Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece – Treasures Down Under 2014

Discobolus: nude male discus-thrower, a Roman copy of 460-450 BCE bronze original by the sculptor Myron. It was highly prized by the Ancient Romans.

Beauty was something all the gods of Ancient Greece were known to love and admire.

The exhibition: The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece, originating at the British Museun will be on show at the Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria from 2nd August to 9th November.

The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece invites visitors to engage with artworks that have shaped the way we think about ourselves.

It features a selection of 100 great treasures from the British Museum‘s rich Greek and Roman collection that will showcase and examine the ancient Greek’s interest in human character, as well as sexual and social identity

Ancient Greek Sculpture is for many a moving celebration of man’s heroic qualities combined in harmonious proportion.

It is often a first point of reference for many when encountering the art of the ancient Greek classical world.

Athens was the place where many believe artisans and architects convened a meeting between the human and the divine.

The ancient Greek’s fervently believed in the fitness of both the mind and body.

The idea of a ‘Compleat Man’ was one committed to performing as an athlete, philosopher, judge, or poet, as well as those deeds considered by his peers worth pursuing.

Bronze figure of Zeus, Roman, 1st Century, The stance of this figure closely reproduces that of the Doryphoros or Spear-Bearer of the 5th century BC sculptor Polykleitos, known as the Kanon courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum

The Discobolus is one of the most recognized images from antiquity. He releases a calm, almost detached energy toward us through the quiet beauty of its stylized movement, which is captured so precisely and with such great pathos.

Formed by the artist Myron he was made around 450 years before the Christ event. The severe style in sculpture reached its pinnacle at this time and the Discus thrower is poised perfectly at that moment before achieving victory.

The Bendigo Art Gallery has been most successful in recent years in obtaining some very special shows from Europe exclusive to their divine Victorian heritage country city.

In almost every field of their endeavour the ancient Greeks were pioneers. Part of the Greek legacy to the world at large was the brilliant works produced by its artisans.

From the prehistoric simplicity of a Cycladic figurine to the realism of the sculptural figures of the Hellenistic age, Greek sculptors explored and interpreted the beauty of the human body. In the athletic arena the male body was displayed as if it were a living sculpture.

Know Thyself was a concept the ancient Greeks subscribed to; the words were inscribed on the Sun god Apollo’s temple at Delphi, located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.

It stood at what was believed to be the centre of the earth, where pilgrims often journeyed for weeks and months to visit the ‘oracle’ and ask for its wisdom. Is beauty only in the eyes of the beholder?

Marble figure of a woman - Spedos type, 2600 BC - 2400 BC (circa) Cyclades, Marble courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum

Singing, dancing and competing in athletic sports was an important aspect of worship, because it made all the Gods happy to see humans at play.

Ever since humans sheltered in caves the impulse to record the stories and images of life has been an urge completely irresistible to mankind.

The earliest ancient Greek sculptures from 3000 – 1700 BCE came from the Cycladic islands, off the coast of Crete.

Between 900 – 774 years before the Christ event in ancient Greece artisans were experimenting with patterns in their aim to achieve perfection.

776 BCE is the year suggested in Greek chronological history, that marks the transition from the realm of myth and legend into that of real history.

This is when the first record of ‘games’ being held at Olympia in Elis was recorded.

For over a 1000-year period the Greeks tested the athletic, literary and musical prowess of humankind, involving participants from all over the ancient Greek world.

On Mount Olympus in the early years of the Olympic games the athletes were all citizens and in small buildings purpose built to house each state’s treasury for cities such as Syracuse, Cyrene, Selinus, Megara and so forth, stored votive offerings to the deity were lasting evidence of both their gratitude and power.

At the heart of the sanctuary was a kind of modern day luxury hostel, the Leonidaeum, with gardens and fountains and numerous sports structures including a wrestling school, baths and a Gymnasium.

One of the special objects to travel will be a 1:200 scale model reproduction of Olympia.

The model reveals how Olympia, looked around 100 BC. On a scale of 1:200, it represents the buildings, monuments and landscape of Olympia, but there would also have been thousands of statues. The largest of these was a gold and ivory statue of the god Zeus, over 13 metres tall. Statues were also set up to honour heroes and statesmen and the vast numbers of athletes who had won at the Games. It was like an open-air Olympic hall of fame.

The model was commissioned in 1980 for a major exhibition on the Olympic Games at the British Museum. It has since been displayed both in London to coincide with various Olympic Games and also in numerous locations around the world.

Sculptors, painters and poets were the three most highly talented and admired artistic professions six centuries before the Christ event.

Recovered works give us an opportunity to understand how peopled looked and behaved during festal days or, at war.

The case for visual aesthetic beauty was firmly established during the fifth century before Christ at Athens.

Restraint in design and style became inextricably interwoven into what we now today recognize as a classical tradition or an acknowledged standard of excellence.

The Pentelic marble statue of Diadoumenos, a young athlete tying the fillet of the victor around his brow dates from around c420BCE. He is at that high point where art and man began moving forward into the future together.

It is now in the National Archaeological Museum at Athens and is also a first century Roman copy of a Greek bronze by Polykleitos (5th and early 4th century BCE) and it is likely he once stood in the sanctuary of Olympus or at Delphi, where games were held regularly.

He is a male nude figure, one in perfect harmony and proportion, which has been carved according to principles that meant he would be more easily able to be reproduced by others.

The Doryphoros by Polykleitos, perhaps the 'ideal male' body beautiful and a great treasure. Roman copy of the bronze Greek original in the Naples National Archaeological Museum

The rhythm of the torso gives us an impression of vitality, and the idea that as he steps forward, it will be with great grace and ease of movement.

Greek craftsman evolved a sculpture style, one based primarily on the male nude and dominated the visual arts of the western world for nearly two and a half millennia.

Many believe that the Doryphoros by Polykleitos is perhaps the perfect visual expression of the Greeks’ search for harmony and beauty, which is rendered in the perfectly proportioned sculpted male nude.

The Greek artisan was always searching to bring to mind an ideal expression, one at the very heart of the ‘nature of being’.

The three classical architectural systems the Greeks developed and refined were based on earlier principles of post and lintel construction adapted from timber for construction in stone.

“As they wished to erect this temple with columns, and had not a knowledge of the proper proportions of them, nor knew the way in which they ought to be constructed, so as at the same time to be both fit to carry the superincumbent weight, and to produce a beautiful effect, they measured a man’s foot, and finding its length the sixth part of his height, they gave the column a similar proportion, that is, they made its height, including the capital, six times the thickness of the shaft, measured at the base. Thus the Doric order obtained its proportion, its strength, and its beauty, from the human figure.”

This description of how a column gained his proportions is from the first century Roman engineer and architect Vitruvius whose architectural treatise is the only one to survive from antiquity.

According to Vitruvius, the slenderer Ionic column diameter-to-height ratio was based on the foot length-to-height ratio in a woman; hence the Doric has always symbolized the power and strength of a male while the Ionic, reflected the grace and elegance of a female.

Horsemen from the west frieze of the Parthenon, Greek 438-432 BC courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum

The frieze of sculptural relief figures on the Parthenon at Athens could be said to present a microcosm of life in that city, and a macrocosm of the Greek world, as it symbolically linked both to its sacred heart in an attempt to communicate with the divine.

From the viewpoint of art and architecture it was Alexander the Great who ‘Hellenised’ a greater part of the then known, and unknown world by introducing it to the language, literature, culture and civilisation of the Greeks.

This show should garner great crowds and cause many to travel to Bendigo, a truly delightful Victorian city filled with heritage buildings, displaying our significant architectural and sculptural inheritance of beauty from the ancient Greeks.

Carolyn McDowall, Writer, Publisher, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece from the British Museum

Bendigo Art Gallery, Bendigo, Australia
02 August – 09 November 2014

Download: Information Body Beautiful British Museum Touring Exhibition

Note: A confirmed exhibition object list will be provided at a later date when we will update this story.

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