Art Through Time: A Global View
The Body Art: Doryphoros (Canon)
Created by master sculptor Polykleitos of Argos (ca. 480/475–415 BCE), the Doryphoros, or Spear-Bearer, has long been regarded as an exemplum of male beauty as conceived of by the ancient Greeks.
Polykleitos sought to capture the ideal proportions of the human figure in his statues and developed a set of aesthetic principles governing these proportions that was known as the Canon or “Rule.” In formulating this “Rule,” Polykleitos created a system based on a simple mathematical formula in which the human body was divided into measured parts that all related to one another.
Though we do not know the exact details of Polykleitos’s formula, the end result, as manifested in the Doryphoros, was the perfect expression of what the Greeks called symmetria. In art of the High Classical period (ca. 450–400 BCE), symmetria, or symmetry, not only encompassed a sense of proportion and balance, but was also an exercise in contrasts. The body of the Doryphoros, for example, stands in what is termed contrapposto, meaning that his weight rests on his right leg, freeing his left to bend. In the process, the right hip shifts up and the left down; the left shoulder raises and the right drops. His body is brought into a state of equilibrium through this counterbalancing act.
Although the Doryphoros represents a warrior poised for battle, he does not don a suit of armor or any other protective gear. In fact, were it not for the actual spear that that statue originally held, it would have been difficult to identify him as such. A hallmark of classical Greek sculpture, male nudity or nakedness was understood as a marker of civilization that separated the Greeks from their “barbarian” neighbors.
Many of the most influential Greeks of this period, including artists, writers, philosophers, and politicians, were obsessed with the notion that one should strive for perfection while recognizing that such perfection was unattainable. The face of the Doryphoros is devoid of individual features, which suggests that he is meant to represent an idealized version of the everyman, the perfect Greek male citizen (women were not citizens). Yet, his body—proportional, balanced, naked, strong, and exuding confidence—is one that the viewer might aspire to achieve, but never could.
Andrew Stewart, Professor of the History of Art and Greek Studies, UC Berkeley
“The Greeks didn’t have a word for idealization. That’s not to say that Greek artists didn’t think quite hard before they carved a kouros or drew a naked guy on a pot. I’d say that essentially the standard image in the sixth-, fifth-, fourth-century art represents what they regarded as the highest common factor of humanity. And this highest common factor was arrived at by the notion of structure, of order, which uses mathematics and geometry, at least in sculpture it does, but is not restricted to that, in order to create ideal proportions, what each individual sculptor thought was ideal proportions. And then overlaying that mathematical geometric structure, that grid, with convincing simulacra for muscles and bones and flesh and so on and so forth.
Proportion manifests itself right at the very beginning of the intensive Greek engagement with the body in the eighth century. But the sculptor who really set it on a consistent footing, really took it to the next level, was Polykleitos of Argos. Polykleitos, we are told, created in his Canon, which was probably identical with the Doryphoros, a work of sculpture which other artists followed like a law, as a nommos, the Greeks would say. And there we are told quite unequivocally that he related every part to every other part and to the whole and used a mathematical formula in order to do so. What that formula was is a matter of conjecture. But, it’s beyond doubt that he did use a mathematical formula and applied it rigorously to the entire human body, even down to the fingernails and toenails. That we know as a fact. Antiquity never subsequently forgot what he had done. They tried to transcend it and his proportional scheme was adapted, adopted, adapted, changed, criticized and so forth. But right up to the end of the Roman Empire, we still find Polykleitan-style torsos and Polykleitan-style proportions. And then through the Roman copies we find them again in the art of the West from the Renaissance onwards, obviously not identical, but as it were, his shadow is extremely long and it still persists ’til today.”
Bonfante, Larissa. “Nudity as Costume in Classical Art.” American Journal of Archaeology 93.4 (October 1989): 543–570.
Foxhall, Lin, and John Salmon, eds. Thinking Men: Masculinity and Its Self-Representation in the Classical Tradition. London; New York: Routledge, 1998.
Moon, Warren G. Polykleitos, The Doryphoros, and Tradition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
Stewart, Andrew. Art, Desire, and the Body in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Stewart, Andrew. Classical Greece and the Birth of Western Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.