ConsultantDr Peter StewartUniversity of Oxford

The Midas touch?

For thousands of years the art of the ancient Greeks has been held up as the yardstick by which later art is judged. It has shaped our ideas of what perfection should look like.

Adapted and passed down through different civilisations, the echo of the ancient Greeks is with us today – from our ideas of the body beautiful to buildings that speak of grandeur and power. Why does Greece still define beauty for the modern world?

c. 600BC

Origins of Greek art

John Elk/ Lonely Planet/Getty

Kouros statue

Kouros statue from around 600BC. The statues were often depicted as if they were walking.

Although the art of ancient Greece still shapes our idea of what art should look like, classical Greek art itself was a product of many influences.

The legacy of cultures pre-dating the Greeks can be seen in early statues. Stone figures called kouroi – or youths – were common. With their rigid stature and heavily stylised sense of human anatomy, they displayed the influence of the ancient Egyptians. Over the following centuries Greek artists would develop their own style – one that strove to capture the human body in as lifelike a form as possible.

Kouroi at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art

510BC

Capturing the human form

De Agostini Picture Library

Amphora with Dionysos, satyrs and maenads

Amphora with satyrs and maenads. Amphora were used to hold wine and foodstuffs.

The rise of Greek city states and the birth of democracy in Athens saw an explosion in the arts as Greece entered its golden age.

For ancient Greeks capturing the workings of the human body in art became very important. Few large paintings survive from this age, but pot-paintings and sculptures show how Greek art developed. New techniques saw artists depicting the body in ever more realistic ways – in action, at rest and even engaged in erotic acts. This obsession with capturing the human body was to profoundly influence all art that followed.

The Louvre: Greek sculpture and the human body

447BC–432BC

The pinnacle of Greek civilisation?

Aaron Geddes Photography

The Parthenon, Athens

The Parthenon remained largely intact until the 17th Century.

For many the high point of Greek art can be found overlooking Athens. The Parthenon is one of the best known buildings in the world.

Originally a temple to the goddess Athena, the Parthenon featured tapered columns and extraordinary, lifelike sculptures that had a huge influence on art. Built when Athens was at the height of its power, the Parthenon became the architectural role model for future civilisations that revered Greek culture - from ancient Rome, to Britain at the height of empire, to 19th Century Washington DC.

British Museum: The Parthenon and its sculptures

Man is the measure of all things.

Protagoras

350BC

Capturing beauty

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Praxiteles' original statue created a sensation in its day. Clip: Treasures of Ancient Greece BBC Four.

In the statue of the goddess Aphrodite at Cnidus, the sculptor Praxiteles created the first female nude statue.

With the original statue long since lost, we only know how she looked due to the many Roman copies that were made of her. Nicknamed 'the mother of a million nudes', the beauty and lifelike pose of the Aphrodite statue has inspired artists for over 2000 years. Much imitated by later artists, Praxiteles' vision remains the ideal of female beauty even today.

J Paul Getty Museum: Aphrodite

146BC

Greek becomes Roman

Hulton Getty

Caesar Augustus statue

Prima Porta statue of Augustus Caesar. The head, face, hair and overall pose hark back to ancient Greek origins.

The rise of the Roman empire saw the Romans adopt the culture, art and traditions of the ancient Greeks.

In 146BC, Roman victory at the battle of Corinth signalled the dominance of Rome over the Greek world. The conquering Romans embraced Greek art. Key features of an early Greek athletic statue, the Doryphoros of Polykleitos are revisited centuries later in this statue of the Emperor Augustus. For the Romans the art of the Greeks far surpassed their own and they claimed to be its natural heirs. They also spread Greek art around their vast empire and left traces for future generations to discover.

Prado Museum: Greece's influence on Roman art

c. 600AD

Greek art in the east

De Agostini Picture Library

The Barberini ivory

The Byzantine Barberini Ivory from the 6th Century AD has been attributed to a royal workshop in Constantinople.

The end of the Roman Empire saw the influence of Greek art diminish in Western Europe. However, it continued to flourish in the east.

The eastern part of the Roman Empire survived Rome’s collapse and became known as the Byzantine Empire. Based in Constantinople – modern-day Istanbul – it was Greek-speaking and still influenced by Greek-inspired Roman art. Byzantine art, through pieces such as the Barberini ivory carving, continued in the Roman style and so helped to keep the artistic legacy of the Greeks alive.

The Louvre: The Barberini IvoryBritish Museum: The Byzantine Empire

We Greeks are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in our tastes.

Thucydides

1506

Rediscovering the Greeks

Stefano Baldini/Getty

Laocoon and his sons statue

The statue of Laocoön and his sons was discovered in Rome in 1506. It was bought by Pope Julius II and is now part of the Vatican collection.

Western Europe had to wait until the Renaissance to rediscover the art of the ancients – and with it the influence of the Greeks.

Art from antiquity was being dug up and rediscovered. Forgotten for centuries, these unearthed masterpieces inspired Renaissance painters and sculptors such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo to master the realism and energy that they found in ancient statues. The art of the Renaissance spread the influence of Greek art around Europe. For generations to come classical art – as Greek and Roman art became known – was viewed as the essential model for new art.

Vatican Museums: Laocoön

1600

From stone to paint

Leemage/Getty

he Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as painted by Peter Paul Rubens.Getty 112189911

The Greek myth of the lovers Orpheus and Eurydice as painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1636/1637.

The influence of the art of the ancient Greeks extended beyond sculpture and into painting.

From the Renaissance onwards, European painters such as Rubens grappled with the same concerns that drove the ancient Greeks – how to realistically capture the human body in all its complexity. Creating movement and drama and the feeling of living, breathing flesh on a flat canvas was seen as extremely difficult. Copying the art of earlier Renaissance artists – who had been directly influenced by ancient art – kept Greek art alive in new forms for centuries.

National Gallery: Peter Paul RubensBBC iWonder: Did Rubens make big beautiful?

1786

Greek art in the home

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The 18th Century saw a renewed interest in classical design. Clip: Treasures of Ancient Greece (BBC Four).

By the end of the 17th Century the sons of the wealthy were going on extended educational visits across Europe called Grand Tours.

Greek art found in Italy became popular and whole generations were able to see the ruins and other artefacts first-hand. At home many of these tourists commissioned local artisans to make replicas of the art they had seen. Pottery-maker Josiah Wedgwood capitalised by creating vases based on ancient Greek vases that had themselves found their way into the stately homes of the wealthy.

Wedgwood Museum: Neoclassicism in the 18th Century

Art completes what nature leaves unfinished.

Aristotle

1825

Symbols of culture and empire

Johnnie Pakington

The British Library

The British Museum was designed in Greek Revival style by Sir Robert Smirke.

Built from 1823 to 1846 and inspired by Greek temples, the British Museum summed up Britain’s importance as an imperial power.

The building's connection to ancient Greece extended beyond its columns and Greek exterior, though. Soon after 1800 marble sculptures had been removed from the ruins of the Parthenon and shipped to Britain. Since referred to as the Elgin Marbles after the British lord who removed them, they were housed in the British Museum. Much like the ancient Romans, Britain copied Greek art and claimed to be the heir to ancient Greek civilisation.

British Museum: Architecture of the museum

1930s

Old ideas and new orders

INTERFOTO / Alamy

Adolph Hitler and the discobolus statue. Alamy: DB3X74

The imagery of the discobolus statue featured in Leni Riefenstahl's film covering the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin.

In its plans for a European empire, Nazi Germany also harked back to the art and culture of the ancient Greeks.

One particular piece – a statue of a discus thrower – so inspired Hitler that he bought it for the German nation. In the muscular white marble figure Hitler saw an ideal that he wanted to recreate in Germany – a nation of strong, pure people and a civilisation that could live up to the high standards of the ancients. During these dark years, German art was forced to echo Greek and Roman classical art. Other forms of art were called degenerate and were banned.

BBC Culture: Greeks, Nazis and the body beautiful

Present day

Full circle?

FUTURE LIGHT

Detail of the Elgin Marbles

The Elgin Marbles are one of the most important collections of classical art in existence.

There have been calls for the Elgin Marbles - viewed today as the embodiment of classical Greek art - to be returned to Greece.

The Marbles, much like the Parthenon itself, have become a symbol of Greek pride and nationality. When the new Acropolis Museum opened in 2009 visitors were quick to realise that space had been set aside for the ‘absent’ sculptures. In a world where their legacy could be seen everywhere, the argument has been made for the ancient Marbles to return to their place of origin in Greece.

BBC News: How did the Elgin Marbles get here?

Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.

Pericles of Athens