Laocoon and His Sons: Ancient Greek Art as a Model for Cultural Identity

Classical Greek art embodies the most basic, visceral drive behind the creation of beautiful things by humans. Other than the strictly formulary and objective art of the Egyptians, the ancient Greeks did not have the benefit of any predecessor from which to derive inspiration and ideas. Instead, they were driven to create art by something much more profound and ingenious than blind tradition. More than any other time or any other culture, Classical Greek art is defined by the scope of its people’s imagination, feeling, and experiences. Through a study of this art, we gain insight into the most fundamental, honest and humane aspects of artwork, namely, the essence of human experience and understanding.

The Impact: Hellenic Identity and Naturalism

Following the Greeks’ narrow escape from complete domination and slavery under Xerxes and his vast Persian armies, Athens banded together under Sparta with a league of city-states to create a new empire which embodied a mantra of “triumph of reason and law over barbarous crimes, blood feuds and mad vengeance (Kleiner 113).” This shift to reason and order marks the height of Greek civilization, and the creation of the Hellenic identity. It is characterized by emphasis on the individual, a concept which still pervades society today in the Western world. This shift in understanding and interpretation of humanity led to a change in the Greeks’ expression through art, as well; a new emphasis was placed on representing realistic human forms with accurate and proportional anatomy.

To this end, in-depth studies were conducted by Greek artists and mathematicians. A system of proportions was devised by Polykleitos of Argos, and defined for others to emulate in his treatise, the Canon. Utilizing these principles with algebraic precision, artists became consumed with sculpting and painting the human body naturally, in new, varied poses and attitudes. To achieve the effect, sculptures had to be modeled onto a frame with clay, rather than simply chiseled from rock. Special attention was given to the drapery of clothing, facial expressions, muscles, illusion of movement, and asymmetrical postures. Sensuality was introduced into these figures as well, giving them the distinctly human quality of having in-depth emotions.

The Genius: Embodiment of an Era

Although many works of art from this time demonstrate the studied prowess of this naturalistic era, Laocoon and His Sons is a penultimate example of the culmination of the Hellenistic Greek art movement. This sculpture commemorates the cornerstone of Greek tradition, depicting a portion of the story of the legendary Trojan Horse. According to tradition, Laocoon is a Trojan priest of Poseidon who scorns the gift of the great wooden horse from the Greeks. He insists that it is not an offering to the goddess Athena as the Greeks suggest, but a “deadly fraud… devised by the Achaean chiefs (Smyrnaeus).” Laocoon throws a spear at the horse, and invokes the wrath of the goddess, who sends deadly serpents across the sea to attack Laocoon and his sons in retribution. The violence of the attack by these serpents and the agony of their victims are captured in vivid detail in the sculpture.

Every aspect of the essential elements of naturalism are represented in this masterpiece: the elaborate drapery of clothing, detailed facial expressions, muscular definition of the mid-movement human form beneath the skin of the subjects in asymmetrical, yet physiologically correct, precision. Another important detail is that the scene depicted in Laocoon and His Sons commemorates what is arguably one of the most formative moments in Greek history. The Persian War caused a resurgence of national fervor in the Greeks that gave rise to artwork which was poignantly representational of their history, traditions, mythology and folklore.

In the years that followed the Classical Era of Greece, power would shift eastward to Macedonia, giving way to new developments in the art of the Hellenistic Era. Sculptures such as Laocoon and His Sons from the Classical Era embody a cultural maxim and mathematically precise methodology that provided the very foundations for realism in art for centuries to follow.  The Hellenistic Era made good use of the Classical Era’s artistic interpretations, and took sculpture and painting to even greater heights in the pursuit of Greek cultural depiction and artistic naturalism.

Works Referenced

Boardman, John. “The Classical period (5th – 4th century BC).” University of Oxford. Oxford: Classical Art Research Centre, 1997-2013. (October 2012).

Curators of the Vatican Museums and Galleries. Guide to the Vatican Museums and City. Trans. by J. Zweng. Pontifical Monuments, Museums, and Galleries. Tipografia Vaticana, 1986. p. 41—42.

Faith Daves. “Description and Characteristics of Ancient Greek Art.” (November 2006).

Hemingway, Colette, and Seán Hemingway. “The Art of Classical Greece (ca. 480–323 B.C.)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (January 2008).

Kleiner, Fred S. “Chapter 5: Ancient Greece.” Gardner’s Art Through the Ages A Global History, Volume I. 13th ed. Vol. 1. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2008. 1-555.

Mulch, Millard. “Classical Greek Art.” History of Painters., 1999. (April 2014).

Smyrnaeus, Quintus. The Fall of Troy – Book 12, Trans by A. S. Way. Theoi. (January 2011).

Tessman, Kate. “Art.”  Ancient Greece. Boston: Boston University School of Education, 2010. 2010).

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