What Does Orientalizing Mean in Greek Art History?

Art|Art History

Orientalizing is a term used in Greek art history to describe objects and art that draw upon motifs, materials and styles associated with cultures that were located in what is now known as the Near East. In essence, it is the adoption of foreign motifs and techniques into Greek art. This period of Greek art began around 700 B.C.E., and continued until roughly 500 B., when the Classical period began.

The term comes from Homer’s Odyssey in which he refers to the ‘Orient’, an area which included Egypt, Syria and Palestine. This was an area with which Greeks had contact for centuries, as evidenced by archaeological finds such as Minoan artifacts from Crete or Greek pottery from Mycenaean palaces on mainland Greece.

During the Orientalizing period, many elements of Near Eastern culture were adopted by the Greeks including iconography, figurine types, metalworking techniques, materials used for jewelry and decorative arts (such as gold, silver and bronze), and stylized motifs including animals such as lions or sphinxes.

Examples of Orientalizing Art

One example of Orientalizing art is a bronze figurine known as the ‘Kouros’. This is a life-size sculpture of a male figure wearing a long robe with his arms at his sides and his feet together.

The figure has been stylized in a very specific way: its eyes are almond-shaped; its hair has been rendered in intricate curls; its nose is long and thin; its mouth is small; its chin is pointed; and its ears are large but not overly so. All these features were drawn from Near Eastern artistic styles.

Another example of Orientalizing art is a pottery vessel known as an ‘amphorae’. These vessels were decorated with figures or scenes taken from Near Eastern mythology such as Gilgamesh or the labors of Heracles.

The style in which these scenes were depicted was heavily influenced by Near Eastern conventions: for example, figures would be shown standing rigidly upright with their arms close to their sides rather than being shown in motion.


In conclusion, Orientalizing refers to the adoption of Near Eastern motifs, materials and techniques into Greek art during the period between 700 B.E – 500 B., when Greece had contact with other cultures through trade routes across the Mediterranean Sea. Examples include bronze sculptures known as ‘Kouros’ figures and pottery vessels decorated with scenes taken from mythology.