Neoclassicism: The Philhellenic Art Movement that Revived the Hellenic Spirit

Why are there so many buildings that resemble ancient Greek temples in Europe? And why do so many artists from the Romantic era depict ancient Greek mythological characters in their sculptures and paintings?

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The Movement of Neoclassicism/ Hellenism

If you have ever visited some of the major cities of Europe, such as Paris, Vienna, Munich, and Brussels, you might have noticed some 18th and 19th century buildings that are clearly inspired by the simplicity and symmetry of Classical Athens’ architecture. You might have visited the Orsay Museum in Paris and noticed a collection of artworks from that same period that depict characters from ancient Greek mythology. Maybe you have heard of cities named Athens in the United States of America and Canada and of secret societies communicating in ancient Greek in American Universities.

This movement in art and architecture is called “Hellenism”, “Neoclassicism”, or “Neoclassical Hellenism”. These terms were introduced during the Romantic era (18th and 19th Century Europe) by the German art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann. It was a time when noble Europeans would study the political and philosophical ideas of Classical Athens, often romanticizing the era.

With Hellenism, “Philhellenism” was born: a love and admiration for the living descendants of ancient Greeks, who lived under the Ottoman rule. Philhellenes played a crucial role in reviving the Hellenic (Greek) spirit and encouraging the enslaved Greeks of the Ottoman Empire  to create a national identity and fight for their independence.

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Neoclassicism in Art

Helinika has gathered a collection of artworks and buildingsthat were inspired by the Neoclassical movement.

Psyche Revived by the Kiss of Love, Antonio Canova

By Kimberly Vardeman – Flickr: Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, CC BY 2.0

Italian artist Antonio Canova is behind the masterpiece of Neoclassical sculpture named “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss”. The sculpture respresents the god Eros (Cupid) kissing and reviving Psyche (Soul). The sculpture was inspired by Greek mythological characters, however the depicted scene comes from the Metamorphoses of Apuleius.

Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Antonio Canova

Canova is also behind the marble sculpture of Perseus holding the head of Gorgon Medusa in the Vatican. Perseus was the ancient Greek legendary hero who slayed a monster named Medusa who would turn people into stone with her gaze.

When The Heart is Young, John William Godward

John William Godward was an English Neoclassicism painter who draw inspiration from both ancient Greece and Rome. “When The Heart is Young” was painted in 1902 and depicts a young woman laying wearing on a marble bench.

In The Days od Sappho, John William Godward

Here is another painting from Godward, created in 1904. The painting depicts another young woman in a scenery that reminds us of ancient Greece. The title of the painting includes the name Sappho. Sappho was an archaic Greek poet from the island of Lesbos, often called the “Tenth Muse”.

Neoclassicism in Arcitecture

Neoclassical architecture is prevalent in Greece and other European countries but also in the United States of America and South America. The epicenter of Neoclassical architecture was, without a doubut, Munich, Germany.

The Hellenic Parliament

The Hellenic Parliament, an austere and fuctional building, which initially served as the palace of King Otto, was designed by the German architect Friedrich von Gaertner.

Altes Museum Berlin, Karl Friedrich Schinkel

Designed by the Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the Altes Museum in the historic center of Berlin is a major work of German Neoclassical architecture. The Museum is part of the UNESCO World Heritage.

The White House, James Hoban

The official residence of the president of the United States, known as the “White House”, is an example of both Neoclassical and Palladian arcitecture. The White House was designed by the Irish architect James Hoban in Washington DC.

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What is the Meaning of Hellas, Hellenes, Hellenistic, Hellenism, and Philhellenism?

You might be wondering why Greece is officially called “Hellenic Republic” or “Hellas” and why Greeks are often called “Hellenes”. The same goes with adjectives such as “Hellenic” and “Hellenistic” instead of Greek. Another common term is “Philhellenism”, meaning friend/lover of Hellenism. What do these terms mean and how are they connected to Greece?

Hellas and Hellenes

The reality is that Greeks/Hellenes today use the terms «Ελλάδα» (Hellada), «Έλληνες» (Hellenes), and «ελληνικός» (Hellenic) when talking about Greece, Greeks, and Greek (adjective) respectively. At the same time, many western countries are more familiar with the Latin “Graecia”, hence the common use of the words  “Greece” and “Greek”. In this sense, “Greece” and “Hellas” can be used interchangeably, but the second option is more accurate than the first.

Origins of the Terms Hellas and Hellenes

There are various theories surrounding the etymology of “Hellas”. We know from the ancient Greek poet Homer that Hellas was a place in central Greece, where the women were described as “very beautiful” (καλλιγύναικος). You might have also heard of the mythical Helen of Troy, considered the “most beautiful woman in the world”, whose abduction started the Trojan War. Her name, which is still a very popular given name for girls, means “bright”/ “of light”, leading us to the conclusion that Hellas was “the land of light”. Greece is still referred to as “the land of light”, not only because of its clear skies and many consecutive days of sunlight, but also because its history inspired the Age of Enlightenment.

The term started describing all Greeks thanks to the conquests of Alexander the Great (356 BC – 323 BC). Up to that point, the Greeks were organized in city-states, such as Athens and Sparta. Greeks were aware of their common characteristics in religion, language, and appearance, and would distinguish themselves from people of different cultural backgrounds.

With the creation of the vast empire of Alexander, these differences became more prominent and Greeks started recognizing themselves as one group: the Hellenes. Ancient Greek historian Thucydides was also using the term “to Hellenize” (ελληνίζει) when referring to the spread of the Greek language and culture.

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Hellenistic Period

The Hellenistic Period is the historical period that starts with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and ends with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC and the emergence of the Roman Empire. This was the time when the Attic dialect of the Greek language, that you may know as Koine Greek, became the lingua franca in the Mediterranean and other regions that were reached and influenced by Alexander. Some scholars often refer to it as an age of decadence, since it marks the decline of the Greek Classical Era. However, the Hellenistic Period was a time of prosperity and was characterized by a great progress in arts, mathematics, philosophy, architecture, and science. Stoicism and Epicureanism saw a rise during this period.

Hellenism

“Hellenism” has three different meanings. Today, the term describes the culture(s) of Hellas and Hellenes (Greece and Greeks) from ancient to modern times. Sometimes, scholars might use the term Hellenism to describe only the culture of the Hellenistic Period, as described in the previous paragraph. In the European Romantic era, “Hellenism” was a synonym of the neoclassical movement in art and architecture, which was inspired by the Greek Classical era.  

Philhellenism and Philhellenes

Philhellenism derives from the Greek «φιλώ» (to befriend, to love, to adore, to kiss) and the term Hellenism, which is a synonym for the Greek culture and aesthetic. Philhellenes are the admirers of Hellenism and Hellenes (Greek culture and Greeks). Philhellenism became a movement in Western Europe and other regions in the 17th, 18th and 19th Century thanks to the neoclassical movement that focused on the study of Classical philosophers and thanks to the tradition of the Grand Tour; a coming of age trip for upper-class European men in the archaeological sites of Italy and Greece. Philhellenism played a crucial role in the start and completion of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire.

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