There are so many questions that arise when we contemplate ancient Greek art:

Why was nudity – particularly male nudity – so central to Greek art, when other ancient civilisations both in Europe and Asia thought nudity shameful? Why are these male bodies so preternaturally perfect? Why were there so few female nudes? Why was homoeroticism such a driving force of establishment culture rather than the shadowy subculture that it normally inhabits in other times and places? Why have we preferred to think of Greek (and Roman) art as pure and white when it was often polychrome? And why – at a particularly low point in relations between Putin’s Russia and the West – did the British Museum believe that the loan of the Ilisos (of the Parthenon Marbles) to the Hermitage might remind Russians of our core values?

The answers to these questions and many more, takes us to the very roots of our own Western civilisation. They also help us to understand why it is that these beautiful nudes have always aroused in the viewer, a deeply paradoxical combination of sensual delight on the one hand and high minded aestheticism on the other. It is surely this rather surprising dualism of our responses, that explains the further paradox of ostensibly celibate popes filling the Vatican with sensual nudes. It also explains the intense Marble Mania of an otherwise sexually repressed culture, that gripped the aristocracy of Britain from the late 17th to the early 19th centuries.

It is our paradoxical response to Greek art during the course of the 18th century, that inspired such luminaries of the Enlightenment as Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Frederick the Great (both Prussian and homosexual) to go beyond secularism to sacralise culture itself. German-speaking Protestant Europe pioneered the idea of an aesthetic religion. The pitfalls of this far from complete secularisation and cultural sacralisation in the 19th century, explain the downfall of many like William Beckford and Oscar Wilde, both of whom had enthusiastically embraced the Greek ideal in a fuller sense than Western civilisation was ready for. And so it was that art went from the service of God to become God himself, and it was only with the onset of late 20th century post-modernism that this powerful and enduring movement finally cracked, as sacralised culture was supplanted by today’s commodified one. Like a self-fulfilling prophesy, Mammon, feared since Medieval times, has come to take his rightful throne.

To contemplate an ancient Greek nude statue of a beautiful and athletic youth is therefore a fairly mind blowing experience. It is to confront the weighty canon of our core Western values no less: our attitudes to aesthetics, philosophy, society, gender and even sexual identity. The Greek ideal as represented by a nude statue may therefore have informed Western values since the Renaissance and Enlightenment, but this relationship has clearly been fraught with many layers of paradox and contradiction.

Ian Jenkins, Senior Curator of ancient Greek collections at the British Museum gets to the heart of the problem and introduces his book ‘DEFINING BEAUTY the body in ancient Greek art’

The Human Body in Greek Art and Thought

by Ian Jenkins

The modern idea of the human self owes much to the ancient Greeks. In the 5th century BC, Greek tragedy and moral philosophy explored the idea of the human being as an individual possessed of a unique soul and with personal responsibility for its eternal welfare. The Greeks can be credited with shaping the modern idea of human knowledge and its creation. Where, however, we might separate out the disciplines, the ancient Greeks did not divide art and science, and were better at thinking across them. Thus a leading sculptor might also be a philosopher. The great religions of the world today place God at the centre of the universe. The Greeks, however, put mankind at the centre and made the gods in the image of humankind. They were grander, more beautiful and more powerful versions of humanity. The big difference between the human and the divine was the fact that the gods did not die.

While breathing life into stone or bronze, a sculptor could transcend nature to give form to thought in works of timeless beauty. Thus, the Greeks mitigated their mortality by idealising the human body, and so brought it closer to the perfection of the gods. The human form in art represented a physical likeness and was the bearer of meaning for sensitive people whose art was motivated by a lust for life in the face of the tragic certainty of death.

To represent the body is a basic human instinct, and among the peoples of the ancient world, the Greeks were by no means alone in their preoccupation with it. As in the ancient world, so modern societies regard the living body as a vehicle for displaying personal and collective values (such as wealth, status, tribe, gender, conformity and non-conformity) through dress, jewellery, tattooing, piercing and other forms of body modification. Never, however, was the self-conscious cultivation of the body in ancient art and life greater than it was among the Greeks, and nowhere is it more evident than in their taste for nudity.

In keeping with other ancient civilisations, the naked female form in early Greece was a sign of religious cult connected with the quest for fertility in childbearing, or in the productivity of the earth. Religion is the mother of art and, with their simplified and refined rendering of the human form, Cycladic figurines seem to represent the prehistoric beginning of the great tradition of ancient Greek marble carving.

In the pictorial language of the ancient Egyptians and the ancient civilisations of the Middle East, male nudity occurs in cults and in specific contexts such as the representation of manual workers or the depiction of war and its consequences. In war it is often a sign of the submissiveness, or indeed the death of the conquered. In Greek art, however, from earliest times it is often the conquering hero himself who appears naked, or with some piece of armour, which, combined with exposed genitals, had obvious attractions for homoerotic Greeks. In representations of battle, nudity becomes a standard device for distinguishing Greek warriors from their enemies, notably Persians, for whom nudity was shameful.

So prevalent is male nudity in Greek art of all periods, that we may be forgiven for thinking that the standard dress for youths and men was in fact a state of undress. Public nudity was not the norm, however, either in war, or in much of day-to-day life, especially when both sexes were present. When women were absent it was, nevertheless, normal for male athletes to be naked in the wrestling school (palaistra) and gymnasium. Indeed the latter derives its very name from the Greek word gumnos, meaning ‘stripped’. Gymnasia in ancient Greece were not the enclosed and echoing halls lined with work-out apparatus that they are today. Rather they were open spaces, often outside the city walls, in places provided with a source of fresh water and shelter in blue-shadowed groves. Male nudity was also acceptable in the symposium, a peculiarly Greek form of drinking party, where men uncovered themselves to indulge in wine, song and sex in the company of boys and courtesans.

ancient Greek Art bronze sculpture of Zeus or Poseidon

Greek bronze sculpture of Zeus or Poseidon, 460-450 BC. Cape Antemesia, Greece. 

greek art - symposium scene Greek form of drinking party where men uncovered themselves to indulge in wine song and sex in the company of boys and courtesans

Kylix with symposium scenes attributed to Douris, 480 BC, British Museum London

she, and the two other remarkable figures with her, are draped in diaphanous tissue. This pours like water over and around their feminine forms, emphasising swelling breasts and abdomens, rounded shoulders, knees and thighs, and linking one erogenous zone with another, transforming cold marble into warm, living flesh.

Image: Three goddesses. From the east pediment of the Parthenon in Athens Greek, about 438-432 BC. British Museum,  London.

Cult and the sex industry apart, female nudity was never a social norm; when it occurs in Greek art, it is almost always sexually charged. Erotic scenes in Athenian vase painting include female bathing or dressing, where the male spectator is drawn into the role of voyeur, exercising a forbidden gaze. In sculpture, representations of naked Aphrodite, goddess of love, exploit the play between the voyeur’s natural curiosity and the supernatural power of a naked goddess, surprised at the bath, to take revenge on snoopers. The prurient glance directed at the demigod race of nymphs carried less such risk, and in the art of myth, their violated flesh is frequently exposed as the fruit of sexual plunder.

The restricted repertory of acceptable occasions for female nudity inspired sculptors to ever-greater inventiveness in the treatment of drapery on the female form, which was often more erotic than nudity itself. Nowhere is the power of drapery to invest female form with sexual feeling more evident than in the sculptures of the Parthenon. In one corner of the east pediment reclines the figure of Dionysos in all his godly, naked beauty. He was balanced in the opposite corner by the resting figure of a goddess of uncertain identity, perhaps Aphrodite. While he is naked, she, and the two other remarkable figures with her, are draped in diaphanous tissue. This pours like water over and around their feminine forms, emphasising swelling breasts and abdomens, rounded shoulders, knees and thighs, and linking one erogenous zone with another, transforming cold marble into warm, living flesh.

Excellence and honour

For the ruling class of men and youths in ancient Greece, the achievement of arete or ‘excellence’ was closely linked with honour. Before the age of democracy and, indeed, to a large extent during it, the pursuit of both qualities was open to those ‘of good family’. Excellence and honour also, however, had to be won by cultivating a certain look, conducting the right sort of love affairs, excelling at athletics and in public speaking, fighting in defence of one’s city and, if necessary, dying the ‘beautiful death’ (kalos thanatos) on the battlefield.

Loyalty to the city, or polis, was a man’s first duty. Greece was not a nation, as it is today, but comprised a collection of independent city-states inhabited by Greek-speaking peoples (Hellenes). These were linked by common language, religion and moral values, but were rarely united and frequently at war with one another. Man, declared Aristotle, is a politikon zoon, which is commonly translated as ‘political animal’. However, this may be interpreted more accurately as ‘polis person’, meaning one who belongs to a city, with all the social and moral responsibility that such citizenship implied.

In the sixth century bc, the idea of manly virtue was encapsulated in the statue type known as a kouros (‘young man’). The basic form, and its arithmetically calculated proportions, was borrowed from Egypt. There, a common sculptured image was the kilted, freestanding, male statue with head and body arranged in frontal symmetry, arms held stiffly by the sides and legs parted, with the weight resting on the back leg. The legs were not carved free, but were instead connected by an uncut bridge of stone. The fully naked Greek adaptation of the Egyptian type, however, was carved with the legs free and the weight resting on both limbs, as though the figure were walking.

The Greek kouros was a mannequin formulaically composed to provide the essential elements of ideal manhood: strong, even features; long, groomed hair; broad shoulders; developed biceps and pectoral muscles; wasp waist; flat stomach; a clear division of torso and pelvis; and powerful buttocks and thighs. Self-satisfaction in the possession of arete was projected by the archaic smile that enlivens the otherwise deliberate blankness of expression common in these statues. The kouros is just that: a blank on to which identity could be imposed by attribute or inscription. One such inscription is the heart-rending couplet that identifies the kouros of Kroisos, carved around 530 BC:

Stay and mourn at dead Kroisos’ tomb Whom in the first ranks raging Ares did destroy.

The written message confirms a common role of the kouros statue as a grave-marker, representing symbolically the deceased who lies buried nearby. The female equivalent of a kouros is a kore or maiden, and her jewellery and drapery, often complex, are suggestive of the body beneath. As with the kouros, so the kore was a versatile medium that depended on an accompanying inscription for explicit meaning. Phrasikleia, whose superb statue was found carefully laid down on its back next to an equally wonderful kouros and buried in the Athenian countryside, speaks to the spectator through the inscription on her base:

Virgin shall I always be, since instead of marriage this name has been assigned to me by the gods

War was to Kroisos, what marriage might have been to Phrasikleia, had not a premature death denied her a natural end – a telos or fulfilment of her destiny to become wife, mother and mistress of her own household.

greek marble kouros about 530BC ancient Greek art

Kroisos Greek marble kouros, about 530 BC, from Anavyssos, Africa. National Archaeological Museum of Athens. 

The beautiful and the good

As the 6th century BC drew to its close, the kouroi increasingly soften the hard angular forms of their older brothers, exhibiting a burgeoning naturalism instead. In some late examples, it is almost as if a living figure trapped inside the kouros were trying to break free. The same tendency is found in vase painting, where the so-called pioneers of Athenian red-figured vases experimented with new pictorial effects such as foreshortening, to give their subjects ever more three-dimensional volume.

These developments coincided around 510–500 BC with the beginnings of democracy in Athens, which, limited though it was, invested a far greater number of freeborn, male citizens with a share in political self-determination than had previously been the case. In 490 BC the fledgling democracy was put to its first major test at the battle of Marathon: Athens, along with only one other Greek state for an ally – Plataia – defeated the invading Persian army, which consisted of vastly superior numbers of soldiers. Ten years later in 480–479 BC, Athens was again invaded, and this time sacked, by an even larger Persian army led by Xerxes, the Great King himself. The evacuated people of Athens played a prominent role in an alliance that saw off the Persian threat, with decisive victories on land and sea.

Within the span of a single generation, from around 510–479 BC, Athens witnessed enormous changes to its internal and external affairs. Experiments in art that were already evident in the late sixth century bc accelerated into the fifth. The results can be seen in sculptures wrecked in the Persian sack of the Acropolis in 480 BC, and subsequently buried in the post-invasion levelling of the sacred citadel. There they lay undisturbed for nearly two and a half thousand years until the nineteenth century, when archaeologists excavated the site and brought them to light. The marble statue known as the Kritios Boy, is a far-reaching departure from the human figure represented in the kouros. The change is simply but effectively achieved by asking the kouros to relax one leg and to place all the weight on the other. The symmetry of the statue face-on is broken by this new way of standing casually, much as a boy might, with one hip pushed up and with the head turned to one side. The archaic smile, which towards the end of the sixth century BC had already begun to subside, is now replaced with a full-lipped pout.

The Greek custom is to represent the gods, by the most beautiful things on earth – pure material, human form, consummate art.

Maximus of Tyre, Greek philosopher, 2nd century AD

ancient greek art marble from paros kritios boy 480BC athens

Kritios Boy. Greek, marble from Paros, after 480 BC. New Acropolis Museum, Athens. 

The Kritios Boy seemed to herald a new style of human representation, but the resulting figure type was a vehicle for the same values as those embodied in the kouros. Indeed, in some respects the Kritios Boy and his followers are the kouroi of the fifth century BC. Excellence and honour remained important associated values. Additional attributes were detailed by the Greek philosopher Plato (c. 423–c. 348 BC) in his dialogue Charmides, in which Sokrates (469–399 BC), just returned from military service in 432 BC, wastes no time in making for the wrestling school of Taureas. There he is introduced to Charmides who is kalos kai agathos, that is to say ‘beautiful and good’ or, ‘fair of face and sound of heart’. Charmides was Athens’ pin-up boy of his time, pursued everywhere by a great following of admirers. ‘No one looked at anything else’, we are told, ‘but all gazed at him as if he were a statue’ (agalma). Sokrates is asked by Chairephon whether he finds Charmides handsome. When Sokrates replies that he does, Chairephon adds that if Charmides were to remove his clothes, he would appear to have no face (aprosopos), so perfect is the beauty of his body. Greek sculpture of the day reduced human personality to a generic type, transcending any one individual’s beauty in order to project a pictorial definition of beauty itself.

In Sokrates’ eyes, Charmides became all the more desirable, not because he attracted attention through his behaviour, but as the result of a simple blush, which made him all the more irresistible by virtue of his grace, charm and sophrosyne. The latter may be translated here as ‘temperance’. In the dialogue that ensues with Sokrates on the nature of sophrosyne, Charmides reveals another attractive attribute to his flawless character: that of aidos, or, ‘natural modesty’. These qualities seem to be replicated in the demure demeanour of the ‘Westmacott Youth’, whose timeless beauty fits well the description aprosopos, so perfect that he represented a type and not just an individual, and whose downward glance deflects the penetrating gaze of would-be admirers.

ancient greek art marble from paros kritios boy 480BC

Kritios Boy. Greek, marble from Paros, after 480 BC. New Acropolis Museum, Athens. 

Balance of opposites

An enduring principle of Greek natural philosophy is the idea that order in the world, and the proper place of mankind in it, are determined by the balance of contrary and complementary forces. Bi-polarity is first encountered as a developed idea in speculation on the origin and nature of the world by the Ionian pioneers of Greek philosophy who, in the sixth century BC, flourished on the coast and offshore islands of what is now western Turkey. Before its destruction by the Persians in 494 BC, Miletus was the leading city of the Ionian enlightenment, producing such star thinkers as Thales (c. 624–c. 546 BC), Anaximander (c. 610–c. 546 BC) and Anaximenes (c. 585–c. 528 BC). In the theory of Anaximander, in particular, the world was explained as the balance of primary opposites, such as the opposing forces of hot and cold or wet and dry, or, for example, in the cycle of the seasons. For Anaximenes, nature itself maintains the balance necessary for the well-being of the world by ensuring that no one opposite is permitted to gain ascendance over another.

The early Greek cosmologists had a profound influence on Greek medical theory and practice. The art of healing was practised in ancient Greece, much as we approach holistic medicine today: the human constitution was seen as a set of primary opposites, which physicians sought to adjust so as to achieve a balance of parts both in relation to one another, and to the body as a whole.

The chief forms of beauty are order, symmetry and clear delineation.

Aristotle, Greek philosopher, died 322 BC

Balance, rhythm, proportion, harmony and symmetry are the language of ancient Greek medicine, but also of representational art. This is immediately apparent in the statue of a standing, or perhaps walking, youth known as the Doryphoros or ‘spear- bearer’, executed in bronze around 440–430 BC by master bronze worker Polykleitos of Argos (fl. 450–420 BC). This idealised representation of youthful and athletic male beauty relied for its effect upon an arrangement of limbs and muscles in a bio-mechanical system of parts that were at once weight-bearing and weight-free, engaged and disengaged, stretched and contracted, tense and relaxed, raised and lowered. Every element of Polykleitos’ composition was constructed according to a precise set of measurements, calculated to represent perfection. Polykleitos even went so far as to write a treatise called the Canon, a practise that was more common among architects seeking to explain technical aspects of their buildings than artists or sculptors. Neither Polykleitos’ treatise nor the original bronze statue has survived, but something of the impression it made upon the eye can be derived from Roman copies, mostly in marble. However, a 1920s reconstruction of the spear-bearer in bronze by German sculptor Georg Römer (1868–1922) was made up of parts copied from more than one source and installed in a public area of the main university building in Munich. This was severely bomb-damaged in the Second World War and it is often assumed that the replica was destroyed at this time. The reality is that, apart from the loss of the spear and the eyes, the figure survives intact, offering modern day viewers a glimpse of the past.

Image: Bronze reconstruction of around  1920s  by German sculptor Georg Römer of the Doryphoros or ‘spear-bearer’ by Polykleitos, made around 440-430 BC. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat, Munich

marble statue of Discobolus roman copy British Museum

Marble statue of the Diskobolos or ‘discus-thrower’. Roman copy from 2nd century AD of a bronze original of the 5th century BC, from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy. British Museum, London

In spite of the attempt to set a formula for the contemporary freestanding male statue-type, the Doryphoros was not the first sculpture of its kind to be composed self-consciously around a set of opposite motifs. It may even be seen as an attempt to restore the formulaic authority of the kouros. Polykleitos, however, was inspired by the work of the sculptor Myron of Athens (fl. 470–440 BC), who, around 450–440 BC cast his Diskobolos (or discus-thrower) in bronze. This image of athletic youth is often taken to be a representation of a real discus throw, frozen in mid-action. In fact, it is a synthesis of elements artificially assembled to compose an abstract ideal of refined male beauty, constructed in a series of binary opposites, like those of the Doryphoros. Unlike that work, however, in its principal viewpoint, Myron’s statue does not explore sculptural volume fully in three dimensions; rather, it presents itself to the spectator in one shallow plane. The major features comprise one arm that extends behind, engaged with the discus, while at the front the other arm hangs free with the empty left hand brought around in front of the right knee. The torso is turned to face the viewer, while the legs and buttocks are in profile. One leg bears the weight, while the other is weight-free. The toes of the right, engaged leg arch up, while those of the other leg curl under. Both sets of toes are seemingly charged like compressed springs, ready to release stored energy. Elements that are held under tension (entasis), contrast with those that are relaxed, and together they comprise a set of intersecting lines that describe the arc and string of a bow, drawn to the point of releasing an arrow. Bíos Biós, as the ancient saying goes: ‘Life is a bow’. The metaphor of a bow appears in the Hippocratic corpus of medical tracts, where one bone-setter likens properly adjusted limbs to a drawn bow, in which opposite forces are balanced one against another.

Pliny may well have had the Diskobolos in mind when he wrote that Myron was more inclined to use patterns in the composition of his sculptures and more fastidious in his use of measured proportion. Given that both sculptors trained in the workshop of Ageladas of Argos, it is safe to assume that Polykleitos knew the work of his older contemporary, Myron. Indeed, in devising his Canon, Polykleitos probably set out to trump the creator of the Diskobolos by presenting his own version of a conscious pattern-making (rhythmos) and commensurability (symmetria). In spite of its advances in such technical terms as these, Myron’s composition of a figure in action would have seemed rather old fashioned to the next generation. Polykleitos probably set out to represent a different idea of a mobile figure in a statue that seems not to stand, but rather is caught in the act of strolling. This gentle and understated dynamic evokes the striding kouroi.

Roman commentators on Myron’s action figure were not convinced, finding parts of the composition to be forced, and observing that the natural physiology of the abdomen was compromised by the pose. Modern commentators have argued that the dominance of the principle viewpoint reduces all other viewpoints to an incoherent muddle of arms and legs, seemingly without design or purpose. This author, however, believes that viewing the sculpture from other angles releases it from the constraints of Myron’s academic exercise in formal composition, and returns the figure to nature, thus setting up one more binary opposite, contrasting art and nature.

It is acknowledged that Polykleitos’ Canon is not, as might be thought, an athlete victor’s statue, for the word ‘Dory’ in the name Doryphoros does not refer to an athlete’s javelin but is, in fact, the word for war spear. And the Doryphoros is, therefore, most likely a mythological character, perhaps Achilles. Likewise, the Diskobolos, usually assumed to be a victor statue from the games, is also perhaps a figure drawn from myth. A sealstone of the Roman period in the British Museum bears an engraved image of Myron’s discus-thrower, which is inscribed ‘Hiakynthos’. This is a reference to the boy beloved of Apollo and Zephyros, god of the west wind. Zephyros’s attentions were rejected by Hiakynthos in favour of Apollo: when Zephyros found Apollo and Hiakynthos practising the discus one day, he became jealous, blowing the discus off its course and into the head of the beautiful youth, killing him outright. The discus-thrower, therefore, may be one of Myron’s figure groups for which he was well-known. Such groups of figures include his two-statue tableau of Athena and Marsyas, and a three-figure composition of Athena leading Herakles into the company of Zeus, at the end of Herakles’ labours.

Marble statue of the Diskobolos or ‘discus-thrower’. Roman copy from 2nd century AD of a bronze original of the 5th century BC, from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy. British Museum, London

The system of calculating measured beauty and its philosophical associations are unique episodes in the history of Western sculpture. While they probably persisted into works of Praxiteles and Lysippos in the fourth century bc, they subsequently died out and were regarded by later generations as a peculiarity of their time.

We should not allow the achievements of Myron and Polykleitos to obscure those of others in the development of the human body in Greek art. A third pupil who served his traineeship in the workshop of Ageladas is said to have been Pheidias (fl. c. 490–430 BC). His work was more intuitive and less inclined to follow the rules of arithmetic. When he constructed the colossus of Athena for the Parthenon, and the figure of Zeus for the temple at Olympia, both in gold and ivory, he is said to have infused his works with an indefinable aura, or phantasia, which evoked the presence of the gods in ways that Polykleitos did not.

The indefinable beauty of the Parthenon sculptures probably brings us as close to Pheidias as we can get. Although the sculpture in marble for the outside of the building was almost certainly not touched by his hands, nevertheless, the genius of a single personality is everywhere to be seen.

…for youth’s fair flower has no tomorrow and lives but sunlit afternoon.

Mimnermos, Greek poet, flourished about 630-600 BC

Greece into Rome and beyond

‘Captive Greece took her wild captor captive and brought the arts to rustic Latium’. So quipped the Roman poet Horace in the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus (27 BC–AD 14). This often quoted saying both illuminates and obscures the relationship of Greece and Rome: it highlights the regard that Romans had for the Greeks but fails to emphasise sufficiently the degree to which Greek art and culture flourished in Roman times and, indeed, the extent to which under philhellene emperors such as Hadrian in the second century ad, Greece became Rome and Rome Greece. Greek works appealed to wealthy Roman collectors just as ‘old masters’ have been collected in modern times. When original works were not available, Roman connoisseurs and collectors commissioned copies and adaptations of earlier Greek works. Thus the eclecticism of later Greek (or so-called ‘Hellenistic’ art) was kept alive in the Roman period, and earlier Greek styles and genres continued to circulate. Some Romans even went so far as to commission portraits of themselves that placed a realistic head on an idealised Greek body, with consequences that may seem absurd today. Thus a Roman matron might become an improbable Venus, while a Roman general could impersonate Ares, god of war.

One intriguing instance of such appropriation by Rome of Greece, concerns a gravestone carved around 350 BC to represent a youthful athlete. The subject is likely to be an idealised one, commemorating a deceased male who probably never looked the way that he is portrayed and may possibly not even have been an athlete. Around the time of the emperor Augustus, this now antique gravestone was reused to mark the passing of a certain Tryphon. His name is carved on the architrave above the gravestone in Greek letters of the Roman period. So as to personalise the funerary stele even further, the head of the athlete was re-cut to give it the look of a fashionable young man of the Augustan age, complete with a hairstyle resembling that of the Roman emperor himself. Once again, this ‘portrait’ may have borne no resemblance to the actual person it was intended to represent.

This recycled artefact has survived in remarkably good condition. When the memory of Tryphon had faded away, and he was no longer remembered by his descendants, his gravestone must have fallen and become buried. Thus it escaped the fury of religious iconoclasm. In the early Christian period, when the triumph of Christ was associated with the mortification of human flesh, no pagan object that celebrated the human body was safe, unless it could be reinterpreted as a Christian image. The cult statue of Demeter in the city of Knidos on the west coast of modern Turkey was re-identified as a Madonna and so was preserved remarkably intact, whereas so many other beautiful statues, of which mere fragments survive today, were broken up and tossed into kilns to be burnt as lime for mortar.

ancient greek art Demeter marble statue around 360 BC from the sanctuary of Demeter British museum

Demeter, marble statue, carved around 360 BC, from the Sanctuary of Demeter at Knidos in south-west Asia Minor (modern Turkey) British Museum, London. 

Bronze statuary was even more vulnerable to being melted down and recycled at a time when such works were valued more as scrap metal than they were as art. The large-scale bronze sculpture of ancient Greece is all but lost to us. Occasionally, however, the sea gives up its dead with the chance discovery of an unexpected masterpiece that had been lost in a wreck. Such is the life-size statue of a male athlete scraping his skin with a metal tool after exercise. This so-called Apoxyomenos dates probably from the late period of Greek art, or possibly the early Roman period. It copies a lost original created in the 4th century BC.

Bronze statue of an Apoxyomenos.  Greek, about 300 BC. Mali Losinj, Croatia

Riace bronzes ancient Greek art bronze statues about 450 BC discovered off the cost of Riace Marina Italy

Riace bronzes. Greek bronze statues, about 450 BC, discovered off the coast of Riace Marina in Italy.
Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia, Reggio Calabria, Italy.

From the 5th century BC come the Riace bronzes, found in the sea off the toe of Italy. These naked, youthful but bearded warriors, once both armed with shield and helmet, do not draw the eye gently with the same sweet modesty of the ‘Westmacott Youth’. Rather, they seem to threaten us with a fatal attraction, their naked machismo charged with the possibility of violence, or sex, or both.

One of the salient features of the Riace bronzes, and one shared in common with other Greek bronze statuary, is the delicate detailing of features such as eyes, lips, teeth and nipples in different metals. Copper, gold and silver could be used for colour contrast against the bronze, while glass and ivory could also be used for eyes. Not only bronze, but also marble sculpture could be enhanced with colour. This was done to varying degrees, ranging from an all-over treatment of armour and drapery, complete with patterns, to the detailing only of jewellery, the hair and eyes. Difference in approach could depend upon when the sculpture was made – earlier examples tend to be more highly coloured – or upon the degree of drama or realism required.

riace bronze statue discovered off the coast of Riace marina in Italy ancient greek art

Riace bronze. Greek, bronze statue, about 450 BC.
Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia, Italy.

they seem to threaten us with a fatal attraction, their naked machismo charged with the possibility of violence, or sex, or both

The British Museum’s marble sculpture collection largely comprises more architectural sculpture than it does freestanding figures. Architects travelling in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries remarked upon the colouring of the buildings that they encountered. Clear evidence of colouring of the architectural sculpture is less forthcoming. The Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum, although assumed to be coloured, in fact showed very little evidence of being so. The bringing down from the Temple of the remaining sculpture and its transfer to the Acropolis Museum in 1993 alerted conservators to the existence of blue pigment surviving on pediment and frieze sculpture. Coincidently, as these discoveries were being made in Athens, startling new evidence for the Parthenon pediments was being detected by a scientific method developed by Dr Giovanni Verri, who was then in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research in the British Museum. Blue stripes were discovered on one of the seated figures of the east pediment and on the belt of the Iris figure from the west pediment. These developments have emerged at the same time as renewed interest in the possible survival and reconstruction of colour on Classical sculpture in Germany and Denmark.

The interview with spirits

The uncertain nature of the survival of colour is emblematic of the evanescence of the Greek body itself. A melancholy longing for what has been lost can lead to dissatisfaction with what survives. The Defining Beauty exhibition at the British Museum distinguishes the human body as the principal element of the Greek experience.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s Enlightenment book of Greek art was the first attempt in the modern era to tell the story of the Greek body. In his History of the Art of Antiquity (1764) he deployed an almost obsessive preoccupation with the minutiae of the subject on the one hand, while on the other his literary style soared above its subject in poetic flight of fancy. Let Winckelmann have the last word for, like him, we may feel we stand before our subject with ‘nothing but a shadowy outline left of the object of our wishes, but that very indistinctness awakens only a more earnest longing for what we have lost, and we study the copies of lost originals more attentively than we should have done the originals themselves if we had been in full possession of them. In this particular, we are very much like those who wish to have an interview with spirits, and who believe that they see them when there is nothing to be seen.’

we are very much like those who wish to have an interview with spirits, and who believe that they see them when there is nothing to be seen

Johann Joachim Winckelmann

the body in ancient Greek art

by Ian Jenkins
published by The British Museum Press, RRP £30

Main Image: Sleeping Hermaphroditos. Musee du Louvre, Paris

To order DEFINING BEAUTY the body in ancient Greek art go to GDC Interiors Journal Book Collection.


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