Archaic Greek Art until the Greco-Persian Wars III: Early Greek statuary

The secret of the admirable and never surpassed beauty of Greek statuary resides in the fixity of its “types”. The Doric art schools of mainland Greece were mainly focused in the male figure and managed to interpret the human anatomy by representing images of athletes as naked young men that, during the archaic period, were first represented totally rigid but that gradually acquired movement when they were represented with their legs slightly apart. In early Greece, each of these male statues was a heroic and idealized portrait placed on a monument. They were portraits of young athletes, beardless, some of them with long hair which showed that they had not reached adult age as Greek young men did not cut their hair until reaching full maturity. These “archaic Apollos” are known as “Kouroi” (plural of Kouros, the Greek word meaning young man).

The Kouros of Milos, ca. 550 BC. (National Museum of Athens).

We know that these Kouroi were heroic portraits because around their heads they wore long bands or ribbons, a kind of symbolic crown the Greeks called stéfanos, the distinguishing symbol of their heroic semi-god character. A law or custom observed in early Greece forbade the representation of characters that were not of divine or semi-divine nature (meaning heroes). This “law” was strictly observed in the eighth and seventh centuries BC which explains the abundance of these young athlete figures or Kouroi.

The Kouros of Anavyssos or Kroisos Kouros (National Museum of Athens), monumental marble sculpture of 1.94 m.

These Kouroi were heroes because otherwise they would not wore the crown or ribbon that indisputably characterized them as immortals. By winning the hundred-meter race at Olympia, these young men gained the status of heroes. Young men that won this race had the right to have their own statues. They were considered heroes. If they won the same race three times then, besides the right of the statue, they had the right of a portrait and their statues actually had the factions of the portrayed hero. Without this triple victory the statue was identified only with an inscription. Thus there was a statue for every athlete winner of each Olympiad. These statues were erected in the Heroon a sacred place located by the main gates of the boy’s hometown. The statues of athletes are especially abundant in early Greek art because images representing gods were scarce at this time.

Ancient Greek texts and traditions mentioned wooden fetishes that were worshiped and that the Greeks called xoana (singular xoanon). These images were worshiped until Classical times. All these fetishes represented female divinities. This explains the existence of female virgins representations or Korai parallel to that of the Kuroi. These female statues also represented young women with almost heroic character as they were also crowned with diadems.

The “Lady of Auxerre” (Louvre), ca. 650 BC, it represents one of the first versions in stone of the primitive wooden xoana.

Some of these statues were dressed in the Ionian fashion which consisted of a short tunic called in Greek chiton a sewn garment wore over one shoulder across the chest and that fell at knee height. Over the chiton was worn a mantle or robe called himation which was grabbed with the left hand. Other Korai were dressed in the Doric fashion, a draped garment consisting of a long tunic reaching the feet and the peplos a square piece of wool held over the shoulders by two brooches or fibula and falling flat covering back and front until the waist. The rigid tunics and peplum of Doric fashion completely wrapped the female figure, and so their bodies appeared like a smooth trunk. Apparently, artists tried to imitate the wooden xoanon, although in some Korai dressed in Ionian fashion we can identify a reminiscent of a cylindrical trunk resembling the pillar worshiped during pre-Hellenic times-the Minoan pillar. In fact, many of these statues looked like columns, like the famous Hera of Samos at the Louvre Museum which is almost a xoanon, or the Lady of Auxerre, also at the Louvre, with one arm alongside her body and the other bent over her chest and almost forming a cylindrical block.

The Kore with chiton and mantle (Acropolis Museum, Athens), ca. 450 BC.
5. Korai
The Euthydikos Kore, ca. 500 BC. (Acropolis Museum, Athens).













These two main types of early Greek sculpture, the type of young male athletes and the young females with mantle, maintained certain features that persisted throughout the archaic period. The male type showed how Greeks interpreted the naked human body by subdividing it into plans stressing the main lines of the chest, waist, and hips. The figure was seen from a frontal position and had great symmetry in its movements as they appeared to move the left leg forward while their arms were placed in balance. A very similar model can be seen in older Egyptian statues.

The female type was always dressed, but the clothes fell in parallel folds tailored to the body. At first the human form is hardly recognizable, we don’t see more than the cylinder of the statue. Later on, the opposite occurred, and the dress fitted perfectly the body as if the fabric was wet.

The Antenor Kore (Acropolis Museum, Athens), it stands 2.55 m height.

The heads of both, female and male type sculptures had small skulls with spherical shapes, the forehead was reduced, the almond-shaped eyes were slightly slanted and slightly put aside as seen frontally, and the smile, called archaic, was stereotyped.

Other male type different from the mere athlete is seen in the statue known as the Moschophoros a figure of a young man carrying on his shoulders a small calf.  The Moschophoros wears a dress adapted to his body so his muscular forms are smoothed by this fine garment. This type of early Greek art suggests by association of ideas the representation of the Good Shepherd that in centuries to come will be a common feature of early Christian art.

The Moschophoros (Calf-bearer), (Acropolis Museum, Athens), ca. 470 BC.
The Winged Goddess of Delos (National Museum of Athens), was the work of Akermos of Chios and Milkiades, marble, ca. 588 BC. Iconographically, winged mythical creatures have their origin in Eastern cultures, but Greeks associated them with victory hence the “Nike” name (meaning Victory). This Nike naively bends her knees and represents one of the first artistic attempts to inspire motion by trying to make the statue looking as if it is ready to fly.
The Rampin Rider or Rampin Horseman (Acropolis Museum, Athens), was probably the winner of a riding show as evidenced by his laurel leaves crowned head. His head slightly tilted, marks the abandonment of the principle of archaic frontality, which represents an important aesthetic change, while his smile and organized beard are still archaic. Ca. 550 BC.

laurel leaves


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