Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

With Chisel and Pencil

Nearly all nations in old times worshiped idols, that is, images of their gods. They did not exactly believe that such images were the gods themselves; yet they thought that somehow the god was nearer when the could see and perhaps touch his image. At first, when the Greeks were little more than savages, they took stone or a log of wood and set it up under a tree or in a little house, and said, "This is sacred to the god Hermes," or to the goddess Athene, or to some other deity. "We will pray before it, and the god will listen, and give us what we ask." They would bring flowers or fruits or shells from the seaside, or any strange or pretty things, and lay them down before the stone or log as a present to their god.

After a long time men began to shape the log or the stone. They carved the likeness of a head at the upper end, and that made the idol look a little more like something alive. Then they could put a dress on its shoulders, and a crown on its head, or a necklace around its neck. This did not satisfy their love for the beautiful. They kept on trying to make images more pleasing to themselves and to their gods. They gave up wood and used the finest white marble. This they carved with great patience, giving form not only to the head and neck and shoulders, but to the body and to every limb. "Practice makes perfect," you know, and every year they learned to do this work better.

At the same time they were learning to erect grand buildings of the white marble. These were not for their own use but were intended to be temples; that is, places where their gods should be worshiped. Each temple had a room in which the statue of its god was placed, and the building was called after his name. It was the temple of Zeus, or of Apollo, or of Poseidon; perhaps of Hera, or of Aphrodite. There altars were set up, and upon them priests offered the gifts brought by the people.

When the Greeks found they could do so well their work of building and carving, they took more interest and tried harder. They learned that instead of chiseling the figure at once out of rock, they could do better by modeling it in soft clay and copying it in marble. In that way they made not only single figures but groups; these they placed in different parts of the temples, not to be worshiped but to be admired. They also learned to cast figures in bronze and gold.

After a while when people grew richer and built fine houses to live in, they had likenesses of themselves and of their wives and children, as well as of the gods, carved and set up in their homes. They adorned their public places with images of famous soldiers and of winners in the great games. No other country in the world had so many beautiful statues as Greece.

Those who make such statues are called "sculptors." The greatest of these was Phidias, who lived at Athens nearly two thousand four hundred years ago. He will always be famous for his great statue of Zeus, which he made of gold and ivory and which stood in the temple at Olympia. It was one of the seven wonders of the world. At Athens he made a splendid figure of Athene. Her face and hands and feet were of ivory; her dress was of solid gold.

Phidias was also a painter; and there were many others. Their work was generally done upon the inside walls of houses and temples. They were fond of battle scenes which told stories of great wars; but they also made fine pictures of country life and sports. The earliest paintings were probably upon jars or vases.

Two of the famous painters were Parrhasius and Zeuxis. There were often disputes as to which was the better artist, and to settle that point it was agreed to have a public exhibition of their work. Zeuxis sent a picture of juicy grapes, and while the people were looking at it some birds flew down and pecked at the painted fruit. Everybody shouted with surprise and pleasure. Then Zeuxis said,—

Phidias and birds


"Come, Parrhasius, draw aside the curtain that hangs in front of your picture and let us see what you have painted."

Parrhasius smiled but did not stir. Zeuxis became impatient.

"You trifle with us. Why do you not draw the curtain?" he said.

"Look closer," replied the other artist.

The people crowded up; Zeuxis with them. They saw that there was no curtain except the picture itself.

"Parrhasius has won," everybody shouted. "Parrhasius has won!"

"It is true!" said Zeuxis. "He has fairly won. My art could deceive the birds, but he has done more for he has deceived an artist!"

Hundreds of years afterwards, in the days of Alexander the Great, there was a famous artist, by many considered the greatest, named Apelles. He painted a likeness of Alexander about to throw a thunderbolt. For this picture he was paid a large sum of money, and Alexander declared that no one else should ever paint his portrait.

Apelles was always willing to learn. Before he finished a picture he would place it in front of his house and hide near by, that he might hear the remarks of those who passed along the street. One day a cobbler found fault with the shoes of a figure. Apelles changed them as the shoemaker had suggested. This encouraged the cobbler, who on another day declared that the legs of the man were badly painted. Apelles knew that was not true. He came from behind the picture, and said, "Stick to your last, cobbler, stick to your last." By that he meant that men should only find fault with what they clearly understand to be wrong.