15 April 2023

What is Hellenistic art? – Characteristics and period of this art

By Donald

Art can be expressed in many ways, such as literature or music, but when talking about ancient civilizations, sculpture, painting and architecture stand out. This article explains what is hellenistic art and where it comes from. In the same way, some of the works from this period that survived to this day are named, as well as others that have already disappeared but are relevant.

What is Hellenistic art?

Ancient art is of great importance in the world, because through it today’s Western culture was formed. In this sense, when talking about the beginning of culture, the focus is always placed on the Hellenic or Hellenistic period. Well, Greek society was the one that promoted the development of Western societies. Although, there was a period when Hellenistic art was considered pagan or impure, not by a critical figure, such as an art curator, but by church and state.

The first thing to clarify is that when talking about Hellenistic art, reference is made to all kinds of artistic expression that is inspired by ancient Greece. Well, the Greeks used to be called Hellenes, because the Achaeans lived in a city whose title was Hellas. So, the Greek and Hellenic title of culture or art have the same meaning.

However, despite the fact that ancient Greece saw the beginning of these expressions, Hellenistic art does not only include works that were made at the time of the wars and the Greek empire. In this sense, the Hellenistic period is extensive in time and includes any work that is inspired by said art, such as the famous Venus de Milo. Therefore, it can be said that it begins in the 4th century BC with the conquest of Alexander the Great in Greecewhile it ended in Roman times in the 2nd century AD

What are the characteristics of Hellenistic art?

Hellenistic art is made up of a large number of works that sought to transmit the history and culture of Ancient Greece to future generations. However, most of the art that makes up this period was not created at the height of Greek civilization. On the contrary, it was generated some time later, taking into account the stories and stories of that time. Let’s see then the most important characteristics.

  • One of the most relevant elements of the culture of Ancient Greece was religion, so much so that the Romans adopted it. Therefore, much of the Hellenic art had the function of representing the gods.
  • Thus, any sculptor created works in honor of Zeus, Poseidon, Ares, Aphrodite or Hera. Mosaics or faces of heroes like Achilles or Odysseus were also depicted, as well as demigods like Hercules.
  • Hellenistic art represents the third period in the time line of art history, since it was preceded by the archaic and classical periods.
  • It’s a kind of art considered eclectic, since it focuses on bringing together various features and elements from different places. In that sense, it gathers data and information from Western European and Asian culture.
  • This was a consequence of the expansion of the empire of Alexander the Great, that spanned much of the world. The Romans also did something similar, but the point of similarity is that both empires had Greek culture as a reference.

Hellenistic architecture

As for architecture, the Hellenistic period tried to unite Asian elements with European ones. At this time, great cities were built that took a lot of inspiration from the cities of Ancient Greece, but also looked at the constructions of Babylon. Here we must highlight the construction of Alexandria and Antioch, two places that were very important for the Roman empire, especially the Byzantine one.

In the same way, in this period of art the buildings that gave rise to the pergamum city. There, a great urbanism was formed that led through its streets to the great fortress of the kings, the acropolis. It also highlights an agora or polis square similar to that of ancient Greek cities, finally, we must mention the altar of the twelve gods. Another great architectural design in what is Hellenistic art bears the name of the second temple of Apollo, which has a large structure of Ionic columns.

Hellenistic paintings

Greek or Hellenic painting was not as widespread as other works of art, since most of it was lost and destroyed. In this sense, the Hellenic murals stood out for being fresh mosaics, some of the examples are those of Herculaneum and the city Pompeii. The portraits of people dressed in genuine fur were put aside and other resources began to be used. The mosaic technique began to develop in this period and quickly gained popularity among artists. It consists of the use of stones, ceramics and glass to create drawings.

Hellenistic sculptures

The Greek sculpture model had an evolution with respect to the type of classical art. Well, the sculptor stopped making simple works in order to seek greater expressiveness. In this sense, here is born what is the pathos of art, which refers to portraits of people that generate shock in the spectators. So, the carved faces exposed agony and a state of pain or suffering.

Another characteristic point of Hellenistic works of art is that the sculptor began to pay more attention to detail. So, here you see the influence of individualism and naturalism. The sculptures stood out for the smooth skin, the details in the muscles with tension and the attention paid to the hair. One of the most important sculptures was the one created by Cares de Lindos, which went down in history as the Colossus of Rhodes, his teacher Lysippus made a giant Zeus. However, the best known sculpture is the popular Venus de Milowhich represents the image of Aphrodite, but without the arms.

Examples of Hellenistic art

In the surviving examples of Hellenistic art painting reference must be made to the Alexander mosaic. The one currently displayed is a well-executed copy of the battle that took place at Issos, pitting Alexander the Great against King Darius III. Similarly, another of the same emperor was found hunting a huge lion. It should be noted that, with Christianity, it was ordered to destroy many sculptures and paintings in which the Greek gods were shown because it was considered pagan.

In Berlin it is possible to find the pergamon altar, a monument that was built in 188 BC and that had religious purposes. The central part shows the fight between the giants and the first gods of the Greek culture, which is called gigantomachy. It is estimated that the altar was in honor of Athena, but it is also thought that Zeus was worshiped there.

The sculpture of Laocoon and his sons is another of the famous works of the Hellenistic period. This shows the punishment of the gods to the Trojan Laocoon who died drowned by snakes along with his offspring. Another sculpture is the winged Victory Of Samothrace, representing the goddess of victory Nike. The list should also include the aforementioned Colossus of Rhodes, which was one of the wonders of the ancient world, and the Venus de Milo.