Introduction - Classical Mythology Through Art

Timeline For Greco-Roman Art History

700 BC
500 BC
300 BC
300 AD
The following terms for periods in art history distinguish them by a prevailing trend or style. Of course, the dates for the beginning and end of these periods are very approximate.

Timeline For Renaissance to Modern Art


neo-classicism romanticism

There were obviously many other trends in art besides these, but our focus here is on those movements which drew from Classical mythology.

Greek Art : The Geometric Period

In the 8th century BC, large-scale ceramic vessels were produced as grave markers. As these were originally decorated with just repeated angular patterns, the style became known as "Geometric" art. As time went by, small portions of the vessel might be filled with simple stick-figure people, often attending a funeral. The first image here is a funerary amphora almost six feet tall, with a detail in the second image. The third image is a cross-section of the types of graves in which these vessels are found, showing their placement. The other vase is a little later than the first, with more detail, including a chariot procession.

But not all geometric vase-paintings are as monumental in size. Here is a small cup decorated with similar stick-figures, apparently engaged in battle, but whether this represented a real or a fictional battle is unknown. Within a relatively short time, however, the pictorial scenes increase in size and detail, and shortly after 700 BC we find the first recognizable scenes taken from myths.

Greek Art : The Archaic Period

The Archaic period of Greek art spans about 200 years, from 700 to 500 BC. The two major types of art of this time, vase-painting and sculpture, show a real flourishing of realism and narrative iconography.

The primary technique of Archaic vase-painting (derived from the Geometric style) is known as the black-figure vase-painting technique. The first example below shows one of the very early examples, still somewhat rough and sketchy, but the second example shows the fully-developed technique. Note how the major figures are painted primarily with black paint (with a few details added in other colors) on a red-orange colored clay vessel. This does not necessarily mean that the people were black-skinned - it was merely the standard of this style of painting. Notice also that only the male figure is all black, and the two females on either side have their skin areas painted in white.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Archaic bronze sculptures no longer exist, having been 'recycled', i.e., melted down for other uses. A few figures have been found, however, such as this ithyphallic satyr from Delphi. Also there are some marble sculptures from the Archaic period, many from temples, and often in damaged condition, such as this sculpted metope from Sicily.

Greek Art : The Classical Period

The beginning of the 5th century B.C. marks the approximate start of the Classical period, which by its very name suggests that this marks the high point, the 'golden age', of ancient Greece. In vase-painting, the technique changes from 'black-figure' to 'red-figure', where the backgrounds (and details) are now painted in black, and the natural color of the red clay now represents flesh tones. Some vase-paintings are signed by their artist, while other artists have such a distinct style we can identify the same hand at work. Here is one of the finest examples of red-figure vase-painting by an artist known by the (artificial) name Kleophrades Painter.

Bronze sculpture was another major art form of Classical Greece, but as with Archaic bronzes, extremely few still exist today. Those that do, such as the two pictured here, were each discovered in modern times by underwater-archaeologists among the remains of sunken ships.

The Parthenon of Athens (a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena) is one of the major architectural works of the Classical period. It and other temples usually contain scuptures of mythological subjects.

Greek Art : The Hellenistic Period

The Hellenistic period is usually said to begin with the conquests of Alexander the Great, around 330 B.C., during which time Greek art and culture spread to other lands. The sculptures of Hellenistic times tends to be much more active and intense, often in groups engaged in violent activity. One of the best examples of this style is the sculptural decorations of the Great Altar of Zeus at Pergamum. The first image shows the goddess Athena gripping a rebellious Giant by the hair; the second shows a close-up of Artemis' dog biting another giant.

Another well-known Hellenistic scupture is the Winged Victory of Samothrace, now in the Louvre, Paris. Although headless and armless, her rippling garment conveys a real sense of movement.

Roman Art: Pompeii

In general, the sculptures of the Roman period continued the trends of the Hellenistic period, i.e., large, multi-figure groups with great detail and emotional intentisty. (In many cases, it is very difficult to distinguish between Hellenistic works, Roman copies of Greek works, and Roman originals). Good examples are the Farnese Bull and the Laocoön.

Many of the most important artworks from Roman times are those which have been discovered in or near the famous buried city of Pompeii. The eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. completely covered this Roman seaside city but preserved it more-or-less intact. Also buried in the same event was a nearby city called Herculaneum, where many important artworks have been found. Below is an aerial photo of Pompeii, followed by some ground-level views showing the remains as they appear today.

Not only were items of daily life discovered, but also many painted walls with vivid scenes taken from myths, as seen below. Another technique that the Romans were quite skilled at was mosaic, the making of pictorial scenes, often quite large, from minute pieces of colored stones.

With the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire and the start of the Middle Ages, there began a period of about 1000 years during which there was little or no depiction of famous myths in art. It was only around the 14th century A.D. that the accomplishments of the Classical civilizations were rediscovered or revived, a time now referred to as the Renaissance (a word from French meaning "rebirth"). For this, see the following paragraph.

Renaissance Art

The Renaissance was the rebirth of the cultural achievements of Classical civilizations. After a long gap of liitle or no interest in the art and literature of the Greeks and Romans, interest was rekindled beginning about 1400 A.D., lasting through this and the following century, the 1500s. The most notable period within this is called the "High Renaissance", the later decades of the 15th century. Michelangelo Buonaratti is probably the best-known Renaissance artist: his sculpture of David seen below certainly demonstrates a strong influence from Classical Greek scupture and ideals. Besides the works of Michelangelo, we will see many other famous works from the Renaissance, such as Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

Baroque Art

The 17th century A.D. (1600s) is known as the Baroque period of European art. Baroque art is generally characterized by an ornateness and a fondess for 'spectacle.' The emphasis is often on large, detailed scenes with huge, multiple-figure scenes with a high sense of drama, absent in most Renaissance art.

One of the most significant Baroque artists is the sculptor Bernini, probably remembered most for his decorative work at the Vatican. Several of his finest works, however, have scenes and subjects taken from Greco-Roman myth, such as his version of 'Apollo and Daphne'. Annibale Carracci is a significant painter of the Baroque period; here is a general view of his mural paintings for the Farnese Gallery in Rome. Every one of the panels in this huge room has a scene taken from a Greek myth.


In the 18th century, several factors, especially the rediscovery and excavation of Pompeii, combined to rekindle some of the qualities of classical art. To these artists, the Baroque style had become too ornate, too overly-detailed, getting too far away from the restrained elegance of the Classical period. One of the foremost Neoclassical artists was Jacques-Louis David; below is his painting of "The Death of Socrates". Although it is a historical rather than mythological subject, the figures are posed very much like a classical Greek work.

Another major Neoclassicist is Jean-Auguste Ingres; here is his Jupiter (Zeus) and Thetis. You can easily see the similarity to ancient classical subjects here.


Neoclassicism continued in the 1800s, but another important trend began, termed Romanticism. This was partly a movement away from the strict conventions of Neoclassicism, which these artists perceived as overly strict and preoccupied with formal style. To the Romantic artists, the major factor of a painting was the emotion, the drama which it evoked, rather than an adherence to the (neo-)classical style. Eugene Delacroix is one of the best examples of the Romanticists; here are two of his major works, Liberty Leading the People, capturing the spirit of the French revolution, followed by one of his mythological works, a painting of the character Medea, depicting an intense emotional moment when this woman is just about to kill her own children.

Modern Art (after 1900)

Although less common than previously, Greek myths continued to inspire some major artists since the beginning of the 20th century. Here is a painting by the famous surrealist Salvador Dali, entitled "Leda Atomica", and Paul Manship's huge gilded statue of Prometheus at Rockefeller Center, New York City.