The sculptures made by Greek artists from the fourth century B.C. onwards have become a cornerstone of Western art and a model for how to represent the human form. Perhaps one of the best-known sculptures from ancient Greece is the Venus de Milo. Many assume the Venus’s graceful, curved pose and perfected corporeal proportions are the embodiment of the Greek sculpture. However, that assumption reveals how little is truly known about one of the most famous traditions in the history of Western art.

Discovering Unexpected Models

Though females have been the favored artists’ models for centuries, ancient Greek sculptors focused primarily on the male form and specialized in sculpting the figure of the “kouros,” a young man. Moreover, most sculptors represented their models in the nude. In fact, nudity was an important feature of ancient Greek sculptures. It possessed a near-philosophical importance. Ancient Greeks thought the mind and body, spirit and flesh, were united. By sculpting the human body, Greeks were symbolically immortalizing flesh in marble -- and joining the moral and the eternal.

The Soul in the Body

Michelangelo's David is an example of the ancient Greek tradition's continuing popularity
Michelangelo's David is an example of the ancient Greek tradition's continuing popularity

It is not by accident that the “kouros” was not just a young man, but a naked athletic one. Far from a matter of vanity, physical fitness had a spiritual importance. Since Greeks saw the body and mind in harmony, the body was considered as the physical incarnation of reason. Greeks used mathematical formulae to determine artistic proportions, thus making the most sensuous subject -- the naked human form -- an expression of intellect and order. The art of proportions was so important that ancient Greeks wrote long treatises on the subject.

Renowned and Rare

The Athena sculpture exists in replicas,but was last referenced in the 10th century A.D.
The Athena sculpture exists in replicas,but was last referenced in the 10th century A.D.

Classical Greek sculpture has been influencing artists from the Roman period to the present. Ironically, very few original sculptures from the Classical period exist. Indeed, ancient Greek sculptures are best known through the Roman imitations of originals that are now lost. That famous monument to ancient Greek architecture, the Parthenon, once housed a sculpture of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom, that was proclaimed an Ancient Wonder of the World. That sculpture, which was chryselephantine (made of gold and ivory), stood over 40 feet tall. Removed from the Parthenon in the fourth century A.D., that Athena exists today only in imagined replicas.

Telling Tales

Classical Greek sculptures are not all logic and proportions, however. They are also at the center of a number of surprising anecdotes, many of which are told by a Roman, Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.). Pliny recalls how a Venus by the well-known Praxiteles was so beautiful that it inspired men to fall desperately in love with the sculpture. Another anecdote revolves around two men who refuse to complete sculptures for the Greek city of Sicyon. The city was stricken with plague and was only released from their curse when the statues were completed. Dozens of other tales about Greek statues could be told -- such was the power they exerted over not just the eyes but the imagination as well.