Greek art manifested! – Defining Beauty at the British Museum

Greco-Roman sculpture has always been a source of intrigue for generations of artists, collectors, connoisseurs, and even tourists. The Venus de Milo in the Museé du Louvre is one of the most popular exhibits and has been a symbol of ideal female beauty and sophisticated taste for many art critics over the years. When the Laocoön was rediscovered in 1506, a sculpture praised highly by Pliny the Elder, Michelangelo was called to see it immediately. When it became visible, it was rumoured that everyone began to draw. For many years, an artist’s training required him to observe and copy works from Antiquity before they were allowed to work from life. Antique form was held in the highest regard and the British Museum’s latest exhibition Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek art explores the development of these highly recognisable images.

Room 1

Left to right: Polykleitos’ Doryphoros; Myron’s Diskobolos; Illissos, after Pheidias. Image via

The exhibition opens with a grand display of five iconic masterpieces of Greek sculpture, each proudly occupying a plinth of their own, and each representing a key element of the exhibition. To the left of the room, we have The British Museum’s own marble crouching Aphrodite, acquired by the Dutch painter Sir Peter Lely after the execution of Charles I in 1649, hence the nickname ‘Lely’s Venus’. Here, she represents the family of gods on Mount Olympus, suggested by Homer to each represent an area of human experience. It was also believed that the statues embodied the deities, known for their immortality, exceptional beauty, and superhuman powers. Depicting their deities in human form, the Greeks became unique in contrast to other cultures.

Opposite Aphrodite stands the bronze Croatian Apoxyomenos from the Mimara Museum, Croatia, an athlete fortuitously found at the bottom of the Adriatic Sea by recreational diver in 1996. An apoxyomenos (‘scraper’) is a term for an athlete who is removing the oil and sand from his body with a metal scraper called a strigil, missing in the hands of the dominating sculpture who looks down on the audience like a superhuman being. In Ancient Greek culture, most male citizens were expected to fight wars, so caring for one’s body became a social and political obligation. To publicly demonstrate their fitness for battle, men would practice and perform athletics naked, hence they would cover themselves with oil. It was believed that one’s outward physical physique reflected their inner moral values. Winners of the competitions gained near heroic status and could be commemorated with a statue in the sanctuary of the festival deity, a sort of open-air museum. A higher honour would be the commissioning of a victory ode. A section of the exhibition celebrates the greatest example of all, Herakles, and a display of five amphorae containers for oil are decorated with scenes from the life and labours of Herakles.

Croatian_Apoxyomenos_Louvre_25112012_01, wikimedia org

The Croatian Apoxyomenos from the Mimara Museum, Croatia. Image via

Finally, at the back of the room lies Polykleitos’ Doryphoros, Myron’s Diskobolos, and the river-god Illissos from the west pediment of the Parthenon in Athens, after an original design by Pheidias. These three represent the three students of the celebrated sculptor Ageladas, who later became some of the greatest masters of Ancient Greek art. All three had varying approaches to their practice, and each aimed to demonstrate the idea that the male body in sculpture could be both beautiful and intellectual.

Polykleitos, like Pythagoras, believed that numbers revealed the hidden order of the world. Doryphoros or ‘spear-bearer’ was constructed from a precise set of measured ratios. The sculpture even became the basis for the Prima Porta statue of Augustus during the Roman period and it was even misidentified at the time for representing the Greek hero and warrior Achilles.

Augustus Doryphoros

Augustus of Prima Porta (left) and the Doryphoros (right). Images via

Myron’s Diskobolos also represents a form of calculated construction. It deals with the juxtaposition of opposite forces, a notion derived from the belief that the human constitution was seen as a balance of primary opposites. The discus-throwing arm is tense and outstretched whilst the other arm is relaxed. One leg bears the weight of the athlete, the other is relieved.

In contrast to these mathematical ideals, Pheidias saw ideal form as being achieved through intuition, rather than calculation. Complete understanding of physiology by observing from life was seen as the route to creating expressive and energetic forms.

The next section explores the extent to which these works of art were painted. Brightly-coloured plaster casts dominate the room, setting themselves apart from the purity of form that was heavily favoured from the Enlightenment onwards, criticised for being distracting and unnecessary. In fact, colour was intrinsic to ancient ideas of beauty and its use was certainly not limited to the Ancient Greeks; a nearby display presents coloured examples from Mesoamerican and Medieval Christian reliefs. Lavishly decorated with reds, yellows and blues, the exhibition also demonstrates the use of various materials and surface techniques. The recognisable archer from the Glyptothek at Munich once held a bronze bow and arrow with a quiver at his left hip. Colouration was often used to make the subjects more life-like, and were sometimes used for gravestones. A more detailed exploration can be found in the travelling exhibition organised by the Glyptothek called Gods in Colour, currently at the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford.

Coloured marble cast of archerColoured marble cast of an archer. Image via

This exhibition flourishes in its relatively solid analysis of the development of the Greek body in visual imagery in relation to the social and moral conventions of the time. The third room is split between an analysis of the male body and that of the female body. The body was originally conceived as a vehicle for representing narratives. An accompanying display of Assyrian and Greek battle reliefs contrasts their varying attitudes towards the representation of naked bodies. The former saw it as shameful and represented the defeated in this way, whilst the latter represented their heroes as naked figures. The Greeks also decontextualized their battles into mythological narratives to reduce the pain of the representation. A sophisticated use of representational sign language (cheironomia) is also mentioned with reference to the Parthenon friezes, but sadly this is still relatively unclear even with the descriptions presented. Cheironomia allowed for a narrative to be manifested purely through the use of hand gestures. A similar system called chironomy was also used by the Ancient Egyptians to direct vocal music performances, effectively functioning like the modern-day notational written score.

The analysis of the male body begins with a comparison between three different cultures: Egyptians, Cypriots and Greeks. Whilst the first two saw total nudity as shameful – their figures are shown at least half-clothed – the latter’s nude kouros (‘young man’) encapsulated the Greek idea of youthful excellence, and thus became the first civilisation to make a distinction between the naked and the nude.

“To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes and the word implies some of the embarrassment which most of us feel in that condition. The word nude, on the other hand carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone.”

Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art (1956)

The nude is an idea for a universal standard of beauty, guided by a wish to perfect the human body. This is evidenced by Plato’s story of Socrates’ encounter with the beautiful youth Charmides which inspired a reduced and standardised set of features for statues of the time. The Romans would later counter this with unique, individual facial features, a distinct hallmark of Roman portraiture.

Kouros, britishmuseum tumblr com (1024x709)

The Greek nude kouros next to male figures from the Cypriots and the Egyptians. Image via

With the introduction of red-figure vase painting, as opposed to black-figure painting which produced silhouetted figures, representations of the Greek body took to varying levels of artistic freedom. One of the products of this was the creation of the feminised male nude. Frequently associated with Dionysus, the cross-dressing, effeminate god of wine and ecstasy, the feminised male nude took on an elongated and slender body with soft curves. The association with Dionysus is particularly important since it overlaps with the way women were perceived. Whilst men were seen as rational and civilised, women were seen as irrational, wild, and passionate. As a result, there was a need to control them, for fear of threatening the male-dominant society, and women were largely excluded from public life, usually enclosed within their own homes. Fountain houses acted as social areas for women to socialise with each other, whilst obtaining water their homes.

There was a female counterpart to the male kouros known as kore. However, she is depicted clothed instead of nude. Covering one’s body was a respectable tradition for women to remain reputable. It was also a way of controlling the female population. Festivals and funerals were some of the only opportunities for women to be out in public as well as dressing up.

Terracotta figure of a woman, britishmuseum org

Terracotta figure of a woman. Image via

Early representations of the female body often took the form of simplified shapes. These abstractions had two types in early Cycladic art: a ‘schematic’ type and a ‘naturalistic’ type. The ‘schematic’ type is characterised by flat, violin-like representations whilst the ‘naturalistic type’ retained sharp, yet recognisable proportions. Eventually, through the kore, representations became more lifelike, to the point where the underlying bodies of the Nereids could be unveiled within the forms of the drapery.

Here, the exhibition has a minor problem. The transition from modestly-dressed female representation to female nudes is unclear. One could assume that the small bronze figure of Aphrodite at her bath belonged to a different system of representation, that of the famously beautiful deities. These were very popular in the later Greek period and came in a variety of poses, the one in the exhibition being the goddess removing her slipper. Alongside these were the much larger marble statues of the goddess in the Venus pudica pose; a copy of the Capitoline Venus is shown in the next room. The exhibition does not address this iconic pose which became the canonical way of representing Aphrodite in subsequent generations of Western art well into the early 20th century.

The Venus pudica, also known as the ‘modest Venus’, is a pose which developed from Praxiteles’ life-sized sculpture known as the Aphrodite of Knidos. It was recalled by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia where “a man once fell in love with it and hiding by night embraced it, and that a stain betrays this lustful act.” The pose typically shows the goddess attempting to cover her nakedness, her hands in front of her genitals. This attempt to humanise the goddess was designed to arouse sexual desire whilst inspiring religious awe. Several Roman variants have cropped up over time, notably the Capitoline Venus and the Venus de’ Medici. Their high artistic status led them to become greatly admired by artists in the Renaissance and the Neoclassical period, bringing with them the enforcement of the Venus pudica as a clichéd mode of representation.

Aphrodite Cnidus, Capitoline Venus, Venus de Medici cast

Left to right: Aphrodite of Knidos; Capitoline Venus; Venus de’ Medici. Images via

The next room opens with a bronze statue of a baby, inviting the viewer into the social lives of Greek citizens told through painted scenes on a variety of pottery. Rites of passages marked progress in the individual’s journey from birth to eventual death, and these were heavily influenced by the morals present in Greek myth. Many ceremonies mimicked the scenarios encountered by the gods, such as Persephone’s abduction by Hades into the underworld from her mother Demeter, the goddess of nature, which is reflected in a mock-abduction ritual in the marriage ceremony.

Children are typically depicted at play, usually playing a game of knucklebones. Eventually, male youths would engage in pederasty with a significantly older male. Relationships of this kind were an essential part of a young man’s development. Eventually, many of these men would be called to war and a selection of armour is displayed before us, moulded to imitate the contours of one’s muscles. On the other hand, young girls were trained for their responsibilities as the central figure in the domestic household. Basic literacy and numeracy were desirable skills but education was largely restricted to particular social classes and to the male population.

On the occasion of a premature death in the family, funerals for youths were ritualistically similar to weddings. These arrangements were intended to compensate for the married life that was denied to them. The grieving family members would be temporarily removed from society for a period of time, allowing space for them to undergo their own rite of passage which consisted of a period of separation, transition and reincorporation into the living community. Commemorative representations often allegorised the deceased and incorporated them into mythical scenarios such as being abducted by the gods. These reflected the lack of ideas about the afterlife in Greek culture. The burial and mourning ceremony was absolutely crucial since it was believed that it completed the cycle of life and death. An unburied and unmourned person’s soul was at risk of wandering and this was seen as being worse than death itself.


The Sleeping Hermaphroditos from the Galleria Borghese. Image via

An exceptional loan for this exhibition is the Galleria Borghese’s Sleeping Hermaphroditos which introduces the section on love and desire. Not to be confused with the Borghese Hermaphroditos –discovered in the early 17th century – which was in the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese and sold to the Louvre in 1807 due to financial difficulties, the version in the exhibition was found in 1781 and replaced the original’s place in the gallery. The Louvre sculpture also features a buttoned mattress sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1620. Complementing the sculptures of Aphrodite and her son Eros, the hermaphrodite is a being with both male and female genitalia. This is based on the myth of the water-nymph Salmakia who fell in love with the son of Hermes and Aphrodite and soon fused together with him into a single being so that they could be united forever. The Sleeping Hermaphroditos is cleverly deceptive. From one side one can see the sensuous curves of a feminine body with a perfectly sculpted facial features; from the other, we can clearly see the phallus protruding just on top of the bedsheets.


The Borghese Hermaphroditos at the Museé du Louvre resting on Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s buttoned mattress. Image via

For every concept of a civilised society, there is usually another one for an uncivilised society. For the ancient Greeks this took the form of imaginary beings that lived outside of the known world such as satyrs, centaurs, gorgons, sphinxes, and the female-only warrior race, the Amazons. These creatures represented characteristics of the irrational mind and were in contrast to the Greek’s concept of civilised behaviour. The Amazons were a curious race since they represented that which was unthinkable to the Greeks: women as warriors. The marble statue of a wounded Amazon from the Musei Capitolini is a beautifully carved parody of a still vulnerable woman warrior.

One of the sections of the exhibition dedicates itself to something that we usually associate with the Romans: individualised facial features. Although less individualised than the Romans, the Greeks made attempts to introduce and portray cultural diversity in their art. The idealisation of human features typically followed a set formulaic portrait type, such as that of the concentrated, bearded philosopher or poet, here represented by the heads of Chrysippos, Sophokles and Homer. Black-skinned individuals from sub-Saharan Africa were collectively known as Ethiopians, literally those with burnt faces’, and a character type was devised for them which tended towards caricature and included overly full lips. Facial expressions were also widely experimented, although they were more commonly used in depicting comic actors and Greek theatre. Such depictions utilised these expressive qualities to portray a variety of character types: old and young, slim and obese, happy and sad.


Marble statue of a fisherman selling his wares. Image via

The last two sections of the exhibition are dedicated to the legacy of Greek representation, beginning with the conquests of Alexander the Great, through to the classical revivals in the Renaissance and the 19th-century. The former is represented by only three objects: an idealised marble head of Alexander the Great, a standing Buddha from Gandhara (modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan), and an Egyptian limestone stela from the Ptolemaic dynasty. Each of these attempt to show traces of Greek influence in their depiction of drapery, likeness, and monumental stature.

The exhibition culminates in the juxtaposition of two remarkable models of artistic perfection: the widely revered Belvedere Torso from the Vatican, and the statue of Dionysos from the British Museum group known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’. Each is accompanied by a set of drawings from their admirers who saw in them the power of sculpture to create and portray life.

Parthenon figure and Belvedere torso

Left to right: The Belvedere Torso; marble statue of Dionysos from the east pediment of the Parthenon. Image via

Representing ‘The School of Michelangelo’, the Belvedere Torso is a fragment of a marble sculpture believed to represent either the Greek hero Ajax in the act of stabbing himself or of Herakles. The former has been considered the more likely option. It was discovered in Rome at the end of the 15th century and became part of the Vatican collection between 1530 and 1536. It has remained unrestored since its discovery. It is also signed by the Greek sculptor ‘Apollonios, son of Nestor, Athenian’. Much admired by generations of artists from Michelangelo to Peter Paul Rubens to Joseph Mallord William Turner, the sculptor served as a model and inspiration for the former’s famed fresco of The Creation of Man on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted between 1508 and 1512 for Pope Julius II. Michelangelo’s preparatory drawing for the figure of Adam is displayed close by.

Study for Adam, Creation of Man

Left to right: Michelangelo, Study for Adam, 1511; Creation of Man, c. 1512. Images via and

On the other side of the room, the figure of Dionysos once belonged on the east pediment of the Parthenon in Athens. The group was largely made by Pheidias and his assistants who was also the sculptor for the lost colossal chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena Parthenos which stood inside the temple. The Elgin Marbles were removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, commonly known as Lord Elgin, between 1801 and 1812. They were transported into Britain by sea. This was part of his aim to preserve for posterity those works that survived after the various sieges to the Acropolis in the centuries previous. The acquisition was likened to vandalism and looting, and it was viewed with much negativity from the British Government at the time. The legalities surrounding the debate between Great Britain and Greece are still ongoing. In 1816, the government purchased the collection of sculptures from Lord Elgin due to his severe financial problems upon his return. The group was purchased for £35,000, considerably less than the estimated £75,000 paid by Elgin. They have remained with the British Museum ever since, first in the Elgin Gallery, before being moved into the purpose-built Duveen Gallery where they are now displayed in their entirety. Two drawings of the Dionysos statue by the English painter Benjamin Robert Haydon show his interest in the defined musculature of the figure’s back.

Parthenon male figure

Left to right: Marble statue of Dionysos from the east pediment of the Parthenon; Benjamin Robert Haydon, Studies of the figure of Dionysos, 1808-11. Image via

Defining Beauty not only celebrates the birth and legacy of Greek art and its ideas of beauty but it also effectively communicates the way these images have become products of their society’s customs. The choice to place the male nude in the context of real performing athletes and the female figure in that of a woman’s place in a misogynist culture is a powerful one. The exhibition manages to tie together the various facets that we tend to associate with the Ancient Greeks – mathematics, philosophy, art – into a well-informed exploration of human representation. With such exceptional and sparing loans from the collections of Rome, Munich and Croatia, the British Museum has truly excelled in narrating one of art history’s most recognisable and significant stylistic achievements.

Belvedere Torso sketch

My own version of the Belvedere Torso.

Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek art runs until 5th July 2015 at the British Museum, London,

Gods in Colour: Painted Sculpture in Antiquity runs until 19th July 2015 at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford,


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