The "Sumptuous" Arts in Greece

The quarter is over. Over the past few days I’ve reflected on what lectures I enjoyed teaching to my ancient art students. I think that my favorite lecture was based on Kenneth Lapatin’s essay, “The Fate of Plate and Other Precious Metals: Toward a Historiography of Ancient Greek Minor (?) Arts”1.

The reason why Lapatin includes a question mark after the word “minor” is important: his whole essay revolves around the argument that the Greeks valued the so-called “minor arts” much more than they are valued today. For Lapatin, the “sumptuous” artistic materials like ivory, gold, silver and gemstone were the artistic mediums that the Greeks most prized. In other words, the Greek marble, bronze and (painted) pottery (all of which are placed at the heart of Western art history) weren’t as valued by the ancient Greeks.

To prove his point, Lapatin gives one especially interesting example. He writes that “in the middle of the sixth century BC, the inhabitants of Phocaea decided to abandon their city rather than submit to the Medes. Herodotus reports, ‘They loaded onto their ships their children, women, and household property, and above all the images of the gods from the sanctuaries and other dedications, everything, in fact, except bronzes, stoneworks, and paintings, and they sailed to Chios.'”2 Now I realize that there may have been some practical reasons why the Greeks didn’t load their ships with stonework (it is heavy, after all!), but isn’t it interesting that the art we value today is precisely the art that the Greeks chose to abandon?

In some ways, this news shouldn’t come as a surprise to art historians. We have known for a long time that the main purpose of the Parthenon was to house Phidias’ chryselephantine cult statue of Athena (see above left for a reconstruction of an original of c. 438 BC). The cult statue was the most valued thing by the Greeks, not the building which housed the statue. This is very ironic, because today much more emphasis is placed on the architecture and exterior sculpture of the Parthenon. In fact, it’s interesting that one ancient Greek writer, Pausanias, only mentions the two pediments and cult statue when he described the Parthenon. He ignored the metopes and frieze completely, which suggests that they weren’t very important.3

So, why do we value painting, architecture, and sculpture above the “minor” materials and objects created by the Greeks? Lapatin traces this ideology back to Vasari’s writings of the 16th century (see a 1566-68 self-portrait of Vasari on right). Vasari’s Lives focused on the achievements of three artistic types: painters, sculptors, and architects. As a result, painting, sculpture, and architecture became “the canonical triad” in art history.4 In some ways, it’s not surprising that Vasari promoted these types of art: after all, he was a painter and architect himself. Although the effect of Vasari’s “triad” was not immediate (gems were still were considered part of the arts for a long time afterward), Vasari’s writings took part in “the displacement and demotion of items fashioned from sumptuous materials from the lofty position they held in ancient art and culture (as well as in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance).”5

Lapatin’s argument is fascinating. He also delves into interesting discussions of how Winckelmann affected our modern perception of Greek sculpture, particularly in terms of what we value today (i.e. unpainted white marble). It’s great stuff. I recommend that everyone should get their hands on a copy of this article. Unfortunately, his essay is found in a book that currently is out of print. But I promise that your efforts in securing a copy of this essay will be well worth the effort!

1 Kenneth Lapatin, “The Fate of Plate and Other Precious Metals: Toward a Historiography of Ancient Greek Minor (?) Arts,” in Ancient Art and its Historiography by A. A. Donohue, ed. (Cambridge: 2003): 69-91.

2 Ibid., 71.

3 Colin Cunningham, “The Parthenon Marbles,” in Academies, Museums and Canons of Art by Gill Perry and Colin Cunningham, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 53-54. Part of the citation is available online here.

4 Lapatin, 74. It should be noted that Vasari did discuss and laud the importance of gold work and glyptic in the first edition of his Lives (1550). However, the 1568 revision of the text demoted the sumptuous arts and elevated painting instead.

4 Ibid.

  • heidenkind says:

    Hm, interesting. It does make sense that the arts we value today would be the ones that survived. I'd always heard that painting was considered the most important art by the Ancient Greeks (none of which is extant, unless you count the Fayyum portraits), but I can't remember where I heard that now, so who knows. It could have been from Vasari.

    Btw, have you looked at the topics for the CAA conference yet? Vasari gets a whole panel!

  • H Niyazi says:

    Yes! Some more Vasari deconstruction!

    As much as I love the insight he gives us to Renaissance artists, the terrible biases formed by later writers based on his work are phenomenal.

    Luckily, we can be more even-handed in our approach now than the European writers who invented the perception of the 'Renaissance' that we have today.

    Good work M!


  • Dr. F says:

    It's not Vasari, it's a lack of historical imagination on the part of most modern scholars. They live in a world that regards religion as a superstitious relic of the past, and can't imagine how important their relics of the gods were to the Greeks.

    It's like coming upon a beautiful sea shell on the beach without imagining that it once contained a living thing.


  • H Niyazi says:

    Frank, Vasari is not entirely blameless here. The utter disregard he showed for the art of the Eastern Church and Medieval architecture resonated through Europe and the ages, from Voltaire to Goethe to Gibbon!

    Following on from Plutarch's diatribe against the Middle Ages, Vasari crystallised these notions regarding the art and architecture of that era.

    This unfair and wildly biased appraisal was definitely his invention, so you can not just fob it off on the latter scholars!

    Also, his quizzical view of female artists leaves much to be desired – which M did a great post on

    Sofonisba Anguissola in particular deserves as much praise as any of the other male painters he saw fit to deify! 'The Chess Game' is simply a delightful, touching piece – something which Vasari himself could never have pulled off.


  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    heidenkind, it is interesting that Vasari has his own CAA panel! It really is popular to deconstruct/criticize him right now. (But we should give him a break, sometimes, I think. I hope some nice things are said about him, too.) In all honesty, I wasn't trying to deconstruct/criticize him too much in this post – I merely wanted to point out the historiography of the "triad" of painting, sculpture, and architecture in Western art history. I don't really think it's problematic that we value such things today, but I do think it's important we don't superimpose our own value system on what the Greeks actually upheld. (This idea ties in with what H Niyazi said about being more "even handed" in our discussion of art today. Hopefully we can be more objective and realize how our current perceptions of Western art are constructed.)

    Frank, you bring up a very interesting idea about modern scholars lacking historical imagination. I think many historians are tempted to superimpose their own values or ideologies on earlier cultures (perhaps in an attempt to understand or relate to their subject?), and I think this could tie into the problem at hand. (I would even argue, though, that this problem goes back to Vasari – he superimposed his own values and ideologies about art when defining his "triad").

    Fun thoughts, everyone!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.