The statues of Kleobis and Biton mentioned by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus at BK 1.30; marble, ca. 580, from the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. Hgt of each figure: ca. 215 cm.
"... the kouros is basically meaningless -or rather, its significance must lie in only distinguishing characteristics, namely, its nudity, its youth, its beauty, its autonomy, and its immutability: in other words, its form." Andrew Stewart, Greek Sculpture (New Haven: 1990): 109.
Kouroi are life size or larger, freestanding stone figures of unclothed young man striding forward. They are considered today to be one of the most distinctive products of the Archaic era, the period of ancient Greek history from roughly about 650 to 500 BCE. About two hundred known examples have come down to us. The majority of surviving examples are fragmentary. Thus we need to remember that those discussed here are among the best preserved and are therefore untypical.
In ancient Greek the word "kouros" (plural, "kouroi") means male youth, and at least from the fifth century, specifically an unbearded male. Modern art historians have decided to use the term to refer to this specific type of a male nude standing with fists to its sides and left foot forward. Ancient Greeks would proably not have separated these figures from any of the other types of archaic sculptures of young men. Until the 1890s, when the term "kouros" was first applied to this type, scholars generally referred to these figures as Apollos as it was believed that all kouroi depicted Apollo. And as we shall see, this is definitely not the case.
Homer uses the word "kouros" in the Iliad to refer to young warriors. You might note that Lattimore translates the term variously. At the end of BK II at lines 510, 551 and 562 for example, he translates it as "son" or "sons," while in BK I he uses "young men" at 470. Among the texts available for searching in Perseus, the term occurs most frequently in Homer, and appears to be rather rare in later works. If you are interested, go to Perseus to find the passages where Homer uses the term. If you follow the Perseus link here click at the bottom of the page on the various forms of the word "kouros" to bring up the references and passages in Greek. For the English take the references provided and look them up in your Lattimore translation because Perseus uses a different English translation.
As the Stewart quote at the top of this page suggests, one of the key features of kouroi is their form. Analysing one kouros in detail allows us to identify aspects of this type of sculpture which in turn help us understand it within its cultural context.
The figure to the left shows an unclothed young man striding forward. Something you cannot tell from the image is that this kouros is slightly less than two meters tall, or just over life size, a pretty typical size for kouroi in general. The figure was almost certainly painted so that the figure was skin-toned in hue with details like eyes, lips and hair picked out in appropriate colors.
This figure is known as the Metropolitan kouros after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, its present owner. The sculptor who carved this work is usually referred to as the Master of the Metropolitan Kouros or more simply the Met master. The anonymity of the figure's maker is not at all unusual for the Archaic period. Like most craftsmen in antiquity, we know nothing about the Met Master not even his name. Even if we had the name it would only be a name and offer us little, if any, further insight into the work or its production, except perhaps to suggest the region of Greece where the sculptor was from. In the Archaic era, his name was not thought worth preserving. We see here his only known work, and all that we know about him is that his medium was stone sculpture, specifically marble sculpture.
The anonymity of the makers of kouroi may trouble you. If it does, the problem is not surprising because our culture thinks that the names of sculptors and what they think about their work, is not only worth knowing, but perhaps even central to our understanding of their work. Not so in Ancient Greece. In the Archaic period, sculptors' names were usually not thought worth preserving. We'll come back to consider the role of the artist, or more properly put, the craftsmen in antiquity
Like all kouroi, the Met kouros is entirely freestanding. That is, the figure is carved on all sides, and although in our image the kouros is set back against a wall, if it were standing at the center of a room we would want to walk all around it to view each side. We are presented with four separate or independent faces that preserve the four sides of the original marble block from which the figure was carved. Moving around the figure is like turning four corners. Nothing bends or curves from one side to the other. This does not mean that the sculptor treats all 360 degrees of the statue equally. The statue's head, feet and hands all point rigidly straight forward emphasizing the frontal view. As a standing figure, the statue is taller than it is wide. Its vertical orientation is emphasized by a central axis running vertically between the legs, through the navel, the cleft of the chest and between the eyes. When viewed frontally the figure is disposed symmetrically about this central axis.
The statue stands on massive feet, firmly planted on a base. Neither leg rises vertically. The left leg strides forward and the right lags slightly behind the vertical of the torso so as to define an acute triangle. Though geometrically and therefore visually stable, the figure appears flat footed. In profile, the back protrudes above the chest and descends as a gently undulating curve outlining the volumes of the buttocks, the thighs, the calves and the heels. Seen straight on, the figure's curvilinear contours articulate the volumes of the different body parts. For example, from the chest, the contour tapers inward to the long narrow waist, only to bulge again at the thighs.
Moving from the exterior contour of the figure to the actual volumes of the main mass of the body, we see that the sculptor carefully renders selective anatomical details. For example, we find the pectoral muscles across his chest. But aside from the upper edges of the rib cage, there is nothing indicating the stomach muscles across the midriff. In contrast to the fluid and continuous lines of the outer contours, these selective anatomical details of muscles and bones within the body, especially the torso, form boundaries that separate the body into distinct parts. For example, the knees separate the upper from the lower legs; the pelvic lines, the legs from the torso; and the clavicle or collar bone the neck and head from the torso.
The craftsman who made this work also has a particular approach to the anatomical details he carved. Note, that the surface of the statue does not rise and fall as if muscles and bones were rippling somewhere beneath. On close inspection, we would see that the anatomy is indicated by clearly defined sharp ridges and shallow grooves so that the details appear to lie on the surface. In the overall visual effect, the details of the human body have been reduced to a surface pattern. Such patterning is typical of kouroi and archaic art in general. Pollitt (pp. 5-6), you may recall, makes this point in relation to earlier the bronze horse now in Berlin.
This desire to pattern detail in the Met kouros is best seen in the treatment of the figure's head. The mass of densely textured hair is divided into separate braids which are in turn divided into uniform globules. Seen straight on from the front, the rows of the design echo the arc defined by the eyes. From the side, the curves of the braids arching away from the forehead and down towards figure's back echo the curves of the top of the ear. Similarly the outer edge of the ear continues the curve of the jaw, while the ear itself, treated as a single flat surface, is a complex interplay of curves and counter curves repeating and echoing each other.
Returning to the full figure, we can see now how the sculptor uses pattern to organize the entire body. For example, the torso is dominated and structured by a series of Vee-shaped forms that are distributed in a strict hierarchy. The strongest is the great Vee of the groin ridge at the torso's lower limits. Only slightly less pronounced are the Vees of the collar bones at the upper extremity. Intermediary divisions are marked by inverted forms of these two shapes. An upside down Vee marks the upper limits of the rib cage. While the wing shape of the clavicles is turned upside down to form the double curve of the pectorals which delimit the lower edge of the chest. Note that these secondary divisions are less strongly indicated than the major ones. What is important here is not the strict imitation of the human form, but rather the use of the human form to create a sense of pattern.
The sculptor uses these divisions of the body to establish a set of rigid proportions based on simple mathematical relationships. Most obviously, the width of the figure is equal to its depth and approximately one quarter of its total height. The body is proportioned so that the distance from the base of the foot to the base of the knee cap is also one quarter of the figure's total height. This one to four proportion based on the total height is also found with the distance between the navel and the chin, and between the top of the head and the base of the neck at the clavicles. The latter relationship makes the head itself one sixth of the statue's height. Far larger in proportion than one observes on the actual human body, the height of the kouros's head corresponds exactly to the width of the figure at its hips.
We could go on much further with this sort of examination, but you should by now, see how it works. Close analysis of the statue reveals a certain approach to designing the figure. In examining this sculpture we have seen that its maker stresses a clear division of parts. He does this through stressing the surface of his figure by using a pattern based on selective anatomy. He's clearly not interested in every anatomical detail that exists on a male body, but only those that help organize his design. All the parts of the figure relate to the whole by a simple system of whole number proportions. When we compare this kouros with other sculptures of the period from the Greek world, we find that it shares with them many of the same formal characteristics we just outlined above. The style defined by these shared characteristics has been named Archaic.
This page was written by Minott
Kerr for Hum110 Tech with the help of David Silverman, Daphne Kleps and Titus