Book Review - Greek Art

by Erin on December 14, 2013

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I adore books. That’s one of the reasons I have an entire section devoted to books and book reviews here at the site. And I feel fortunate to have acquired a modest collection of books about art and mythology over the years. I guess it’s natural, therefore, that I want to share some of these books with you here at Mythography on occasion.

With that in mind, today I wanted to talk about one of my art books. It is called Greek Art, and it was written by Nigel Spivey.

First, some background about the book. Greek Art is published by Phaidon, and it is a part of the Phaidon Art & Ideas series. Incidentally, the books in this series are, in my opinion, excellent introductions to the various periods in art history. And Greek Art stands out from other books on this topic for many reasons.

First, it really is a beautiful book, almost a little work of art itself. My copy of Greek Art features a white cover adorned with the striking image of a marble horse’s head. This image is actually a detail from a famous piece of sculpture - the Parthenon. The book refers to the illustration rather poetically as a “horse of the moon goddess Selene”. Sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover. And this one had me intrigued.

The inside of the book caught my attention right away with a famous story from Greek myth. The author begins with an engaging description of the shield of Achilles from Homer’s Iliad.

We also learn quite a bit about the roles that artists played in ancient Greek society in this introduction. I was especially intrigued by the notion that these artists were more than mere craftsmen. There is even a comparison between human artists and the divine smith Hephaistos.

The introduction is followed by 8 chapters, each of which deals with a theme or era from Greek art history. A couple of stand out chapters are called “Epic Figures Myth in Early Art” and “Across Two Millennia The Greek Legacy“, so let’s look at those in a bit more detail.

In chapter 2, the focus is on “Epic Figures Myth in Early Art“. This chapter explains how artists in ancient Greece were influenced by the epic tales in circulation at the time, specifically the Homeric epics. The story of Odysseus and the Cyclops Polyphemus is used to illustrate the idea of how influential these epics were.

And since I am fond of learning about the ways artists have reinterpreted Greek art over the centuries, chapter 8, “Across Two Millennia The Greek Legacy“, also captured my attention. In this chapter the author shows how ancient Greek art influenced everyone from the Romans to artists in Nineteenth century and beyond. We can even see traces of the Greek influence in iconic works of architecture like the Lincoln Monument in Washington DC.

I’ve revealed that I have a degree in art history. So it may not exactly come as a surprise that I like pretty pictures - and one of the first things I look for in an art book is the quality of the images. Indeed, what struck me about this book is the abundance of beautiful photographs. I was impressed by the sheer number of color photos, all of which focus on some of the most famous works of ancient Greek art. Here are some notable examples from the book :

  • The ‘Francois Vase’
  • A vase painting with Achilles and Ajax playing dice, by Exekias
  • Many details of sculpture from the Parthenon frieze
  • Caryatids from the porch of the Erectheum
  • Nike of Samothrace (or Winged Victory as she is sometimes called)

In addition, Greek Art has a concise glossary that explains important words such as agora, entasis, and metope. While the author has gone to great lengths to make Greek Art readable, and avoided most of the pedantic jargon found in many scholarly works about art history, I still appreciate little touches like having a handy glossary for reference.

The section “Brief Biographies of Mythical and Divine Figures” is another nice feature. It covers many important characters from myth and legend, from Achilles to Zeus, in a few informative sentences. It’s just enough information to give a general background about each figure.

Ultimately, I recommend Greek Art to anyone who is interested in learning more about this fascinating and influential period in art history. And since it is more of a survey of ancient Greek art than an in depth study of specific works, I think that the book is a great introduction to the subject.

This book is available at :

Greek Art A&I (Art and Ideas)

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