The Orientalizing Period
ca. mid-8th to mid-7th centuries BCE

'Orientalizing' is a complex term that was coined in reference to the spread of Near Eastern and Egyptian ideas, motifs, and other cultural elements to Greece and to the rest of the Mediterranean. More important to the study of Greek vases, it suggests the adoption of those themes into Greek art. Artistic elements such as floral and animal motifs spread with the movement of people, particularly with Phoenician and Greek traders (1).  Greek vase decoration provides the most prolific examples in the archaeological record of the active assimilation of distinctive artistic elements from the East (2). Near Eastern ceramics were not the primary medium for the spread of Orientalizing decoration; rather, scholars turn to artifacts such as North Syrian relief sculptures, Urartian metalworking, Assyrian relief sculpture and textiles, and Phoenician ivories and bronzes to determine the artistic relationship between Greece and their Eastern neighbors (3).

Greek artisans appropriated floral, faunal, and mythic motifs from Near Eastern artistic media, which they in turn selectively incorporated into their own crafts.

Floral elements such as palmettes and lotuses, often depicted in a chain, in addition to rosettes, are important because they represent themes indigenous to the Near East and are fairly uncommon to Greek art prior to this period. The Eastern 'Tree of Life' is adopted on many vases, but arguably is used as a merely decorative ornament and without its Eastern religious significance (4).

Faunal elements , most notably lions, bovines, boars, wild goats, dogs, hens, roosters, and water fowl were shown in very stylized forms which often were illustrated differently in separate cultural regions of the Near East. For example, the form of the lion was markedly different in Neo-Hittite and Assyrian cultures.

Mythic creatures such as griffins, sirens (essay on sirens), and sphinxes (essay on sphinx) are examples of the Eastern hybridization of multiple beasts, often including aspects of the human form. After the importation of these Near Eastern creatures, a new genre of these beasts emerged as a popular form in Greece.

"Orientalizing art is Oriental on the surface but still recognizably Greek below" (5).  What does this mean? Although it may seem from these examples that the Greeks indiscriminately absorbed all aspects of Near Eastern artistic culture during this period, this is decidedly not the case. "On the orthostats at Neo-Hittite sites, the Chimaera had no narrative context and served only to ward off evil, but in Greek myth the beast was to be conquered by a hero" (6).  A Protocorinthian aryballos, from 650-630 B.C., depicts Bellerophon on Pegasos, his winged horse, conquering the Chimaera. Greeks were fond of narrative in vase painting and took Near Eastern creatures such as the Chimaera and the Siren and altered their basic function by making them part of a story.

Authors: Jessika Akmenkalns, Gina Hander, and Stephanie Ann Smith

(1) John Boardman, Early Greek Vase Painting (London: Thames and Hudson 1998): 83.

(2) John Boardman, The Greeks Overseas: Their Early Colonies and Trade (New York: Thames and Hudson 1999): 77-78.

(3) Ibid, 55-56; "In regard to Oriental influences we are obliged to depend often on the specificity of forms and motifs and do without exact coincidence in medium, technique, use, or connotation." J.L. Benson, Horse, Bird, and Man: The Origins of Greek Painting (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press 1970): 112.

(4) "The eastern forms are for the most part reinterpreted and we can never be sure that any in Greek guise are merely decorative." Boardman, Early Greek Vase Painting , 84.

(5) Jeffrey M. Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 BCE (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 1985): 133.

(6) William A.P. Childs, "The Human Animal: The Near East and Greece," The Centaur's Smile: The Human Animal in Early Greek Art , ed. J. Michael Padgett (Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum 2004): 63.