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The classic nude figure in Ancient Greek Sculpture often referred to the young nude male. Throughout the archaic, classical and Hellenistic periods, the nude figure was constantly evolving, showing the different styles in each period. By following the styles of the nude figures we actually see how they marked each periods. And by looking at the different styles of the nude figures, one can observe how the figures reflect to the ancient Greek culture and attitudes.

Margaret Walters pointed out that ‘the young nude male is the central image in Greek Art’. The nude male youth embodied the Greeks’ cultural and social ideals. It is the male and not the female because it was not acceptable in their society then for any respectable women to be seen publicly without her clothes except the Naked Aphrodite whom hardly existed before the 4th century. From the perspective of social ideals, the spaces of the Greek society ‘were segregated the public realm belonged to men, whereas women were consigned to the private domain of the home.’ The men felt that women should be subservient to man and men were head of the family. For this reason, women in ancient Greek seemed inferior. Women had virtually no political or legal rights. They were also not allowed to watch Olympic games, as participants did not wear clothes. Men were the ones who were the warriors, athletes and the politicians. The women had little influence or power in Greek society and were not highly regarded until they bear a child, preferably a male. Women limited her time outside the house to visiting with her nearest female neighbours. The exceptions to this rigid social convention were weddings, funerals and state religious festivals in which they play prominent roles. However, prostitutes and hetaerae were allowed to walk on the streets at anytime but they did not lead sheltered and restricted lives. Hetaerae were like the geishas in Japan, they were courtesans; companions to men only in men paid an expensive price. They were not only sexual companions but also social and intellectual companions. They accompanied men to festivals and parties. Similar to prostitutes, they were not protected, sheltered or respected and were opened to all forms of sexual exploitations. The far most respected job that a woman could do was run a household. The work that the poorer class of women did was not at all valued, so they only way to gain any respect in ancient Greek society was to be a housewife. Hence the majority of the sculptures created were mainly of nude male athletes and warriors. Although some viewed women in ancient Greece inferior but some viewed them as ‘mothers of citizens and for passing the legitimacy. Women were protected and sheltered from the peeping eyes of other men. ‘ They took on different roles from the men. So perhaps the reason why there were more male sculptures is that the men were possessive of their women and did not allow their wives to be sculpted.

Some also considered women as highly sexual beings that could not control sexual urges and restricted for their own benefit. Writer Simonides explains that ‘woman is the consumer of men, their sex, their strength, their food, and their wealth, and the instigator of all evils in the world; yet without her, society cannot continue’ . The naked male body did not embarrass the Greeks but they found the sexually mature female body an absolute taboo, although young and boyish female nudes were accepted in certain contexts. Zeus was sculpted nude but Hera was never naked. Greek art and sculpture romanticises masculine and not feminine beauty. Thus many popular male nude figures were sculptured such as Kritios, Apollo Belvedere, and Doryphoros. ‘Greek art, philosophy and literature all celebrate man, and locate him confidently at the centre of the universe’.

Their belief and faith was that the body was an object of pride and should be kept trim and strong. It was their culture for men to go to the gymnasium to work out and keep fit. There was a great emphasis on the physical body and the importance of nakedness that many gathered at the gymnasium to admire each other’s bodies or just to show off their own body. Even when playing games or any sports, the Greek athletes wore no clothes. The games concentrated on one object, the naked body. The athletes were highly recognised and a favourite subject among the people much like the adulation given to the sports stars today. Hence, many nude sculptures of athletes were created such as Doryphoros, the spear bearer and Discobolus, the discus thrower.


The Greeks considered the naked Apollo as the most perfect and beautiful man. He was the dominating figure in ancient Greek sculpture. Though the naked Aphrodite was also considered a beauty, her influence was insignificant in comparison to the Apollo. The Apollo sculpture was a beautiful man because the sculpture ‘conformed to certain laws of proportion and so partook of the divine beauty of mathematics’ as well as sensuality and aestheticism. The Greeks had a passion for mathematics and according to Kenneth Clark, ‘all art is founded on faith, and inevitably the Greek faith in harmonious numbers found expression in their painting and sculpture’. ‘Philo Mechanicus quoted Polykleitos as having expressed himself to the effect that success came close to being a matter of many numbers.’ The nude sculptures had incredible proportion, symmetry and balance of movement. This can be illustrated by observing Doryphoros and Discobolus. ‘The Doryphoros made the sculptors called it the ‘canon’ referring to the standard from which they can learn the first rules of their art.’ Their lower part of the torso had great definition, proportion and symmetry. The sculptors were so precise in their work that there was also a subtle balance of movement in the nude figures that created the sense of rhythm. The figures have within themselves the ‘rhythms of movement, but yet always comes to rest at its true centre.’ This is the essence of classical art. The nude sculptures probably took the creators numerous calculations to construct a proportionate work of art that also had movement. This shows how the Greeks linked their art and sculpture with mathematics.

There are 4 periods or styles in the Ancient Greek Sculpture. The first period is Geometric from 1100-700BC. However there were no nude figures made then. There were vases and other sorts of pottery created. The very first known Greek nude figure, Kuoros the nude male youth, was made in 600BC, which was in the Archaic beginnings was not beautiful but proportionate. They were rather geometric, rigid, awkward, and unnatural and were somewhat primitive. They had a strict symmetry, in an attention position and had the ‘archaic smile, sign of life ’. Many of these statues were made in the Archaic era were found in graves. The representation of the figures in the graves remains uncertain.

From the Kuoros, the nude figures evolved. Quite suddenly there was a transition of the figures, as they become smoother and more natural. At this time we enter the Classical era in 480BC.The first known nude figure in the classical period was the Kritios Boy. The figure had a relaxed stance and was capable of movement, unlike the figures in the Archaic Period. He is considered by the Greeks the first beautiful nude in Greek art. This period is where the nude figures were evolving to more natural and more realistic sculptures. The art was striving towards realism. The nude figures had a combination of symmetry and proportion as well as rhythm. There is always equilibrium in the figures. The sculptors paid a lot of attention to each and every muscle, emotion and how the skin stretches or relaxes across the male body. Plato spoke about the sculptors as ‘fixing their eyes on the perfect truth as a perpetual standard of reference, to contemplate with the minutest care, before they proceed to deal with earthly cannons about beautiful things.’ The sculptures made in this period gave ‘a sense of peculiar exhilaration because it can translate us from the narrow personal plane to an impersonal one.’ This is also the era where many beautiful and curvaceous pieces of sculpture were created, such as the Apollo Belvedere and Aphrodite.

The next era was the Hellenistic, which differed from the classic period by the more intense emotions and realism in the sculptures of the Hellenistic period. There was little development of Greek sculpture as a whole during the period. There were little works available for reference. However, Hellenistic sculptures had very different character from that of the Classical Period. One example of the nude figures in the Hellenistic era is the Dying Trumpeter where there were more pronounced realism and were more natural. The positions of actions were more complex, had more ‘suggestive impending movement’ and there were also more varieties of poses than the earlier sculptures. The proportions the sculptors used were also different, with a smaller head, longer legs and a slender figure. The Hellenistic sculptures had also become ‘softer and more effeminate, as the Hermaphrodite in Istanbul.’ The style and the characteristics of the nude figures actually depict the period of the sculptures. From this we can see how the Ancient Greek Sculptures evolved by looking at the distinctiveness of the nude figures.

The significance of the nude figures in Ancient Greek Sculpture is huge as it is the one of main focus in the Greek culture. It symbolises what the society deemed as beautiful and important. The nude figure also shows how sculptors were using mathematics and calculations to create a proportionate and balanced figure. Then looking at how the nude sculptures evolved, from geometric, to more realistic to even more natural in poses, marked the different periods and styles in Ancient Greek Sculpture and reflected changes and growth in Greek culture and society. Phase by phase these sculptures “in less than a century they grew into models which were to satisfy out western notion of beauty till the present day”.

Margaret Walters. The Nude Male, Penguin Books, pp. 4.

Kenneth Clark. The Nude, Penguin Books, 185, pp. 11, 0, 6-7, , 4.

H.W. and Anthony F. Janson. History of Art, Thames and Hudson, 5th Edition Revised, pp. 11, 140, 1 (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 4)

Phys Carpenter. Greek Sculpture A Critical Review, The University of Chicago Press, 160, pp. 101.

Gisela M. A. Richter. The Sculptures and Sculptors of the Greeks, 4th Edition, pp. 4(Plato. Republic VI, 484.), 6.

John Boardman. Greek Sculpture the Classical Period a handbook, Thames and Hudson, 185.

http//mkatz.web.wesleyan.edu/cciv4/cciv4.CIHAGChapter.html, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece, ed. Paul Cartledge, Cambridge Cambridge University Press, 18, Chapter

http//www.museum.upenn.edu/greek_World/Daily_life/Women_life.html The Ancient Greek World

http//www.angelfire.com/ca/ancientchix/ Ancient Greek Women in Athens

http//apk.net/~fjk/amaz.html The Role of Women in Ancient Greek Art

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