If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear Bearer)

The Doryphorus sculpture represents the ancient Greeks' pursuit of perfect human beauty through mathematical proportions. Created by artist Polykleitos, this masterpiece showcases the ideal human form and the invention of contrapposto, making figures appear more lifelike. The sculpture highlights the Greeks' admiration for the human body and its potential. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(piano music playing) Steven: What is perfect? Well, the ancient Greeks thought the human body was perfect but, for them, it was not an individual that was perfect. It was almost mathematical precision, where the proportions of every part of the body were perfect in relationship to the others. Beth: We're looking at an ancient Roman copy of a Greek bronze original by the great artist, Polykleitos, who sought out to demonstrate just that. What would perfect ideal beauty be, thinking about the mathematical relationship of each part of the human body to the other, and in relationship to the whole? Steven: This is a sculpture called the Doryphorus. Doryphorus means a spear-bearer, and he would have, originally, been holding a bronze spear. We call it the Doryphorus. Polykleitos apparently called it Canon, not to mean a piece of armament, but a kind of idealized form that could be studied and replicated. That is, a set of ideas that you followed. Beth: The idea that you could create a perfect human form, based on math, was really part of a bigger set of ideas for the Greeks. If we think about Pythagoras, for example, Pythagoras discovered that harmony in music was based on the mathematical relationship between the notes. Steven: In fact, Pythagoras tried to understand the origin of all beauty through ratio and, so, it follows that the Greeks would be looking for that in one of the forms that they felt were most beautiful, that is the human body. The Greeks would perform their athletics nude, celebrating the body and its physical abilities. But, even when they represented figures in noble pursuits, like this figure, we have a figure whose clothes have been taken off. This is not because soldiers went into battle nude in ancient Greece, but because this sculpture is not about warfare. It's not a portrait of an individual. This is a sculpture that is about the perfection of human form. Beth: This was found in a palestra in Pompeii, a place where athletes would work out, perhaps as a kind of inspiration for them. Steven: So, that's another layer of meaning. The Romans loved Greek art, and had it copied in marble very often, and even in a city like Pompeii, we found thousands of sculptures that are copies of ancient Greek originals. This is based on a sculpture that is at the very beginning of the Classical Period, before the Parthenon sculptures, but it's after the Archaic figures, it's after the standing figure that we know as the Kouros. Here, the Greeks have turned away from the stiff renderings that had been so characteristic of the Archaic, and have, instead, begun to examine the human body and understand its physiognomy, This is one of the classic expressions of Contrapposto. Beth: The Doryphorus stands on his right foot, his left leg is relaxed, the right leg is weight-bearing, but the left hand would have been weight-bearing the spear. Similarly, the right arm is relaxed, so there's a sense of counterbalancing and harmony in the composition of the body. Steven: In a Kouros figure, you have both feet firmly planted, although one leg is forward, but, nevertheless, if you were to draw a line between the ankles, they would still be horizontal to the floor. Beth: And, in a Kouros, the figure is symmetrical. Steven: Here, both of those things have changed, and you see that his left ankle is up, and so you have a tilt of that axis, the axis of the knees are tilted in the opposite way. The hips are parallel to the axes of the knees, but also tipped, and then look what happens as a result of that. In those earlier figures, there was a perfect symmetry, and a perfect line that could be drawn down the center of the body. Here, there's a gentle S curve, and you can see, for instance, that his right side is compressed, compared to the left side, because the left hip is literally hanging down over that free leg. It's not being supported. Beth: To complete that sense of balance and harmony, Polykleitos turned the head slightly, breaking that symmetry of the Archaic Kouros figures. With the invention of Contrapposto by the Greeks, in the 5th century BCE, we would have, for the first time in Western art history, figures who seem fully alive, as though they move in the world. They're like us. Steven: This is a sculpture that is, for all of the complexity of what we've just discussed, is simply walking, but the mechanics of the human body walking are incredibly complicated, and here we have a civilization that not only was interested in understanding, through careful observation, how the body moved, but were interested, culturally, in capturing that. We have a society that puts human potential at the center. Beth: And creates figures who are not transcendent, who don't exist in a separate world, but who exist in our world. They're, in a way, ideal mirrors of ourselves. (piano music playing)