Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Greek Statuary

It should be astonishing to think that depiction of the human form in marble or bronze was perfected two and a half thousand years ago. For some strange reason it isn't. We just accept that the Ancient Greeks were really good at this and then move on. This is to extent a measure of how much the foundations of our civilisation are taken for granted today.

This more than life-size statue of Athena (left) is a 3rd century BC, one twelfth scale copy of the original, sculpted for the Parthenon by Phidias in 438 BC. The naked parts of the original statue were of ivory and the rest filigreed with gold. Sadly of course the original is now lost and this Pentelic marble in the Greek National Archaeological Museum is the best preserved copy.

I've selected it as an example because, although the Greek notion of bodily perfection is associated with representations of the nude, the skill in portraying drapery is not far behind and this is able to give us a very clear idea of how well-to-do people dressed.

The Museum exhibition traces the development of human statuary from the  stylised figures of the early Bronze age through to the idealised forms of the Classical period. For male figures, the athlete came to be seen as the nearest to perfection of development and figures of Apollo, Mars and so on would often be depicted in the same way. Athletes trained and competed in the nude and warriors are often depicted as fighting in the nude, wearing little more armour than a helmet, with perhaps a himation wrapped around the free arm if they weren't carrying a shield.

The athlete on the right is probably preparing to throw a discus, though we might think his arm muscles less finely-developed than his torso and legs. This could be to achieve a better balance of form.

As the goddess of love, nudity or semi-nudity was also the unofficial uniform of Aphrodite, whilst the Amazons, whose invasion looms large in the early history of Athens, also fought in the nude.

It is worth noting that the Greek idealisation of the female figure did not, as modern airbrushed images are all too wont to do, represent an impossible or unhealthy shape. No goddesses are depicted as stick-waisted or possessed of boyish hips.

For me, the remarkable fluidity of movement as well as form is what distinguishes classical sculpture and nowhere is this better illustrated than in a composition involving several figures.

Sadly the temple marbles showing the battle between the Athenians and the Amazons, though full of activity, are also badly damaged.

The group on the right however, showing Aphrodite, Eros and a satyr, is a perfectly preserved small masterpiece.

It will be obvious that I could go on and on about the Greek National Archaological Museum. My three short pieces have only scratched the surface of the wonders to be found within it.

Most people seeking a taste of historical Greece will look outdoors, but it may be worth mentioning I took three times as many photographs inside the museum as I did around and about in Athens on the previous day.

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