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 The Collection of Sculpture


The National Archaeological Museum houses the largest, and one of the most important internationally, collection of ancient Greek sculpture, from the 7th century BC until the 5th century A.D. Its formation began in 1829, when the museum was founded on the island of in Aegina, and later it incorporated marble and other stone sculptures from public archaeological collections in Athens, from excavations and acquisitions by the Archaeological Society, and from all regions of the Greek world. The collection comprises some 17,000 works, 1000 of which are exhibited mainly in halls 7-34 on the main floor of the building, and also in the atrium, as well as in the Cypriot collection in hall 64 of the first floor; the stored ones are accessible to specialists. Individual sculptures are also exhibited in the Egyptian collection, the collection of Vases and the Stathatou Collection.


The origins of sculpture of the historical period - 8th to 5th century BC (halls 7-14)

Until the 8th century BC the Greek populations had finalized their migrations and have established city-states, they have adopted the common name Greeks, the alphabet, the Greek myths and the Twelve Gods, and also the chronology based on the first Olympic Games (776 BC).

From the 7th century BC the old wooden temples were being gradually replaced by stone-built ones, decorated with architectural sculptures, such as the reliefs from the temple of Athena at Mycenae (no. 2869, hall 7). At the same time, the oldest wooden statues (which were essentially plank-shaped and were called idols) were being replaced with stone ones, but maintaining the traditional rigid and severe shape, such as the statue of Artemis that Nikandre from Naxos dedicated in the temple of Apollo on Delos (no. 1, hall 7). In the same rigid posture is the human body depicted also in small sculptures, like those of ivory (no. 776, hall 7), and in the funerary monuments; like the one shared by the tightly hugging brothers Dermys and Kit(t)ylos, which was erected on their grave in Tanagra, Boiotia, by their father Amfalkes (no. 56, hall 8). The women who mourn a dead on a deathbed on the large clay amphora from the Kerameikos cemetery, are also shown in a rigid posture; that vase had also been used as tomb marker (sema), as a different kind of rendering the body of an elite deceased (no. 804 A, hall 7).

Marble statues were dedicated to the temples, while similar ones were erected as grave markers on the graves of significant dead. These statues, the kouroi or korai (youths or maidens), were carved during the 6th century BC, in a frontal posture with restricted movement, but they all grant us a smile. The kouroi are standing with the arms along the body and they put forward the left leg. They are usually nude, their muscle lines accentuated, but some wear painted sandals, like the large kouros dedicated to Poseidon, from his attic sanctuary in Sounion (no. 2720, hall 8). Several are exhibited in the next halls, the most important of which are the ones from the Kerameikos cemetery (no. 3372, hall 11), from the ancient attic deme of Myrrhinous (present day Merenda) (no. 4890, hall 11), from Volomandra in Attica (no. 1906, hall 11), from Anavyssos, also in Attica (Croesus, who fell in battle, no. 3851, hall 13), from Mt. Ptoon in Boeotia (no 20, hall 13), and the latest one in the collection from Mesogeia in Attica (Aristodikos, no. 3938, hall 13). A unique dressed kouros is the one found in the Athenian Ilissos riverbed (no. 3687, hall 13). The bases with relief representations of sports activities and competitions would have been erected on top of athletes' graves (no. 3476, 3747, hall 13). The korai are standing upright, holding their garment with one hand, while with the other holding a flower or fruit in front of the chest. The earliest in the collection and more complete one is Phrasikleia, found together with the Myrrhinous kouros, wearing jewels and a red peplos (no. 4889, hall 11); followed by two korai from the Acropolis of Athens (BE 15, 16, hall 13), and the kore from Eleusis ( no. 26, hall 14). The sculpted funerary monuments of this period can be also very high stelai (upright plaques) (up to 4.5 m) (no. 2687, hall 11), ending up at a statue of a sphinx, a mythical being with a woman's head and winged lion's body (hall 11).

In the transition to the classical period were cast also bronze statues, like the Poseidon found in the sea off the southern coast of Boeotia. He was holding his trident vertically and had been dedicated to the god (according to the inscription on the base) (no. X 11761, hall 14). The temples of the time, such as the temple of Aphaia in Aegina, featured pediments (gables) with sculpted multi-figural battle scenes, (hall 14).

The sculpture of the classical period - 5th and 4th century BC (halls 15 to 28 and 34)

In the 5th century BC Athens had already established democracy (by the statesman Kleisthenes, in 508 BC) and the Greeks faced the invasion of the then superpower army, the Persians. The victorious confrontation in the battles of Marathon, Plataea and Salamis, lead to a period of intellectual creation, material prosperity, and democratic consolidation under the leadership of Perikles. Athens was the center to which flocked, among other artists, sculptors from other areas, which contributed to the decoration of buildings and monuments of the city with sculptures of high artistic quality and originality.

At the beginning of this period sculpture conquered the third dimension. One of the rare surviving bronze works is Zeus or Poseidon, found in the sea off Cape Artemision, on the Euboia island; it once held the thunderbolt of Zeus or Poseidon's trident (no. X 15161, hall 15).

At the peak of the 5th century BC, great sculptors were inspired by the human body, rendering it with idealistic (idealized) beauty and spiritual content. At Eleusis has been found the large relief depicting the three main figures of the mystery cult practiced at the Eleusinian sanctuary: Demeter, Persephone and the young hero Triptolemus (no. 126, hall 15). Next to the relief is the clay pinax (plaque) devoted to the same temple by a faithful woman with the name (the) Ninnion (no. A 11036, hall 15). The statue of the goddess Nemesis, who was worshiped at Rhamnus and had been sculpted by the sculptor Agorakritos, survives in a Roman copy (no. 3949, hall 19). The former's teacher, the Athenian Pheidias had made the chryselephantine (ivory and gold) statue of Athena Parthenos on the Athenian Acropolis. From that enormous work -12 meters high- is preserved a small Roman adaptation in marble (no. 129, hall 20). The marble Diadoumenos found on Delos, the athlete who ties the fillet of victory on his forehead, is a late Hellenistic copy of bronze work of Polykleitos from Argos and was once gilded (no. 1826, hall 21).

Then followed a difficult period, that of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the civil war between Athens and Sparta. For the dead of the war and the epidemic that occurred at its beginning, were again allowed in Athens the marble monuments, formerly banned by law for political and economic reasons. Often these were large marble vases with special symbolism (hall 16), or simple stelai (plaques), like the one with the young man holding the bird he took from a cage, perhaps in a symbolic gesture referring to the liberation of the soul from his dead body (no. 715, hall 16). Sometimes, they take the form of a small temple in which the dead is depicted, like that with Hegeso from the Kerameikos cemetery, seated in front of her sad servant (no. 738, hall 18).

By the end of the war, the Spartan hegemony became prominent, but a little later Athens and Thebes recovered forces, until, in the 4th century BC, the nationwide hegemony was successfully claimed by the Macedonian kings Philip II and Alexander III. ╠ajor Greek cities were developed, while, even before the war ended, regional sculpture schools were created and represented by important sculptors. Sculpture was inspired by the rich movement of drapery following body movement, such as that of the female figures of the Peloponnesian sculptor Timotheos for the temple of Asklepios at Epidaurus (hall 22). Scopas from Paros undertook the construction of the temple of Athena Alea in Tegea in Arcadia (hall 28). Praxiteles, son of the Athenian sculptor Kephisodotos created nude sensual works; to his school is attributed the bronze youth salvaged from the sea of Marathon (no. X 15118, hall 28). The bronze youth recovered from the sea of Antikythera, follows the tradition created by the school of Polykleitos (no. X 13396, hall 28). Lysippos had created Hercules resting on his club, a copy of which is the oversize Hercules found in the Antikythera shipwreck and displayed in the atrium. Its shocking corroded and darkened surface has been caused by dirt and the seawater, and it is difficult to imagine that it is made of bright Parian marble.

Reliefs were also carved in a wide variety; those incorporate also texts of either decrees of the city of Athens (hall 25), or are rendered in the form of caves (hall 25), or human members (hall 26, showcase).

Hellenistic sculpture - late 4th to 1st century BC (halls 29 to 30, and 34)

The Hellenistic period is that of the successors of Alexander the Great and their kingdoms spreading over Greece, Asia and Egypt. New large urban centers such as Pergamum, Antioch and Alexandria emerged then. The citizens of those kingdoms experienced a cosmopolitanism which was facilitated by the widespread use of a common language, the Hellenistic koine, a simplified form of the Attic dialect. The ethical codes of the citizens were affected by new philosophical and religious movements which lead to the strengthening of mystery cults, requiring initiation so that the faithful would achieve individual salvation.

Sculpture saw the emergence of new regional workshops and renowned sculptors who rendered the figures realistically, i.e. with individual characteristics. In Lykosoura, Arcadia, Damophon from Messene created a composition 6 meters high (base included): Demeter and Desp´ina were worshiped seated in a common throne, flanked by Artemis and the Titan Anytus (hall 29). In Aigeira, Achaia, the Athenian Eukleides created the colossal statue of Zeus seated in a throne and known by its depiction on coins; unfortunately only the head and one arm survive (no. 3377 and 3481, hall 30). The complex of Venus and Pan was found on Delos where it had been dedicated by a certain Dionysios from Beirut: the smiling goddess, assisted by the flying Eros, threatens with her sandal the goat-legged Pan attacking her with sexual desire (no. 3335, hall 30). From the sea at Cape Artemision, on the Euboia island was recovered the bronze racing horse with the small rider (no. X-15177, hall 34).

Roman sculpture - 1st century BC until 5th century AD (halls 31-33)

Starting in the 2nd century BC, Greece was gradually conquered by the Romans, until their final victory in 31 BC and the fall of the Ptolemaic kingdom.

The construction program for the capital of the Roman Empire caused a double impact: initially, the Greek cities were stripped of their artistic treasures, which were transferred as booty to Rome, simultaneously with the relocation there of some artists. After that, new regional workshops were created to meet the demand for copies of Classical and Hellenistic works. Later, in the 2nd century AD, Athens emerged again as a cultural center, mainly due to the favor of the philhellene emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius. At that time emerged a neo-Attic production of decorative reliefs (marble plaques for mounting on the wall) (no. 5147, hall 31), marble sarcophagi (no. 1186, hall 32) and table-supports (no. 2706, hall 33).

The Roman administration was served by the art, especially sculpture, by means of portraits of the emperor, his family, and officials or intellectuals; these are displayed grouped according to dynasty. The highlights include the bronze equestrian statue of Octavian Augustus from the sea between the Euboia and Agios Efstratios islands (no. X 23322, hall 31), and also the portrait of Antinous, the partner of the emperor Hadrian, a handsome young man who drowned in the Nile (no. 417, hall 32).

Cypriot Collection (hall 64)

The Cypriot collection was formed from donated and confiscated antiquities and includes, among others, 160 sculptures made of the local cypriot stone. Among the exhibits must be singled out the bearded head with a hairdo imitating that of kouroi from Ionia (no. 1832) and the goddess' head wearing a decorated basket and rich jewelry (no. 66).

Dr Despina Ignatiadou, archaeologist
Head curator, Sculpture Department
National Archaeological Museum


Altar: construction on which sacrifice is offered
Architectural member: stone part of a building
Architectural sculpture / relief: sculpture from the decoration of a building
Bust: a sculpture comprising only the head and chest of a figure
Dedication: a work offered to a temple or shrine
Funerary monument / statue / relief / column: a tomb marker
Historical periods: the period of human history that is documented by written texts
Kouros and kore (plural kouroi and korai): statue of standing nude young man or a draped young woman, in the 6th century BC
Portrait: sculpted head with realistic characteristics of the depicted individual
Plastic : sculpture
Relief: sculpture with shapes and figures protruding from the flat surface of a plaque
Sarcophagus: stone coffin
Sema: tomb marker
Statue: stone, metal, or of other material, human or animal effigy in life size
Statuette: stone, metal, or of other material, human or animal effigy smaller than life size
Stele (plural stelai): upright oblong plaque