Women in Greek history have had many roles. In Ancient Greece the mythological stories tell of very powerful women. Some archeological finds hint at the same suggestion. Women also represent some of the most powerful of deities. In the Classical Age women were subservient and primarily homebound. Women did the sewing, cooking, cleaning and raising of the children. In Hellenistic times women were becoming more a part of society yet still played the part of the subservient wife and mother. Women played an even greater role in Greek Art throughout Greek history by inspiring the artist. Women were depicted in statues, pottery, vases, tempera, ceramic, poetry, writing, plays and even mythology.
The nude male figure was the focus of art in Greek Culture for many years, especially in the Classic Greek times. This was considered the highest of Greek beauty. Society was based around men so men often saw other men more often than women. In some cultures nudity was equated with humility, shame, or defeat. The Greeks took this image and glorified it as a work of art. The male nude became a focus of beauty and acceptance.
In the beginning nude women in art were viewed differently than men. Respectable women were not portrayed in the nude unless they were in a defenseless setting or in immediate harm. If they were not in danger than they were clothed. If a woman was depicted in the nude, other than a respectable woman in danger, she was a hetairai or courtesan or prostitute. In 530 BC naked women were a hot topic for vases. These women were portrayed in very suggestive and lewd positions. The vases were often used by men at drinking parties, which explain the topic of this art.
In the middle of the fourth century, BC the image of the female nude body changed. A sculpture named Praxiteles sculpted the first nude Aphrodite. This rendition was carved realistically and sensuously. Stories tell of Aphrodite being angered at this first sculpture of her in the nude. Her anger may have been because Praxiteles would have had to have seen her naked to create such a realistic statue or because he depicted her so realistically her flaws were evident. By either measure this first nude Aphrodite became the subject for many artists. Aphrodite was the only Goddess to every be betrayed in the nude. This nudity became acceptable because she was the Goddess of love, sex and desire and may have also been ok because of her religious element as well. Aphrodites religious undertone as the Goddess of fertility may have also been one aspect that allowed her nude depiction to be widely accepted.
In the third Century the statue of Hermaphrodite was created. This statue was of a perfect young male with breasts. This led way to a new way of looking at the woman. Adding female characteristics of a woman to the superior male made women even more beautiful and sexual. In the Hellenistic Age art held a very realistic and true-to-life subject and setting. In example of this realistic depiction would be the statue of the Well-to-Do Drunken Woman. These almost soap opera like stories were portrayed in Greek Old Comedy. In plays and stories women were put in situations of greater power and seen more positively. Hellenistic Queens also played a pert in women being depicted in a more positive manner in society and art. There were also important female figures throughout Greek history such as Perictyine who was the mother of Plato and a Pythagorean writer and philosopher. Women also filled the shoes of artists, poets and writers although not great in number.
As the role of women was changing socially they were also depicted differently in art. In Ancient, Pre-Classical, and Classical times to the Hellenistic age the image changed again in art and society. In Ancient Greek times women were very powerful beings. In Classical times women could only gain power if they were related to or married an influential man in Greek society. A Hellenistic play written by Euripides read, Women run households and protect with in their homes was has been carried across the sea and without a woman no house is clean or prosperous. Consider their roll in religion, for that, in my opinion, comes first. We women play the most important part. Because women prophesies, the will of Loxias in the oracles of Phoibos. And at the holy site of Dodona near the Sacred Oak, females convey the will of Zeus to inquirers from Greece. As for the sacred rituals for the fates and the nameless goddesses
[i.e. the Furies], all these would not be holy if performed by men, but prosper in womens hands. In this way women have a rightful share in the service of the Gods.
Not all women in Greek art are depicted as beautiful figures. Many dark images in art and mythology are also women. Eris was known for discord, Medusa and other Gorgons stood for death. Graiae were said to be withered and gray and shared one eye and tooth. There were many others like Sirens, Sphinx, Charybids and Chimera. Erinyes or Furies were horrible creatures and Harpies were flying creatures with hooked beaks and claws. None of these were ever depicted as beautiful or ideal but all were women.
Some Greek women were also rebellious in nature, like Herea who was eventually punished by Zeus and hung from Olympus. Cassandra was a prophetess once she and Apollo fell in love, when she became rebellious he found her hideous and made it so no one would ever believe her again. Clytemnestra was among the rebellious who went unpunished. Many of these women were known for killing their husbands. The Amazons were a band of women that fought together and killed. Not all of the rebellious women were evil, as the Furies fought for law and order.
Women have graced art throughout Greek history in many forms. As society changed so did the depiction of women in art. Women have graced writing in many forms and visual art as well. From Goddesses to monsters and everyday women the importance of mythology and everyday life was visible in art. Men and women were both depicted often, although their significance held very different meanings throughout history. Women have held different purpose and significance throughout all of history in society and art not just Greek history. However Greek history was a beautiful representation of the change in the thoughts and feelings of women.
(Unknown author) From Courtesans to Cleopatra: The Portrayal of Women Inttellenistic Art and Literature. 1999.
Bonafante, Larissa. Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art. American Journal of Archeology. Pg. 93. 1989.
Kluth, Fredrick John. The Role of Women in Greek Art. www.LesGalore.com