Humanity in nearly all its forms was the focus of ancient Greek culture. The humanistic approach to the world practiced by ancient cultural giants like Aristotle and Plato opened minds to the possibilities of man as more than just subservient to the will of a great power from beyond.
The ancient Greeks took their inspiration from the human form. It became the basis for Greek art and architecture as well as the driving force behind mythology and philosophy. Greek sculpture therefore tends to be life-sized, not massive and imposing like that of other great civilizations. It is designed to mirror reality in an idealized way, to create the perfection that the ancient Greeks aimed for in art, philosophy, and all manner of expression. The Greeks' use of the body is prevalent and can be considered the central focus of the highest forms sculpture.
The idyllic, well-proportioned body of the athlete was at the pinnacle of the ancient Greek artistic and cultural focus, and the sculptures of the period make this abundantly clear. The beginnings of Greek sculpture display realistic portrayals of the body. Over time, these portrayals begin to show idealistic touches until the birth of the Classical movement arrived with the Riace Bronzes of 450 B.C. Polyclitus was the sculptor who created the technique that led to these masterpieces, which portrayed the image of a resting yet poised athletic human more proportionately exemplary than anything that had come before.
Before the dawn of the Classical period, the Greeks created works more concerned with geometric shapes and how they could be used to represent the human form. Instead of idealized athletes, the results were often out of proportion and limited in the expressions and poses they displayed. As many works from the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. show, the Greeks continued to experiment and perfect the Classical imagery they are known for today. Clothing became a significant part of the idealized figure beneath. Flowing robes contained as much tension, movement and potential action as the sculpted figures wearing them. Mythical scenes depicting humans as nearly physically perfect became commonplace.
Pushing the Limits
Sculptures resting on a single leg or portrayed in mid-action used the idealized form to convey idealized action. The skill required to create a perfectly balanced finished work from a chunk of raw stone cannot be overestimated. Poses that were completely unrealistic for a living human to attempt were cast in stone and considered great triumphs.
- The Louvre Museum: Greek Sculpture, The Human Body
- Art of the World: Ancient Greece Naked Perfection
- The Los Angeles Times: The Body Beautiful : Greek Sculpture Taking a Stand at County Art Museum
- Living Architecture: Kenneth Bayes
- The Dallas News: Art Review: The Body, Seen Through Ancient Greek Eyes, at Dallas Museum of Art
- Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images