The Beginnings and Geometric Greece - Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period - John Boardman

Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period - John Boardman (2016)

Chapter 1. The Beginnings and Geometric Greece

There is no difficulty in tracing the development of the classical tradition in Western art from Greece of the 5th century BC, through Rome, the Renaissance, to the modern world. Working backwards, to its origins, the story is no less clear, but it is extraordinarily varied and there are two views about what should be regarded as its starting point. Once the Geometric art of Greece was recognized as Greek, the steps by which it was linked to the Classical period were quickly discovered. This was the work of scholars of the end of the 19th century, who were at last able to show that Classical art was not a sudden apparition, like Athena springing fully armed from the head of Zeus, nor a brilliant amalgam of the arts of Assyria and Egypt, but independently evolved by Greeks in Greece, and its course only superficially conditioned by the influence and instruction of other cultures, however important these had been in the preceding three hundred years.

But even while the importance of Geometric Greece was being recognized, excavators such as Schliemann and Evans were probing deeper into Greece’s past. The arts of Minoan Crete and of Mycenae had to be added to the sum of the achievements of peoples in Greek lands, and now that it has been proved that the Mycenaeans were themselves Greek-speakers the question naturally arises whether the origins of Classical Greek art are not to be sought yet further back, in the centuries which saw the supremacy of the Mycenaean cities.

The problem has been to find links across the Dark Ages which followed the violent overthrow of the Mycenaean world in the 12th century BC. It would be idle to pretend that there are none. There was continuity of race, and of language (although not writing) and craft continuity, albeit at a fairly low level. Moreover, the Dark Ages are now not so dark, and there were some stirring architectural achievements and indications of artistic activity at a high level though of foreign aspect already in the 11th century. But the fact remains that Mycenaean art, which is itself but a provincial version of the arts of the non-Greek Minoans, is utterly different, both at first sight and in many of its principles, to that of Geometric Greece. For this reason our story begins within the not-so-Dark Ages, with Greek artists working out afresh, and without the overwhelming incubus of the Minoan tradition to stifle them, art forms which satisfied their particular temperament, and out of which the classical tradition was to be born.

For this reason the only picture here of Bronze Age, Mycenaean Greece is probably the most familiar one - the Lion Gate at the main entrance to the castle at Mycenae [14]. There is more, however, than its familiarity which suggests its inclusion. It was one of various monuments of Mycenaean Greece which must have remained visible to Greeks in the classical period, beside massive walls which they attributed to the work of giants. And it illustrates two features of Mycenaean art which were not learnt from the Minoans, and which the Minoans had never appreciated. Firstly, the monumental quality of the architecture, colossal blocks and lintels piled fearlessly to make the stout castle walls which the life of Mycenaean royalty found necessary. Secondly, the monumental quality of the statuary, impressive here for its sheer size rather than anything else, since the forms derived directly from the Minoan tradition which was essentially miniaturist and decorative. More than five hundred years were to pass before Greek sculptors could command an idiom which would again satisfy these monumental aspirations in sculpture and architecture. It reminds us too that, from the earth, the new Greeks could recover and admire, if seldom imitate, other artefacts of their heroic past.

14 The Lion Gate at Mycenae. Two lions, their heads missing, stand at either side of an altar supporting a column. The triangular gap filled by the relief slab helps relieve the weight of the great lintel. 13th century BC

The architectural achievement of the Dark Ages is a discovery of recent years: a large apsidal building of brick and timber over stone, built around 1000 BC at Lefkandi, a port on the central Greek island of Euboea [15]. It contained two rich, indeed royal burials, equipped with foreign exotica, so it has as much the role of a hero-shrine as of a palace. The exotica, from the Levant and Egypt, are the harbingers of an Orientalizing revolution of which there will be more to say. The Euboeans were hardy seafarers and there is reason to believe that their importance in this period was due at least as much to their own eastern adventures as to prospecting foreigners. They were to have a pioneering role in colonizing the west later, but for a fuller assessment of Greek art of the 10th to 8th centuries and the rebirth of Greek art after the fall of the Mycenaean world we have to turn elsewhere. Thus, the strange clay centaur found in the Lefkandi cemetery [16] has Eastern and perhaps mythical associations that can still tax us.

15 Reconstruction by J.J. Coulton of the ‘heroon’ at Lefkandi. Its form is palatial, in a Greek tradition, but it was found to contain rich pit burials of a warrior, a woman and a four-horse team, and the whole was soon covered with a mound. About 1000 BC. 47+ × 10 m

16 Clay centaur from Lefkandi (head found in one tomb, body in another). The form has both earlier and eastern associations, notably with Cyprus. The man-horse is soon adopted by Greek artists and becomes their ‘centaur’. We do not know whether it was identified as such so early, but a nick in its leg corresponds with the story of the wounding of the senior centaur Chiron. About 900 BC. Height 36 cm. (Eretria)

Athens seems to have become important only at the end of the Bronze Age, but the city dominates the story of the Geometric period. To some degree its Acropolis citadel had survived the disasters attendant on the destruction of other Mycenaean centres, and her countryside was to serve as a refuge for other dispossessed Greeks. It is on her painted clay vases that we can best observe the change that takes place, and since a substantial number of the pictures illustrating this book will be of decorated pottery, nowadays a somewhat recherché art form, it will be as well to explain why this is. Virtually all that we know about the art of these early centuries has been won from the soil, and the rigours of survival have determined what our evidence can be. Virtually no textiles, leather or woodwork survive, for one thing; and only by good fortune marble or bronze, since they were only too readily appreciated by later generations as raw material for their lime kilns or furnaces. But a clay vase, with its painted decoration fired hard upon it, is almost indestructible. It can be broken, of course, but short of grinding the pieces to powder something will remain. In an age in which metal was expensive, and glass, cardboard and plastics unknown, clay vessels served more purposes than they do today, and in Greece at least the artist found on them a suitable field for the exercise of draughtsmanship.

On the vases made in Athens (and to a lesser degree in other areas of Greece, including Euboea) in the 10th century BC, we see the simplest of the Mycenaean patterns, arcs and circles, which are themselves debased floral motifs, translated into a new decorative form by the use of compasses and multiple comb-like brushes which rendered with a sharp precision the loosely hand-drawn patterns of the older style [17]. A few other simple Geometric patterns are admitted, but because we have yet to reach the full Geometric style of Greece, this period is called Protogeometric. The vases themselves are better made, better proportioned, and the painted decoration on neck or belly is skilfully suited to the simple, effective shapes. The painters had not forgotten how to produce the fine black gloss paint of the best Bronze Age vases, and as the Protogeometric style developed we see more of the surface of the vase covered by the black paint. The vases that survive come mostly from tombs and there is little enough to set beside them, except for simple bronze safety-pins (fibulae) and some primitive clay and bronze figures, especially from Crete [18] where, again, some of the Minoan forms and techniques seem to have survived.

17 A Protogeometric amphora from Athens, with the characteristic concentric semicircles on the shoulder and wavy lines at the belly. These belly-handled vases were used for women’s graves. Early 9th century BC. Height 41 cm. (Athens, Ker.)

18 A janiform clay head from Crete which may have fitted into a carved wooden body and served as a cult idol or offering. The two faces (one male - at the back; one female?) were painted, 10th/9th century BC. Height 28 cm. (Oxford AE 1102)


The full Geometric period belongs to the 9th and 8th centuries BC. It begins with, or rather slowly develops from, the relative obscurity of the Protogeometric, and ends with a new, prosperous Greece of strong cities, whose merchants and families were already travelling far from the home waters of the Aegean to trade and settle, and whose nobles were already looking for something of the luxury and the trappings of court life as it was known in the older civilizations of the Near East and Egypt, and as it had been known in Greece’s own Golden Age of Heroes, the Bronze Age.

On the vases we soon begin to see a new repertory of patterns as well as the decorative development of old ones. The vases are girt by continuous bands of meanders, zigzags and triangles, to name only the most popular motifs [19]. The circles and semicircles are seen less often. The friezes are divided from each other by neat triple lines, and the patterns themselves may be drawn in outline and hatched. Several new vase shapes are introduced, as well as refinements of the old, to suit the more varied needs of a more prosperous and sophisticated community. While in the Protogeometric period the artist confined his decoration to clearly defined areas of the vase, the Geometric painter soon let friezes of zigzags and meanders cover the whole vessel, filling in the blank spaces of the earlier vases with strips of simple pattern. The overall effect is fussy, but precise, and the shape is still well enough expressed by setting the emphatic patterns at the neck, shoulder or between the handles. But it looks as though the artist was more intent on the patterns themselves, and variants upon them, to the detriment of the general effect of the vase as an expression of the wedded crafts of potter and painter. The zones are broken into panels with individual motifs of circles, swastikas or diamonds, and the resultant chequered appearance has a depressingly rhythmic and mechanical effect. There seems almost a divergence of purpose, perhaps already a specialization of role, potter and painter, and it is possible to find two painters’ hands on a single vase.

19 An Athenian Geometric crater with meanders, zigzags and early representations of horses. The lid knob is fashioned as a small jug. About 800 BC. Height 57 cm. (Louvre A 514)

All the patterns are more characteristic of the appearance of basketry or weaving than of brushwork, and this is surely their source of inspiration. Indeed, some basketry shapes are copied. This raises intriguing questions. Weaving and probably basketry were essentially women’s work; so, indeed, was potting in many early societies. Probably some of the enormous Late Geometric vases were beyond a woman’s strength to build, and the later, developed pottery industry seems to have been in the hands of men, but weaving was supported on a loom and normally remained women’s work. Was Geometric art the Greek woman’s first influential contribution to our subject? Was it also her last?

By the time these changes were being made, in the early 8th century, the painters had already begun to admit figure decoration to the vases, and this marks the introduction of the most fundamental element in the later tradition of classical art - the representation of men, gods and animals. It also introduces problems about the character of Geometric Greek art, best considered after we have observed its expression on the pottery. At first there are isolated studies of animals, even a human mourner (a woman), rather lost in the Geometric patterning; but soon the animals are repeated with identical pose to fill a frieze where before a meander or zigzag ran. And the effect is still of a Geometric frieze, with the grazing or reclining animals presenting a repetitive pattern of limbs and bodies, rather than individual studies. By the mid-century human figures were admitted too in scenes of some complexity. The finest appear in the main panels on the big funeral vases which stood (some a metre and a half high) marking graves in Athens’ cemeteries [20, 21]. Here we can best observe the way the artist treated his figure studies. It was an idiom which appears to have sprung from the discipline of the Geometric patterns and their sources, and it owes nothing immediately to the influence or example of other cultures, although similar conventions have been adopted in different parts of the world, including Greece, at different times. The parts of the body are rendered in angular sticks and triangles, blobs for the heads, bulging sausage-like thighs and calves, emphasizing the most important parts of the figure to indicate strength or swiftness. The whole figure is thus reduced to a Geometric pattern. All is rendered in plain silhouette and only later is an eye reserved within the head, and strands of hair shown, as well as chins, noses, fingers and breasts. The artist paints what he (or in this context I should say he/she) knows of the figures, not what he sees, and though he would not show both eyes in a profile head, still, in chariot groups, all legs, tails and necks of horses are painted, and the two wheels put side by side. On the funeral bier the chequered shroud, lifted over the corpse, is cut away to show clearly the body beneath.

20 An Athenian grave-marking crater (for a man) with funeral scenes. The dead man lies on a bed carried on a chariot, with a shroud poised over him. The mourning women, left and top right (breasts shown by strokes at either side of the triangle torsos), tear their hair. Helmets are reduced to a crest only but we see both chariot wheels and all the horses’ legs, tails and necks. The men carry old-fashioned, light, body-covering shields (Dipylon type). About 750 BC. (Athens 990)

21 This large amphora stood marking a woman’s grave in Athens. The centre panel shows the dead laid out on a bier with mourners at either side. On the neck two of the friezes are of repeated animal figures. About 750 BC. Height 1.55 m. (Athens 804)

Action, like fighting, is shown easily enough with these stick figures and their spears, swords and bows; and emotion is translated into action - like the mourners tearing their hair. On the grave vases we see the body laid out for burial (prothesis), or the bier carried by carts to the cemetery (ekphora): the centrepiece flanked by rows of mourners so that the whole still forms a symmetrical, Geometric composition, although it is also telling a story or setting a scene. Sea fights are shown on some vases, vivid illustration of days in which Greek merchants and colonists were probing the shores of the Mediterranean, and Athens herself, though no colonizer, was sending her wares into distant waters or indulging the ‘non-reciprocal exchange’ of piracy.

On the smaller vases too these figure scenes become more and more common [22]. Here we are offered the earliest and clearest expression of that interest in narrative art which is another essential part of the classical tradition and demands a moment’s attention although it will be repeatedly recalled. In literature it is expressed first in the Homeric poems, and it is no accident that it is just at this time that Homer must have been giving expression in epic form to those stories and plays about the Age of Heroes which were to continue to inspire artists - poets, dramatists, sculptors and painters - for centuries to come. Some of the protagonists on the vase scenes might be identified as heroes of popular Greek myths in characteristic exploits - such as Heracles’ encounter with the Lion [23]. Others might illustrate heroic episodes - duels at Troy, the shipwreck of Odysseus, but on this threshold of true narrative art in Greece it is easy to be over-optimistic and over-anxious to identify myth in what may be scenes of every day, of cult, or of foreign inspiration.

22 Athenian Geometric cup (kantharos). In the main frieze a man leads away a woman, a duel, a pair of lions tear a warrior in two (an old eastern motif) and a lyre-player encounters two water-girls. About 720 BC. Height 17 cm. (Copenhagen 727)

23 An Athenian pot stand. The frieze has warriors with alternately old (Dipylon) and new (round, as later for hoplites) shields. A man confronts a rearing lion: an eastern motif perhaps interpreted by a Greek as Heracles with the Lion. About 700 BC. Height 17.8 cm. (Athens, Ker. 407)

Foreign goods and foreign craftsmen were reaching Greek shores with mounting effect. We may judge this more readily in arts other than vase painting, never a favourite in the East, but the lions on Geometric vases are heralds of the new age, borrowed and translated from the arts of the Near East. It is likely enough that this whole phenomenon of developing a mainly figure art was inspired by Eastern example, but the Greeks were quick to seize its new potential. There are scenes and groups which echo the easterner’s reliefs, but the translation to a wholly different idiom is total, and the idiom itself may not be completely explained as a simple application of geometry to the problems of the figure. The last of the Mycenaean Greeks practised a stylized figure art which is superficially similar, and it might be wise not to underestimate the debt of Geometric Greek art to a past which was increasingly occupied by poets and priests, just as it is certainly unwise to underestimate its sophistication.

At the end of the Geometric period the rigid silhouette drawing is loosened, detail is admitted, the lavish and intricate patterns of frieze and panel are subdued. In other parts of Greece local schools had followed Athens’ lead, and some evolved styles of some independence and merit. The nature of such dependence or inspiration is not easy to fathom, nor their significance. A shared visual experience of pattern and design does not need to be the accompaniment to other shared social experience or structure, though it is likely to be. Simple geography determining local markets may be a major factor. Argos (in south Greece) and nearby towns were prominent, with a range of rustic figure scenes and pattern panels, often ill-composed on the architecture of the vase [24]. Crete and the islands have distinctive styles in Geometric painting, and in some parts of Greece (as in the eastern Aegean) such styles died hard. In the next chapter we shall see what replaced the Geometric decoration on pottery, but it is worth remembering that the patterns long remained popular, and that the basic, architectonic, principle of Geometric decoration was never forgotten; indeed it is one of the underlying factors in Greek art of all periods.

24 A crater from a grave at Argos. Men lead horses, with devices below them recalling yokes of carts or chariots. Watery motifs between and around. In Homer ‘thirsty Argos’ was horse-rearing country. About 700 BC. Height 47 cm. (Argos C 201)


The figure style of the Geometric vases reappears on many other objects, in other materials. We know about these from the richer gifts which now accompany burials, and from their appearance as offerings in sanctuaries - both the national sanctuaries at Delphi and Olympia which attracted dedications from all over the Greek world and sometimes outside it, and the local shrines. Their relevance to the life of the craftsman can be judged by the fact that many seem to have been made locally to serve the visiting market. This indicates a degree of specialization to serve religious needs as well as the obvious domestic ones, of life or cult (funerals), that were the stock occupation of craftsmen at home.

Figures resembling the more elaborate painted examples are found incised on the flat catchplates or bows of safety-pins (fibulae) found in Athens and Euboea as early as the 9th century, and made in a more elaborate form in Boeotia towards the end of our period [25]. There are simpler figures impressed on gold bands found on the bodies of the dead, but these succeed a more thoroughgoing Orientalizing type with animal friezes. Another early intimation of the influence of the Near East is the resumption of seal-engraving in Greece. There are 9th-century seals of ivory and in the 8th century stone ones made in the islands - simple square stamps with designs which are wholly Geometric and not Eastern in spirit [26].

25 Bronze safety-pin (fibula), its pin missing, made in Boeotia about 700 BC but found in Crete. One side of the catchplate shows a duel over a ship; the other, a hero fighting twin warriors. Length 21 cm. (Athens 11765)

26 Impression of a Geometric stone seal showing a centaur (horse-man) attacked by a bowman, possibly Heracles. Width 2.2 cm. (Paris, BN M 5837)

Bronze figurines, seldom more than ten centimetres high, include some stylish figures of horses and stags, which, although they are solid-cast in the round, strongly resemble the cut-out or flat hammered figurines from which they probably derive. Occasionally more elaborate groups are composed of such figures - mares or deer with their young [27], a centaur-like monster fighting a god. Telling a story in three dimensions was more of a novelty than we might credit today. Other bronze figurines, cast solid from an individual mould, are rendered in a much freer, plastic style, and reflect the easy modelling of soft clay or wax. Still, their broad shoulders and elongated bodies closely match painted figures on vases [28]. The bronzes are generally of naked men, perhaps intended to represent a god - Zeus at Olympia - and may be equipped with helmet, spear and shield. Rarely we find groups, such as a lion-hunt, or action figures, like a helmet-maker squatting at his work, or a charioteer. In the lion-hunt from Samos [30] the artist has given the monster elephantine legs, but appropriately massive jaws and shoulders. Many figurines of men and horses were intended as decorative attachments to the rims of bronze cauldrons [29]. These magnificent vessels were valuable offerings which stood on slender tripod legs. They were at first cast, with simple decorative patterns, and later worked with figure scenes in relief, or hammered and impressed with Geometric patterns. There are comparatively few small bronze vases. The metal was still somewhat scarce, and had to meet a growing demand for dedications and, soon, the new types of all-bronze armour.

27 Bronze group of a deer with a fawn, a bird on the deer’s rump. A small votive offering from Samos. About 725-700 BC. Height 7 cm. (Boston 98.650)

28 Bronze warrior from Karditsa in north Greece. His spear is missing; he wears the light Dipylon shield at his back, otherwise only a belt and cap-helmet. About 700 BC. Height 28 cm. (Athens 12831)

29 Bronze figure supporting the circular handle on the rim of a bronze cauldron dedicated at Olympia soon after 700 BC. Height of figure 37 cm. (Olympia B 2800)

30 Bronze group from Samos of a helmeted hunter with his dog attacking a lion, its prey in its mouth. About 725-700 BC. Height 9 cm. (Samos)

In clay, apart from the simplest figures which show little sophistication, there are oddities like the bell-shaped idols of Boeotia which were painted like vases [32], and some far more elaborate works in which the features are picked out in paint while the whole heads are careful geometricized studies, far more detailed than the most elaborate of the bronzes [31].

31 Clay head from a temple at Amyclae, near Sparta: a warrior wearing a conical helmet. About 700 BC. Height 11 cm. (Athens)

32 Clay figure of a woman from Boeotia. Her legs are suspended within, as though in a bell. The decoration is as on vases but the impression is given that she holds branches and has a comb hanging from her necklet. About 700 BC. Height 39.5 cm. (Louvre CA 573)

Already in the 8th century Greece offers an assemblage of arts and techniques which begins to recall the variety of Mycenaean art, even if not the riches of Mycenae itself. The Lefkandi building shows that architecture was not always unpretentious, but for the most part we find, at best, one-roomed houses of mud brick with columned porches, and rare examples of larger complexes which just recall the simplest plans of Mycenaean palaces (as in Andros). There are some clay models made in Corinth [33], Argos, Thera and Crete, which give an idea of the upper works of the one-roomed houses: apsidal or rectangular in plan with steep thatched roofs or, in Crete, like a cube with a flat roof, a central chimney and a bench or sleeping-platform at the back. The walls are patterned but we cannot say that this was true to life.

33 Restored clay model of an apsidal shrine or house found in the sanctuary at Perachora and probably made in Corinth. The painted decoration suggests thatch, but the meanders may just be borrowed from pot decoration. Late 8th century BC. Height 33 cm. (Athens)

Several features of the Geometric Age are clearly more than a matter of natural, local evolution from Protogeometric. We have speculated already on the debt Geometric art itself owed to the East and remarked other tokens of new influences which invited the artist to exercise new crafts and new forms. His response and the resultant revolution in the physical appearance of the arts in Greece are subjects for our next chapter, parts of which overlap chronologically what has been described in this.