Caryatids, Medusa and the Parthenon Frieze

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Many people are mystified by neoclassical art. They think it’s a style like any other – but if they try to describe what it looks like, they just sound like they’re talking about any other style. For example, when you ask them to name a painting in the neoclassical style, their answer is always the same: “A lady with a fan.”

But that’s not really an answer; it’s just another way of saying “neoclassical.” We can also say “a painting with a fan” or “a painting of a lady,” and those statements would be equally true. This blog explains neoclassical art by comparing it to formalism and realism. It has lots of images to illustrate the points, including caryatids, Medusa and the Parthenon frieze. It’s aimed at people who love art and want to understand how it works more deeply. It doesn’t cover every genre of neoclassical art – but it does cover the three most important genres.

The art of the ancient Greeks is famous for its realism. But the realism of Greek sculpture is different from that of modern sculpture. The difference between ancient and modern realism can be seen in three sculptures—the Caryatids (and their architectural background), Medusa, and the Parthenon frieze.

TIP: The content of this blog post is excerpted from my recent book, “The Architecture of Happiness.” You can read more about it here:

(This blog is part of a series on Art History for Everyone. You can see the rest of the posts here.)

Caryatids and Their Architectural Background

The Caryatids are figures cut into the wall of a porch at the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. They are made out of marble and look like women who are holding up a porch with their heads (see photo). Caryatids are half statues, half architecture; they appear to be real people but they really just hold up part of a building.

The Parthenon Frieze

The Parthenon frieze consists of more than 200 figures

The Parthenon frieze is a classic example of a European and American version of a non-Western art form. The frieze was designed to tell the story of Athena, who fought off a giant monster and created the city of Athens.

The Americans and Europeans displayed the frieze on their buildings in a way that made sense to them. Athena is on horseback with her foot on the torso of the dead, defeated giant. This is an almost exact copy of Perseus, another mythical Greek hero, who is on horseback with his foot on Medusa’s severed head. The two heroes are linked through this pose. Perseus is said to have used Medusa’s head as a weapon against enemies. Athena used her shield against her opponent in the same way.

In addition, there are direct references to American and European history on the frieze. Athena’s shield has been decorated with portraits of famous Americans, including Jefferson and Lincoln. There are also portraits of two famous Europeans: Socrates and Pallas Athene (a symbol for wisdom). These portraits can be seen as links between ancient Greece and America.

The Caryatids: In the 18th century, a vase was found in Etruria (modern day Italy) with a Greek inscription on it. Nowadays, this vase is known as the ‘caryatids vase’. The inscription reads: “I am the work of Daidalos” and refers to an artist who made it. This was one of the first finds of ancient Greek art that could be attributed to a specific creator: Daidalos, son of Daedalus.

Till now, Daidalos remains shrouded in mystery. He is said to have been an architect and sculptor from Athens who worked for king Minos of Crete and designed the Labyrinth. And because he was also famous for having invented stairs, which were used to climb the walls of the Labyrinth, he got the nickname ‘creator of wooden steps’. Another version has him as a craftsman at Hephaistos’ forge, who helped his master make weapons and armour for use by the gods.

Daidalos is also famous for having built wings so he and his son Icarus could fly away from Crete; but they didn’t properly bind them and Icarus flew too close to the

A blog about the history of art, architecture and design. It is written by an art lover and a connoisseur with a desire to share his knowledge and passion for art.

This blog is divided into several sections – Art History (with articles on Medieval and Renaissance art), Classical paintings (with articles on individual paintings by Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Early Modern artists as well as general articles on the movement) and Contemporary art (modern art).

The aim is not to offer one-dimensional, dry essays that only focus on facts, but rather to provide interest in the subject matter.

It’s actually quite hard to pin down what constitutes a “neoclassical” piece of art, but of course the most famous examples are the statues on the exterior of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece (the caryatids) and Michelangelo’s statue of David.

Trying to define neoclassicism is a bit like trying to define pornography: it might be easier to point out examples that aren’t neoclassical rather than ones that are. Some scholars have suggested that neoclassicism is an attempt to emulate classical Greek art, which would mean that any artistic style that was invented after classical Greek art would therefore be non-neoclassical. Other scholars disagree with this idea and argue that neoclassicism never really existed as a movement or style (it was just always there).

One thing most scholars agree on is that neoclassical artists were interested in depicting human beings in their natural state. In ancient Greece, this meant depicting nude bodies; in later eras, it could also include depictions of ordinary people going about their lives. Neoclassical artists tended to avoid portraying religious subjects, though they didn’t necessarily shy away from depicting religious themes.

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