by Dr. Asa Mittman
Balance and symmetry
Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter, Sistine Chapel, 1481-83, fresco, 10 feet 10 inches x 18 feet (Vatican, Rome)
Balance is an even use of elements throughout a work of art. Symmetry is a very formal type of balance consisting of a mirroring of portions of an image. Bilateral symmetry, that is, two- sided symmetry, is the most common, in which two halves of a work of art mirror each other, as in Perugino’s painting, Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter. In this painting, the symmetry gives the painting not only a sense of balance, but also a sense of calm, stability, and formality. Notice in particular the way that the building and arches in the background are painted to make the work symmetrical.
Just as the structures, themselves, are symmetrical in Perugino’s painting, symmetry is also common in major works of architecture, where it lends buildings a tone of stability and power. Classical Greek temples like the Temple of Artemis at Corfu are rigidly symmetrical.
Temple of Artemis, Corfu, Greece, c. 600-580 B.C.E.
In this diagram (the temple is now a ruin), even the sculpture on the façade — the front of a building — is nearly perfectly symmetrical. At the outer corners are a mirrored pair of fallen warriors, then two pairs (one now fragmentary) of fighting figures, then two mirrored panthers, and then, in the center, Medusa, with two of her children beside her (Pegasus and Chrysaor).
Pediment detail, Temple of Artemis, Corfu, Greece, c. 600-580 B.C.E.
Even the fearsome Gorgon in the center is presented facing directly outward at us, so that her face can be presented in hideous symmetry, with her great, bulging eyes, grimacing mouth, plaited hair, and even the snakes that emerge from the back of her head carved in perfect symmetry. This work should serve to counter the frequently made statement that symmetry makes works beautiful. While many cultures associate symmetry with beauty, and this temple as a whole might be described as such, a grotesque figure remains grotesque even when perfectly symmetrical.
Radial symmetry is created when an image is symmetrical around a central point or axis, like a sunflower viewed head-on. Radial symmetry creates a strong sense of unity in a work of art, and is common in sacred images.
Garbhadhatu (Taizokai) Mandala (Womb World), mandala of Innate Reason and Original Enlightenment, Japan, Heian period (Tantric Buddhism), late 9th century, colors on silk (public domain)
In a Shingon Tantric Buddhist World Womb Mandala, all points seem to radiate outward from the central figure of the Buddha. The numerous figures around him are bodhisattvas, individuals who have chosen out of compassion to delay their entry into Nirvana in order to help others who are suffering. It is fitting that they are shown as if emanating out of the Buddha, himself, as his enlightenment and compassion are the source and model for theirs. The image also gives a sense that the universe itself is highly ordered.
Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer), c. 450-40 B.C.E., ancient Roman marble copy found in Pompeii of the lost bronze original, 211 cm (Archaeological Museum, Naples)
However, perfect symmetry is not necessary to create a sense of balance in an image. Asymmetrical balance is created when two sides of an image do not mirror each other, but still have approximately the same visual weight, the same amount of detail or shapes or color, and so on. The Classical Greek sculpture Doryphoros (The Spearbearer) by Polykleitos provides a clear example of asymmetrical balance. The figure does not stand in a symmetrical way, but overall, seems even, calm, balanced. In this case, the figure has his weight on his right leg, so this leg is tensed. The left leg is relaxed and bent. Balancing this out, the right arm hangs loosely, but the left arm is tensed. In this way, the body — which itself is symmetrical, or would be if he were posed with his feet side by side, looking straight ahead, with his arms hanging down — is balanced. This pose is called contrapposto, and is often used to give standing human figures a sense of life and animation.
Emphasis consists of drawing attention to one or more points in a work. This can be accomplished through any of the visual elements. In the World Womb Mandala, the Buddha is emphasized through location (he is centered in the image), color (the vivid red petals around him draw the eye), line (all of the rows of figures essentially guide the eye inward to the center through implied lines, and the lines dividing the red petals direct us inward, as well), symmetry (the radial symmetry focuses us inward to the center), and so on. In essence, we cannot help but return, again and again, to the Buddha, the focus of the image and also the focus of Buddhist devotion.
Want to join the conversation?
- I don't understand Radial Symmetry...(5 votes)
- Like the text suggest, you should try thinking of it as a grid! If you take a look at the example that this article gives us, we see the buddha in the center and many other figures that surround it. So think of the figures as points, the center is (0,0) and then (1,0) (2,0) (3,0)... and so on, thinking of it this way will show you why it is symmetrical.
Also, note who is in the middle. The middle figure will often be the most important and as you get closer to the outer frame of the picture the figure(s) becomes less important.
Hope I was able to help you out somewhat!(6 votes)
- emphasis shows where the eyes of someone looking at the drawing are supposed go(3 votes)
- That's correct. Emphasis can be purposefully created within compositions to focus the viewer's attention on specific areas, imagery, and even conceptal ideas communicated within an artwork.
Just remember that a skilled artist can use any aspect of the Elements of Art and Principals of Composition, as well as certain conceptual considerations, to compose and control how their artwork is intended to be actively seen and interpreted by the viewer.(7 votes)
- How is the radical symmetry made by symmetrical around a central point or axis, like a sunflower viewed head-on. Radial symmetry creates a strong sense of unity in a work of art, and is common in sacred images?How will you do that if you're not in Greece?(2 votes)
- Radial symmetry is like a flower, some kinds of pies, or even a cheese pizza. the petals "radiate" from the center and are all pretty much the same. radial symmetry can be found in nature, logos, popular images, and paintings. it creates unity because, visually, nothing is separated or sorted. the petals on a flower all kind of look like they were stuck together, and there are no distinct differences from one area of the flower to another.(4 votes)
- emphasis shows where the eyes of someone looking a(2 votes)
- Among other things, the eyes are one clue to emphasis. However, there are many other techniques by which artists emphasize one element over another.(3 votes)
- I don't get why there is a inappropriate picture.(1 vote)
- What is inappropriate about the picture? If you are a believer in God, that's the body which God designed for a woman. What is inappropriate about God's creation?
Maybe it's not the picture, but what goes on in your mind upon seeing it that is inappropriate.(3 votes)
- I know this is irrelevant to the lesson, but who is Chrysaor? I research mythology in my free time, but I've never heard of him.(2 votes)
- why did you have to show that guys innapropriate parts(1 vote)
- I looked at the pictures, too. And all of the parts were appropriate equipment for a male human.(3 votes)