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Geometric and Protogeometric Art

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome

Susan Langdon

Geometric and Protogeometric Art 

The term “Geometric” as a label for the artistic style prevalent in Greece from 900 to 700 bce derives from the abstract linear decoration of the style's pottery and metal arts. Based on an underlying measured structure, the design aesthetic that emerged in the eleventh century and persisted to the end of the eighth has been understood as a meaningful cultural response to the social trauma that marked the collapse of Mycenaean palatial society into chaos and recession. This understanding requires modification as new studies and discoveries reveal more cultural continuity, peaceful communities, and foreign contacts than previously thought. Nevertheless, the highly formalized and rational organization of controlled and measured pattern that characterizes Protogeometric and Geometric art marks a distinct departure from earlier art and justifies its identity as a cohesive style.

Protogeometric, 1050–900 bce.

The Protogeometric phase (1050–900 bce) marks the earliest emergence of this new aesthetic almost exclusively within ceramic production, where forms and decorative motifs inherited from Mycenaean tradition are subjected to a new sympathetic relationship between ornament and structure. These changes were inextricably linked with technological developments. Finer slip and more controlled firing conditions heightened the contrast between light ground and dark decoration, which could achieve a rich black or even a metallic sheen in the best Athenian vessels. A set of brushes attached to a pivot created the hallmark of Protogeometric design: sets of concentric circles and semicircles that are positioned on the shoulder or belly of the vessel to articulate form and express the volume of the vessel. Significantly, this self-consciously formal style was developed for drinking vessels, attesting to the importance of ceremonial feasting and drinking in funerals, religious ritual, and social life. Fine-ware open shapes are dominated by kraters (deep mixing bowls), scyphi, canthari, and other cups, often with high feet; closed shapes are dominated by amphorae, oenochoes, and lecythi. Along with newly conceptualized decoration, potters updated shapes by thinning the walls, tautening profiles, and creating sharp articulations at the lip, neck, shoulder, and feet of vessels. Protogeometric pottery style is generally thought to have been led by Athenian pottery production; regional versions find their own shapes and design preferences particularly in Euboea, Thessaly, the northeast Aegean, the Argolis, and Crete.

Among the humble architectural constructions of the period, a monumental apsidal building at Lefkandi on the island of Euboea stands out for its impressive size (more than 150 feet, or nearly 50 meters, long), dressed stone socle, and peripteral colonnade of posts supporting a thatched roof. Inside were burials of a warrior, a richly ornamented woman, and four horses, with the building itself subsequently buried under a tumulus. Conventionally called the “Heroön,” this monumental structure is thought to have served as a chieftain's house or a hero's shrine, in form and function a possible ancestor to later temple forms.

Protogeometric terra-cotta sculptures, sometimes wheel-made and decorated like pottery, are usually found as grave goods, although some show signs of prior non-funerary use. Most terra-cotta figures take zoomorphic forms, particularly of bulls, horses, and birds. A terra-cotta Centaur from Lefkandi (dated c.900 bce), combining a male human figure with the torso and back legs of a horse, was likely influenced by Cypriot and Cretan terra-cotta traditions of hybrid beings. This Centaur was found broken and buried in two adjacent graves in the cemetery outside the monumental cult building. The Centaur figure embodies a new interest in symbolic visualization and ritual material to assist liminal social passages.

Geometric, 900–700 bce.

The contexts and uses of art expanded in the following centuries, inspiring new forms in diverse media, much of it focused on prestige goods that attest to a rising aristocracy. A broader repertoire of vessel shapes appears as grave gifts, sometimes in large numbers. Amphorae serve as cinerary urns for ashes of the cremated deceased, shoulder-handled versions for men and belly-handled for women. From the careful restraint of Protogeometric style Attic potters turned in Early Geometric (900–850 bce) to the sober effect of an allover dark ground carrying slender bands of simple linear patterns. The effect is gradually lightened by increasing the number and width of bands and the range of ornament, including battlement and key meander, dogtooth, double axe, and, rarely, concentric circles. A ceramic box with five model granaries on the lid in the spectacular Tomb of the Rich Athenian Lady (c.850 bce) exemplifies a professional level of pottery production and a growing tradition of symbolic material.

By the later ninth century wealthier graves in Athens and Lefkandi might include objects from Cyprus, Egypt, and the Levant, acquired not just as grave goods, but also for gift exchange, social status, and ceremonial occasions. Immigrant goldsmiths in central Crete introduced Oriental granulation, filigree, figures, and inlay to local jewelry, inspiring reflections in local Knossian ceramics and metalwork. So effective were these exotic, often figural objects that artistic needs in Greek communities continued to be satisfied with high-quality abstract Geometric pottery. The desire for imported luxuries may well explain the Greeks’ relatively slow interest in creating their own figural arts. A rare bird or horse might be spotted on a Middle Geometric vase, but not until around 770 did Late Geometric potters begin the profoundly significant shift from abstract to figural design.

Significantly, the revival of animal and human figures occurred first in the realm of funerary needs, where the death of important family members might place a group or community in social crisis. The Athenian Dipylon cemetery (part of the Kerameikos) was soon dotted with large so-called Dipylon kraters (for men) and belly-handled amphorae (for women), of nearly human scale. These monumental grave markers carried appropriate imagery to memorialize the deceased, shown variously as a robed figure lying in state on a couch (prothesis scene) and surrounded by mourners, or on a bed carried by a chariot procession of warriors to the cemetery (the ekphora). Multifigured scenes of battle on land or ship's deck enhanced the heroic ambience. Although the funeral and warfare imagery seem to arise full-fledged, their close similarity to scenes on late Mycenaean sarcophagi and pottery suggests inspiration from rediscovered or revived Bronze Age images rather than outright invention. Traditional studies have assumed a close dependence of this warrior-focused imagery on the world of Homeric epic. The grave markers broadcast an aura of warrior ethos and heroic death to ensure the memory of mortal warriors, much like their poetic counterparts. Recent studies, however, demonstrate that the narrative scenes of Geometric art do not derive from preserved versions of Homeric epic and are unlikely to have depended on any epics. More plausibly the warrior world of Geometric pottery provided a link between heroic past and present by which aristocratic families or groups paraded their status.

Geometric figural style is best characterized as conceptual and expressive. Its analytic approach breaks down the whole of an object or composition into its constituent parts and spreads them across the picture plane: chariot wheels side by side, a shroud placed above the body. Human silhouettes are built from a triangular torso, round or blob-shaped head, sticklike arms, and long striding legs (men) or a narrow skirt (women); details of eye, hair, wreath, or weapons are used sparingly. This pioneering interest in representational art soon extended throughout the Greek world. Local figural pottery has been found in Boeotia, Euboea, the Argolis, the Corinthia, western Greece, Laconia, Arcadia, Crete, and eastern Greece.

The decades that constitute Late Geometric, 770–700, witnessed an extraordinary flourishing of cultural production, a flourishing that is generally understood to reflect the growth of small and disparate communities into nascent city-states. During this time artistic creations were used to display status and ensure the favor of unseen forces, shifting material investment from the realm of the dead to that of the gods. Sanctuaries of the Olympian gods gradually received permanent altars and cult buildings. Painted clay models of one-roomed apsidal and rectangular structures with columned porches are thought to represent early shrines or houses. Festivals and ritual occasions generated material culture, including an ever-expanding array of votive offerings placed in simple open-air settings. Figurines of bronze and terra-cotta connect with social and economic realities of worshippers. Bulls predominated early, followed by horses that might represent the landowning wealthy or might by their aristocratic associations have become the gift of choice for the gods. Birds and deer relate to wished-for hunting success or the interests of animal-protecting deities.

Warriors dominate the anthropomorphic figures, brandishing spears, leading horses, or driving chariots. Like the similar themes on pottery, these seem to represent worshippers rather than gods. The far fewer female figures carry vessels or dance, reflecting cult activities; some are patterned on Near Eastern nude Astarte figures with arms clasped against thighs. More ambitious bronze artists made complex figure groups: a man fighting a Centaur, chariot groups, suckling animals, a bronzesmith hammering a helmet. A bronze group from Samos shows a heroic shepherd stabbing a lion who grips a calf in its mouth, while his dog nips at the lion's leg. The motif, complete with canine assistant, is found in Phoenician bronze and silver bowls. These figured bowls, widely distributed across the Mediterranean from the ninth to seventh centuries, provided a rich source of artistic motifs readily picked up by Greek potters and metalworkers. Representations of deities in sculpture or painting remain rare in this period. With its Near Eastern contacts and lingering Minoan influences, Crete leads in early examples. A statuette of Apollo at Dreros is made of bronze sheet hammered over a wood core, a technique known as sphyrēlaton. The so-called Dipylon goddesses, ivory figurines of crowned nude women found in a grave in Athens, are local productions modeled on Near Eastern Astarte figures.

Tripod cauldrons were a familiar sight in many sanctuaries. Transformed from Bronze Age cooking utensils to objects of display and ritual importance, tripods were awarded as prizes in athletic and poetic contests at festivals. They represented personal excellence, aristocratic status, and divine favor, and they became associated with oracles of Apollo at Delphi and of Zeus at Dodona. They could stand up to six and a half feet (two meters) tall, with figures of warriors, horses, and lions on their ring handles.

By the later 700s the return of figural decoration to pottery, metalwork, terra-cotta, ivory, seals, and jewelry flourished in response to local social and ritual needs, Bronze Age references, and Near Eastern models. The expansion of imagery added dancers, ritual scenes, ships, mythological references, and hybrid monsters. Although the warrior continued to represent the masculine ideal, battle scenes and warfare in art were gradually replaced by more community-friendly athletic competitive activities: horsemanship, chariotry, duels, races, wrestling, pyrrhic dances, small-game hunting, and musical competition. The developments in Late Geometric art are best understood as responses to and factors in the new complications in social hierarchy, connections to the outside world, growing integration of official cults into community life, and political alliances that constitute the experience of the city-state.

Geometric and Protogeometric ArtClick to view larger

Geometric Amphora. The Dipylon Amphora, a terra-cotta funerary urn from the Kerameikos necropolis, Athens, c. 750 bce. National Archaeological Museum, Athens/The Bridgeman Art Library

[See also Metalwork and Pottery.]


Coldstream, J. N. Geometric Greece, 900–700 BC. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. A fundamental, highly readable survey that follows the blossoming of Greece from 900 to 700 through regional developments and major historical, artistic, and cultural trends.Find this resource:

    Dickinson, Oliver. The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. A synthetic approach to the archaeology of Greece from the fall of the Mycenaean palaces to the end of the eighth century, organized by material contexts.Find this resource:

      Langdon, Susan. Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece 1100–700 B.C.E. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008. A reconstruction of social settings and gendered meanings of Geometric arts and iconography.Find this resource:

        Lemos, Irene S. The Protogeometric Aegean: The Archaeology of the Late Eleventh and Tenth Centuries BC. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. A survey of the material culture of Greece from 1050 to 900bce, highlighting regional trends and interconnections.Find this resource:

          Schweitzer, Bernhard. Greek Geometric Art. Edited by Ulrich Hausmann and Jochen Briegleb. Translated by Peter and Cornelia Usborne. London: Phaidon, 1971. A survey of Geometric arts and styles, with attention to influences from Bronze Age and Near Eastern models; its analyses are sometimes problematic and dated, but this is a valuable compendium of images and descriptions.Find this resource:

            Snodgrass, Anthony M. Homer and the Artists: Text and Picture in Early Greek Art. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Demonstrates the independence of early Greek figural art from Homeric epic poetry, revealing the richness of Geometric and Archaic narrative traditions.Find this resource:

              Susan Langdon