One of the oldest and most enduring notions in the history of ancient Greek sculpture which fuses the ideas of the sculptor’s artistic/deceptive powers, the gods’ intervention in the creations of the latter and the viewers’ reaction to them, is that of the ‘animate’ statue. This belief is connected with the lives of such varied artists as the quasi-historical, legendary Daedalus, the divine Hephaistus and the mythical Pygmalion, but also some of the most famous sculptors of the fifth and fourth century, such as Myron, Scopas and Praxiteles. By focusing selectively on a few of the works of these artists and/or the literary accounts pertaining to them, an attempt will be made here to present some of the various facets of this peculiar notion. In accordance with the ‘fleeting’ nature of the subject, the references used inevitably vacillate between the myth, the legend and reality, the stone and the flesh, the divine and the human. At first a brief glimpse on the early and late archaic ‘standard’ statue, the kouros, will hopefully shed some light to a few parameters in the artists’ steps towards an increasing naturalism, as the latter fed more adequately the concept of the ‘animate’ statue. Before, though, it would be helpful to consider the notion of the sculptors’ imitation of the human body in general terms.
The term mimesis, related mainly to the “miming or mimicking of the external appearance, utterances, and / or movements of an animal or human being by a human being”, and used primarily in connection to the performing arts of music, drama and dance, bore an only secondary association with painting and sculpture.1 Unlike the dancer or actor, who uses his/her own body as the vital vehicle of his expression, the sculptor is called upon to present the viewer with human nature by representing/ reproducing the human body in an ‘inorganic’ medium. Exactly because the human body in marble or stone finds its ‘prototype’ in real life, the statue of a human is commonly analysed according to its lifelikeness, its point-to-point imitation of the human body (even though its faithful imitation might not always be the sculptor’s goal). On the contrary, what is utterly the product of human imagination, the body of a satyr or a centaur for example, both only partially human, will not be strictly criticised according to its resemblance to the human or animal body (since the very essence of these creatures’ existence is to define the ‘unnatural’), but to the successful or unsuccessful ‘transference’ of some character/personality traits with which we traditionally associate them, such as excessive energy or strength. The satyr and the centaur provide in this way illuminating examples, since “a complex definition of what it is to be human is constructed by a fantastic elaboration of what it is to be not-human, an elaboration which also proceeds in a ‘downwards’ direction, in relation to the animal world”.2
Through numerous literary accounts it becomes evident that there was firstly a recognition by the Greeks of the increasing artistic tendency to achieve a more naturalistic rendering of the human body, and secondly a constant throughout the ages respect and veneration of the oldest cult/religious images, the xoana, or works of art by legendary artists such as Daedalus.3 But does a naturalistic, ‘closer’ to human depiction mean also a departure from the ‘supernatural’, the unknown, providing the sculptor and the viewer with a sense of ‘security’ about what stands in front of their eyes? Is not the idealized human form of the classical ages removed from the inherently imperfect individual, but ‘closer’ to the divine? These questions are closely related to the concept of anthropomorphism to which we shall turn later.
The obvious question inherent in the notion of the ‘animate’ statue is what were the possible factors ‘required’ to ‘enliven’ a statue in the eyes and minds of the ancient spectator. Beliefs emerging from the realm of cult/religion, which cannot be anyway logically defined or explained, such as the expectation of the human for a ‘response’ on the part of the divine were without a doubt one of the reasons that fed the notion.4 The naturalistic rendering of the human body inevitably played a role in creating the illusion of the ‘real’, but the ‘mutual participation’ of the sculptor and the viewer was instrumental: once the ideas of delight and deception became the conscious intentions of the artist, which in turn led to more naturalistic forms, the viewer could not remain impassive.5 The sculptors’ wish then to ‘fool the eye’ of the viewer was fulfilled by his/her readiness to be deluded, for “in order for naturalistic art to deceive a viewer, that viewer must first deceive himself by suspending the possibility of disbelief”.6 The late archaic and early classical kouros rendered that interplay increasingly successful.
Interestingly enough, even for the stiff, ‘aloof’ early kouros, it could be argued that he exhibits some lifelike qualities, his smile most commonly interpreted as a breath of life or emotion (fig.1). Equally his advanced leg could be seen as an indication of motion, while the epitaph as a means that lends voice to the statue.7 On the other hand, his function as a grave marker on tombs or a votive offering to the gods, reminds the viewer that he constitutes the mediatory bridge between the human and the divine, the living and the dead, acquiring in both cases a strong sense of the sacred. Additionally, by embodying the ideals of the archaic elite, “namely its nudity, its youth, its beauty, its autonomy, and its immutability”, he remains ‘uninviting’ in the eyes of most of his archaic beholders.8 In contrast, the Anavyssos Kouros of ca.530 B.C., though still only the sign of a man, reveals the way in which the artist’s improvements “enrich the reference to the male body and in doing so enrich the sense of potential, the sense that this sculpted man belongs to the same world as the viewer” 9(fig.2). The ‘Kritian Boy’ of ca.480 B.C. offers us the chance to contemplate the whole spectrum of the human condition, which anyway includes inherently the notions of both delight and deception mentioned earlier (fig.3).
An examination of the Greek ‘animate’ statue is bound to start with a short reference to the legendary Daedalus, since this scientist-artist set the foundations of the notion of the ‘mobile’ statue (he is said to have filled his statues with quicksilver and/or to magically install voice and strength in them), but also defined the artists’ reputation in Classical Greece.10 In Euripides’ Hecuba, the heroine recalls Daedalus’ ‘wonders’, wishing that the sculptor would grant her arms, hands, hair and feet a voice, so that she could plead Agamemnon for mercy.11 But how could Daedalus not become a superb craftsman, when his father was Metion (‘forethought’) or Eupalamos (‘skilful-handed’), has learnt his skills from Athena and was compared or identified with the divine artisan Hephaistus himself?12
Among the numerous wondrous creations associated with the god three of them present special interest exactly because they involve the notion of the installation of a soul to the statue, rendering it animate (empsychon) and lending the god also the qualities of the magician: the golden dog that served as a guardian to Zeus’ temple on Crete, Talos, the bronze man, who walked around the same island to protect it from intruders, and the bronze dog that was ultimately given by Zeus to Europa as a gift.13 Most relevant, though, to our purposes here is his creation of Pandora, the ‘One who gives all gifts’, set forth by Zeus’ command as a ‘compensation’ to the treacherous Prometheus. The two accounts of the event narrated by Hesiod expose the qualities and purpose of ‘the first woman’.14 Following Zeus’ orders to Hephaistus, the earliest female mythical figure that comes to life is made out of clay, mixed earth and water, and fired in the god’s kiln, not out of marble or stone, a point maybe suggestive of and/or definitely legitimising the ancient Greek woman’s earth-bound nature.15 Equally socially significant are the gifts she herself receives: Athena was instructed to teach her the crafts, “to weave the embroidered web, and Golden Aphrodite to shower charm about her head, and painful yearning and consuming obsession”, while Hermes gave her “a bitch’s mind and a knavish nature”.16 Now Hephaistus bestows her with no less ‘dangerous weapons’, but adds in a human voice and strength, enabling her to apply in practice all the rest of her gods-sent gifts. He is not only her creator, but the ‘magician’ who transforms her from the clay sign of a woman to the real woman, gives her the medium of the distinctly human expression along with the power of physical movement.
One of the most revealing myths of the sculptor and his ‘animate’ statue is that of Pygmalion narrated by Ovid.17 Interesting is here the reversal of the role of the model: a woman out of stone ‘poses’ for a human female to be generated finally through the divine intervention of Venus. What is, though, most important about the myth is that “ Ovid’s picture of Pygmalion as artist-sculptor is itself a metaphor for Pygmalion as artist-viewer”.18 Pygmalion falls in love with his creation, which is so realistic, that enables him to ‘see’ and treat her as a living, breathing woman. Despite the happy end of the myth, in real life not all men enamoured of statues were quite as fortunate as Pygmalion.19
Before we turn to Myron, Scopas and Praxiteles, it is helpful to explore briefly a few general points about the ancient artist/craftsman. Unlike the poets, men of letters, who since the time of Homer invoked the divine intervention of the Muses in their creation, the artists recognized more the importance of the apprenticeship in the workshop of a good master, instruction, training and experience as the ‘tools’ of a successful craftsman (fig.5a, b). And they did so consciously, being constantly reminded by society’s perception of their role: “only the poet worked in the realm of sophia-inner wisdom, insight- and only the poet was truly inspired. The craftsman worked with techne, skill instilled from without, skill by which surface effects could be achieved”.20 In accordance with this perception, the portrait of Homer, despite the closed, deep-set eyes and wrinkled skin, displays a “beauty, nobility, and above all sophia, which transcend its indications of advancing age” (fig.6).21 It is not a surprise then that in ancient Greece only a poet could be blind and get away with it. A blind craftsman/sculptor simply did not exist: the practical limitations were far less powerful than the constraints imposed on such an ‘existence’ by society’s perceptions.22
One could argue that it is not probably a mere coincidence the fact that the greatest amount of written evidence that pertains to the ‘animation’ of statues refers mainly to those of the fifth and especially the fourth century. Sculptors such as Myron, Scopas and Praxiteles, were successful in infusing a sense of naturalism in their works so powerful that the consequent praising comments of various authors rather obscure than illuminate the reader. As we shall see shortly, the boundaries between the authors’ literal aesthetic judgment (whether personal or widely accepted), his conscious literary/rhetoric embellishment of his language and existent beliefs on statue-animation blur, puzzling sometimes even the author himself.
Among the fifth century sculptors, the one mostly associated with the successful rendering of the human body in vigorous motion was Myron of Eleutherai, his repertoire ranging from divine and mythological groups and heroes to victor statues and animals. The various accounts on his statues reveal the ancient viewers’ admiration for them and they greatly focus on their potential ‘vivification’. Part of his work survives in Roman copies, most notably the famous Discobolos of ca 450 (fig.7). The discus-thrower is ‘captured’ in the moment just before he completes his task, his swinging torso revealing his well-built anatomy. What Myron has achieved is “a brilliant and compelling synopsis that narrates the entire event with unmatched compactness and economy, tensioned like a steel spring about to coil, it at once both evokes the past and announces the future”.23 The dynamic effect of the statue must have been striking to the ancient viewers, who were witnessing the stiff poses of the archaic kouroi, their more relaxed early classical forms and finally such intense figures as the Discobolos. The beholder is ‘caught’ in the rhythm of the action, although the specific pose is not part of the effort of a real discus-thrower. It seems that in this case the more naturalistic depiction of the human body was accompanied by a rather artificial position. Myron emphasized action and human form at the expense of the mental/emotional state of the athlete, as Pliny observes: “…he too expended his care on the bodily frame, and did not represent the emotions of the mind”.24 He created also the statue of the Argive runner Ladas, a victor in the long footrace at Olympia (now lost). “ Anon the bronze will leap to seize the crown, and the base will hold it no longer; see how art is swifter than the wind!”25 The runner is seen as ‘full of breath’, as evident by his lips and flanks, indicating his physical struggle and at the same time rendering him ‘capable’ to come alive and inevitably soon disappear. Let us now turn to Scopas.
Callistratus, writing in the latter part of the third century A.D., provides an enlightening example of the characteristic vagueness of ancient critiques on works of art. Commenting on a statue of a Bacchante by Scopas (fig.8), he vacillates aimlessly between the image and reality, the flesh and the stone: “what one saw was really an image, but art carried imitation over into actual reality. (the stone) ..became soft to the semblance of the feminine….though it had no power to move, it knew how to leap in Bacchic dance…art has brought to its aid the impulses of growing life, so unbelievable is what you see, so visible is what you do not believe”.26 Despite the evident verbosity of Callistratus’ description, the statue’s fierce movement indeed suggests to the viewer the domination of the Bacchante’s soul and body by the god Dionysus. She brings to mind the ‘action-statues’ of the early classical period, which were meant to be viewed mainly from the side, although her front view “with the disarranged dress, lifted breasts and back-flunk, twisted head, though strange is far from negligible”.27 The naturalism of such statues righteously ‘provoked’ the reinforcement of the idea of the ‘animate’ statue and this idea in turn found its most efficient expression in these statues.28
The problem of the representation of the divine met an effective, but also controversial, solution through the Greek religious concept of anthropomorphism, which equated the male and female version of the divine with the male and female human, although the gods and goddesses could reform and transform themselves according to the occasion and their superhuman/supernatural powers and passions were boundless. But in order to produce a convincingly lifelike statue of a god/goddess should not the sculptor strive for an image greater than life, in order to merge the human with the divine without compromising either? Additionally, the sculptor had to reconcile and embody within all the facets of his art elaborate notions related with the divine, such as hiding and revelation, purity and perfection, the cunning or metis, applied both to gods and humans and illusion, in which the gods excelled.29 Nonetheless, aniconic representations of the divine (planks, pillars, and stones) were never abandoned and coexisted with the fully humanlike statues of the gods.30 Under this light, the anthropomorphic images of the latter could well have served, among others, the satisfaction of human vanities.
Without a doubt, the statue of a divinity provided more than any other form of art the chance for a vivid contact with the superhuman, the, unattainable by the ordinary human, extension of human nature. Its presence guaranteed also the presence of the notions that it symbolized, for example the cult statue of Nike on the Athenian Acropolis, was intentionally deprived of its wings to secure the eternal victories of the city.31 The belief in the ‘mobile’statue of a divinity remained strong throughout the ancient time and was mentioned by authors even after its end. Macrobius, writing as late as the fifth century A.D., informs us about similar Roman practices: “Saturn, too, is represented with his feet tied together…throughout the year Saturn is bound with a bond of wool but is set free on the day of his festival ..-the story in fact signifying the growth to full life, in the tenth month, of the seed …”.32 By releasing the bound statue of Saturn, the annual fertility and abundance of nature was assured… Since mutation of every kind characterized the elusive nature of the gods, the statue’s immutability satisfactorily ‘captured’ them, even if that ‘confinement’ would be completely random: the gods were ‘accessed’ by the viewer in only one specific moment, one concrete form, one consciously determined context. The goddess who notoriously catered such human needs was the highly celebrated Knidian Aphrodite.
While in the myth of Pygmalion Aphrodite acted as a mediator, she became the product of Praxiteles’ successful ‘collaboration’ with his mistress Phryne in the form of the Knidian Aphrodite (fig.9). Numerous writers narrate the most famous incident of agalmatophilia, the sexual passion for the statue of a certain visitor to the temple of the goddess in Knidos.33 “The artist’s ability to use the marble in which he worked to suggest the radiance and translucence of flesh, and to convey its soft and tender quality through his modelling” was indisputably a factor that contributed to the lure of his Knidian Aphrodite.34 Even more interesting are the reactions of the heterosexual Charicles and the homosexual Callicratidas, whose different points of view, shaped and directed by their contrasting sexual preferences, reveal the suggestive power of the two sides of the same statue. “The brilliance, or perversity, of this ancient image-panegyric is that the same female statue can function simultaneously as the object of male homo-and heterosexual desire”.35 Here it is not only the boundaries between the human and the statue that dissolve, but also those between man and woman. On the other hand, since the specific Aphrodite was modelled after Phryne one wonders whether that divine Phryne-like Venus is not actually a visual exaltation of the human Venus-like Phryne. Does this Aphrodite look like a godlike woman or is she a womanlike goddess? Is her beauty ultimately not compared with the contemporary standards of human female beauty?
The longevity of the viewers’ similar reactions to a beautiful statue is evident in the impact of a pair of male bronze statues, known as the ‘Riace Bronzes’, dating from the second quarter of the fifth century B.C. (fig.10a, b). The more athletic, youthful looking ‘Warrior A’ was voted in an Italian survey as more sexually attractive to women, while ‘Warrior B’ to men, indicating the reactions that some modern viewers “might experience when seeing live men of similar appearance”.36 Perhaps, though, the two statues owe their sex appeal to the fact that they undoubtedly exemplify the minority of the male, their ‘sparseness’ in real life consequently feeding notions of the ‘unique’ and ‘desirable’. The ancient idealized version of the male serves as the modern image of the ideal male, although frequently the former is taken completely out of its artistic/historical context to satisfy the purposes of the latter and vice versa.
So conceptions of beauty were inherently connected with the appearance of a male or female statue in antiquity as much as they are today. The beauty of the human body is stressed in Plato’s Symposium, as the first step to discover the very essence of the notion of beauty in the words of the wise Diotima: “you start by loving one attractive body and step up to two; from there you move on to physical beauty in general, from there to the beauty of people’s activities, from there to the beauty of intellectual endeavours, and from there you ascend to that final intellectual endeavour, which is no more and no less than the study of that beauty, so that you finally recognize the beauty”.37 Not that the average Greek or non-Greek familiar with the Platonic ideas would be consciously seeking to walk up the stairs of the ladder leading to beauty as this is presented by Diotima’s argument. But the great number of statues that were anyway adorning both private and public places offered the chance for contemplating on that advance from one beautiful body to the other. The ‘conquest’ of the very essence of the archetypal Beauty, though, involved a true, persistent struggle for the few who would dedicate themselves to this end, and an inevitable frustration for the many who would occasionally attempt it. As soon the utopia of the whole premise would be realized, an ‘earthly’ reaction to these ‘heavenly’ perceptions could be manifested in the practical experimentation of possessing, ‘accessing’ the ultimate Beauty through the visible, tangible version of the divine offered conveniently in the human form of the statue of a god/goddess, as most powerfully manifested in the stories about the Knidian Aphrodite.
Even after a quick, surface glimpse on the literary evidence of the moving, talking, ‘alive’ statue, the modern reader/viewer might be convinced of the value of an extensive examination of the concept and its influence in the ancient world, since the relevant accounts are so abundant. Nonetheless, the purely intellectual/ cynical point of view of the whole ‘genre’ is to exclude any ancient intelligent person from actually believing in such illogical concepts. But once the idea is widely circulated and accepted, even the intelligent person is not immune to at least some suspicion; the average person would not necessarily be na?ve; and after all, even “conventionalized discourse, including critical discourse, plays at least some role in plotting the boundaries of cognition”.38 Sometimes the ‘exposure’ to the twofold meaning of words is enough to sober up the absolute views of an overtly rational intelligentsia. A beautiful man would be called in Greek also agalmatias, ‘statue-like’,39 while andrias, used to denote the statue of a male, derives from the word for man, aner.40 Similarly, the word zoon, mentioned in the fifth century B.C. literature, “means primarily ‘living thing’, including human beings conceived in their biological aspect or in opposition to inanimate matter”, but it was also used by Herodotus when he referred to ‘image’ or ‘representation’ in painting and sculpture.41 Language is a valid vehicle for exploring and understanding a society’s mentality. It is possible that similar words themselves inspired notions of the ‘animate’ statue, but without a doubt, they visually and mentally enhanced them.
Long before the Christian theologians expressed their criticism on the pagan beliefs of the ‘animate’ statue and their various consequences, Lucian, writing in the second century A.D., commented on the specific characteristics with which the gods were represented in art and also the na?ve attitude of the viewers, who “think that what they behold is not now ivory from India nor gold mined in Thrace, but the very son of Cronus and Rhea, transported to earth by Phidias”.42 But the persistence of the belief in the ‘animate’ statue throughout antiquity proved that it was indebted in long established, respected perceptions that had already shattered notions related to logic. What remained constant was the importance of the viewers’ subjective views on what constituted the ‘humanlike’ or the ‘godlike’. A beautiful, lifelike statue certainly won praise for its creator, but most crucial was its effect on its viewers’ senses. It was only the statue that could first stir up the human emotions and stimulate the mind, that became consequently an ‘animate’ statue.