The Human Body in Ancient Greek art and Thought, Lecture by Ian Jenkins, PhD accessed [https://youtu.be/NfWd9QZfils]
Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Evolution of Greek Art
Western modern society owes a lot to ancient Greece. Known as the “Father of Europe,” Greece was the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, science, literature and—most importantly for our purposes—some of the greatest art known to history.
When one thinks of ancient Greek art, famous monuments and statues such a Venus de Milo and the Parthenon Frieze are the first to come to mind. Most of us visualize the bold lines, white marble, and perfectly polished torsos that mark the height of the Greek artistic renaissance. These have been further immortalized by popular culture, and the post-industrial architecture that remains interwoven with our modern cityscapes.
In reality, Greek art underwent several changes throughout its history. Each era marked its distinctive artistic aesthetic. Below is a brief overview of Ancient Greece’s most notable artistic pieces, and how they reflect changing cultural, societal, and political landscapes of ancient Greece.
Greek Ideals of Physical and Moral Perfection
Personal conduct and the development of interpersonal relationships were highly important to the ancient Greeks. Therefore, the human form was a popular subject of interest in Greek Art.
During the sixth century BC, the Greeks begin to refine the image of ‘Perfection’. Kalos Kagathos is the Greek word that describes gentlemanly conduct, the Greek ideal of the male archetype that describes inner and outer perfection. Kalos Kagathos can be likened to the medieval idea of chivalry, an ideal male is strong and courageous whilst remaining modest and gentle of heart.
Sixth-century Greek statues borrowed heavily from ancient Egypt. Egyptian statues are presented face forward in an angular pose, with the left foot forward and weight resting on the back leg. However, the Greeks kept their unique artistic style and presented the male statuettes nude, to demonstrate physical prowess and the Greek ideal of perfection.
Towards the end of the sixth century and into the fifth, we find further examples of art reflecting the Greek ideal. The Panhellenic games were an opportunity for men from across Greece to display their physical abilities publicly, and winners commissioned statues for public display. Soon enough, stadiums became adorned with examples of the male body beautiful, where idealized male forms were immortalized in marble and often copied by others.
Physical and emotional excellence was closely tied with honor in Greek society. The pursuit of both qualities occupied those of high rank or noble birth. These were men who excelled in athletics or public speaking, gave their lives in battle, or were known to be involved in a famous love affair.
However, the first duty of every free-born man was his duty to the polis (city). Hellenistic Greeks were linked by language, religion and modern values, but were often at war with one another.
Fifth Century and The Rise of Democracy
During the fifth century, Athenian red-figure vases began to experiment with visual effects by using foreshortening to give figures a 3D effect. This artistic shift coincides with a fledgling democracy, where more free-born male citizens were able to influence the political system.
At the dawn of the fifth century—with its epic battles like Marathon—experimentation in art accelerated. After Athens was sacked and invaded by Xerxes, King of Persia, hundreds of sculptures were destroyed and later rediscovered by archeologists in the 19th century.
One of the most famous examples exhumed from the sacking of Athens is the Kritios boy, an early Classical Greek statue that is an example of the softer edges, and curves of the human body. The Greeks had begun to express their own style of bodily representation which eventually replaced the angular, Egyptian form. The Kritios Boy leans all of his weight onto one leg, one hip lifted slightly, highlighting the shift in the alignment of the torso. He stands casually with the head turned to one side. This marks a step towards realism in Greek art.
Greek natural philosophy emphasized the balance of complementary forces, and this was reflected in art. The Ionian enlightenment saw the emergence of experimentation with primary opposites (hot & cold, light & dark etc). Healing was seen as an art unto itself, wherein physicians adjusted opposing elements in the body. Harmony, symmetry, balance and rhythm were key to Greek representational art as much as they were a reflection of practical medicine.
The ancient Greeks also showed interest in the biomechanics of muscle structure, particularly when weight-bearing. Raised and lowered limbs in balance were constructed by precise measurements to represent perfection. In this sense, art became more like architecture.
Artists inspired by the scultpor Polykleitos’ Canon—in which he sets out the mathematical proportions of the ideal male body—began to publish written treatises explaining their art, dimensions and representations. In the Doryphoros pictured above, one leg bears the weight, whilst the other leg remains free. This marks a shift in art to figures suspended in animation and the exploration of human anatomy.
The prehistorical Greece female form came to represent the spiritual and the religious. Representations of the female nude were used only in religious worship or as the the object of a cult.
In contrast, males were often depicted nude and it was the norm for men to go naked in public places where women would not be present, such as the gymnasium. Men were depicted with small genitals intentionally, to understate the sexual aspects of nudity. Athletes were discouraged from sexual relations so they could conserve energy for sporting events. Conversely, males were depicted with extra-large penises in the comic theatre to humor the public. Lust was considered a war against reason and looked down upon.
In ancient Greece, men were considered the representation of order, and women were manifestations of chaos. Women’s lives were heavily controlled to make up for their perceived lack of self-control. Female participation in public life is believed limited to funerals and cult worship, particularly in major cities. Statues of women were always robed, but even so male artists found subtle ways to enhance and highlight the female form.
Although they were always clothed, women used clothing to their advantage— either to signal their place in society, exhibit status or to attract a husband or lover. Funerals were the primary social event for women, and the funeral setting often became the place where unmarried women found husbands, and married women allegedly sought lovers. In art, women were depicted clothed and often shown receiving a child or a gift. They are also depicted weaving wool, processing textiles or undertaking household chores.
However, in cult circles and religious ceremonies, women were considered the gateway to the divine. Religious plaques feature women holding the key to the temple door, depicting their power as gatekeepers to the higher realms.
Although artistic changes were subtle, the Greeks paved the way for realism in art. The veneration the Greeks held for physical and moral perfection carried across cultures and found a revival in the Italian renaissance. However, politics and war also played their role in the development of Greek art, which will be explored in part two of this series.