The Art of Greece: Sculpture
SOMEHOW I don't think that most of us are very much interested in sculpture. We do try to imagine that we are fond of pictures. Some of us go to the picture galleries and wander round them for an hour or so, perhaps a little pleased with some of the pictures, especially with those that tell a story which we can remember when we have looked up the name of it in the catalogue, perhaps a good deal bewildered with others which seem either meaningless or mad to us. Then we come away with a headache, and decide that we have had enough of art in the meantime, secretly wondering at all the fuss that some folks make over it. A picture gallery has a poor chance for popularity alongside a picture house, and when you are told how £70,000 was paid for a Madonna by Raphael, and £45,000 for a Venus by Velazquez, you feel that there must be some crazy people in the world.
But even pictures are popular compared with statues. How often do you look a second time at any of the statues in the streets and squares of your town? Perhaps that is not to be wondered at, for the chances are that most of them are pretty bad. But in our museums and galleries there are, if not originals, at least copies, of some of the most beautiful statues that the mind and hand of man have ever created, and yet very few of us seem to care anything for them. If you want a quiet, empty place in a museum or gallery, you are pretty safe to go to the sculpture room. If you do go there, you come away as soon as possible, remembering only that you saw a lot of battered, broken figures, headless, armless, or legless, and probably that almost the only complete statue in the lot was a horrible thing that the catalogue called the Laocoön, representing a big man and his two sons writhing in agony in the coils of two great serpents. Statues, and especially Greek statues, don't interest you.
Yet I want to take the risk of wearying you, and to tell you something about the beauty of these poor battered fragments which are all that remains of the great art of the most artistic race that ever lived on earth. For nothing nobler or more beautiful was ever created by the hand of man than some of these poor waifs and strays from a great nation; and you will never know how splendid a man was the Greek at his best until you have come really to see them and to love them. The whole soul and heart of Greece was expressed in these figures of carven marble and molten bronze as nowhere else.
For the Greek really loved art, and had no greater pleasure than to see it around him on every side. He didn't mind living in a very plain and simple house, even though he were a rich and famous man; he didn't mind living on plain fare that you and I would turn up our noses at; but he simply had to have his city as beautiful as skill and money could make it. Money was never grudged for that. A million and a half to make a noble gateway to the houses of the gods on the Acropolis, a hundred and fifty thousand pounds' worth of gold to adorn the ivory statue of the Virgin-Goddess—that was money well spent. A sumptuous house and luscious food—well, that only gave pleasure to himself, and only to the lower part of him; but a noble picture, or statue, or temple was a glory to his city in the eyes of the world, and a delight to thousands of his fellow-citizens every day of their lives. So the Greek voted for the picture or the statue, and was content to live plainly himself, so that he and his townsmen might have beauty before their eyes wherever they went, and the fame of their city be increased among men. Can you imagine people like that? I dare say we know many things that they were densely ignorant of; but they knew and loved things that we would be all the better of knowing and loving too.
I wonder if we can ever realize how beautiful a city
such as Athens must have been in the days of its
glory. Art was everywhere, not huddled into dull
galleries as with us, but set out in the streets and
squares, on the hills and in the shrines, where everyone
could see it under the blue southern sky. For
hundreds of years each generation tried to surpass the
ones before it in adding to the beauty of their city, till
Athens must have been a perfect storehouse of wonders
that would be worth countless millions
So now let us look for a few minutes at one or two of the best things that have been saved out of the wreck. I can only show you a few, and so we shall not have time to look at any of the quaint but beautiful figures that come from the days when Greek art was in its childhood, just finding out what it wished to say and how to say it, still less to trouble ourselves with Dying Gladiators and Fighting Persians and such-like things from the days when art had grown over-ripe and was beginning to decay—wonderfully clever though they may be. All that we are to see must be of the best time—that wonderful 200 years from 500 to 300 b.c., when Greece was great in everything. Here, then, first of all, is the famous bronze Charioteer who was dug up a few years ago between the theatre and the temple at Delphi. In all likelihood he was dedicated by Anaxilas, tyrant of Rhegium, in memory of a victory in some chariot-race at the games, and very possibly the figure is a likeness of the tyrant himself in charioteer's garb. He stands stark and erect in his long flowing robe, the one hand that remains still holding the reins, the brown eyes, inlaid in coloured paste, looking steadily ahead along the course, the whole figure tensely gathered up in expectation of the start. Perhaps he is just a little stiff, and a little over-exact, for the art that created him is only beginning to find itself, and does not dare to be supple and flexible as yet; but all the promise of a brilliant day is in this dignified figure of art's morning, with the freshness and dew of youth upon it. The sculptor who imagined and executed this stately piece of work was already a great artist, though there were greater to follow, and though he worked nearly 2,500 years ago.
And now, if you want to see what a Greek athlete
looked like in the very moment when he was putting
forth all his strength and skill, look at this copy of
what is probably the most famous athletic statue of
all time—Myron's Diskobolos or Disk-Thrower. The
athlete is just at the very top of his swing, the whole
body pivoting on the right foot, the left arm swung
across the right knee to preserve the balance, the right
arm, with the heavy disk in the hand, thrown back to
its fullest extension. All the strength of the lithe,
sinewy figure is on the strain for the moment; another
instant, and it will be relaxed, as the arm swings
forward again, and the disk goes whirling through the
air. No instantaneous photograph of a golfer in his
swing or a runner in his stride ever gave a more perfect
picture of the athlete in the very moment of his highest
tension. Myron lived and worked a very long time
ago, but I don't think anyone could teach him very
The Charioteer and the Disk-Thrower belong to the dawn and the early forenoon of Greek sculpture. Our next picture represents its noonday. Here are some of the horsemen from the frieze of the Panathenaic procession at the Parthenon—the greatest piece of low-relief sculpture that the world has ever seen, or ever will see probably. They are the work of Pheidias, or at least—for there is not a single figure existing that can be proved to be from his chisel—they were designed by him and carved under his supervision. Myron's Disk-Thrower makes you wonder how any man could be so clever as to carve a human figure in so difficult a pose. But you do not wonder at all at these young Athenian riders. You feel that they just were so, and could never have been anything else. So—quietly, easily, and gracefully, an Athenian knight sat his fiery little horse, turning round carelessly to speak to his companion, or checking the eagerness of his spirited mount. Any man could see a hundred such figures any day in Athens; but there was just one man who could fix them there in stone, as though they were living still. And this is where art becomes perfect, when you forget all about the cleverness and skill of it, and simply see what the great man saw and meant you to see.
Perhaps the most popular of all Greek sculptors was Praxiteles, who lived about a century after Pheidias. To say that he was the most popular is not to say that he was the greatest; but certainly the Greeks thought all the world of him and his work. All kinds of stories were told about him. He made a statue of the goddess Aphrodite for the people of the island of Knidos, (there is a copy of it in the Vatican at Rome,) so lovely that Nicomedes, King of Bithynia, offered to pay off the whole of the National Debt of the island if only they would let him have the statue. To their honour the people of Knidos preferred to bear their own National Debt, and keep their goddess.
Praxiteles once wished to make a present of a statue to a rather too famous Greek lady named Phryne. She was puzzled to know which statue she ought to choose, and so she hit upon a rather cunning, not to say sneaky, plan. She sent a messenger to the sculptor to tell him that his house was on fire, whereupon Praxiteles cried out that he was ruined if his statue of Eros (the God of Love) were burned. So Phryne chose the Eros, knowing that Praxiteles thought it his best work.
Till the year 1877 we had never seen a real original statue from the chisel of this great artist—nothing but copies, like the Vatican Aphrodite. But in that year the German excavators at Olympia found there a statue of Hermes, the Greek messenger-god, exactly as an old Greek writer described it, and in the very place where he saw it. One arm and both legs from below the knee were lost, but otherwise the figure was perfect, and you can see from the picture how beautiful it is. The young god stands in an easy position, holding on his right arm his little baby brother-god, Dionysos. The lost right hand probably dangled something, perhaps a bunch of grapes, before the baby, and little Dionysos reaches out his chubby hand to grasp it. But Hermes himself is not looking at his brother. He looks past him, with a dreamy expression, as though he were seeing something that we cannot see. The whole figure is exquisite in its gentle grace. Look at the carving of the hair. A second-rate artist would have tried to make it as like real hair as possible, and so have spoiled the whole effect. But Praxiteles knew that marble is marble, and that you must never try to make your material tell a lie; and so the curling locks are only suggested, and the whole head looks far stronger and more lifelike than if he had wasted his time cutting feeble lines all over the surface, and trying to make
If the Greeks made their gods in their own image, at least you can say that it was a splendid image.
And now, if you want to know what a noble Athenian lady of the fourth century b.c. looked like, take this statue of the Mourning Woman, from the British Museum. No one knows who carved it, though it belongs to about the time of Praxiteles; but I am sure you never saw anything more exquisitely graceful than this slight, sad figure, its lovely head gently bowed in sorrow, and all its grace accentuated by the lines of the flowing robes. The artist, whoever he was, that made this figure, was a great man among the greatest.
All that I have shown you so far is work from the hands of great artists. But the last thing I want you to look at is different. It is just the tombstone of an Athenian lady, "Hegeso, the daughter of Proxenos," who lived and died somewhere about 400 years before Christ. It is as simple and unaffected as possible. Hegeso is gone; well, let us put up, not a lamentation in stone, but something that will remind us of her just as we used to see her, taking, perhaps, a necklace out of the casket that her servant brings her. Remember that what you have to compare this with is not any of our big monuments, but the average tombstone in our churchyards and cemeteries. I wonder if we have much reason to be proud of the comparison.
Well, then, now that you have seen some really good Greek work in sculpture, how does it impress you? To me it seems that the things one remembers most about it are Simplicity and Nobility. It is all perfectly straightforward and perfectly dignified. The Greek artist had no use for the tricks that make people gape and say, "How clever!" and he hated with his whole heart all kinds of freaks and exaggerations. You will never get from him anything that is vulgar or ignoble, least of all anything that is vile. Someone has said that his aim is "to express, with noble simplicity and truth, something intrinsically worthy of expression"; and it was surely no unworthy aim. To have something fine to tell men, to tell it, whether in words or in colours, in marble or in bronze, simply, truly, nobly: I do not know that you can ask a great deal more of any art.
Only there is one thing. It is the last thing I have to tell you, and perhaps it holds the secret of how Greek faith, and culture, and art, great and noble in many ways as they are, failed and passed away at last. And that one thing you see perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in the art of this noble race. It had no place for the dark and broken side of human life, out of which come all the greatest and highest things that we know. The Greek loved strength, wholeness, beauty, and put away from him as far as possible all thought of sorrow and suffering. It was not till after Jesus Christ had come into the world that men began to realize that the greatest things on earth are not beauty and strength, but love, sympathy, and sacrifice. The Hermes of Praxiteles is beautiful and strong; but I wish I could have put beside him Donatello's great Christ on the Cross at Padua, for the contrast would have shown you, far better than I can tell it, where the Greek failed. The Greek god is far more beautiful than the Christian Saviour; but the Italian sculptor has done an infinitely greater thing, and taught an infinitely greater truth than Praxiteles ever dreamed of.