The Greek Ideal Body
THE human body
occupies a key
place in Greek art and sculpture. In the earliest Greek works many
monsters were depicted, but the range soon narrows to a few domestic
such as dogs and horses; a trend reflecting the central place of man in
thought religion and culture.
believed profoundly in
the value of the ideal man. This conviction underlies Aristotle's
that the city-state is the ideal political institution. For Plato "Man
participates in the divine" and is "related to the gods". The
great lyric poet Pindar wrote that "Gods and men have a single mother,
only our strengths are different". At the dawn of Greek civilization
sang of a world where the gods not only mingled with men and behaved like them. The
between man and the gods were immortal.
The gods are thus
represented in human form. The human body is a constantly recurring
Greek art. Soaring temple columns with their finely-chiseled lines
slender bodies of Greek youths, and the name for the capital of a
(kionokranon) means head. In paintings and sculptured reliefs the
beauty of the
human form in relaxation or in action stands out against a neutral
Only later, during the Hellenistic period, do we find some rather
attempts to represent man in a natural setting.
idealism explains why
their sculpture could render the beauty of the human body more
than previous art forms. In Plato's Republic, when the philosopher
refers to Socrates' description of the magistrates in his ideal city,
this revealing phrase: "My dear Socrates, you have made your
too beautiful, just as if you were a sculptor."
representing the gods and
their heroes in a purely human form could the ancient Greeks understand
gods and communicate with them, almost as equals.
In around the
middle of the
seventh century BC, sculptors first dared to carve stone statues that
life-size or larger. They
restricted themselves to a small number of human types, always viewed
front. These types were a young man, naked and standing upright, his
close to his sides and his left leg slightly forward; a young woman who
always depicted clothed, her feet together; and the male or female
seated in a hieratic posture. All of these types have points in common
Egyptian statues of gods and pharaohs, but there are some notable
The young males unlike his Egyptian prototypes, is never portrayed
garment around his waist or leaning against a Pillar, and his legs are
attached by a support. The figure is usually naked, like the Greek
which it is modeled. It seems to be on the verge of movement or action,
Egyptian figures which seem fixed for all eternity. By contrast the
statues have expressions of great vitality.
They seem to be joyful and full of life.
How did Greek
in rendering this ideal, these figures in the full bloom of youth?
through the science of proportions which, until the beginning of the
Ages, was considered to be the key to beauty. The use of proportions in
sculpture started even before Pythagoras . (about 550 BC). A detailed description of
its principles was
given in the fifth century BC by the sculptor Polyclitus in a treatise
statue the "Doryphorus" (Spearbearer) which was known as the
"Canon" because it embodied the ideal proportions of the male form.
Although what he says is not always clear, Polyclitus created a system
ratios between the different parts of the body which was taken as a
The aim of Greek
not to recreate the appearance of nature, but to bring to the surface
essence of the model and above all to render it dynamically, so that it
to live. It might be said that the Greek sculptor worked from the
He brought to light the masses of the body as though he himself were
life, rendering in every detail the harmony of forms. Even during the
naturalistic periods sculptors never attempted to produce photographic
likenesses, as in academic art, or cold reflections of abstract forms,
neoclassicism. Their works vibrate with life which is tempered only by
profound sense of balance and moderation.
that beauty lies
not in the deceptive and illusory appearance that gives pleasure to the
in a higher reality, which he called the Idea. He approved only of
forms, pure volumes, and mathematical proportions. He seems to have
only works of very ancient Greek and Egyptian art, which he valued for
purity of form and their immutability.
Closer to reality
and to the
Greek tradition, Aristotle in the fourth century BC found beauty in
proportions, symmetry and order. Art for him was merely an imitation of
the instinct for imitation being inherent in man. Faithful to the
ideas of his time, Aristotle remarked that a work of art is a source of
pleasure when we recognize in it a familiar object, even if the object
beautiful in reality. In this he prefigured the modern notion that
there is a
distinction between artistic beauty and physical beauty.
What then did the
understand by artistic beauty? Was it the mathematical rules and
number which for centuries imposed simple, clear and symmetrical forms
harmonious proportions, as demanded by Polyclitus, the most normative
and Plato, the most brilliant of philosophers? Or the power of life,
the force which
brings life to the smallest
surface, the tiniest detail of a Greek sculpture and makes it a joy to
Greek art; However, even at the end of its long development, the art of
Greece, in spite of its capacity for penetrating the secrets of the
and its plastic virtuosity, never went so far as to create a gallery of
portraits, a chronicle peopled with figures, as the Romans did. Until
Greek art was illuminated, however dimly, by the tender and beautiful
which emanated from the Greek idea of the perfect man.
The relationship between beautiful art and the human body is summarized by the
ideal Greek body of Adonis with his youthful muscles.
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