Around the year 600, about when we think this kouros was carved, monumental stone sculpture was still something rather new in Greece. The origins of the medium seem to date to around the middle of the century. The surviving textual and archaeological evidence all suggests that in Greece before this time, there were no life-size freestanding stone figures such as we see here on the screen. With no indigenous tradition in Greece to account for the appearance of the freestanding-stone kouros at this moment in time, scholars have looked elsewhere to find one that might have served as a possible source.
The majority of art historians and classicists today believe that the model for the Greek kouros can be found in Ancient Egypt, where such sculpture did exist. The Egyptian connection is particularly attractive as the suspected earliest appearance of the stone kouroi in Greece of around the middle of the seventh century occurs soon after Greeks were first allowed to settle in Egypt in return for having served as mercenaries.
The idea that Egyptian art was a starting point for the Greek kouros is based upon a comparison between Greek sculpture such as the Met kouros and similar Egyptian works. We see here on the right a typical example of Egyptian sculpture from about 2400 BCE, only one of among many we might have chosen. We'll look at this particular example simply because it is typical of a great number of Egyptian works. In making this comparison we are not suggesting that any Greek would have known this particular work, but something rather like it.
As with the kouros the Egyptian figure strides with his left leg forward. And while the particular example we use here is perhaps about 30 cm tall, statues of this sort were often two meters or larger, the scale of the Met Kouros.Both pieces are sculpted in stone, a medium not used in Greece at large scale before about 650. In both figures, the arms extend downwards at the sides of the torsos and terminate in clenched fists at the thighs. The heads of both figures, framed by long hair, look straight forward. Both are frontal. Both preserve the four sides of the square blocks from which they were cut. The similarity of the poses of these two figures is one of the reasons why art historians believe that the later Greek kouros type was modeled on this sort of earlier Egyptian figure.
The Greek and Egyptian works also share a similar set of proportions. Egyptian sculptures conformed to a strict set of ratios, called a canon. The Met kouros is important because it uses the Egyptian canon to establish its proportions demonstrating the Greek dependence on the earlier Egyptian tradition.
In fact, the Met kouros uses the canon of proportions that had only recently been adopted by the Egyptians themselves during the 26th Dynasty (663-525), when they abandoned the two thousand year old traditional system of setting out a figure. To quote Brunhilde Ridgway, the Met figure like the Egyptian ones in the new style was carved:
establishing a grid based on a division of the standing human figure in twenty-one and one-fourth parts, with twenty-one squares from the soles of the feet to a line through the eyes. Major anatomical points were located on the grid lines, and the grid itself was applied to the surface of the block which was to be carved, so that the size of the unit forming the squares was a variable determined by the size of the block. The grid represented a true canon of proportions because the number of units of height remained constant, and the lines invariably crossed the body at specified places. Such grids have been preserved on unfinished statues in the round, on reliefs, and even in papyrus drawings and plans." The Archaic Style in Greek Sculpture (1977): 30.
Thus, the Met kouros is carved in the most up to date fashion of the Egyptians themselves, possibly suggesting that the craftsmen responsible for the Greek figures were perhaps not only aware of the current trends in Egyptian workshops, but perhaps initially trained there as well.
Despite the technical, proportional and obvious formal similarities between these two works, you should also be able to see that they also differ greatly. One major difference between the two works is that the Egyptian figure wears a kilt while Greek statue is entirely unclothed. More subtle are the differences of pose.
The Egyptian figure stands with all his weight on his back foot. Its left foot is thrust forward so as to define a right triangle. With its weight distributed so unevenly, the figure appears off balance and to be very much in need of the slab of stone attached to its back to maintain its stability. Tied in this way to this support at the back, the figure is really not free-standing, but rather projecting from the slab in extremely high relief. Therefore, the Egyptian figure is essentially frontal in design. Note, too, that the figure's legs are linked by a stone screen, and the arms are also attached to the the figure's torso.
The Met kouros on the other hand does not extend its left leg quite so far forward, and has its right set slightly back, thus its center of gravity is moved forward so that its weight appears to be evenly distributed over its two legs. Its legs form a triangle whose long sides are equal in length. The even distribution and the different shaped triangle formed by its legs makes the kouros much more stable visually than its Egyptian counterpart. In abandoning the back support, the Greek sculptor carved the kouros so that it could sustain its own weight. Just as the back has been freed of any support, so the legs and the arms, though still attached to the thighs at the hands, are liberated from the rest of the body. Carved in the round, rather than in high relief like the Egyptian figure, the Greek kouros is an independent and self-contained object standing isolated in space. As an entirely free-standing object, the kouros, unlike the Egyptian work, is meant to be seen from all sides.
Though the pose of the Greek statue is undoubtedly based on an Egyptian prototype, the many differences between them suggest that the Greek sculptors were very quick to make changes. Clearly, to cite 1980s pop-music group, the Bangles, the Greeks did not want their statues to "walk like an Egyptian."
So far in our examination we have focused on the physical aspects or forms of the two works. We have described the works and compared them to each other. While this process of first description and then comparison may seem rather mundane, it is an important aspect of the art historian's trade. First and foremost a descriptive approach helps verbalize what we see, a task you might want to try in your conferences if only to demonstrate that that transformation from visual observation into verbal description is not so easy as it may at first seem. But secondly and more importantly this two step process called formal analysis helps us understand the work as a visual object. We could have gone into a great deal more detail to illustrate this, but it should be clear how the attention to detail in this approach helps to examine a work's physical appearance in order to understand its visual structure. This is not to suggest that anyone in Archaic Greece ever thought in this way. Rather, formal analysis is simply a tool we can use to begin to understand the objects that have come down to us.
Along side with this first method that examines the purely formal aspects of the work is a second method that is more concerned with what is actually represented and with attempting to understand how a work was seen and understood in its own era. This approach we call iconography. The term, though a modern one, is forged from the Greek words icon, meaning image, and graphe, meaning writing. So the term "iconography" literally means image writing. Formal analysis, as we have seen, considers how that subject is represented; while iconography focuses on the subject matter or what is depicted. While formal analysis depends solely on the visual qualities of the object itself, iconography generally turns outside of the work to written evidence.
On one level the subject matter or iconography of both the Metropolitan kouros and the Egyptian figure is straight forward. Both represent a male striding with one leg ahead. But, generally iconography is both more complicated and far more interesting.
Though without a doubt, a Greek, when looking at an Egyptian sculpture like this one, would have thought he or she was looking at a walking figure, this is almost certainly not how an Egyptian would have thought about this work. Walking, suggests movement in time, which in turn suggests change. Change is the one thing that a sculpture like the Egyptian one on the right was not intended to convey. The Egyptian sculpture comes from a man named Nedjemu. Stored away in a tomb, the sculpture was never intended to be seen by the living. As Nedjemu probably understood it, the figure doesn't represent him as a walking man. Rather this statue was intended as a substitute repository for the spirit or "ka" of Nedjemu, should Nedjemu's mummified remains have been damaged in any way. The very idea of representation suggests a separation, really a distinction between the thing and the image of the thing or the body of the dead man and its image sculpted in stone, a distinction which I am not sure an ancient Egyptian would have made or even understood. In the case of the ka sculpture of Nedjemu, rather than seeing the stone image and the body of the man as different, an Egyptian would see this image and the dead man's body as somehow equivalent. The standing position with one foot forward was used because it was believed that this particular position was the best way to provide this sort of equivalent body in stone, and not because it was thought to show the figure in action.
The information IÕve mentioned to help us understand how the figure of Ranufer may have been seen and understood in antiquity is taken from hieroglyphics on the sculpture and the tomb from which it came, and from ancient Egyptian writings about the dead and the afterlife. In shifting to this type of information weÕve moved from formal analysis to iconography.
Establishing the same level knowledge for the Greek Kouros is somewhat more difficult. In most instances we have no precise idea of what exactly a particular kouros represents. Statues such as the Met kouros seemed to have served a number of purposes, grave marker, votive statue (i.e., a gift to a deity), or a cult statue (i.e., a representation of some divinity housed in a cult building in a sanctuary). Their function like their form seems to have varied from region to region.
The Met Kouros on the left seems to date from about 600 to 590 BCE. Not only is the date not absolutely certain, but we can only suggest that the piece was probably made in Attica, the region surrounding Athens, and probably served as a grave marker. All these uncertainties exist because the work was purchased in 1932 through a dealer who for legal reasons had probably not asked too many questions as to when and where the statue had been found. Nor did its present owner the Metropolitan Museum of Art inquire any further. Lacking any textual information about the work and since the piece was torn from its original archaeological context because of human greed, we can only summarize its origins; we can't be certain as to whether this kouros represents a youth, an athlete, a warrior or a god. There are, however, a number of kouroi whose original contexts are known and becuase of this we can try to establish something about some kouroi may have been perceived in Archaic Greek society.
Fortunately, we have two texts which can be directly connected with three Archaic Greek kouroi. On the left are a pair of brothers, Kleobis and Biton. They stand about two meters tall and were probably carved around 590 or 580 BCE, somewhat later than the Met statue. They were found at the end of the last century at the important sanctuary of Delphi. On the right, is Kroisos. He was carved in or around Athens in about 530, about a half century after the two brothers. He too is just over two meters tall. He bears many traces of the paint with which the statue was originally covered. Unfortunately we know less about his specific find-site. Reportedly it came from a cemetery near Athens.
Unlike with the Met kouros, we can refer to each of these three kouroi by a name, because texts have survived that establish the identity of each of these three figures. Thus we know that, on some level, these three sculptures represent three real people. We should note, however, that because they have identities, these three kouroi stand out from most other kouroi who remain anonymous.
We know more about Kleobis and Biton, than just their names. We know something about their life, and most importantly, from the Greek point of view, something about their death. Their story is mentioned by the ancient Greek Historian, Herodotus, who wrote during the third quarter of the fifth century. According to Herodotus, Solon, the ruler of Athens went to visit a fabulously wealthy king, named Croesus, who ruled what is now Turkey. Expecting that his own name would be the answer, Croseus asked Solon who was the most blessed or happiest man he knew of. To Croseus's utter astonishment, Solon responded that the most blessed man he had ever encountered was a certain Tellus who had had a fine family, lived in the well-ruled city of Athens, and had died in battle. Missing the point of his guest's response, and sure of being named, in the next round as the runner up, Croseus then asked Solon who he thought was the second most blessed man after Tellus. Again the king was disappointed by Solon's answer. When asked the question, Solon responded:
"Cleobis and Biton. They were young men of the Argive race and had a sufficiency of livelihood and, besides, a strength of body such as I shall show; they were both of them prize-winning athletes, and the following story is told of them as well. There was a feast of Hera at hand for the Argives, and their mother needs must ride to the temple; but the oxen did not come from the fields at the right moment. The young men being pressed by lack of time, harnessed themselves beneath the yoke and pulled the wagon with their mother riding on it; forty-five stades [five miles] they completed on their journey and arrived at the temple. When they had done that and had been seen by all the assembly, there came upon them the best end of a life, and in them the god showed thoroughly how much better it is to be dead than alive. For the Argive men came and stood around the young men, congratulating them on their strength, and the women congratulated the mother on the fine sons she had; and the mother, in her great joy at what was said and done, stood right in front of the statue and there prayed for Cleobis and Biton, her own sons who had honored her so signally, that the goddes should give them whatsoever is the best for man to win. After that prayer the young men sacrificed and banqueted and laid them down to sleep in the temple where they were; they never rose more, but that was the end in which they were held. The Argives made statues for them and dedicated them at Delphi, as of two men who were the best of all." Herodotus, The History, transl. David Greene (1987): 46.
As incredible as it may seem, a fragmentary inscription on the base of one of the kouroi permits us to conclude that these two figures are probably the very statues mentioned by Herodotus.
From the Greek standpoint, Cleobis and Biton had the good fortune to have gone out at the very apex of their life. J.J. Pollitt, in his classes at Yale, brings the story alive to his audience by making the Ivy-League analogy with the Argive pair by comparing them to a Yale football player, a senior, who in the last seconds of the annual Harvard-Yale homecoming game in the Yale Bowl before a sellout crowd makes a dazzling catch to score the winning touchdown . . . and dies in the end zone. Now while this analogy is rather peculiar to Ivy League culture, it is nonetheless an apt one that hopefully helps us better comprend these two Greek statues.
We need to understand that in the case of Kleobis and Biton, death was not a tragedy, but a victory, a victory of the greatest sort. Remember Herodotus explicitly tells us that Solon ranked them number two on his chart the happiest people of all time. He did so because from Solon's and Herodotus's point of view, in death, the brothers were no longer subject to the mutability of existence. After having performed a great act of filial devotion in the service of the Gods, they had been recognized for their action by god and human alike, they died, and then were immortalized in stone. What more could they have asked for? From the archaic Greek point of view, absolutely nothing, since their death had made them heroes, and their statues made them known to posterity. As Herodotus put it, " the god showed thoroughly how much better it is to be dead than alive." The statues before us do not depict the brothers performing their pious deed, but rather simply as "two men who were the best of all." The deed itself was less important than the quality of the men who performed it. Strength, piety, and filial devotion were not important per se but rather as characteristics of an ideal. Kleobis and Biton in both life and death were the very embodiment of heroic virtue which the Greeks called arete.
It seems then that their chunky and rather bovine appearance is intended to suggest their great strength. Their vacant stare and odd smile indicates that they are no longer subject to the flux of human emotion. Their nudity is not to suggest vulnerably, as it usually does today, but rather to associate them with the Gods and Heros. Their image is not an exact mirror image of nature, because it is not nature that they represent, but rather, they represent a human IDEA, the Archaic heroic IDEAL.
The same ideal is also expressed by the statue of Kroisos. Though his name sounds the same, he was unrelated to the king who interrogated Solon. As is the case with the brothers, we know his identity because of an inscription on the statue's base. The inscription, which is included on your handout, in fact gives us more than his name. It reads:
Stop and show pity beside the marker
of Kroisos, dead, whom once
in battle's front rank
raging Ares destroyed.
----Adapted from J. Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece (1985): 253
Here again, we have an image representing a specific dead man. And though we are asked by the inscription to grieve for him, the reference to his death in battle also makes him a hero, in this case a military hero. He thus is like Solon's number one happy man of all time, Tellus, in at least two features. He apparently lived in the well-governed city of Athens and he died, apparently gloriously, in battle.
Kleobis, Biton and Kroisos are all given something like immortality through their heroic death. This notion, of course, is nothing new in the Archaic period. One of the central ideas in Homer's Iliad is Achilleus' choice is between a long but rather prosaic life back in his homeland of prosaic Pthia, a life which would be remembered by no one, or a short, but glorious life ended in battle at exciting Troy, which would be remembered by everyone, forever. This idea of immortality through heroic death is also treated by some of the lyric poems from the archaic era. For example, I can cite a poet from the military state Sparta, named Tyrtaeus, who writes of a fallen warrior,
His noble memory is not destroyed nor his name, but he is immortal, though he lies beneath the earth,
Whomever, excelling in valor, standing fast, and fighting for his land and children, raging Ares destroys.
Hurwit (1985): 255
Tyrtaeus's poem uses the same phrase "raging Ares destroys" as we found in the inscription on the Kroisos statue. The phrases "battle's front rank" and "raging Ares destroyed" could, in fact, be phrases right out of the Iliad. Homer has been appropriated here in the lyric poem by Tyrtaeus and the statue's inscription for the maker's own ends. In this case, Homer, if not quoted literally, is a least alluded to, in order to transform the deceased into a hero in the traditional Homeric mode.
Herodotean story, epitaph, poem and these three statues demonstrate the remarkable continuity from the time of Homer, around 750 BCE, to the time of Herodotus, ca. 430 BCE, of this belief that heroic death brought immortality. Throughout the Archaic era the only compensation for death was immortal fame, what the Greeks called kleos. The only way this fame could be conferred was through poetry or the visual arts. The idea that art brought immortal fame is an idea expressed at a number of places in the Iliad. In the Iliad, when we first meet Helen, over whom the Trojan war is being fought, she is weaving a robe with scenes depicting the deeds of the Greeks and Trojans (BK III: lines125-28); and in BK 9 (line185) when Achilleus greeted the Embassy from the Greeks, he was singing "of men's Fame." Singing men's fame is one of the things Homer's epic is meant to do, and these three kouroi do much the same thing. In ancient Greece, there was no way preserving the past for future generations or recounting it to the present one aside from these media. History in the way we might understand it today as an analytical examination and recounting of the past did not exist in archaic Greece and was only given concrete form in the second half of the fifth century by Herodotus himself.
When looking at the statues of Kleobis, Biton and Kroisos, we need to understand that they are in no way individual depictions of the men they represent. As we saw in our examination of the Egyptian ka figure of Nedjemu, the idea of "representation" in the way that we understand it today, may be quite different or even inapplicable to the visual arts of other periods or cultures. The three kouroi on the screen are not what today we would call portraits, because they make no attempt to portray any of the particular physical aspects of the historic persons Kleobis, Biton and Kroisos. If we ran into any of the three on the street, the statues probably wouldnot help us identify them. The kouroi do not represent what made these men individuals in the modern sense of the word. Rather they do exactly the opposite. Kouroi present men only in the light of the ideal of the Archaic Greek hero. These statues depict ideals, not individuals.
This page was written by Minott
Kerr for Hum110 Tech with the help of David Silverman, Daphne Kleps and Titus