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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Early civilizations
Greece and Rome
     Rival masterpieces
     The Greek classical ideal
     The nude in Greek sculpture
     Sculpture as a public statement
     Roman portraits and Christian ivori....

Asia and Africa
Renaissance in Europe
18th century
Africa and Oceania
To be completed

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Rival masterpieces: 5th century BC

By one of the strange coincidences of history, the 5th century BC produces the first masterpieces in two incompatible styles of sculpture. Nearly 2500 years later, these styles become bitter rivals in the studios of our own time.

One is the classical realism which will prevail from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. The other is the sculpture of Africa, distorting human features and limbs in a dramatically expressive manner. African figures in this long and vibrant tradition inspire Picasso's experiments with Cubism, which launch the mainstream of modern art.


The Greek classical ideal: 5th - 4th century BC

Greece in the classical period makes the innovations which underlie the mainstream western tradition in art. This is true of both painting and sculpture.

The essential characteristic of classical Greek art is a heroic realism. Painters and sculptors attempt to reveal the human body, in movement or repose, exactly as it appears to the eye. The emphasis will be on people of unusual beauty, or moments of high and noble drama. But the technical ability to capture the familiar appearance of things is an innovation which can later be adapted to any subject.


The scale and ambition of classical Greek sculpture can be seen in a fragment of an early masterpiece. The famous Charioteer of Delphi, a life-size bronze, is the only surviving figure of a major group consisting of the chariot and its horses, a royal passenger on board with the charioteer, and an attendant slave boy.

This large work is presented to the temple of Apollo at Delphi by the ruler of a Greek colony in Sicily, to commemorate victory in the chariot race at the Pythian games in 477 BC.


The charioteer is shown in his chariot during the victory parade. The slight twist of the body, from bare feet to head, suggests an entirely natural stance - just as the arm seems to imply a light pressure on the reins. In an equally subtle way the face shows the quiet exultation of a man who has just won great honour in a solemn competition. Athletic contests in Greece have an almost religious status.

A boy jockey, of three centuries later, suggests how well the new naturalism of the Greek sculptors will cope with movement. This bronze distillation of human vitality, in the excitement of the race, is one of the most enchanting images to survive from the ancient world.


The nude in Greek sculpture: from the 5th century BC

In athletics, as opposed to chariot racing, the competitors are naked. The male body is an acknowledged object of beauty in ancient Greece; and the male nude is perhaps the greatest achievement of Greek sculpture.

The earliest surviving masterpiece of this kind dates from about 480 BC. Attributed to the sculptor Kritios, it shows a young man in a completely natural stance. His weight is on one leg and hip, with the other knee flexed. The effect on the muscles under the skin, through knees and buttocks up to the gentle curve of the back, is miraculously suggested in the marble. (The same pose is later adopted by Greek sculptors for the female nude, in full-size figures of Aphrodite, the goddess of love - see Aphrodite in sculpture).


The most famous Greek sculpture of an athlete in action dates from about forty years after the first surviving naturalistic male nude. It is the Discus Thrower by Myron, in which the coiled body of the naked athlete seems for ever about to spin the disc away into the distance.

The sculpture is known only in Roman copies. Carved in marble, they need ungainly supports - such as the awkward tree trunk against which the athlete seems to lean. The lost original, cast in bronze, needs no such encumbrances. Like the Charioteer of Delphi, this image makes heavy demands on the skills of the Greek bronze-casters.


Sculpture as a public statement: from the 5th c. BC

The mid-5th century represents a peak of Greek sculpture, in quantity as well as quality. At exactly the period when Myron is creating the Discus Thrower, the Athenians are building the Parthenon. The sculptures and reliefs which decorate the temple are completed within about ten years, from 447 BC. The inner frieze, showing a great Athenian procession, stretches for more than 150 metres, while the sculptures on the outer wall occupy almost as much space and are far more elaborately carved.

An army of sculptors is clearly now available for public works. The use of sculpture to adorn a community's central building will become a powerful European tradition - seen particularly in the church sculpture of the Middle Ages.


The Romans develop very skilfully this Greek theme of a narrative frieze, using it particularly - since this is a militaristic society - for the important matter of publicizing Rome's victories. The outstanding example is the continuous strip, nearly 200 metres long, which circles its way up the marble column of Trajan in Rome. Dating from AD 113, it recounts in minute and realistic detail the emperor's successful campaign in Dacia (the region of modern Romania).

But the type of sculpture which the Romans make particularly their own is the portrait bust. Here, too, Trajan can serve as an example.


Roman portraits and Christian ivories: 1st - 6th c. AD

Greek sculptors sometimes carve heads which appear to be portraits. But they are invariably of good-looking people, whose attractive faces shine with the light of reason. They seem idealized.

A bust of Trajan provides a powerful contrast. Here is a dangerous and apparently unpleasant man, depicted by the sculptor with nothing approaching normal flattery - though this may well be how a successful conqueror likes to see himself. In their portrait busts Rome's emperors seem a bunch of unscrupulous thugs (as they do also in the historical record). Nowhere in the ancient world do we feel so close to real people. Rarely has the art of sculpture been used to such devastatingly honest effect.


One Roman triumphal portrait achieves, by contrast, a heroic quality which will make it extremely influential in later times. It is the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, originally standing on the Capitol in Rome. Made of gilded bronze (and a superb achievement of bronze casting), it is probably created to celebrate victories in the east in AD 162-4.

Its mood will greatly appeal to European princes and generals from the Renaissance onwards. But in the intervening centuries sculpture is mainly used by Christian artists for more tormented themes, whether the pain of the Crucifixion or the imagined agonies of Hell.


A notable exception, in the years before the final collapse of the Roman empire in the west, is the early tradition of Christian ivories. The best of them are carved in Rome in the 5th century and in Constantinople slightly later. These beautiful little panels of Gospel scenes, in a miniature version of the naturalism of Greece and Rome, often achieve a profound serenity. They are like a gentle farewell to the classical tradition of the Mediterranean, before the emergence of a new and vigorous style of sculpture in northern Europe.

Meanwhile Asia has been offering great opportunities to the sculptors, in the development of Hindu and Buddhist art.


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