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The Hellenistic period begins right around 323 BC with the death of Alexander the Great. Art during this time started to move away from the typical classical ideals, with artists of the time infusing their works with new stylistic choices. Jewelry became more elaborate; sculptures became more dramatic, almost theatrical, and architecture broke the rules, becoming grander. For a small taste of what the Hellenistic period has to offer in terms of art, we’ve curated a list of 12 incredible works of art.
Hellenistic art represented people of all ages – from the young to the old (see Old Market Woman below) – doing age-appropriate things, whether playing or sleeping, as seen in the bronze statue of Eros Sleeping. In this charming statue, the god of love, Eros, is a chubby baby who is sound asleep without a care in the world. An excellent example of this type of work, it was also a very popular statue in its time, as there have been many confirmed examples discovered and not only from the Hellenistic period but also Roman times. See this one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The below work is a Roman copy created in the 1st or 2nd century AD; however, it is a copy of the bronze version created sometime during the 3rd century BC. The original Dying Gaul was created to signify the victory of Attalos I, the King of Pergamon, over the Gauls, and while the bronze version is gone, we do have many copies. Indeed, there are various copies throughout the world of this sculpture, which shows the dying Gaul lying on his shield and bleeding out of a visible gash on his chest. It’s dramatic, as his body posture shows that he has nothing left in him – he’s broken and tired. This work is on display at the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
Like the Dying Gaul, the original sculpture of the Gaul Killing Himself and His Wife is lost; however, we also have copies so that it is not lost forever. The version seen below is from the 2nd century AD, with the original being made sometime between 230 and 220 BC. A sculpture that exudes emotion, viewers see a man who had just killed his wife so that she wouldn’t be sold into slavery and is in the process of taking his own life by plunging a sword deep into his chest. A powerful, tragic scene, this sculpture was also created for Attalos I’s victory over the Gauls. Visit this one in person at the Museo Nazionale di Roma, Palazzo Altempts, in Rome.
Sculpted sometime between 230 and 200 BC, the Barberini Faun, named in the 17th century when it was discovered in Rome, depicts a drunken satyr who is sound asleep. Portraying figures as sleeping was something new in Hellenistic art, as the artists of the time were interested in the dream world, moving away from the rational Classical period. The sculpture is blatantly sexual, with the satyr lying back, legs spread apart with his genitals prominently on display – there is no hiding the eroticism in the work. To see the Barberini Faun in person, visit the Glyptothek in Munich.
Earring, pendants, necklaces, arm bands, thigh bands – these are just some of the types of jewelry produced during the Hellenistic period. People who could afford these gorgeous gold pieces of wearable art, much of which was adorned with gems and semiprecious stones (think garnets, chalcedony, and emeralds), often wore matching sets of jewelry. One standout example of Hellenistic jewelry is the set of bracelets from the Olbia treasure – a town in present-day Ukraine where these along with other pieces were discovered in a tomb. These stunning gold bracelets feature cloisonné work, garnet, amethyst, and pearl to name a few. While these are not currently on view, they are in the permanent collection of The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.
Created for the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, located on the island of Samothrace, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, also known as Nike of Samothrace, is one of the masterpieces of Hellenistic art. Stepping away from the Classical ideals of sculpture –proportioned correctly and static – Hellenistic sculpture veers toward movement, ideally seen in this sculpture. Located at the Louvre in Paris, the stunning piece of art features Nike in motion, with the wind propelling her dress to flow and hug her body. Missing her head and arms – they’ve never been recovered – she stands strong on a pedestal representing the prow of a warship.
After the death of Alexander and the breakup of his empire, a Hellenistic acropolis started to form, and its name was Pergamon. As with many kingdoms, it was important to embellish the cities, demonstrating not only their power but also their wealth; therefore, it should come as no surprise that Pergamon, the kingdom of Attalos II and located in Asia Minor, would have something spectacular like the Great Altar of Pergamon. A massive monument, the west side of the altar was excavated and painstakingly moved and reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany (unfortunately, currently under restoration until 2019). The altar is on a platform and features an Ionic colonnade and 400-foot-long sculpted frieze telling the story of the battle of Zeus and the gods against the giants. This architectural marvel is the epitome of Hellenistic art.
Another stunning Hellenistic sculpture located in the Louvre, the Venus de Milo, also known as Aphrodite de Milo, was discovered in 1820 on the island of Melos. Unlike many of the artworks of this time, we know the artist who created this beauty, Alexanders of Antioch-on-the-Meander, as when first discovered, the sculpture was found with a base, which has the artist’s name (the base is now lost). Also lost are her arms and the metal jewelry with which she was adorned. Comprised of several pieces held together with vertical pegs, the break from Classical sculpture is evident in this piece: it much more erotic, with her clothing falling around her sensual curves; her body displays a spiral positioning, and her torso is elongated.
Many people can’t help but smile when they see this playful sculpture of Aphrodite, Eros and Pan, located at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, as it appears that both Aphrodite and Eros are smiling and laughing. Discovered on the island of Delos, Aphrodite holds one of her sandals in her right hand to beat off the part-human, part-goat Pan while her left hand is covering her genitals. Meanwhile, Eros – once again depicted as a plump baby – floats above, grabbing one of Pan’s horns trying to pull him away from his mother; he is in protection mode.
Located in the Vatican, Laocoön features Laocoön, a Trojan priest, and his sons, and has been described as ‘one of the finest examples of the Hellenistic baroque.’ Depending on sources, experts believe this tragic yet beautiful piece was created sometime between 175 BC and the early first century BC by several artists: Athanadoros, Hagesandros, and Polydoros of Rhodes. We do know, however, that it was excavated in 1506 and shows the dramatic moment when Laocoön and his sons were attacked by snakes and suffocated after trying to expose the Trojan Horse. The piece is brimming with intense emotion, with bodies twisting and faces in agony and screaming out in pain. It is incredibly terrifying.
Not surprisingly, not a lot of paintings (frescoes) survive from the Hellenistic era; however, there are some mosaics that have survived, even if only in bits and pieces. One of the best-preserved mosaics from this period is the Alexander Mosaic, which is a floor mosaic that was originally located in Pompeii’s House of the Faun and depicts a battle scene between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia. A unique thing about this piece is that experts believe it was based on a Hellenistic painting from the third century BC due to the incredible detail present in the artwork. Today, the preserved mosaic is located in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy.
Another way Hellenistic sculpture changed from Classical works is that older people were now represented as well. When thinking of Classical art, you might think of ideal beauty, bodies at their prime; however, Hellenistic art looks at all aspects – wrinkles and all. One such example of this can be seen in the Old Market Woman, depicting an elderly woman who has lived a long life, and by the looks of it, probably a hard one as well. Wearing tattered clothing, she is taking her goods to the market to sell so that she can continue to survive. See this excellent example at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.