The Art and Culture of the Greek Islands

Civilizations with impressive achievements emerged during the Bronze Age in the Cyclades, Crete, and the Greek mainland. The remnants of their buildings, pottery, jewellery making and metallurgy, and paintings have survived.

The art of Greece has influenced many other artistic movements throughout the centuries. It is particularly famous for its poetic literature (e.g. Constantine Cavafy), suffused with ironic nostalgia for its past glories.

The Mycenaeans

Inspired by the art of ancient Minoan Crete, Mycenaean culture thrived in the final years of the Bronze Age. They developed a variety of art forms, including the tholos tombs with their circular burial chambers encased in a corbeled vault.

They also created monumental sculptures of lions, bull-leaping griffins, and chariots as well as fresco paintings found in palace rooms at Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos. The art style of the Mycenaeans is characterized by a fusion of cultural influences, with a unique emphasis on geometric pattern and stylized figures.

The Geometric Period

After the collapse of the Mycenaean world, Greek society entered a period of profound transformation. Populations exploded, proto-urban life reemerged, and Greeks developed a distinctly new style of art.

During the Geometric Period, artists began to master symmetrical and geometric expression. They were beginning to learn “a new language”, displaying decorative patterns full of lines and linear shapes.

The Geometric era featured large ceramic vessels, including the krater and amphora, that functioned as funerary markers in a graveyard. Their decorations reflected the warrior and chariot themes of Homer’s epic poems, as well as rituals for the dead.

The Archaic Period

The Archaic Period (700 – 480 BCE) marked a return to political stability and the development of city-states (Polis) with complex social structures that included slaves. It also ushered in dramatic innovation in sculpture, with a more naturalistic style and the introduction of the kouroi—commemorative, semi-life-like statues of idealized young men and their clothed female counterparts.

The torsos of these sculptures display a technique called contrapposto, a dynamic pose that gives the appearance of life-like movement through a relationship between tense and relaxed limbs. This style of sculpting introduced new themes and genres as well as a sense of drama and pathos to Greek art.

The Classical Period

The Classical period is associated with a number of Greek advances in science, such as Thales of Miletus’s pioneering work on natural causes for physical phenomena and the Pythagorean theorem. During this time, sculptors transformed their stiff and unrealistic ‘kouros’ and ‘kore’ statue types into incredibly dynamic works of art.

The renowned Italian painter Domenicos Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco, was born in Heraklion, and reproductions of his greatest works are displayed at a museum here. Heraklion also claims to be the birthplace of the modern writer Nikos Kazantzakis.

The Hellenistic Period

In the Hellenistic period sculptors sought out new forms of emotional intensity and individuality. For example, the Barberini faun combines a human and animal figure and overtly sexualizes the male form in a way that earlier Greek nudes did not.

Hellenistic architecture also showed a new interest in drama and surprise through monumental building and innovative design. For instance, Polyeuktos’ portrait of Demosthenes does not idealize the Athenian statesman and orator; instead it captures his furrowed brow, stooped shoulders, and old skin.

The most famous island in the Dodecanese is Hydra, a favorite retreat for Athenians and international artists (including Leonard Cohen). Here quaint alleyways lead to 18th- and 19th-century mansions.

The Roman Period

The Romans held Classical art in high regard and copied many masterpieces. They also strove for more realistic forms.

Roman sculptors often captured the idealized beauty of earlier Greek sculpture and mixed in styles popular in the East. They also reproduced and copied ancient Greek paintings. Their prolific production of copies has preserved for posterity invaluable works that might otherwise have been lost.

The Romans embraced mosaics, a decorative technique using small black and white tessellated squares of marble, glass, pottery or stone called opus tessellatum. They even revived a form of Greek glass painting for portraiture.

The Ottoman Period

After the Greek islands fell to the Ottoman Empire, local traditions in art continued to emerge even in official projects. A clear example is the architectural style of the mosque complexes of the time that were inspired by plans sent from Istanbul, but with local interpretations like Eastern Mediterranean striped masonry and barrel vaults rather than a dome.

In addition, Turkish artists developed their own styles that merged traditional Turkish and Persian artistic traditions with Western European ones. One of these was “saz” that started as designs for Korans and manuscript illuminations and later appeared on all sorts of other art forms.

The Orientalizing Period

During the Orientalizing Period, Greek vase painting began to be heavily influenced by foreign styles. The geometric style was replaced with outlines, and new motifs emerged. These motifs included palmettes, tendril volutes, and animal and vegetable designs. Male and female sculptures also shared characteristics with Egyptian and Near Eastern models.

The rapid growth of trade also facilitated the adoption of the Greek alphabet, which spurred a dramatic leap in writing. It also allowed Homeric epics and lyric poetry to be documented, as well as a burgeoning of natural philosophers.

The Modern Period

During this time Greek society underwent significant changes in science, politics, war, technology, and art. The era marked the beginning of a process that eventually led to a worldwide spread of Western cultural values.

On Chios, a museum is dedicated to the unique product of the island, mastic, which is included in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The museum traces the history of the cultivation and uses of this precious aromatic resin and reveals its secrets.

In Heraklion, the house-museum of the famous Greek politician Eleftherios Venizelos resembles his two-story residence with period furniture and decorative items. The museum also displays Venizelos’ personal belongings and documents of historical value.