In Focus

Greece: The Human Image

The following essay is from the 1996 publication Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art.

"There are many wonders in the world, but non more wonderful than man....

Language, thought swift as the wind, and the patterns of city life he has taught himself....

Only from death does he fail to contrive escape."

-Sophocles, Antigone


From the formative period of Greek culture represented in Homer's Iliad, where the gods appear in human guise, to the great creations of art and literature in fifth-century BCE Athens, the chief focus of Greek imagination was the human form. This essential humanism is the source of Western civilization.

The face that mankind cannot escape death, while the gods are athanatos (deathless), is critical to the understanding of Greek art. Beneath the idealized, geometrically conceived forms created by Greek painters and sculptors lies the stern sense that human beauty, glory, and happiness are fleeting things. An outstandingly successful man might call down upon himself the jealousy of the gods. The poet Anacreon memorializes a fallen warrior with this sharp vision of doomed brilliance: "Here lies Timocritas: soldier: valiant in battle/Ares spares not the brave man, but the coward" (Anacreon, Epitaph [trans. Fitts] 7.160).

The Archaic and Classical Greek works at the Dallas Museum of Art allow one to follow the increasing confidence and skill with which Greek artists represented their central subject, the human form. In both painting and sculpture, there was a clear progression from the sixth to the fifth century BCE in an artist's ability to create an image that was simultaneously faithful to observed visual reality and modeled in an ideal form. This creative work of imagination depended on an attempt by the artists to understand not only what human beings looked like, but what human life meant. During the Archaic period, the description of human figures is decorative: hair, clothes, jewelry, the disposition of limbs, the pattern of muscles in a nude male body- all form an ornamental design. The development of Early Classical art in the fifth century BCE, stimulated by the patriotic effort that drove the Persian invaders from Greek lands, concentrated on the inner strength, vitality, and drama in human life that go deeper than ornament. Ideal appearance and heroic mankind become one. This is still true in the later period of classicism represented by the DMA's Attic figure of a young man from a funerary relief. (1966.6)

Even in the ornamental art of the Archaic period, myths and religious ideas are treated with high seriousness. There is a tragic symbolism implicit in the main battle scene on the DMA's panel amphora (1965.29.M) where both the victorious Achilles and the vanquished Memnon are doomed to death, the fate of heroes. In one of the key moments of Homeric saga, the young Achilles chooses a short and glorious life rather than a long and inglorious one. By the end of the Trojan War, he, as well as his enemies, will be dead. The heraldic scene on the panel amphora therefore implies not merely the sad loss of the youth Antilochus, whose corpse the two warriors are disputing over, but the greater tragedy of war and the briefness of human life. In this scene, Eos and Thetis, the two maternal goddesses on either side of the warriors, resemble a chorus from Greek tragedy as they lament the inevitable downfall of their heroic sons.

Although the scene on the main side of this panel amphora is strictly two-dimensional and symmetrical, many of the details are trenchantly observed. The plumed helmet, for instance, is similar to the Corinthian-style bronze helmet (1966.8) in the DMA collection, and the weapons and sheilds would have been recognized by a Greek arms maker. Also, the stance of the warriors reflects the strain of battle, especially in the leg muscles. For Greek artists, the experimental effort to express reality went hand in hand with the will to produce formal order.

The culmination of this process may be seen in the fourth-century BCE funerary statue (1966.26), a gentler, more sinuous version of a classical nude figure. There is a slightly sentimental cast to this vision of a boy dead at the height of youthful beauty, since the complete monument would probably have included figures of his family mourning him. Yet the heroic idealization still stands. The boy's graceful young torso includes only the minimum detail needed to make him recognizably human: the arching chest, the muscles over the pelvic bones, the plangent kneecaps and feet. There are no personal details to obtrude on the modeling of raidant youth cut down in its prime. If the head had survived, it too would have had this timeless, impersonal quality.

In both the panel amphora and the funerary sculpture, there is an underlying balance of opposed forces. On the vase, the warriors and the fallen corpse in schematic opposition form a triangle framed by the two goddesses; while the sculpture has an internal balance in the young man's body, formed by the S curve of his torso, as well as the balance of probable father-son figures in the complete monument. This formal compositional balance is an outward expression of a more profound sense of balance in Greek culture, in which art and the mind of man triumph over the chaotic disorder of experience by achieving ideal form. In both works, the forces of life and death, of fate and human energy, meeting in an eternal balance of opposing forces. it is this vigorously resonating energy that animates the geometric severity of Greek art.

The human figure is central to the art of vase painting. From the earliest abstract decorations on proto-Geometric pottery to the splendid vase paintings of sixth-and fifth-century- BCE Thens, vase painters develooped a repertory of elegant figurative motifs, which were increasingly used to illustrate myths, events from epic poetry, religious cults, and scenes from everyday life. by the middle of the sixth century BCE, these scenes were predominantly about people; natural settings, buildings, chariots, and ships were merely subsidiary elements identifying where the human action was taking place. Since the gods were represented as human beings, marked only by attributes like Dionysus's drinking horn and vine leaf crown, religious scenes also center on the human form.

Vase painting was a commercially lucrative decorative art in antiquity, compared to the now lost art of monumental wall painting. The survival of many thousands of Greek vases in burials has had the happy result of preserving a very sophisticated art form that supplies an unparalleled picture of life in ancient Greece.

On the DMA band cup (1968.2), for instance, scenes of warriors and their horses indicate that the men's families were wealthy enough to own horses. Ordinary citizens in a Greek city-state were foot soldiers; aristocrats were horsemen. As on the DMA panel amphora (1965.29.M) for instance, scenes of warriors and thier horses indicate that the men's families were wealthy enough to own horses. Ordinary citizens in a Greek city-state were foot soldiers; aristocrats were horsemen. As on the DMA panel amphora, the scen gives a vivid view of the importance of warfare in a society where there was no central political organization and each Greek city-state might regularly fight its neighbors, as well as foreigners like the Persians or Scythians. The cup perhaps indicates something of the shift from single feudal heroes, like the warriors in Homer's Iliad, to the warriors who fought as an army to defend their city. The bright, jewel-like clarity of these scenes summons a world in which young men trained regularly as athletes so they would be agile soldiers.

The balance of forces seen in these works was believed to exist in the divine, as well as in the human world. Against the Olympian gods and the measured calm of Apollo-god of music, wisdom, and medicine, and patron deity of the holy Panhellenic shrine at Delphi- was set the darker, more ambiguous cult of Dionysus, god of wine and fertility. His orgiastic rituals supplied a release for irrational emotions to his followers, who believed themselves "possessed" by the god, as a modern voodoo worshiper might be. Dionysus, too, had his period of rule at Delphi. His presence in a shrine dominated by his half brother Apollo was an acknowledgment by the Greeks of balance between order and chaos in the cosmos. Dionysuss's name means "son of Zeus," indicating in part that the Dionysiac rites were seen as part of the Olympian order.

Since some of the most popular Greek vessels were the wine cups, mixing bowls, and coolers used for wine parties, or symposia, it is natural that the many fine vase paintings decorating such wares featured Dionysus and his attendant satyrs (man-animals) and maenads (crazed women). the rituals of Dionysus were a fundamental source of artistic energy and imagination in ancient Athens. Both comic and tragic drama were part of the recitals and performances at the yearly Dionysia festivals. The earlier padded dancers, called komasts, were also associated with Dionysus and shared in this creative saturnalia.

The DMA column krater (1972.22) has a large-scale depiction of Dionysus and his followers. The god appears majestic and upright, an unmoved mover of the tumultuous dance and riot around him. His maenad followers represent a release of feminine emotions rarely allowed in the highly formal and restrictive life led by respectable greek women, who were generally confined to their homes except during religious festivals. The Greeks recognized the importance of female deities, however, and in social life they respected the female followers of Dionysus. As Queen Agave in Euripides' play The Bacchae indicates, maenads might belong to the highest ranks of Greek society. Alexander the Great's mother, Queen Olympias, performed as a maenad. The image of Dionysus as a distinguished middle-aged bearded man, who both embodies and commands the forces of disorder, reappears in the bearded faces on the shoulders of the krater.

The ritual enactment of disturbing emotions appears even more strikingly resolved by art in the Museum's kothon, or tripod vase (1981.170). In the three scenes on the legs of the vessel, there are figures more or less closely connected with Dionysus, but also with highly valued pastimes like athletics. There are komast dancers, fighting boxers, and two male figures apparently involved in a homosexual affair. The exclusively male side of Greek society, with its emphasis on contest through war and sports and its unofficial acceptance of male lovers, appears in a context that is both realistic and ritualized. There is nothing really comic on the vase, even with the komast dancers; the scenes are a celebration of energy released in physical action, and the taut, musular outlines of the figures underline this exuberant vitality.

Two fine vases illustrate the contrast between the earlier black-figure style of painting and the mid-fifth-century-BCE red-figure style. The black-figure eye cup (1972.5) and the red-figure pyxis (1968.28.A-B) present the powerful contrast that existed between male and female life in ancient Athens. There is a similar contrast between the values assigned to both sexes by the Greeks, yet there are subtle hints of interactions between the two worlds.

The eye cup is so-called because there are pairs of eyes on the exterior of the cup to ward off evil. Since the vase is a kylix, or drinking cup, one might think that the evil to be averted is drunkenness or that one is more subject to harm while intoxicated. The drinking theme reappears in the scene on the lip, where a satyr ours wine for the reclining hero Heracles, and in the bunches of grapes around the handles. The two lip scenes are a distillation of male Greek life: heroic warfare (Heracles reaching for his sword) and the pleasures of male drinking parties (Heracles seated enjoying his wine). In the crisp elegance of the figurative scenes, the ornamental details, and the architecture of the vase, this vessel crystallizes the sensuous and sophisticated courtly society of Archaic Greece.

Inside the cup, however, is another protective image, the Gorgoneion, or Medusa head. This female demon, whose face could turn men to stone, was adopted by civilized Greek society, and it became a powerful apotropaic device-so much so that the goddess Athena was depicted wearing the Gorgon head on her breastplate. Mortal soldiers might wear it, too. As in the cult of Dionysus, what Greek men found disturbing or uncontrollable was objectified and controlled by artistic imagery. The demons of female sexuality or violence, like the Furies in Aeschylus's tragedy The Oresteia, were placated for men's purposes. The Gorgon here is ornamental, treated in a lighthearted way. As one drains the wine from the cup over and over, the consumer is slowly but surely altered by the drink, if not by the Gorgon head.

In contrast, the pyxis wholly represents the internal world of women and the family, within the shelter of a Greek home. The vessel is a cosmetic pot, ornamented with scenes of women, children, servants. and pet birds. Perhaps a wedding gift, the handsome vessel illustrates the elegance, warmth, and charm of Greek family life. There are hints of a more ritual character to the scenes, which may depict ceremonies prior to the marriage. To the Greek artist, women's lives, whether threatening or welcome, belonged to another realm of existence. What joins this pysix with the panel amphora (1965.29.M) and the funerary statue is the double implication of the door: the gateway to married life in the bridegroom's house and the gate of death, since pyxides were often left in women's graves as offerings for the dead. In the words of a Greek epitaph: "At the bride bed of star-crossed Petale/Hades, not Hymen, stood" (Antiphanes the Macedonian, Epitaph [trans. Fitts] 9.245).

Although the classical Greeks did not imagine a consoling life after death, death defined the meaning of life. Facing the end of light and happiness unflinchingly, Greek artists expressed the heartfelt pathos of man, the most glorious of creatures, who cannot avert the darkness.

Excerpted from

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 55-57.