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Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Artistic Representation of Beauty

Foreword


The ancient Greeks held a deep appreciation for beauty, which permeated every aspect of their culture. From art and literature to philosophy and religion, beauty played a central role in shaping their worldview and values. The aim of this series is to provide insights into the historical and cultural context that shaped ancient Greek ideals of beauty. Examining the ancient Greek perspective on beauty helps to gain a deeper understanding of its influence on Western civilization and its enduring impact on contemporary culture.


This series of articles delves into the concept of beauty in classical Greece, exploring how it was defined, valued, and represented in various domains of ancient Greek life. Drawing on both primary sources and academic secondary sources, it aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the role of beauty in Greek society and culture. Moving beyond the realm of arts, the series explores how beauty was perceived and valued in ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in the works of Plato and Aristotle. It also examines the role of beauty in ancient Greek social life and religion, including the worship of gods and goddesses associated with beauty, such as Aphrodite and Apollo.


This 101 series is divided into six articles, including:


3. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Artistic Representation of Beauty

4. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Beauty and Society

5. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Beauty and Gender

6. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Beauty and Mythology


Artistic Representation of Beauty in Ancient Greece


Art often serves as a unique window into the past, offering invaluable understanding of the beliefs, values, and aesthetics of ancient civilizations. In the context of ancient Greek art, beauty holds a special place, serving not only as a primary source for unraveling its notions but also continuing to influence modern tastes. Ancient Greek art has played a significant role in the collective consciousness, shaping a distinct Western understanding of physical attractiveness and ideals. However, to truly grasp the Greek perception of visual attractiveness, it is crucial to consider artworks through the lens of historical worldview and cultural context. Spanning the Archaic (c. 750–479 BCE), Classical (479–323 BCE), and Hellenistic (323–30 BCE) periods (Roberts, 2009), ancient Greek art presents a rich array of visual expressions that celebrate and encompass the multifaceted nature of aesthetics. From marble statues of gods and goddesses to intricately painted vases and reliefs, these artworks not only showcase the artistic mastery of craftsmen but also embody the philosophical and cultural foundations that influenced historical concepts of beauty. Therefore, a comprehensive analysis necessitates an exploration of the context in which these works were created.


During the Archaic period of Ancient Greece, kouroi emerged as a distinctive type of statues. The term kouros referring to a full-height, free-standing marble statue of a naked man, often depicted with an extended leg as if in motion, remains shrouded in uncertainty regarding its precise purpose. Scholars propose that kouroi were frequently offered to the gods in sanctuaries and played a role in funerary traditions. Debate surrounds the potential influence of Egyptian sculpture on this type of statue, as well as on the female counterparts known as korai. However, kouroi and korai ultimately developed unique features as they proliferated throughout the diverse regions of ancient Greece (Cook, 1967; Richter, 1970).

Figure 1: The "Kore from Chios" (c. 510 BCE).

Kouroi were discovered in sanctuaries dedicated to various gods, as well as in cemeteries where they served as tombstones. Some kouroi were dedicated to victors of sporting competitions. Despite their varying purposes and the categorisation of distinct groups based on the place of discovery and presumed origin, these statues adhered to a relatively restricted artistic canon. The absence of individualised portraiture in these sculptures is one of their notable characteristics. This widely accepted canon not only served as a foundation for artistic expression but also represented an ideal that transcended individual psychology, depicting a physically flawless form within the infinite realm of the divine (Richter, 1970).


The artistic representation of beauty in Ancient Greece is deeply intertwined with the concept of harmony. It is exemplified in various aspects of Greek art, including the depiction of kouroi and korai as well as the canons of proportions established by sculptors. The first documented theory on proportions is attributed to Polykleitos, a sculptor of the Classical period. The canon developed by Polykleitos implied that a statue should be composed of distinct and identifiable parts, all interconnected through a system of ideal mathematical proportions and equilibrium. It is believed that the canon was exemplified by the statue of Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer), known by the later marble copies of the lost bronze original (Stewart, 1990). The canon of sculpture developed by Polykleitos exemplifies the Greek desire for structure and systematic correlation as embodiments of the ideal world order. The features of the depicted body were meticulously calculated and mathematically harmonious, with all parts proportionately agreed upon. The canon served as evidence of the Greeks' common aspiration for balance and harmony.

Figure 2. "Doryphoros" (1st century BCE copy of the 5th century BCE original).

Proportions played a significant role not only in sculpture but also in architecture and all forms of art in Ancient Greece. The system in which Greek art and architecture existed was influenced by natural causes such as climate and topography, as well as the conservative nature of society, which was built on rituals and rules. The regulation of architectural choices visually embodied the Greek society's tendency to systematise. The principle of repetition was an inherent aspect of cult traditions, including prayers, chanting, and ritual actions (Perry, Polito & Thompson, 2021). Ancient art personified this principle using frieze ornamentation, that typically featured a continuous sequence of decorative elements, such as reliefs, sculptures, and painted designs. The cult architecture of the classical period, closely connected to historical tradition, embodied the principle of repetition in various details; the alternation of triglyphs and metopes, lines of antefixes, rows of colonnades, and flutes of columns created a harmonious interplay of light and shadow. This balance of movement and stillness, represented through clear structures, served as an aesthetic and ethical ideal of beauty. The artistic devices of order, canon, and rhythmic repetitions were not only expressions of aesthetic preferences but also declarations of the values held by the ancient Greeks (Tucker, 1907). The monumental clarity and logical structures, the meditative visual and auditory rhythms, and the comforting stability and grandeur of the system all served as products and tools of ideology, shaping the Hellenic society.


A prime illustration of how moral ideals were conveyed through the portrayal of physical beauty can be seen in the sculptural ensemble featuring the Tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton. This masterpiece was crafted by the sculptors Critias and Nesiotes (Brunnsaker, 1971). Harmodius and Aristogeiton are renowned for their act of assassinating the tyrant Hipparchus, which symbolized the fight against tyranny and the defense of democracy in ancient Athens (Meyer, 2008). The flawless physiques of these democracy heroes are captured in a poised and resolute pose, exuding a sense of unwavering certainty. The sculptural group possesses a clearly defined narrative, playing a crucial role in shaping societal ideals pertaining to conduct, principles, values, and citizenship. This bronze group was lost over time and is known through numerous depictions on Panathenaic amphorae, coins, a marble throne, and Roman marble copies. A nearly complete group is preserved in the archaeological museum of Naples. Its distinctive features include the composition's severity and balance, the heroic movement and the realistic depiction of details. Both men are presented as nude heroes, their idealised physiques symbolising their virtues, with swords drawn and poised to eliminate the tyrant.


Figure 3: "Tyrannicides" (Roman copy of the 5th century BCE original).

Nevertheless, beauty transcended the confines of moral qualities and extended beyond them, encompassing a broader spectrum of significance in the ancient Greek worldview. It also played a significant role in their idealised emotional cognition. Aphrodite, as the patron goddess, embodied the intertwined ideals of love and beauty. The representation of Aphrodite in different periods of artistic development in antiquity bore various characteristics inherent to each era. However, the greatest attention to the goddess of love was shown by sculptors in the classical period of Ancient Greece and during the Hellenistic era, when there was a heightened focus on individual freedom and Aphrodite's service often took on a sensual nature. Aphrodite is equally subject to two opposing yet internally connected manifestations of the feeling of love: sensual and familial. This is metaphorically revealed in the well-known disputed arrangement of the so-called Ludovisi throne (from the collection of the National Roman Museum), where the main relief, according to the most prevalent opinion, depicts the birth of Aphrodite, while the side wings of the altar feature two different embodiments of her: a veiled bride performing sacrificial rites and a nude courtesan playing the flute. These contrasting images both visually and ideologically balance each other (Kolpinsky, 1961).


The Aphrodite of Melos, also known as the Venus de Milo, is one of the most iconic sculptures from ancient Greece. It was created during the Hellenistic period, around the early 2nd century BCE. The statue was discovered on the island of Melos (or Milos) in 1820 and is now displayed at the Louvre Museum in Paris. The sculpture is believed to be a representation of Aphrodite after her birth from the sea foam. The missing arms have led to much speculation about their original position and gesture, but it is commonly believed that the right arm held a piece of clothing, perhaps a draped garment, while the left arm rested on Aphrodite's hip. The sculpture showcases the idealised beauty and graceful proportions (Kousser, 2005).

Figure 4: "Venus de Milo" (Alexandros of Antioch, 150-125 BCE).

Another ideal of beauty in the field of visual arts is Apollo. Primarily portrayed as a beardless youth with flowing hair that either cascades onto his shoulders or is tied in a knot. Slim and bearing an expression of grandeur on his face, the god is depicted with the characteristic attributes in many paintings and statues. These attributes include a silver bow and golden arrows, a golden kithara (hence his epithet Kitharodes meaning "player of the Kithara" (Hunt, 1987) or lyre, the aegis, and a laurel wreath. At the end of the 15th century, the statue Apollo Belvedere was discovered. It is a Roman copy of a Greek original from the 4th century BCE, presumably created by Leochares, an ancient Greek architect who, together with Scopas, worked on the embellishment of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. The entire body of the sculpted Apollo is in motion. Presumably, a quiver for arrows hung on his back, and he held a bow in his outstretched left hand and a laurel branch in his lowered right hand. The god's image is characterised by extraordinary elegance and a balance between broad generalisation and the elaboration of small details. The statue came to be regarded as a perfect sculptural creation (Weiss, 1969).


The merging of the physical beauty and moral virtues is very well illustrated by the motif of Achilles falling in love with Penthesilea. After the fierce encounter between Achilles and Penthesilea during the Trojan War, an unexpected twist occurred - Achilles, upon killing her, was struck by her astonishing beauty as he lifted her helmet. This tale of love born from battle and tragedy has been depicted in Greek vase paintings, showcasing the motifs associated with the story. In these artistic representations, Penthesilea's physical beauty is often combined with her renowned wisdom and courage, reinforcing the Hellenic understanding of ultimate beauty. The Amazons, to which Penthesilea belonged, were admired for their strength and fierce independence, qualities that made her alluring in the eyes of the ancient Greeks. This fusion of physical attractiveness with virtues such as wisdom and courage elevated Penthesilea's character to a higher realm of beauty. The story of Penthesilea highlights the depth and complexity of beauty in ancient Greek culture. While her name, meaning "mourned by the people", suggests a somber fate, it is her physical allure and exceptional qualities that captivated Achilles and spurred him to show mercy by returning her body for a proper burial. This act of compassion, which stood in contrast to the brutal nature of war, demonstrates the ancient Greek appreciation for the interplay between physical beauty and inner virtues (Mayor, 2014).

Figure 5: "Achilles kills Penthesilea" (470-460 BCE).

Greek vase paintings depicting this story often emphasise the grace and elegance of Penthesilea's figure, highlighting her physical attributes that were considered ideal in ancient Greek society. However, it is essential to note that her attractiveness is not solely based on physical appearance. The inclusion of her wisdom and courage in these portrayals symbolises the holistic concept of beauty. The amalgamation of physical beauty and virtuous qualities in Penthesilea's character serves as a reminder that true attractiveness encompasses both external and internal aspects, offering a more profound understanding of what it means to be beautiful in the ancient Greek context. This portrayal reflects the interconnectedness of beauty, character, and moral values in ancient Greek art and society (Swindler, 1915). It underscores the notion that beauty was not merely superficial but rooted in a deeper appreciation for the harmonious balance of physical features and inner virtues. By examining such artistic representations, we gain valuable insights into the multidimensional nature of beauty and its significance within the cultural framework of ancient Greece.


The beauty of ritual significance and the depiction of brides in ancient Greek vase painting is a fascinating aspect of ancient Greek art. These wedding images aimed to emphasize the aesthetic dimension of marriage. An excellent example of this can be found in an alabastron dating back to around 470 BCE. This vessel was used by women to store perfumes and liquids. On it, we see an image of a seated young woman holding a floral wreath; a little girl holds a vessel of perfumes (similar to the one depicted in the scene), eagerly waiting for the bride to use them. It was through adorning herself with flowers and anointing her body with perfumes that the bride prepared for the upcoming event. Facing the seated woman is a beardless man leaning on a staff, symbolising citizenship. His right hand holds a belt that he extends to the woman. To identify the figures, we need to read the inscription on the staff, which reads: Timodemos kalos ("Timodemos is beautiful"). On the woman's basket, it is written he nymfe kale ("the bride is beautiful"). Interestingly, he is named, while she is described only by a distinctive characteristic. The bride, adorning herself, receives a belt as a gift, which plays a crucial role in the wedding ritual. The standing man is so engrossed in contemplating the seated woman that it becomes evident what makes her a beautiful bride (Leduc, 1992; Lissarague, 1992).

Figure 6. Alabastron with a wedding scene (c. 470 BCE).

Contradictions in the political and socio-economic development of society, along with the expanding Hellenic territories and increased influences from other cultures, gave rise to local differences in art during the Hellenistic period The ambivalence of Hellenistic art is marked by the fusion of rationalism and expressiveness, skepticism and emotionalism, elegance and profound dramaticism, archaism and innovation. Prior to this, during the preceding Classical period, Athens served as a trendsetter in many ways, offering insights into the perceptions of beauty primarily through the Athenian worldview. Local variations in artistic schools intensified, including the Alexandrian, Pergamene, Rhodian, Athenian, Syrian, and others. In the territories west of the Euphrates, the initial interaction between Greek and local elements was minimal. However, a period of vibrant synthesis, which gave birth to the art of the Parthian Kingdom, Gandhara, and the Kushan Empire, commenced following the decline of Greco-Macedonian power (Blavatsky, 1955).


Hellenistic cities are characterized by majestic architectural ensembles that exhibit coherence between buildings and the surrounding landscape, regular planning, the emphasis on horizontal and vertical elements of façade planes, and the symmetry and frontal composition of structures as part of an ensemble intended to be perceived from the front. Architectural types of public, residential, and religious buildings were mostly derived from the Greek Archaic and Classical periods but were interpreted in the spirit of the time. New types of buildings emerged, including libraries, museions (such as the Musaeum of Alexandria), and engineering structures (such as the Pharos Lighthouse in Alexandria). The syncretism of Hellenistic religion influenced the development of temple types, sanctuaries, altars, and memorial buildings, in which the interaction with Eastern art had a stronger influence than in civic structures. The eccentricity of Hellenistic architecture found expression in striking sculptural compositions of altars in Asia Minor (e.g., the Altar of Zeus in Pergamon). In the visual arts, alongside the creative use of classical heritage and the creation of harmonious figures, there existed a tendency of mechanical imitation of the classical style (Neo-Attic school). Sculpture ceased to serve the civic ideals of the polis, and abstractness, decorativeness, narrativity, and sometimes illustrativeness grew in prominence (Polevoy, 1970).

Figure 7: "Laocoon and his Sons" (1st century BCE copy of the c. 200 BCE original).

During the Hellenistic period, the concept of beauty took on a more decorative role, although its influence on moral education remained significant. In the Classical period, Greeks regarded excessive ornamentation and decoration as traits associated with Eastern barbaric cultures, considering them indicative of bad taste. However, there was a complex attitude towards Oriental fashions, particularly those influenced by Persia. On the one hand, the elaborate styles and fashion trends of Persia were seen as symbols of indulgence and effeminacy, in contrast to the Greek admiration for the athletic and exposed human form. On the other hand, these Oriental fashions exerted a strong allure for individuals desiring to display their wealth and embrace cosmopolitanism. The fascination with Eastern fashion was marked by a mixture of admiration, disapproval, and even contempt, highlighting the complex interplay between cultural influences and aesthetic preferences in ancient Greece (Miller, 1997). Nevertheless, the Hellenistic period and the extensive expansion of the Greek world to the east profoundly influenced creative production, laying the foundation for a concept of fine art that is closer to modern standards, which did not exist in the preceding period of ancient Greek history. During this time, beauty began to emerge as a self-sufficient aesthetic quality, no longer always and necessarily associated with moral significance. Greek artists began to explore new techniques, materials, and subject matters, pushing the boundaries of what was considered aesthetically pleasing (Burn, 2005).


Given its multifaceted and elusive nature, beauty held a significant role in the social, spiritual, and artistic realms of ancient Greek society. Examining Greek artworks presents a challenge as they portray virtues, convey symbolic representations of religion and society, and reflect deeply ingrained beliefs through visually captivating depictions. The article's limited format prevents an exhaustive analysis of all aspects of beauty in ancient Greek art, leaving room for further study. For example, the captivating subject of the abduction of beautiful heroes adds another layer to understanding beauty perception in ancient Greek culture. This topic is intricately intertwined with the complexities of interpreting ancient Greek metaphors and exploring various cultural aspects that are still subject to scholarly scrutiny (Cohen, 1996; Koutsopetrou, 2019). Exploring these domains offers valuable perspectives on the diverse dimensions of beauty and the wider cultural dynamics in ancient Greece. Even a preliminary exploration of the concept, however, enables a researcher to grasp its significance within the culture under examination and outlines various approaches and interpretations of this subject.


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