one leg bears his weight, while the other is relaxed. A relaxed arm balances his body and the other arm tenses, preparing to let go of the disc. The Diskobols demonstrates a dynamic, chiastic composition that relies on diagonal lines to move the eye about the sculpture.
This figure represents another new element in Classical sculpture—the illustration of the potential for energy. His energy appears wound up, waiting for the figure to release it. The statue depicts a swift and transitory moment and is frozen at a precise moment to exhibit the harmony, balance, and rhythm perfected by both the athlete and the artist.
Architecture during the Early and High Classical periods was refined and the optical illusions corrected to create the most aesthetically pleasing proportions. The High and Late Classical periods begin to tweak these principles and experiment with monumentality and space.
Temples during the Late Classical period began to experiment with new architectural designs and decorations.
The Acropolis, dedicated to the goddess Athena, has played a significant role in the city from the time that the area was first inhabited during the Neolithic era. In recent centuries, its architecture has influenced the design of many public buildings in the Western hemisphere.
Immediately following the Persian war in the mid-fifth century BCE, the Athenian general and statesman Pericles coordinated the construction of the site’s most important buildings including the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Erechtheion, and the temple of Athena Nike.
In its heyday, the Parthenon featured a Doric facade and Ionic frieze interior, while the Doric Propylaea—the gateway to the Acropolis and an art gallery in the Classical era—lacked friezes and pedimental sculptures. The Ionic Erechtheion, believed to have been dedicated to the legendary King Erechtheus, features a porch supported by columnar caryatids. The Temple of Athena Nike, which celebrates Athenian war victories, was built in the Ionic order.
The sculptures from each of these buildings depict scenes specific to their historical and mythological significance to Athens.
After mastering the portrayal of naturalistic bodies from stone, Greek sculptors began to experiment with new poses that expanded the repertoire of Greek art. The sculptures of this later period are moving away from the Classical characteristics they still maintain: idealism and the Severe style.
Polykleitos is most well known for his Canon, depicted in the Doryphoros, but is also known for his Diadumenos and Discophoros. These two, sculpted athletes are also done in accordance with his canon and are depicted in contrapposto with chiastic poses.
Phidias was one of the most renowned sculptors of his time. He oversaw the sculptural program for the Athenian Acropolis and is also known for his giant chryselephantine cult statues of Zeus and Athena Parthenos.
Myron is a bronze sculptor of the High Classical period. His statues are known for being imbued with potential energy. His Discobolos is poised to spring, preparing to throw a discus. While still idealized, the figure appears to be frozen in an action of intense movement.
Adapted from “Boundless Art History” https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-arthistory/chapter/the-high-classical-period/ License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike
Both the latest and the most elaborate of the Classical orders of architecture. A defining element is the elaborate, carved capital, decorated with Acanthus leaves.
The level of a temple platform on which its columns stand.
Characterized by the acanthus leaf motifs on the capitals of the columns.
Of, or pertaining to, representations without human or animal form.
Any sculptured or richly ornamented band on a building.
Three vertically channelled tablets of the Doric frieze in classical architecture, so-called because of the angular channels in them.
A rectangular architectural element that fills the space between two triglyphs in a Doric frieze.
The earliest of the three Classical orders of architecture. Characterized by plain, unadorned column capitals and a column that rests directly on the stylobate of the temple without a base. The columns are fluted and are of sturdy, if not stocky, proportions.
The second architectural order. Notable for its graceful proportions, and fluted columns decorated with volutes.
The topmost part of a column.
The lintel area of a temple portico.
The triangular space left above the frieze by the shape of the roof at the narrowest ends of the temple.
A piece of artwork created by placing coloured squares (usually tiles) in a pattern to create a picture.
Small square pieces of stone, wood, ivory, or glass used for making a mosaic.
Italian term for the position of a figure whose hips and legs are twisted away from the direction of the head and shoulders. Also known as Chiastisc pose.
The dominant idiom of Greek sculpture in the period from 490 to 450 BCE. It marks the breakdown of the canonical forms of Archaic art and the transition to the expanded vocabulary and expression of the classical movement of the late 5th century.