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Athens’ National Archaeological Museum: Art Treasures of Ancient Greece

Athens, Greece

In this astonishing collection of Greek art (7000 BC to AD 300), witness the evolution of statuary — from stoic (kouroi) to realistic (Poseidon of Artemision) to expressive (worried Boy with Horse) — amid exquisite jewelry and vases depicting slice-of-life scenes.

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The one must-see sight outside the central tourist zone is the National Archaeological Museum. This extraordinary collection lets you follow the sweep of Greek art history from 7000 BC to AD 300.

A trove of funerary art from the royal tombs of Mycenae shows treasures from a society that thrived around 1000 years before the days of Socrates and Plato. You'll see finely decorated weapons and sheaths… exquisite golden jewelry… and the delicate Vaphio gold cups — reminders of the sophistication of that 15th-century BC civilization.

This Warrior Vase, from the 12th century BC, shows women gathered to wave goodbye to a group of warriors heading off to war — sporting fancy armor with duffle bags hanging from their spears. These Mycenaean soldiers — with their yellow-ribbon moms — are a timeless off-to-war scene, repeated every generation in the 3,000 years since.

Ancient Greeks celebrated the human body. To them it was the embodiment of the order found in nature. All the parts were there in geometrical, if not biological perfection. No individual features — everything was idealized. In fact, these archaic statues were named simply kouros (meaning "boy"), or kore (meaning "girl").

Statues from this age — around 600 BC — all had the same standard features: weight spread evenly on two feet, arms rigid at the side, stiff braided hair, almond-shape eyes, high eyebrows, and the same quirky little grins. Archaic statues all looked like cousins.

During the Archaic period, all the parts were there, but if it decided to walk, it would walk like a monster, stiffly with no understanding of the subtle interplay between hips and shoulders.

But Greek art evolved with its society. The 80-year period from about 480 to 400 BC is known as the Golden Age of Greece — the age of Socrates and Pericles — and Athens was the center. During this time, the golden mean was "nothing in excess." In both life and art, everything was to be in balance.

Golden Age sculptors shifted weight more believably, placing their statues in a contrapposto pose — that means relaxed, with hips shifted realistically and weight resting on one foot. Statues looked more lifelike.

Ancient Greek treasures include the Poseidon of Artemision. This stunning bronze statue, cast in 460 BC, depicts the mighty god of the sea about to hurl his trident. Once again, we see that classic Greek balance between stillness and motion.

But in around 330 BC, Athens' was conquered by the Macedonians from the north. Subjugation by the Macedonians under Phillip II and his son Alexander the Great ushered in what's known as the Hellenistic period. The word Hellenistic refers to Greek culture after its political conquest.

Greek Hellenistic art, like Greek Hellenistic society in general, evolved beyond the aesthetics of the Golden Age. While less balanced and composed, it was a more individualistic age — with more exuberant and emotional art.

The Horse and Jockey of Artemision, cast in the second century BC, is filled with this Hellenistic energy. The high-spirited detail is astonishing, right down to the horse's dramatic head, and the concerned look on the young jockey's face.

The evolution of Greek art from stiff to realistic to emotional would be echoed by Europe 2,000 years later: from stiff Gothic to realistic Renaissance, to emotional Baroque.