Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Greek Ideal

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Greek Ideal

Article excerpt


THE human figure occupies a central place in Greek art and particularly in Greek sculpture. In the earliest works a diversity of beasts and monsters are depicted, but the range soon narrows to a few domestic animals such as dogs and horses-a trend reflecting the anthropocentrism of Greek thought, history and character.

The Greeks believed profoundly in the value of man. This conviction underlies Aristotle's statement 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 Homer sang of a world where the gods not only mingled with men but-except that they were immortal and all-powerful-felt and behaved like them.

The gods are thus almost always represented in human form. The human body is a constantly recurring motif in Greek art. Soaring temple columns with their finely-chiselled lines recall the slender bodies of Greek youths, and the name for the capital of a column (kionokranon) means head. In paintings and sculptured reliefs the beauty of the human form in repose or in action stands out against a neutral background. Only later, during the Hellenistic period, do we find some rather clumsy attempts to represent man in a natural setting.

Human and divine

This anthropomorphism explains the preeminence of sculpture, which can render the beauty of the human body more successfully than any other art form. In Plato's Republic, when the philosopher Glaucon refers to Socrates' description of the magistrates in his ideal city, he utters this revealing phrase: "My dear Socrates, you have made your magistrates too beautiful, just as if you were a sculptor."

Only by representing in a purely human form the men they honoured, the gods they worshipped and the heroes of their legends could the ancient Greeks understand them and communicate with them, almost as equals.

When, around the middle of the seventh century BC, sculptors first dared to carve stone statues that were life-size or larger, they initially restricted themselves to a small number of human types, always viewed from the front. These types are the kouros or young man, naked and standing upright, his arms held close to his sides and his left leg slightly forward; the kore, a young woman who is always depicted clothed, her feet together; and the male or female figure seated in a hieratic posture.

All of these types, particularly the kouroi, have points in common with Egyptian statues of gods and pharaohs, but there are some notable differences. The kouros, unlike his Egyptian prototypes, is never portrayed wearing a garment around his waist or leaning against a Pillar, and his legs are not attached by a support. The figure is usually naked, like the Greek athlete on which it is modelled. It seems to be on the verge of movement or action, unlike Egyptian figures which seem fixed for all eternity.

Despite their reserved attitude and their modest demeanour, the faces of the korai express great vitality. Many of them are shown smiling sensually. Their clothing is beautifully draped and painted. They exude the joy of life and the radiant charm of youth. Other human figures carved on votive and even funerary monuments have the same vitality.

The canon of beauty

How did Greek sculptors succeed in rendering this ideal, these figures in the full bloom of youth? Above all through the science of proportions which, until the beginning of the Middle Ages, was considered to be the key to beauty. A detailed description of its principles was given in the fifth century BC by the sculptor Polyclitus in a treatise on his 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 of fixed ratios between the different parts of the body which was taken as a model for several centuries. …

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