4 Seminal Examples of Hellenistic Sculpture

Artwork(s) In Focus, Top Lists

March 15, 2021

Looking slightly closer at any art history overview, the prevailing impression is that the main inspiration for any source of Western art-making comes from Antiquity. From the Romans to Middle Ages, and then revitalized during the Renaissance, the ancient Greek art (especially the one produced during the Hellenistic period) had an essential role in shaping the canon in Western sculpture, painting, and architecture.

A quick rewind to Hellenistic art reveals a period that starts after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and essentially ends around 30 BCE, with the conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt following the Battle of Actium. The term "Hellenistic" refers to the expansion of Greek influence, characterized by the dissolution of Alexander's empire into smaller dynastic empires that promoted a form of the state-funded patronage different than the one practiced by the city-states. During this time the art production thrived (within the above-mentioned disciplines, as well as in fine arts), and this period is the last chapter of the continuum classified as Ancient Greek art.

To revisit this astounding historical chapter and underlines the full splendor of that art, we decided to feature four seminal examples of Hellenistic sculpture.

Featured image: Pergamon Altar at Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Image creative commons.

Laocoön and His Sons

The first Hellenistic sculpture on our list the famed Laocoön and His Sons, also known as the Laocoön Group. After it was excavated in Rome in 1506, it immediately went on display in the Vatican where it stands still today. The figures are near life-size and they form the group a little over 2 meter high that depicts the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents.

This sculptural formation is highly regarded in Western art and is considered the prototypical icon of human agony. The torment is accentuated through the contorted expressions of the faces of the figures followed by their struggling bodies.

It remained undetermined whether Laocoön and His Sons is an original work or a copy of an earlier sculpture made for a Greek or Roman commission. The lead proposition is that the sculpture was probably commissioned for the home of a wealthy Roman, possibly a member of the Imperial family, while the dates vary on the scale from about 200 BC to the 70s AD.

Featured image: Laocoön and his sons, also known as the Laocoön Group. Marble, copy after a Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506. Image creative commons.

Venus de Milo

Venus de Milo is an iconic ancient Greek statue attributed to the sculptor Praxiteles, but after the inscription that was on its plinth, it is now thought to be the work of Alexandros of Antioch. This marble sculpture slightly larger than life-size at 203 cm depicts the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, although some believe it embodies Amphitrite, the sea goddess.

Following the discovery of Venus de Milo, part of an arm and the original plinth were lost. Despite the genuine representation of a Greek divinity, the statue is named after Aphrodite's Roman name, Venus, and the Greek island of Milos, where it was found in 1820 by a peasant named Yorgos Kentrotas, inside a buried niche within the ancient city ruins of Milos.

The scholars agreed that the statue was found in two large pieces (the upper torso and the lower draped legs) along with several herms, fragments of the upper left arm and left hand holding an apple, and an inscribed plinth. Venus de Milo became increasingly popular during the nineteenth century thanks to the French authorities which returned the sculpture to the Italians after it had been looted by Napoleon Bonaparte. It was praised by numerous artists and critics as the epitome of female beauty. The great figures of Modernism such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir and later Salvador Dalí were exceptionally influenced by Venus de Milo.

This notable sculpture is part of the permanent display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Featured image: Front view of the Venus de Milo. Image creative commons.

Winged Victory of Samothrace

The Winged Victory of Samothrace, also known as the Nike of Samothrace, is a marble statue that embodies Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, was produced around the 2nd century BC. Ever since 1884, the same was part of a permanent display at the Louvre and is one of the most adored sculptures in the world.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace was discovered in 1863. The scholars debated about the approximate dating of the sculpture for a long time, some of them suggesting it was a Rhodian monument honoring the victories at Side and Myonessos in 190 BC probably carved by the Rhodian sculptor Pythocritus. These considerations were rejected by the mid-2010s, with the new reconstructions of the sculpture, but the question of why the statue was dedicated to Samothrace, remained unsolved.

The statue is 244 centimeters high, and alongside honoring the goddess, Nike, it probably commemorated the naval action. The flowing drapery alludes to the goddess descending to position itself on the prow of a ship. Related to this impression are the latest excavations which suggest that the Victory was positioned in a niche above a theater or that it was part of an altar belonging to the ship monument of Demetrius I Poliorcetes (337–283 BC). As a matter of fact, initially, the figure originally was part of the Samothrace temple complex devoted to the Great gods, Megaloi Theoi as it stood on a pedestal of gray marble from Lartos representing the prow of a ship.

Featured image: The Winged Victory of Samothrace, also called the Nike of Samothrace, is a 2nd-century BC marble sculpture of the Greek goddess Nike (Victory). Image creative commons.

Barberini Faun

The last Hellenistic sculpture on our list is the Barberini Faun. or Drunken Satyr. This magnificent life-size statue features, as the title suggests, a faun or according to the Greek mythology, a satyr, a half-human, half-animal male woodland spirit that often escorts the god of fertility and wine, Dionysus.

The scholars suggest that the sculpture was either produced by an unknown sculptor who was part of the Pergamene school, in the late third or early second century BC, or it is a high quality Roman copy - despite the fact its present form is a result of numerous restorations. Barberini Faun was excavated in the 1620s in the moat surrounding the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, which was erected on the ruins of Hadrian’s Mausoleum.

The sculpture was documented for restoration in 1628 when it already belonged to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the Pope's nephew. The statue was quite damaged when discovered, and the right leg, parts of both hands, and parts of the head were missing; for instance, the famous art historian, Johann Winckelmann, speculated that the statue was used as a projectile in different combats that took place on the site. It was also suggested that the restorations of the Barberini Faun increased the sexual aspect of the statue, and for that reason, it gained the status of erotic artwork.

The statue was located in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome until it was sold in 1799 to the sculptor and restorer Vincenzo Pacetti, until Faun was eventually bought by Ludwig, Crown of Bavaria. The eccentric ruler planned the work to be installed in a special room in the Glyptothek in Munich where it still remains.

Featured image: Sleeping Satyr, or the Barberini Faun. Marble copy by a Hellenistic sculptor of the Pergamene school or a Roman sculptor, of a bronze original. Image creative commons.