Geometric Art

Following the collapse of Mycenaean civilization (end of 13th c. BC), the most sophisticated artistic skills were lost from the Aegean. Gone with the palaces were monumental architecture, painting, seal-engraving, ivory-carving, and advanced techniques of metal- and stone-working. Some last glimpses of the Mycenaean splendour survived into the 12th c. BC. But for most of the next four centuries (11th-8th c. BC), artistic expression and craftsmanship was limited to the manufacture of small figurines, bronze vessels and a rather restricted range of bronze and gold ornaments. Pottery was the only type of artifact that continued to be produced in large quantities. But vases were mostly decorated with plain geometric motifs, in a style that lend its name to the whole period.

Geometric art is mainly known from cemeteries and to a much lesser extent from cult places and settlements. In the Early Iron Age there was a great concern with religion and death and most artifacts were intended as symbolic offerings to sanctuaries and graves. This may explain in part the persistence of traditional types for a long time, as well as an overall reluctance for innovation. Emphasis is on the precise reproduction of form; decoration is confined to the repetition of meticulously executed linear motifs that help to enhance the sense of symmetry. With the exception of figurines, no interest in representational art is attested until the mid-9th c. BC.

When figured scenes do appear from c. 850 BC onwards – most probably as a result of increasing contacts with Near Eastern art – they are rendered in a highly schematic way, with an awkward sense of three-dimensional space. Nevertheless, they represent the earliest systematic attempts to depict humans in action, and will form the basis of a long tradition of narrative in Greek art.


Geometric figurines were mostly made of bronze and clay. Only occasionally do we find examples in stone or ivory (the latter mainly in Crete). Geometric figurines are highly schematic and show no interest in the realistic representation of the body. The artists seem to follow standard conventions in the carving of each anatomical part: round heads and roughly triangular torsos for humans, cylindrical bodies and noses, flat necks and triangular shapes for animals.

Bronze figurines represented both humans and animals. They were small in size and solidly cast (although details were often rendered by hammering). They were either sculpted in the round or attached to the handles of large bronze vessels (mainly tripod cauldrons). The most common human types are warriors and charioteers, but there are also standing females as well as male deities and mythological creatures (Minotaur, Centaur, etc.). Animal types include horses, bovines and birds.

Clay figurines share a similar range of types. They are mostly hand-made and solid, although wheel-made examples with hollow interiors are also known. In some cases, horse models were attached to the lids of large clay pyxides. Clay figurines were decorated like pottery, with either geometric motifs or black glaze.


Ornaments are rare in the Geometric period and come mainly from graves. The most common bronze types are pins and fibulae (brooches), which were used for fastening loose garments such as the peplos on the shoulder. There are several variants, some of which exhibit Balkan or even central European influences. Of particular interest is the so-called “Boeotian” (or “Attico-Boeotian”) fibula, an oversized type of brooch with large rectangular catch-plate, which was decorated by incision with either geometric motifs or figured scenes, sometimes drawing from mythology. Such fibulae were exclusively used as votive offerings in sanctuaries and graves.

Gold ornaments are even rarer but indicate knowledge of sophisticated techniques, such as granulation and filigree. Τhose techniques (ultimately of Near Eastern origin) were widely used in the Aegean in the Mycenaean period and may have survived through the Dark Ages in certain areas (e.g. Euboea). Necklaces, rings, and earrings are known from Geometric graves, but apparently the most common types of gold jewellery in that period are bands and diadems made of thin sheets of metal. Gold bands were usually decorated by incision or in the repoussé technique, initially with geometric motifs, and later with animal friezes. In the late 7th c. BC more complex scenes appeared, including marching warriors, battles, chariots and charioteers, dancers, and mythological creatures such as Sphinxes and Centaurs.

Metal objects and vessels

Weapons and tools in that period were mainly made of iron, a newly introduced material much more durable than bronze. Only a few examples survive but they include a wide range of types: swords, spearheads, daggers, knives, spits, firedogs, awls etc. Defensive armaments (helmets, shields and armours) continued to be made of bronze, which was easier to hammer and allowed smiths to achieve the desired shape.

Geometric smiths produced bronze vessels to be used as votives in sanctuaries or as offerings in the graves of aristocrats. The large tripod cauldron was the most common type, although bowls of all sizes and forms and even votive-shields are also known. Metal vessels, particularly bows, were frequently decorated in the repoussé technique with floral motifs or figured scenes of clearly Near Eastern inspiration.


In the Protogeometric period (1050-900 BC), the pre-existing ceramic repertoire was radically transformed in order to fit new needs and customs. New shapes, such as the amphora, the footed bowl, the krater, and the oinochoe gained in popularity. Decoration was restricted to concentric circles and semicircles (made with a compass and painted with multiple brushes), lozenges, zigzags, and other plain geometric motifs; the motifs were arranged in wide bands on the neck or the belly of the vase.

In the Early Geometric period (900-850 BC), rectilinear motifs (e.g. meanders) largely replaced circular ones, but were now enclosed in narrow bands or panels placed on the neck and the belly; the rest of the surface was covered in high-quality black gloss. This new and impressive decorative manner was meant to distinguish the various parts of the vase and emphasize its overall structure.

A similar decorative system was used in the following Middle Geometric period (850-770 BC), although now broader bands were used, covering larger parts of the vase. The correspondence between shape and decoration became even more intimate with reserved bands and framed meanders emphasizing the neck of the vase or the space between the handles. In that period figured decoration made its hesitant appearance: single animals and birds were painted in outline and placed in side-panels or narrow friezes.

In the Late Geometric period (770-700 BC), the decoration of clay vessels was revolutionized. Rectilinear motifs continued to be used but now had a complementary function to figured scenes depicting funerals, land and naval battles, chariot processions, and even mythological events. The new style was invented and developed in Athens by the so-called “Dipylon Master” and his workshop, which produced richly decorated oversized vases (kraters, amphorae) to be used as markers in the graves of aristocrats. Composite scenes with many participants were painted in successive bands and friezes that gained more and more space over geometric motifs. Figures were rendered in a schematic manner: lower body in profile, chest and arms frontal. The artists even made an effort to represent the third dimension: figures on the foreground were painted larger and placed on a lower level, while those meant to be on the background were painted smaller and placed on a higher level.

The Dipylon workshop introduced the human form in vase-painting, establishing a tradition of narrative that would live for many centuries in Greek art. Several artists in Athens and other parts of Greece (Corinth, the Argolid, Euboea, and the Cyclades) were to follow that tradition. But, by the end of the 8th c. BC, the Geometric style had reached its limits and was soon to be replaced by a new technique – black-figure – that would allow for more freedom and accuracy in the rendering of figures.

The Orientalizing Period

In the mid-9th c. BC, well after the fall of the Mycenaean civilization, and the isolation of the following “Dark Ages”, the Greeks began to look again beyond their own lands. The re-opening of Mediterranean sea-routes and the establishment of commercial relations with the Levant and Cyprus, brought them into close contact with the great empires of the Near East, mainly the Assyrians and Persians, as well as with Egypt. Those encounters had tremendous impact on Greek society and culture. The adoption of the Phoenician alphabet around 800 BC was undoubtedly the single most important consequence. It is, also, possible that Greek borrowed elements of political organization, legislation and even religious ideology from the East.

Yet, the most obvious manifestation of oriental influence is on art. Such is the variety of new materials, techniques and styles introduced from eastern lands to Greece during the 8th and 7th c. BC that scholars frequently refer to the ‘Orientalizing period’ of Greek art. The term is actually applied to the years 720-620 BC, when the preference for oriental motifs and techniques was really overwhelming. However, it is clear that eastern influences were felt in the Aegean long before 720 BC and their impact lasted at least until the end of the Archaic period.

The earliest evidence comes from Crete, where metalsmiths had adopted eastern techniques and motifs already from the late 9th c. BC. Bronze bowls with embossed lions or winged creatures and gold ornaments decorated in granulation or filigree suggest the early establishment of an Orientalizing tradition in the island, possibly due to the presence of foreign (probably Phoenician) craftsmen. During the 8th c. BC ivory figurines of oriental character appear in Crete, Rhodos, Samos, Euboea, Athens and elsewhere, suggesting strong influence (or perhaps direct imports) from North Syria. Even in Late Geometric pottery (8th c. BC), the presence of lions and exotic birds on vase-decoration may indicate influence from oriental iconography.
The ‘Orientalizing phenomenon’ is an eloquent example of creative cultural interaction. Eastern influences revitalised Greek art by introducing new materials, techniques and decorative motifs, most of which survived for a long time. By the early 6th c. BC, however, the style started fading out and new trends appeared. But now the centre of activities was Athens. Athenian sculptors and vase-painters would creatively merge oriental influences with local traditions in order to develop a new distinctive style that would lead to the artistic explosion of the late Archaic and Classical periods.

Pottery and Sculpture

The ‘Orientalizing movement’ took on a more systematic form from the end of the 8th c. BC onwards. In Corinth, Athens, Crete and East Greece, potters abandoned the Geometric style and started decorating vases with schematic floral motifs (rosettes, palm fronds) and mythological creatures (sphinx, griffin) of Assyrian or Egyptian origin, as well as with exotic animals unfamiliar in the Greek landscape (e.g. lions). In Corinth and Athens artists would soon develop the ability to depict entire figured scenes – possibly influenced by the oriental tradition of narrative art. Working with this style, Corinthian potters would eventually invent an original decorative technique, which is known today as black-figure.

In plastic arts, it was Crete and the Cycladic islands that contributed most to the new movement. Sculpture in the round was new to Greece in the mid-7th century. During the Geometric period small bronze and clay figurines were the only three-dimensional representations produced. Now, under the influence of the monumental sculpture of the Assyrians and Egyptians, artists became more ambitious. Starting from small clay, bronze and ivory figures to continue with much larger statues in soft limestone, Cretan artists developed a characteristic style, known as "Daedalic" (from the mythical Cretan artisan Daidalos), which apparently copied oriental images of female goddesses – with stiffly posed limbs, triangular faces with large staring eyes, and wavy hairstyle reminiscent of an Egyptian wig. This new style and technique was in due time transmitted to the marble-rich Cyclades, where sculptors managed around 620 BC to create the first really monumental statues of entirely Greek style in the well-known types of kouros and kore.

Archaic Art

The Archaic period represents a formative stage of Greek art. Characteristic of the 7th c. BC are the pronounced oriental influences, particularly in vase-painting, metalwork, and sculpture ("Orientalizing" period). These influences were imaginatively assimilated by Greek artists, who during the 6th c. BC created distinctive local idioms that led to the mastery of proportion and the realistic rendering of the human figure. In this same period, the basic architectural orders were established (Doric, Ionic), the form of the peripteral temples was finalized, and the art of architectural sculpture was refined.

The winds of change in the 6th c. BC, as well as the favourable policy of many tyrants towards the arts, led to the flowering of philosophy, the natural sciences, and literature in mainland Greece and Ionia. At the same time, the art of drama was born in Attica in direct association with the Dionysiac cults.

During the Archaic period besides the other changes and evolutions, we find the birth of the two most well-known vase painting techniques the one preceding the other: the black and the red figure.

Black figure vases

The black-figure technique was a common style of decoration in ancient Greek vases, which depended on figures in black silhouette set against a bright orange background; the figures’ outline and details (facial and anatomical features, garments, etc.) were rendered by incision. Black-figure was the predominant style of decoration throughout the Archaic period.

As a matter of fact, neither the lustrous black of the figures nor the bright orange of the background was achieved through the use of actual pigments. Rather than that, potters managed to produce such an impressive contrasting effect by employing a sophisticated technique of surface treatment and firing. Initially, the whole surface of the vase was coated with a slip of fine clay. On this layer, figures and other decorative motifs were drawn by incision and filled with a slip of finer clay mixed with small quantities of alkaline minerals (e.g. potash). Then, the vase was fired in temperatures exceeding 800o C. The firing process had at least three distinct stages, during which the potter controlled the supply of oxygen through the vents of the kiln. The successive exposure of the vase to oxidizing (with oxygen) and reducing (without oxygen) atmosphere resulted to the vitrification of the mineral-rich gloss, while the rest of the surface retained the orange-red colour of the clay. Incised details retained also the orange colour, thus, producing sharp contrasts even in the interior of the figures. In many cases, vase-painters used added white, red or purple in order to emphasize specific details (white for example was used – among others – for female figures).

The black-figure technique was invented in Corinth at the beginning of the 7th c. BC. Corinthian vase-painters used the new style to depict animals, imaginary creatures (e.g. sphinxes), plant motives and, only occasionally, human figures. Since most Corinthian vase-types were of small size (aryballos, alabastron, olpe), local potters mastered the skills of accurate design and careful application of the slip and gloss. The technique was introduced in Attica at about 630 BC, to become swiftly popular among vase-painters, especially those working in the famous Kerameikos quarter of Athens. Athenian artists were particularly interested in showing human figures in action and soon started producing narrative compositions of extraordinary quality. By doing so, they brought about a major change in the use of painted pottery. Instead of a decorative element meant to enhance the aesthetic quality of a pot, vase-painting became an effective medium for visualizing scenes from mythology, history, worship, everyday life, etc. From now on, pottery was part of visual arts, a new means of communication and education, as well as a powerful vehicle for ideological and political propaganda. Black-figure vases contain the largest corpus of mythological scenes in ancient Greek art; some of them had clear political and ideological connotations. Attica produced black-figure vases of the highest quality that quickly displaced Corinthian products and won the markets throughout the Mediterranean. The black-figure technique was used throughout the Greek world. Other important production centres include Boeotia, Laconia, Euboea, some Ionian cities as well as the major colonies in South Italy and Sicily.

The great masters of the black figure

Sometimes, potters and vase-painters incised their names on the surface of the vase. The earlier painter’s signature is the one inscribed by Sophilos on a black figure dinos (580 BC) depicting Patroclus’ burial games. From such inscriptions we know the actual names of a dozen vase-painters. However, the typological study of black-figure vases suggests the existence of hundreds of different “artists” or “workshops”, conventionally named after the city which hosts their most important creations or after characteristic features of their style (e.g. The Heidelberg Painter, the Gorgon Painter).

Among the many important artists who worked in the black-figure technique, one could single out such prominent individuals as Lydos, Amasis and Exekias. The latter managed to enhance the plasticity and expressiveness of figures, creating unmatched compositions of such a dramatic power that clearly foreshadow Classical art.

Exekias, who lived and worked in the second half of the 6th c. BC, brought the black-figure technique to its limits. At about 530 BC Athenian potters invented the red-figure technique, which offered more freedom to vase-painters and was soon to become the predominant style in Attic decorated pottery. The black-figure technique was abandoned by the middle of the 5th c. BC. However, some vases of special (ritual) use, such as Panathenaic amphoras – the prize for the winners of the Panathenaic Games – continued to be made in the traditional black-figure technique for a much longer time.

Red figure vases

The red-figure technique was the main decorative style for vases in the Classical period. In fact, it was a reversal of the black-figure technique. Figures were left the colour of the clay, while the rest of the surface was coated with black slip (a layer of fine-grained ferrous clay) which vitrified when fired, thus obtaining its characteristic glossy appearance. The figures’ outline and details (facial features, dress folds, etc.) were rendered in more diluted brown glaze, which also darkened during firing.
In this technique, painters had first to draw the figures on the vase with charcoal or other material (which usually was not preserved after firing). This was necessary to ensure that the image of the figures would not be covered over when the surface was coated with black slip.

Undoubtedly, red-figure was a more demanding technique than black-figure, but also more rewarding; it produced brighter figures that stand out more prominently against the dark background. It also allowed for a more detailed treatment of human anatomy and dress, and offered greater potential for attempting to represent the three-dimensional space.

Red-figure is closely associated with Attica, which was the most prolific centre for production and distribution of such vases. Nevertheless, important examples were also produced in southern Italy, especially after 400 BC, when Athenian trade declined sharply and local workshops were left free to develop their own artistic idioms. Red-figure vases were also created by workshops in Corinth, Boeotia, Arcadia, Laconia, Euboea, Crete, etc. but were primarily for local consumption rather than export.

The great masters of the red figure

The red-figure technique was the result of experiments conducted in the workshops of Kerameikos, Athens, when the limitations of the black-figure technique had become evident. The earliest red-figure vases date to 530 BC and are attributed to the “Andokides Painter" whose real name is not known but was probably a pupil in Exekias’ workshop. The transition between the two styles was not abrupt; the production of black-figure vases went on for decades after the new invention. In fact, some early vases were “bilingual", with black-figure decoration on one side and red-figure on the other.

Red-figure vases quickly became a product in high-demand and were widely exported, mainly to Italy. They continued to be made until the second half of the 4th c. BC.The earliest stages of the red-figure technique fall within the late Archaic tradition. Among the numerous early red-figure painters, one could distinguish Euphronios, Euthymides, Phintias, Smikros, the Kleophrades Painter, and the famous Berlin Painter, who created scenes full of vigour, with imposing figures – often unframed – that claim more space on vase decoration than usual.

Classical Art

Red figure vases

As we enter the Classical period, iconography extends to representations of everyday life alongside mythological and religious scenes. Classical red-figure is strongly influenced by sculpture and large-scale painting, as is evident in the severe style of the figures and the use of perspective. Important artists from the mature period of the red-figure technique include the “Niobid Painter," the Pan Painter, the Achilles Painter, the Kleophon painter, and the Polygnotos Painter.
Towards the end of the 5th c. BC, figures become more elegant and relaxed, and the broader use of added colours, including gold, indicates a much more ornamental mood. The creation of composite scenes with many figures, sometimes arranged in different levels, suggests further influences from large-scale painting. At the beginning of the 4th c. BC, even relief decoration is used.

White-ground vases

White-ground vases are so-called because of the distinctive white slip of their surface, upon which the decoration was painted. They appeared in Attica circa 530 BC and continued to be produced until the end of the 5th c. BC. The earliest examples were decorated in the black-figure technique, but in later periods figures and other decorative elements were rendered in outline and frequently filled with added colours (red, purple, yellow, blue, and black). It is believed that, by using polychromy, vase-painters tried to imitate or reproduce large-scale paintings; in that sense, they may provide a glimpse on the now lost paintings of the Classical period.
The white-ground technique was applied to various types of vases (kylixes, pyxides, kraters, alabastra etc.), although the most popular shape was by far the lekythos.

White-ground vases were mainly used as burial offerings, and therefore their iconography is derived by and large from the realm of death. Some early examples depict non-funerary mythological scenes or aspects from women’s life, but the standard decoration was of funerary character: farewell scenes, women visiting the tombs of their dead relatives, elaborate compositions with Death and Sleep carrying the dead corpse, Charon conducting the deceased to the Underworld, the dead person with Hermes Pshychopomp, etc. Because of their decoration, such vases provide invaluable information about the funerary monuments and rites of the Classical period.

White-ground vases are examples of some of the most elegant painted scenes of the ancient world, created by famous artists such as the Achilles Painter, the Phiale Painter, the Thanatos Painter, and the Reed Painter. The production of white-ground vessels started to decline towards the end of the 5th c. BC. This was probably related to the re-appearance of monumental grave markers in that period (almost a century after Cleisthenes had imposed a ban on the erection of expensive burial monuments in 508/7 BC), which provided a much more imposing medium for depicting death. From then on, funerary scenes would be engraved on rectangular stelai and oversized marble vessels (lekythoi and loutrophoroi). To compete with stone monuments, potters working in the white-ground technique produced a small number of colossal lekythoi but to no avail. The white-ground technique would die out completely around 400 BC.

Further Reading

• Adams G.L. 1978: Orientalizing Sculpture in Soft Limestone from Crete and Mainland Greece (Oxford)

• Beazley J.D. 1986: The development of Attic black figure (London)

• Boardman J. 1975: Athenian Red Figure Vases - The Archaic Period (London)

• Boardman J. 1989: Athenian Red Figure Vases - The Classical Period (London)

• Boardman J. 1991: “The sixth-century potters and painters of Athens and their public”, in Rasmussen T. - Spivey N. (ed.) Looking at Greek Vases (Cambridge), 79-102

• Burkert W. 1992: The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (Harvard)

• Burn L. 1991: “Red-figure and white-ground of the later fifth century”, in Rasmussen T. - Spivey N. (ed.) Looking at Greek Vases (Cambridge), 118-130

• Coldstream J.N. 1968: Greek Geometric Pottery (London)

• Coldstream J.N. 1977: Geometric Greece 900-700 BC (London)

• Cook R.M. 1963: Greek Painted Pottery (New York)

• Desborough V.R.d’A. 1964: The Last Mycenaeans and their Successors: An Archaeological Survey c. 1200-1000 BC (Oxford)

• Desborough V.R.d’A. 1972: The Greek Dark Ages (Oxford)

• Kurtz D.C. 1975: Athenian White Lekythoi. Patterns and Painters (Oxford)

• Lemos I. 2002: The Protogeometric Aegean. The Archaeology of the Late Eleventh and Tenth Centuries BC (Oxford)

• Morris S.P. 1993: Daedalus and the Origins of Greek Art (Princeton)

• Noble J.V. 1988: The Techniques of Painted Attic Pottery (New York)

• Oakley J. 2004: Picturing Death in Classical Athens. The Evidence of White Lekythoi (Cambridge)

• Osborne R. 1996: Greece in the Making 1200-479 BC (London)

• Robertson M. 1992: The art of vase painting in classical Athens (Cambridge)

• Scheibler I. 1983: Griechische toepferkunst (Munich)

• Schweitzer B. 1969: Die geometrische Kunst Griechenlands (Köln)

• Snodgrass A.M. 1971: The Dark Age of Greece (Edinburgh)

• Sparkes B.A. 1996: The red and the black. Studies in Greek pottery (London & New York)

• Stampolidis N.Chr. (ed.) 2003: Sea Routes…From Sidon to Huelva. Interconnections in the Mediterranean 16th-6th c. BC (Athens)

• Whitley J. 1991: Style and Society in Dark Age Greece: The Changing Face of a Pre-literate Society 1100-700 BC (Cambridge)

• Williams D. 1991: “Vase-Painting in fifth-century Athens”, in Rasmussen T. –Spivey N. (ed.), Looking at Greek Vases (Cambridge)

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