Sculpture in Archaic Greece

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Sculpture in Archaic Greece

The Daedalic Style.

By the mid-seventh century b.c.e. Greek sculptors were experimenting in free-standing figures, influenced, no doubt, by their discovery of the art and architecture of ancient Egypt earlier in the century. Once the Assyrians were driven out of Egypt, the pharaohs of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty cultivated close relations with Greece and allowed the Greeks to build a trading station at Naucratis on one of the mouths of the Nile River. The Greeks themselves attributed many of their early efforts at sculpture to the legendary craftsman Daedalus, whose name means "Cunning Worker," and hence modern art historians apply the label "Daedalic" to the earliest Greek sculptures. An early example comes from the sanctuary of Apollo and Artemis on the island of Delos, and it must be one of the first made. It is made of the white marble from the island of Naxos, which was the stone of choice for early sculptors until the quarries on the neighboring island of Paros were opened. The statue is of a woman wearing a wig and the garment known as the peplos, shaped awkwardly from an oblong piece of marble. She faces the onlooker, her arms hanging by her sides. On her skirt there is a verse inscription disclosing that this statue was dedicated to Artemis by Nikandre of Naxos, whose father, brother, and husband are also named. Nikandre's statue is the first of many. One, a statuette of solid bronze from Apollo's other great sanctuary at Delphi from the mid-seventh century b.c.e., shows a boy naked except for his wig and a belt at his midriff. He stands stiffly at attention, except that the left leg is slightly forward, the right leg slightly back. Except for the Daedalic wig and the belt, this is the stance of the later kouroi, that is, statues of naked youths.

The Kouroi.

The word kouros (plural: kouroi) means "boy" or "youth," and it is a term that describes the archaic statues of nude youths produced from about 650 b.c.e. until the last quarter of the sixth century and the early years of the fifth, when they lost their archaic features and became the male nudes of the classical period. Some 200 known examples of kouroi survived to modern times, although most of them are badly damaged and in fragments. The kouroi began to appear about the mid-seventh century b.c.e. One of the earliest examples, dating to about 600 b.c.e., is the "Metropolitan Kouros," now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It is rigidly frontal; the statue has a front, two sides, and a rear—four independent faces that preserve the four sides of the marble block from which it was carved. A comparison between it and an Egyptian statue of a standing male figure reveals the source of the Greek sculptor's inspiration. The Egyptian figure and the Metropolitan kouros have the same proportions. In both, the arms hang at the sides, and the left leg is thrust forward. Yet there are differences: the Egyptian figure wears a skirt held up by a belt whereas the Metropolitan kouros is entirely nude; and unlike the Egyptian sculptor, the Greek artist did not try to give the face any individuality. The lips are drawn back at the corners into what has come to be known as the "archaic smile." Not much later than the Metropolitan kouros, about 580 b.c.e., two kouroi of Cleobis and Biton were erected at Delphi. According to the historian Herodotus, Cleobis and Biton were the two sons of the priestess of Hera at Argos who dragged their mother's ox-cart from the city of Argos to the sanctuary of Hera in the countryside. For this act of piety, their mother prayed to the goddess to confer on them whatever reward was best for mortal men. The two youths then lay down to rest after their exertion and never awoke again, proving that, for men, death at the height of their renown is the best reward. The kouroi of Cleobis and Biton show them as two sturdy youths with well-developed pectoral muscles, smiling the "archaic smile" and staring with large eyes into the distance. These were two athletic young men who died at their physical peak and the sculptor tried to convey in stone the ideal they represented. They are dwarfed, however, by the contemporary "Sunium kouros," the best preserved of several over life-size kouroi found at Sounion, the eastern tip of Attica, where there was a sanctuary of the god of the sea, Poseidon. Over three meters (9.84 feet) high, it stood with its giant companions overlooking the treacherous waters off Cape Sounion, perhaps commemorating men lost at sea. Slightly later, belonging to the second quarter of the sixth century b.c.e., is a kouros found at Tenea south of Corinth, a small place whose inhabitants claimed to be captive Trojans whom the Greeks settled there. The sculptor of the Tenean kouros had observed the male anatomy carefully; the shoulders, pectorals, stomach muscles, and thighs are well-shaped and well coordinated. The pose remains the same: left leg slightly forward, right leg drawn slightly back and arms hanging loosely at the sides. Yet there is a new plasticity to the modelling of the body that signals a leap forward.

The Korai.

The female figures dating to the same period as the kouroi are called korai (singular: kore). Males are shown nude and women clothed, the convention that will not be breached until the fourth century b.c.e. Sometime in the sixth century, a person whose name was Cheramyes dedicated a kore at the great temple of Hera on the island of Samos. The kore is now headless, but the body is intact except for the left arm. It is basically a cylindrical figure. A long tunic or chiton drapes the body, falling in tiny pleats from the waist to the toes which peep out from under it, and she wears a cloak that once veiled her hair. It falls over her shoulders, covering her right arm completely, and it is drawn diagonally across her breasts. Under her clothes the contours of her body are visible; her breasts are full and her stomach bulges slightly below her belt. Unlike the nude kouroi, the korai were clothed, and this required the sculptors to portray garments which were originally painted to reproduce the patterns on the clothes that the korai wore—usually a chiton and over it a cloak known as a himation. The Acropolis of Athens in the late sixth and early fifth centuries must have been full of kouroi and korai which were dedicated there. In the course of the Persian Wars, the Persians captured the city in 480, and again in 479 b.c.e., laying the whole area waste and leaving the shattered remains of these statues on the ground. The Athenians buried the decimated statues reverently, and they remained in their graves until archaeologists, clearing the Acropolis in the 1880s, stumbled on an amazing collection of archaic sculpture, including a cache of korai from the century before the Persian Wars. They stand, facing forward, left foot thrust slightly forward as if they were dancing. The treatment varies, but in the standard pose the kore's left hand pulls the skirt of her chiton across her legs, sometimes so tightly that the legs can be seen beneath it, and over it she wears a himation, a wrap that is slung over the right shoulder and hangs diagonally across her bosom and under her left arm. The reason for their burial is unclear, although the statues did commemorate an untimely death on occasion. They were, however, erected all across Greece in the archaic period.



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"Ripe Archaic" Sculpture.

"Ripe Archaic" is a convenient label for the style of sculpture from the period dating from about the second quarter of the sixth century to the time of the Persian Wars (490–479 b.c.e.). This is also the period when Greek craftsmen learned how to make hollow bronze statues using the so-called "Lost Wax" technique. In this technique, a model of the figure was made of wax over a clay core, then a mold was made from the wax model; the wax was then melted out and replaced by molten bronze and finally, after the bronze had cooled, the mold was removed. Before the discovery of this technique, large bronze statues could be made only by hammering bronze plates over a wooden core, in the same way as bronze armor continued to be made. Most of the bronze statues of the ancient world disappeared long ago, melted down in many cases for their metal, and so it is easy to forget that all the great sculptors of Greece worked in bronze. Only one bronze kouros, dating to about 525 b.c.e., survived, discovered in 1959 in Piraeus, the port city of Athens. It is the exception, however; the kouroi and korai that still exist are generally of marble. The type changed very little. Kouroi and korai still face the viewer head-on as if their movements were constrained by the block of marble from which they were sculpted, and they still wear their archaic smiles which make them look a little smug. Yet the sculptor's chisel was surer, as the sculptors became more skilled at representing the anatomy of the male body. A kouros found intact at Tenea, a village south of Corinth, illustrates what the type was like at the beginning of the "Ripe Archaic" period. The kouros still smiles at the viewer with the corners of his lips pulled back in an archaic smile. His arms hang by his sides and his left leg is thrust forward in the familiar pose that was borrowed from Egypt, but his torso is modeled with skill. The sculptor paid close attention to the pectoral and stomach muscles. Yet a comparison between the kouros from Tenea with one made a generation later, the Anavysos kouros, shows the great strides forward in just a short time. Sometime after 540 b.c.e., at Anavysos in the countryside outside Athens, a kouros-statue was erected on the grave of a young man named Kroisos (Croesus) who had died in battle. The Anavysos kouros is intact; in fact, some of the original paint on it survives.

Bronze Statues by the "Lost Wax" Method

The Technical Difficulty

The earliest bronze figures that we have from Greece are small statuettes cast of solid bronze. Bronze in ancient Greece was an alloy of copper and tin and it was expensive. Making a life-size statue in bronze would be costly, to say nothing of its weight. In the sixth century b.c.e., Greek sculptors learned how to cast hollow bronze statues using the "lost wax" method, which they learned from Egypt. Greek authors such as the historian Herodotus in the fifth century b.c.e., Pliny the Elder in the first century c.e., and Pausanias in the second century, whose guidebook to Greece is a mine of information for the archaeologist, attribute the introduction of bronze casting by the "lost wax" process to Rhoikos and Theodoros who worked for the tyrant of Samos, Polycrates, who became tyrant about 540 and died about 522 b.c.e. Whether that is true or not, hollow bronze statues appear around the middle of the sixth century b.c.e.

The Technique

First, the sculptor made a clay core. He then inserted metal pins, known as chaplets, into the clay core, covered it with wax and carved it to form a model of his statue. Then he covered his wax model with clay and allowed the clay to become completely dry, thus forming a mold. The next step was to place the mold in a casting pit and heat it so that the wax melted and ran out, leaving a space between the clay core and the mold. The chaplets which had been inserted into the core held it firm within the clay mold. Next bronze was melted in a furnace constructed alongside the casting pit and poured into the space between the clay core and the mold, using a clay funnel. The bronze was allowed to cool and harden, the mold was broken away—it would probably not be used again—and the bronze statue would emerge. The clay core could then be removed. Or it might not—in 1959, a bronze Apollo, dating to about 525 b.c.e., was found in Piraeus, the port of Athens, which was part of a lost consignment of bronze statues intended for shipment to Rome in the first century b.c.e., and it was cast using the "lost wax" process, but the core had not been removed. Nor had the iron chaplets which held the core in place.

Finishing the Statue

Once the statue was removed from its mold, the sculptor would finish it. Most statues were far too large to be cast at the same time. The head, the legs, and the arms were usually cast separately and then were fitted together only after they had emerged from their molds. The Delphic Charioteer in the Museum at Delphi in Greece, which commemorated a victory at the Pythian Games in either 478 or 474 b.c.e., is a case in point. Its skirt, upper torso, both arms and head, as well as the side-curls on the head, were all cast separately. The left arm is now lost and so we can see how it was originally attached. The sculptor then inset the eyes using colored glass, and smoothed off any imperfections. He then oiled and polished his statue, and it was ready to be erected.

It is not a portrait of Kroisos, but it is somehow intended to represent the spirit and life-force of the dead warrior. The lips still smile the "archaic smile," and the kouros stands, hands hanging at his sides with his left leg still thrust slightly forward and the right leg pulled slightly back. The traditional pose of the kouros-statue is unchanged, yet the spirit is different: the sculptor had observed the musculature of the male body carefully and attempted to reproduce it accurately. Kroisos was evidently a powerfully-built young man, unlike the lithe youth that the kouros from Tenea represented, and the sculptor tried to convey an impression of his physical power in the statue that marked his grave.

The korai in the "Ripe Archaic" Period.

The korai demanded stone carving that was even more proficient, for these were statues wearing clothing that had to be recreated in stone. The fashions of the day were elaborate and the garments that the korai wear reflect it. The garments were originally brightly painted and on a few of them that have escaped weathering some of the pigment has survived. One of these, dating to 530–515 b.c.e. which is now in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, shows a young woman with an elaborate coiffure and long braids hanging down over her shoulders. She wears a mantle with heavy folds that contrast with the soft, crinkly folds of the tunic (chiton) beneath it. The color is well-preserved; the tunic is dark and the mantle has a pattern on a white background and a dark fringe along its edges. Another almost contemporary statue, also in the Acropolis Museum, is the so-called peplos kore, so-called because she is wearing a simple peplos with an over-fold that falls down as far as her waist. Her right arm hangs by her side, and she may have held something in her left hand, though the left forearm is broken off. The simplicity of her dress is more apparent than real for the fabric was originally brightly patterned. Only a few remnants of the paint survive, but enough to suggest what the statue must have once looked like. Her hair hangs down her back in multiple braids; three are slung over each shoulder. She has a lively face with almond-shaped eyes and pupils picked out in paint.

Sculpture in Relief.

Relief sculpture appeared as decoration for monumental temples about the middle of the seventh century b.c.e., the colonial period of Greece, when various city-states in both mainland Greece and East Greece on the western fringe of Asia Minor sent out colonies to Sicily, Italy, southern France, and the north-east coast of Spain, as well as to the northern Aegean region and the shore of the Black Sea. The earliest Greek temples were one-roomed structures, entered through a porch at one end, with a place for burnt sacrifices in the middle. This style developed into a long narrow room with the entrance-porch at the east end, and the cult statue facing it at the other end. The earliest examples of cult statues were what the Greeks called xoana: primitive statues of wood, hardly more than wooden posts with some human features carved roughly on them. The sacrificial pit was moved to an open-air altar, often outside the east door. The Doric temple evolved from this style in the Peloponnesos, while in East Greece the Ionic temple developed; the first use of relief sculpture decorated both of these temple types. At each end of the temple there was a triangular gable called a "pediment," surrounded by cornices, leaving a recessed triangular space called the "tympanum" in which sculpture could be placed. On Doric temples, a frieze of triglyphs and metopes appeared below the pediment. The triglyphs were plaques carved with two vertical channels separated by three moldings, one over each column and one in the space between. The metopes were the empty spaces between the triglyphs, and they could be filled with relief sculpture. Some of the earliest examples of metope-sculpture comes from the Greek colonies in Sicily and Italy. One, which comes from a ruined temple at Selinunte (ancient Selinus) in western Sicily shows the hero Perseus cutting off the head of the Gorgon, Medusa, a monster who could turn anyone who looked at her face into stone. The relief tells a story familiar to Greeks, who believed that Perseus was not a mythical hero but a man who actually lived in an earlier era when gods walked the earth; the Gorgon's head was also a well-known terror-symbol that struck fear into men's hearts. Both Perseus who holds his sword at Medusa's throat, and Medusa, whose head is being severed, confront the onlooker, their facial expressions unmoved. From a small mid-sixth-century b.c.e. temple built to Hera at the mouth of the Sele River in Italy comes a remarkable series of 36 metopes, some of which are only roughed out and left incomplete. The finishing of the relief sculptures was evidently done after the metopes were in place, and the builders of this temple never got around to it. Some of the best metopes show the Labors of Heracles or events from the Trojan War.

Sculpture in an Age of Tyranny.

The sixth century b.c.e. was a period in Athenian history when Athens moved from aristocratic government to tyranny and finally to democracy, though democracy was not fully in place until the fifth century b.c.e. In 560 b.c.e., Pisistratus, an outsider in Athenian politics who belonged to neither of the main political factions, staged a coup d'état and seized power, but he did not last long. The two main factions forgot their bickering long enough to unite against him, and he was expelled. Yet once he was gone, the factions returned to their rivalry, and the leader of the weaker faction made Pisistratus his ally and brought him back. He was soon driven out again, but he made a third attempt, backed by armed force, and this time it took only one battle to scatter his enemies. He remained tyrant of Athens from 546 to 527 b.c.e., and his son Hippias carried on as tyrant until 510. After the tyrants were gone, the Athenians of a later generation looked back on the tyranny as a time of oppression, although in actuality both Pisistratus and Hippias kept their iron fists well camouflaged in velvet gloves. They allowed the Athenian constitution to function and only manipulated from behind the scenes. Likewise during this time period Athens prospered and new temples arose on the Acropolis. Some of the sculpture that adorned their pediments was found among the debris left when the Persians sacked Athens in 480 b.c.e. One group portrays the three-headed serpent Typhon; the long serpentine coils must have filled the corners of the tympanum, and Typhon's three torsos filled the space under the central peak. His three faces still have blue beards and moustaches, and the lips are curved into the familiar archaic smile. One other sculpture that belonged to the time when Pisistratus was trying to secure his hold on power is a variation of the kouros-type: a statue of a man bearing a calf on his shoulders, and its inscribed base reveals that it was dedicated by Rhonbos. Whoever he was, Rhonbos is almost certainly the man whom the sculpture represents, and he is shown bringing a calf for sacrifice. Over his shoulders, he wears a thin cloak; the paint which once set it off from his naked flesh has long disappeared. His upper body, the muscles of his arms, and the calf slung over his shoulders are realistically modeled, though the modeling of his lower body is more stiff, and his legs are broken off at the knees. His face, which is bearded, smiles the "archaic smile." Rhonbos' statue was erected about 560 b.c.e., the year when Pisistratus first seized power and held it briefly. Perhaps Rhonbos erected this statue to commemorate his thank-offering to Athena for delivering Athens from the tyrant. He did not yet know that the tyrant would return.


John Boardman, Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period. A Handbook (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1985).

C. G. Boulter, ed., Greek Art: Archaic into Classical; A Symposium held at the University of Cincinnati, 2–3 April 1982 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1985).

Catherine M. Keesling, The Votive Statues of the Athenian Acropolis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Carol G. Mattusch, "Molds for an Archaic Bronze Statue from the Athenian Agora," Archaeology 30 (1977): 326–332.

Sarah P. Morris, Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992).

Robin Osborne, Archaic and Classical Greek Art (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Humfrey Payne and Gerard Mackworth-Young, Archaic Marble Sculpture from the Acropolis: A Photographic Catalogue. 2nd ed. (London, England: Cresset Press, 1950).

Gisela M. A. Richter, Kouroi: Archaic Greek Youths; A Study of the Development of the Kouros Type in Greek Sculpture. 3rd ed. (London, England; New York: Phaidon, 1970).

Brunilde S. Ridgway, The Archaic Style in Greek Sculpture. 2nd ed. (Chicago: Ares, 1993).