Academic journal article Akroterion

Reading between the Loins:a Curious Anomaly in the Portrayal of the Male Physique in Greek Sculpture

Academic journal article Akroterion

Reading between the Loins:a Curious Anomaly in the Portrayal of the Male Physique in Greek Sculpture

Article excerpt

A cursory glance at three examples of ancient Greek sculpture--spanning the early and late Archaic periods and the early Classical era--creates the overriding impression of a progression towards anatomical realism.

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In the case of the so-called "New York" kouros (late 7th century BC), it is clear that anatomical realism is subordinate to balance and symmetry--the inevitable product of the grid-scheme (1) employed in determining the relationship of the various parts of the body. Salient features are the segmented effect created by grooves and ridges--most obvious in the groin area--and the schematic patterning achieved through these surface details. Very different is the next kouros, which represents a man called Aristodikos (Fig. 2) and which dates from the last quarter of the 6th century BC. Here we have a good example of the degree of anatomical accuracy achieved by sculptors of the late Archaic period. However, despite these advances, the figure still displays the typically rigid, symmetrical and predominantly frontal pose of the Archaic kouros.

The beginning of the Classical period of Greek sculpture marked a decisive break away from the limitations of the Archaic mode. The well-known Kritios Boy (Fig. 3) is regularly used to illustrate how the Greek kouros eventually "came to life". The most notable feature, of course, is how the sculptor has accurately shown that the mass of the body is concentrated on the figure's left leg and that this imbalance is reflected in the tilt of the pelvis and a consequent subtle "S" curve of the vertical axis, accentuated by the slight turn and downward tilt of the head.

While this very cursory survey serves to illustrate the progression towards greater naturalism and anatomical accuracy in the portrayal of the male physique, there is a curious anomaly that becomes particularly evident in the high Classical period and which remains a salient characteristic of the portrayal of the male physique right throughout the Greco-Roman period and beyond. I refer to the very prominent iliac crest and to the shape, protuberance and exaggerated ridge of the lower abdomen, well illustrated by Polykleitos' Doryphoros, or "Spearbearer" (Fig. 4), created in the middle of the 5th century BC.

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The art historian Kenneth Clark (1956:35) comments on the manner in which Polykleitos accentuated the system of rendering the male torso, as exemplified by the Kritios Boy and other earlier works: "Polycletus' control of muscle-architecture was evidently far more rigorous, and from that derives that standard schematisation of the torso known in French as the cuirasse esthetique (Fig. 5), a disposition of muscles so formalized that it was in fact used in the design of armour". Clark (1956:35) goes on to remark that "[t]he cuirasse esthetique, which so greatly delighted the artists of the Renaissance, is one of the features of antique art which has done most to alienate modern taste". Polykleitos' original statue was made of bronze, and, as is often the case, we have to rely on marble copies. Not so in the case of the celebrated Riace Warriors (Figs. 6, 7), discovered off the coast of Italy in 1972.

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As in the case of the Doryphoros, one's attention is drawn to the very distinctive overhang of the iliac crest and the continuation of this ridge in a smooth and sinuous contour marking off the groin area from the upper thighs. While modern athletes--and particularly body-builders--do develop quite prominent iliac crests (in addition to the proverbial "six-pack" abdominal muscles), the whole configuration of the lower abdomen of the Doryphoros and the Riace Warriors is markedly different from what one observes in reality. This point can be illustrated by studying an example of a modern body-builder, whose muscle development, typically, is taken to extremes. …

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