Art Historical Background
Most examples of Classical Greek art that we are familiar with are actually Roman marble copies of what once were Greek bronzes. Bronze, due to its metallic properties, can be melted down when the “need” arises (like to make weapons), however, a marble sculpture can never be transformed into another more useful purpose. You can usually tell when something is a marble copy of an original bronze by, what I like to call, the “awkward tree trunk” and the rectangular braces. See them? The tree trunk is behind the right standing leg and the brace holdin the right arm. They are there because the original bronze was hallow, therefore much lighter than the solid marble. The positions of the original sculptures were not meant to be constructed in such a dense material and require support to stay standing.
Polykleitos is believed to be the artist of the original bronze Doryphoros in 440 BCE and he is considered the master of Greek sculpture for his publication of the Kanon (or Canon). This book discussed the ideal proportions of human form. The Doryphoros is considered to be the epitome of this treatise. In essence his ideas are summed up as “symmetria” (which does not mean symmetry by the way). Instead it refers to a counterbalance, more commonly called contrapposto, in which the tension is divided evenly in a sculpture.
Look at the Doryphoros above. See how one leg is straight, that leg holds the tension of the weight of the body, while the opposite arm is bent? There is a balance between tense and relaxed. While on the other side, you can see the bent leg juxtaposed by a straight arm. In addition to the limbs, the hips are tilted slightly as would happen when normally walking and the head looks off to the side and is not stiffly staring forward.
Note: normally I have my students stand up casually or take a step and noticed how the human body naturally stands. This is also a good time to show pieces that students have already seen that do not use contrapposto as a little review (#27. Anavysos Kouros (below) & #18. King Menkaura and queen).
Read more: Lesson Plan: The Classical World Unit
It is believed that Polykleitos made a sculpture to exemplify his theory of “symmetria.” Many scholars have come to the solid conclusion the Doryphoros is that sculpture, because it is not a one-of-a-kind piece. More than 50 versions of this statue in bronze have been found. Some art historians also have attributed the Doryphoros as the Greek hero Achilles because he is often seen with a heavy spear in vases and it is quite obvious that the Doryphoros once held (probably a bronze) sphere in his left hand.
This is also a good lesson to contrast the male Greek sculptures with the female, clothed, sculptures to discuss how societal gender norms exhibit themselves in art. Two good sculptures to contrast with the Greek male nude are : #28. Peplos Kore from the Acropolis & #35. Victory adjusting her sandal.
Note: this piece was found in Pompeii and is now located in the Archaeology Museum in Naples. I’ve visited the museum and Pompeii, but have zero recollection seeing this piece. :/
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- Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 15th edition, pg. 129-130
- Greek Art and Archaeology, pg. 276-277
- AP Art History Go!: 034 – Doryphoros
- AP Art History 2015-2016: Doryphoros
- AP Art History: Doryphoros (Spear-bearer)
- Khan Academy: Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer)
- Art in Context: Spear Bearer Doryphoros – An Analysis of This Famous Greek Sculpture
- SUNY Oneonta: The Classical Body
- Annenberg Learner: Art: Doryphoros (Canon)
- Gateways to Art, pg. 308
- Khan Academy: Contrapposto explained (video)