Geometric Greece: 900-700 BC

By J. N. Coldstream | Go to book overview
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15

Oriental Influences

Ever since the awakening of the mid-ninth century, the arts of Geometric Greece had been subject to sporadic influences from the Near East. Gold, an oriental luxury, is the earliest medium of these influences. The difficult techniques of granulation, filigree, and inlaying had been forgotten in Greece since Mycenaean times; they were first recovered in Attica and Crete, under the instruction of immigrant oriental craftsmen. These masters also passed on to their pupils a wealth of oriental imagery. Sphinxes, griffins, roaring lions, lions fighting men and sometimes overcoming them, rows of grazing animals-each of these subjects makes its debut on orientalizing gold diadems made in Athens or Knossos, or on Knossian bronze reliefs made under the influence of a resident oriental jeweller. 1 The Idaean bronze shields, which reflect the work of a later immigrant guild, introduce the Tree of Life, and a nude fertility goddess flanked by wild animals. All these themes had been foreshadowed in Minoan or Mycenaean art; but it is in oriental guise that they reappear, and after a long absence.

For the time being, oriental influence was.virtually confined to technique and imagery. Here the Cretan metalwork is exceptional, in that it maintains an oriental style for a long time, without much concession to local taste; yet it had no effect on the rest of the Greek world. Everywhere else, oriental notions were quickly hellenized, in accordance with the local Geometric tradition. Thus the later Attic diadems are Geometric in style, and sometimes also in theme (fig. 38d); the first post-Mycenaean seal-engravers often adopt oriental shapes, but the engraving is crudely Geometric (fig. 50); Syrian figurines, with their tilted heads and deep-set eyes, had only a passing influence on Geometric bronzes (figs. 41a, 58c, d); the ivory girl from Athens (fig. 42b-d) shows how a fleshy Syrian prototype could be translated into a graceful Geometric idiom. Vasepainting, the art in which the Geometric tradition was most firmly rooted, was especially resistant to the freer style of oriental prototypes: thus the varied animal processions on the earlier Attic diadems were rigidly standardized and geometricized by the Dipylon Master (fig. 33c); and much the same can be said of the Euboean Cesnola Painter's Tree of Life (fig. 61c), and of the Attic adaptations of a North Syrian cult scene (pp. 122-3 nn. 37-8) to suit local funerary ritual.

Towards the end of the eighth century, however, the Geometric tradition was becoming exhausted, even in the conservative medium of vase-painting. All forms of figured art now begin to lose their former rigidity, under oriental influence; and Geometric linear ornament is gradually superseded by plant motifs of oriental origin. Such are the chief symptoms of the great Orientalizing movement which was eventually to transform the style and character of Greek art;

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