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Exploring Europe's Rich Art History: From Classical Greece to Modern Barcelona

European art hero update
European art hero update

If you consider yourself somewhat of an art aficionado, there are few destinations that can compete with the breadth of fine art on display across Europe. Many of the worlds greatest artists emerged from Europe and their works can be viewed in galleries, buildings and installations throughout the continent. Read on to learn about the evolution of art across the European continent, from the Classical works of Ancient Greece right through to Modern styles like Dada, Cubism and Surrealism.

Classical (480-323 B.C.)

The Classical Era in Ancient Greek art began in 480 BC, after the defeated Persian invasion of Athens. With Athens' victory came a period of exceptional economic wealth, which allowed for unprecedented innovation in the fields of mathematics, philosophy, and art. The city centre of Athens, the Acropolis, was rebuilt during this period of prosperity, and featured some of the greatest temples Greece had ever seen, including the famed Parthenon – a perfect embodiment of the principles of Classical Art. Begin your grand tour of Europe in Athens, where you can gaze upon the Parthenon's perfect proportions, gargantuan columns and elaborate sculpture.

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The incredible Parthenon: a relic of Ancient Greece


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A reproduction of the Classical Athena

The Classical Art period focused heavily on sculpture and, in particular, the exploration of the human form. Renowned sculptors like Phidias (whose works included colossal sculptures Athena Parthenos and the Zeus in Temple of Zeus at Olympia) Myron, and Praxiteles developed techniques such as the Contrapposto stance (recreating a realistic shift of weight) to make human depictions appear more life-like.

Artist Polykleitos would later develop a theory that would for the first time link artistic beauty with mathematical ratios, which still permeates Western art today.

Although much of the original Classical Art has long since been destroyed, you can catch an incredible selection of the remaining relics, and Roman recreations of ancient Greek works, at the National Archeological Museum in Athens –  one of the biggest and most impressive archeological museums in the world.


Byzantine (476-1453 A.D.)

The next major period in art was the result of another powerful empire, this time located further east in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey. The Byzantine Empire (formed from the surviving eastern half of the fallen Roman Empire) allowed for the flourishing of Byzantine Art, a style characterised by heavy, homogenous religious iconography reflecting the prominent religion of the day – ­Orthodox Christianity. While drawing elements from Classical Greek Art, Byzantine Art eschewed the depth and naturalism so prolific among ancient Greek works in favour of flat, ethereal paintings and mosaics in order to maintain a carefully constructed air of mystery.

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The Haiga Sophia is a great display of otherworldy Byzantine Art

Byzantine Art did not rely on the personal interpretations of individual artists, instead it was typified by its sameness: all works remained anonymous and visually uniform in order to translate very specific elements of religious theology into artistic terms. This approach resulted in elaborate, visually stunning frescoes and mosaic scenes, and their otherworldly splendour helped to popularise and glorify Christianity. As the Orthodox church spread, so too did this ornate style of art, cropping up in locations across Europe such as Spain, Italy and even Russia. To view remaining examples of Byzantine Art when touring Europe, visit the Haiga Sophia (constructed 537 A.D.) in Istanbul, Turkey, and the Basilica of San Vitale (547 A.D.) in Cervia, Italy.

Romanesque (1000-1150 A.D.)

Further west, much of Europe was in political disarray due to the fall of the West Roman Empire, however instead of a new political power rising up to take the fallen empires place, the region saw the rise of the Catholic Church. As the region began to stabilise after many years of in-fighting and uncertainty, a new art style was born: Romanesque. Romanesque Art was again mostly concerned with religious iconography, and was a combination of Roman, Carolingian and Ottonian, Byzantine, and Germanic styles.

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Sculptures at the Santiago Cathedral

This complex art style was heavily focused on sculpture and fresco painting and it was often used as decoration to complement the rich architectural elements of the period's churches. Romanesque paintings were brightly coloured and highly stylised, helping to give religious images and scenes an otherworldly feel, and stained glass depictions also began to rise in popularity during this period. 

What was most striking about this art style, however, were the developments in ornamental sculpture, with entire scenes carved in relief style into the columns and portals of churches. To view some fine examples of Romanesque Art on your rail tour through Europe, be sure to visit the Santiago Cathedral in A Coruña, Spain, to admire the Pórtico da Gloria, and stop by Vézelay Abbey in Burgundy, France.



Gothic (1150-1375 A.D.)

From Romanesque Art developed the more naturalistic style of Gothic Art, first emerging in France. Gothic Art's main form of expression was in architecture, characterised by soaring linear arches and buttresses. These features, which can be seen in Gothic cathedrals across France and throughout Europe, allowed for the installation of magnificent stained glass windows, which either depicted striking biblical scenes or were divided with impressive decorative ribwork (called window tracery), adding to the geometrical symmetry and repetition of each building.

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Notre Dame's intricate Gothic Architecture makes it one of the most visited buildings in Europe

Another important feature of Gothic Art and Architecture was the inclusion of gargoyles, which served a practical purpose – they acted as spouts to provide a form of roof drainage, protecting the architecture of each structure – and a symbolic purpose, acting as guardians of the church that both represented, and were thought to ward off, evil. The popularity of Gothic Art and Architecture was so great that it spread across Europe, even permeating secular buildings like castles and town halls, however to experience the unmistakable grandeur of Gothic Art, one must only visit Notre Dame in Paris –  one of Gothic Arts finest achievements.

Renaissance (1400-1550 A.D.)

Gothic Arts return to naturalism paved the way for the Italian Renaissance, which was a literal rebirth of the classical ideals (like the celebration of the human form) from Ancient Rome and Greece. The Renaissance was an incredibly important period for art, celebrating artists as individuals and lifting them to the same societal status as other intellectuals such as philosophers, scientists and writers. While the Early Renaissance began in Florence, Italy, it was the High Renaissance in Rome that truly represents the artistic mastery of this period, holding up classical values like anatomical and scientific accuracy, the sensual and psychological impact of colour, and the importance of emotion in art.

The three masters of Renaissance Art, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and Raphael were able to develop unprecedented artistic techniques, revolutionising the art world forever. Da Vinci is best known for his commitment to naturalism, relentlessly studying and observing the natural world (and going as far as dissecting human cadavers) so that he could perfectly represent it through his paintings. Two of his most famous works, The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, can be viewed at The Louvre in Paris, and at the Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, respectively.

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Renaissance Art saw a return to Classical ideals

Michelangelos gift to Renaissance Art was his complete fixation with the human body, ignoring all other aspects of nature so that he could focus on perfecting the ideal human form. This dedication can be seen in his enormous marble statue of David, housed in The Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence, and in his incredible frescoes (particularly, The Creation of Adam) of The Sistine Chapel in Rome. Raphael was protégé to Leonardo and Michelangelo, and his approach was to capture human beauty and serenity, which can be seen in his series of Madonnas which can be viewed in various galleries across Europe.

Baroque (1600-1750 A.D.)

The Baroque period was a direct push back against the Protestant Reformation, encouraged by the Catholic Church. In order to retain their power, the Catholic Church decided the best way for it to spread its message to the public was through hyper-dramatic and emotional art, which typifies the Baroque style.

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The ornately Baroque Palace of Versailles

Baroque began in Rome with artists like Caravaggio, who helped develop the technique of tenebrism  a way of painting that used dark tones and shadow dramatically contrasted against the light. This style of painting (which would go on to influence other Baroque artists like Rubens and Rembrandt) was all about creating drama through movement, tension, and theatrics, and was used to promote a sense of religious grandeur.

Similarly, Baroque Architecture was also exceedingly ornate, using flowing curves and domed roofs to produce spectacular effects of light and shade. Caravaggios works can be viewed in locations across Rome in locations such as the Cerasi Chapel in the Santa Maria del Popolo, Galleria Borghese and the Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, and to witness the splendour of Baroque Architecture one only needs to take a day trip to the Palace of Versailles in France.


Neoclassical (1750-1850 A.D.)

Neoclassicism followed the Baroque and Rococo periods, combating their elements of ornamentation, grandeur and asymmetry with yet another return to classical ideals of simplicity and symmetry. The classicism this time, however, drew more from the Renaissance period than it did from Ancient Roman and Greek Art. Neoclassical paintings and sculptures were an antidote to the dramatism of the Baroque style; their subjects appeared unemotional and sternly heroic and the colour palette was far more subdued. Coinciding with The Age of Enlightenment, Neoclassical works often depicted narratives of self-denial and self-sacrifice to convey a kind of moral superiority. Famous Neoclassical works include Love and Psyche by Canova, which can be viewed in the Louvre, Paris, and the many paintings by Jacques-Louis David (the quintessential Neoclassical painter) which be viewed in several museums across Europe.

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Love and Psyche by Canova is one of the most famous Neoclassical sculptures

Romanticism (1780-1850 A.D.)

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Romanticism had a heavy focus on nature an landscapes

In another pushback against the preceding period, Romanticism was born: a style of art that rejected Neoclassisms preoccupation with order, balance, and rationalism, instead relishing in the individual, in the imaginative and the spontaneous, in the emotional, the visionary and the transcendental. Romanticism was for the people rather than the elite or aristocrats, and it was associated with political movements and ideologies such as liberalism, radicalism and nationalism.

Romantic paintings often focused on the power of nature, and depicted scenes evoking emotions such as awe and wonder as well as horror, terror and apprehension. Some of the most influential Romantic artists included Théodore Géricault and  Ferdinand Delacroix, whose respective Romantic masterpieces The Raft of the Medusa and Liberty on the Barricades, are on display at the Louvre in Paris. 


Modern (1860-1970 A.D.)

Modern Art, spanning roughly from the 1860s to 1970s combines a huge array of techniques and styles, rejecting traditional artistic tropes in favour of experimentation and personal (rather than religious) expression. Modern Art began with styles like Realism and Impressionism, brought about by the effects of the industrial revolution and an abandonment of high arts strict rules and ideals. Although these styles differed greatly in terms of technique and aesthetics, they were both concerned with capturing everyday scenes from real life. Pioneers of these early Modern Art movements included Edouard Manet (whose provocative painting The Luncheon on the Grass, 1863, can be viewed in Musée d'Orsay, Paris) Oscar-Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and, of course, the legendary Dutch Post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh.

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Van Gogh's Post-Impressionism paved the way for the avant-guarde styles of Modern Art

Fans of Impressionism can view a huge array of Van Goghs works at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. At the turn of the century, art delved further into the avant-garde, with experimental styles such as Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism and Surrealism all adding something unique to the seemingly boundless landscape of Modern Art. While incredible examples of Modern Art can be seen all across Europe, Barcelona, Spain, is a fantastic starting point. The Catalan city is home to museums The Museu Picasso (dedicated to Cubism co-founder and revolutionary painter Pablo Picasso) and The Dalí Theatre and Museum (where you can view a huge array of works by Surrealist artist Salvador Dali, whilst also visiting his resting place).

We hope youve enjoyed our recount of Europes rich and fascinating art history, from the beautiful antiquity of Classical Art to the individuality and social commentary of Modern Art. To visit any (or all) of the works and galleries mentioned in this piece and embark on your own art tour of Europe, simply purchase a Eurail Global Flexi Pass or Eurail Global Continuous Pass. These fantastic value rail passes cover 28 individual countries and can be purchased in validities of varying lengths, so youll have plenty of time to discover great artworks across the continent. 

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