Fortunately the artistic output of the ancient Greeks was extensive because most of it has now been lost. But enough remains in originals, fragments and copies that we are able to appreciate not only the volume of what was produced but also its quality. Life-sized or larger stone sculptures were not produced in Greece before 650 B.C. It was around that time that the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichos allowed two groups of Greeks (Ionians and Carians) to settle along the banks of the Nile River. The Greeks learned the art of large stone carving from the Egyptians although they used the limestone and marble available in Greece, not the harder porphyry and granodiorite favoured by the Egyptians. The Egyptian “look and feel” was initially adopted by the Greeks but they were not content for long to simply produce sculptures in a style that had served the East for many generations. Within a couple of centuries they had evolved their distinctive Greek approach and abandoned the Egyptian formula.
The Greeks used a variety of materials for their large sculptures: limestone, marble (which soon became the stone of choice- particularly Parian marble), wood, bronze, terra cotta, chryselephantine (a combination of gold and ivory) and, even, iron. The only material which has survived in any quantity is stone; the others were too precious or too fragile to survive the 25 centuries or so interval between the time of production and the present.
The stone sculptures of the ancient Greeks would not appear familiar to us today. Shortly after the pieces were carved they were painted either completely or in part. That was consistent with Egyptian practice and it may have made sense in the bright sunlight of Greece. The statues also were outfitted with a range of accessories that would have made them resemble figures in a modern wax museum. Hair and eyelashes were fashioned out of metal. Eyes were inset and were made of glass, ivory or coloured stones. Female figures were often outfitted with earrings and necklaces. Athletes would have been shown wearing the victor’s wreath while warriors would be equipped with spears, shields and swords. Horses would have worn bridles and reins. If you look closely you can often see the holes for attachment of these accessories.
The head and limbs of Greek stone statues were often made separately and attached to the statue torso using dowels and tenons of metal and stone. Occasionally, cement was used to fasten on smaller pieces.
The huge statues of deities such as Athena and Zeus that were made of gold and ivory- chryselephantine (chrys = gold; elephantine =ivory)- deserve particular mention. They were huge works of art by any standards and remind us that the primary purpose of Greek sculptures, at least initially, was religious. They were the temple centerpieces and their production cost rivaled or exceeded that of the temple which housed them. A large wooden core made up the body of the statue to which sheets of beaten gold (for the clothing) and ivory (for the flesh) was added. The statue then was always the target in times of war or economic uncertainty.
The victor in the various athletic festivals or his supporters often paid for a statue of the athlete, erected either at the festival site or in his hometown. In the case of the Spartan woman Kyniska who won the four-horse chariot race at the Olympics in 396 B.C. she had a bronze commemorative statue erected at Olympia. (Unfortunately only the fractured base and a part of the inscription text remains. As was often the case with large bronze sculptures it was likely melted down for the valuable metal.) The famous bronze charioteer from Delphi is one votive offering that did survive. In addition, statues were often commissioned in remembrance of an historical event. (e.g. the equally-famous Tyrannicides statues which commemorated the assassination of the tyrant Hipparchos) The need for private grave markers and memorials also contributed to the on-going demand for statues.
The evolution of Greek sculpture is a journey from the realm of the rigid and stylized towards the ideal of naturalism. Early figures resemble a mathematical formula executed in a hard and unyielding medium. It is as if the sculptures have emerged rigid from a frozen block of material. Late figures are far more relaxed and natural to the extent that one could easily imagine the statue taking a breath.
In the world of the ancient Greeks there was a very close relationship between sculpture and architecture. Both temples and sculptures were created in order to honour the gods and the sculptures were not just an embellishment of the temple; together they combined to form an integrated and harmonious whole. The Parthenon is a good example and modern Greeks have long made the point that the so-called Elgin marbles, now a centerpiece of the British Museum, were an inseparable part of the Parthenon and cry out to be reunited with the building.