close menu


Join the conversation and follow our blog featuring guest contributors—curators, scholars, experts, and beyond. 

“Man is the measure of all things.” Protagoras

Dr. Serena Keshavjee University of Winnipeg

I have recently seen two exhibitions which prominently feature Greek sculpture: Defining Beauty at the British Museum and Olympus at the WAG. Both focus on the human body. Human form, especially the male body, was prominently displayed in Ancient, Classical and Hellenistic Greek culture. Within the Greek Pantheon, Gods took on human guises, and male Gods could be shown nude. Greek athletes always performed in the nude to demonstrate their strength and virility. And so it is, that in Greek sculpture, the male body also dominates. While Defining Beauty and Olympus both include large-scale female nudes, these tend to be modest poses of Aphrodite (Venus) and maenad dancers, swathed in revealing chiffon-like material. Some of the best examples at the WAG are the elegant Berlin Dancer, Anadyomeme Aphrodite, and the large statue of Aphrodite.

Set up beside the Aphrodite statue, stands an array of small-scale Venus figures, each one decorously holding up carved cloth to hide the parts of her body which were not acceptable for public display. Full on nudity was reserved for the male body, and it was usually an idealized, muscular body that was displayed. It is interesting that this approach to female genitalia continued right into the 19th century, and only by fin de siècle do we see a more frank examination of the female body in high art.

Greek art was influenced by Egyptian art, and in some of the ancient pieces in Olympus you can see the stiff, formulaic poses of the figures. This is evident in the small statuette of a Sheppard carrying a Ram, and especially the stylized figures in the ancient Black-figure ware, including Amphora with Herakles and Erymanthian Boar  and the Attic black-figure Hydra with Judgement of Paris.  

According to the curators of Olympus and Defining Beauty, when Red-figure vase painting was invented around 530 BCE, it enabled a more illusionistic rendering of the body and may have even inspired sculptors to jettison the idea of a fixed cannon, as the Egyptians used. Egyptian artists worked out the cannon, and then stuck with it for 1000s of years. Greek artists also utilized a canon, but they continually refined theirs. The perfect, healthy, strong bodies depicted are well reflected in Olympus in the Torso of the Athlete, the Hellenistic Triton Statue, the muscular bodies on the Sarcophagus of Adduction of Proserpina (Persephone) and the Relief with Dioskoros.   

In the WAG exhibition, don’t miss the small, but original Greek bronzes statuettes of Herakles and Jupiter. Ian Jenkins, Curator of Defining Beauty, explains that there was much pressure during the Classical period in Greece to demonstrate the strength of the armies. Greek City States were actively warring, and the conflicts with the Persians created an atmosphere where healthy, young, male bodies were an imperative. Greeks needed to be perceived as able-bodied warriors.


Greek and Roman art did also include some naturalistic renderings of types, such as old women and beaten up boxers, and even realistic physiognomies, but their focus on healthy-looking, youthful bodies had along lasting effect. Greek statues set the standards for Western art for more than 2000 years. A big part of the 19th century academic art tradition was drawing from Greek and Roman marbles or plaster casts. The symmetrical, muscle-bound, white marble bodies, the trim hair, and clean shaven faces of the athletes, warriors, and Gods (think of Apollo), shaped Western concepts of beauty and health. Ian Jenkins explains that for the Greeks, outward beauty reflected inward morality. This is an important point. In the 19th century as Greek art was rediscovered by European archeologists, these notions of beauty influenced not only art, but science as well. Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso believed that asymmetrical faces, or overlarge ears and noses, reflected a misshapen mind, and evidenced a potential for criminal behavior.

19th century Eugenicists used a classical Greek, European model of beauty as the standard for good looks, but also for acceptable morality. Even today psychology studies have indicated that “beautiful” people are assumed to be “good” people. Greek art set a standard of beauty, dictated by a certain look, which represented morality, and scholars have argued that this construction of beauty, health and morality, influenced European Imperialist attitudes and still influences us today.

Image Credits: All photographs © Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, photographer Johannes Laurentius unless otherwise noted.Left to right: Figure 1) Statue of Aphrodite, c. 150 AD. Marble; Aphrodite, 140-190 AD. Marble; Berlin Dancer, 2nd century AD. Marble. Figure 2) Statue of half-clothed Aphrodite, 100-150 AD. Marble; Nude Aphrodite with Eros, 2nd century BC. Marble. Figure 3) Attic black-figure neck amphora with Herakles and the Erymanthian Boar, 530-520 BC. Terracotta; Attic black-figure hydria with the Judgment of Paris, The Antimenes Painter, c. 530-520 BC. Terracotta. Figure 4) Torso of an athlete, 2nd century AD?. Marble; Relief with a Dioskoros, c. 27 BC-1 AD. Marble. Photographer Philipp Gross Koeln; Sarcophagus relief with the abduction of Proserpina, 3rd century AD. Marble. Figure 5) Statuette of Herakles, 2nd century BC. Bronze; Black-figure amphora with Herakles and Apollo's Contest for the Delphic Tripod, 510-500 BC. Terracotta. Figure 6) Cesare Lombroso, L'Uomo Delinquente (Turin: Fratelli Bocca Editori, 1889)