We are rightly advised not to look gift horses in the mouth. That principle is undeniable when the horse is a delicately paced little bronze horse from fifth-century Olympia, its mane ornately worked as becomes a victor, its bit and bridle intricately cast to show that it is the left trace-horse of a four-horse chariot team. This is the surviving part of a votive offering for winning the chariot race in the Olympic Games. It stands in the National Gallery’s new show (scheduled to come to the Metropolitan Museum in New York on March 11) next to a two-and-a-half-ton panel from the Parthenon frieze showing similarly perky horses being ridden in the Panathenaic festival. These Parthenon steeds look as if they have been shrunk to the demands of the frieze, and they are certainly too small in proportion to the riders; but the bronze horse, which reflects great anatomical study, proves that the physical structure of Greek horses was different from that of modern thoroughbreds. To our eyes they look more like ponies. This juxtaposition is an example of the care with which these Greek treasures have been chosen and arranged. These are gift horses, and any excuse for getting them here is worth endorsing.

Actually, the excuse is rather thin. For political reasons, to flatter the Greek government, the exhibit is tied to the 2,500th anniversary of the “birth of democracy” (dating that from the reforms of the Athenian statesman Kleisthenes begun in 508 BCE). The sculpture of the fifth century is presented (dubiously) as the product of democratization. A more plausible exhibit will be mounted by this show’s curator, Diana Buitron-Oliver, at the National Archives Building next summer, with objects directly reflecting democratic practices in ancient Athens. Meanwhile we have this, the more spectacular (though less appropriate) spectacle, to be grateful for.

Needless to say, the gift is not pure. The National Gallery and the Metropolitan had to put together a package of seventy-two paintings to ship off to Greece in return for the twenty-two objects Greece sent. (Twelve of the Greek sculptures came from museums in other European countries.) But who can quibble over terms when these treasures have been pried loose from the nervous custody of Greek officials, twenty of them for the first time? Some of the other countries that lent objects would not have let their monuments travel unless the Greeks had shown such willingness to cooperate. (Naturally, none of the Parthenon sculptures called “Elgin Marbles” could be shipped here from the British Museum, since the Greeks consider them stolen property.) A grant from the tobacco industry (Philip Morris Companies Inc.) completes the impurities necessary to pull off this “Greek Miracle.” Despite all that, it is miraculous.

Many of the objects are familiar to students of Greek art, who will have seen them in their home museums. It is still refreshing to find them in new collocations—e.g., the marble head of a warrior from Munich’s Antiquities Museum juxtaposed with a bronze head from Athens. Both date, probably, from the 480s BCE and they have been compared to show how bronze techniques influenced work in marble. Here for the first time the originals can be directly observed in each other’s company. And there is one prize that will be new to even the most devoted visitors of ancient museums. A warrior, probably Theseus, from a Greek temple pediment discovered in Rome in the 1930s, has been packed away in the Capitoline Museum’s holdings and rarely put on display till now. It comes, perhaps, from Eretria, and is at any rate in the style of the mid-fifth century at Athens.

All will want to make or renew acquaintance with the famous artifacts here—the Nike loosening (or binding) her sandal from the Temple of Athena Nike in Athens, the grieving Athena on a stele from the Akropolis, the funeral stele of the women Hegeso who fondles the jewels she had to leave behind her. The star of the show is clearly meant to be the “Kritios Boy” (see page 50) found on the Akropolis. The entrance to the exhibit is shrewdly planned to present his lovingly observed body, with its subtle torque, at the exact moment when the Greek miracle occurred. Entering the show, the viewer is directly addressed by one statue with a vestibule all to its own—a kouros (“young man”) from the late sixth century. The kouroi are the life-sized or larger-than-life statues derived from Egyptian cult figures, and their formulaic nature is the sixth-century style from which the naturalistic Kritios Boy is supposed to break free.

Andrew Stewart’s book on Greek sculpture presented the development in a composite drawing, with overlapped outlines of Egyptian and Greek “youths,” the Greeks gradually loosening the formula throughout the sixth century—we can virtually hear a drumroll preparing us for the miracle—until, at the end of the line, the Kritios Boy steps out of the regimented rank, making that gentle turn of the body that shatters “frontality.”1


The early kouroi, though they advanced the left foot as in Egyptian hieroglyphics (which show the man’s right side), were at first weighted on both legs in a static pose. Gradually, the whole left leg was advanced without breaking the standing position. But the Kritios Boy stands on his left leg and has swung the right one forward. He is now in the contrapposto pose that will be at the heart of so much Greek art and—down through works like the Apollo Belvedere—of Renaissance and later sculpture. The playing off of a vertical weight-bearing side of the body against a looser, relaxed side is a dynamic scheme capable of endless variation. In Michelangelo’s David, it is the right side that is tense with coiled readiness while the unweighted left foot paws out in aiming motion toward the target (Goliath). That David, like thousands of other statues, is a descendent of the Kritios Boy.

All these are commonplaces of art history, but they come alive with special force when one sees the clearly lit Kritios Boy “unveiled” behind the more dimly illuminated kouros—by moving to the left or the right of the kouros, one can look through either of two windows into the next room, where the Kritios Boy is placed in the center of our vision. It is a clever way of accomplishing what Stewart did by means of his composite drawing.

The first impression is typical of the whole exhibit. We are given artfully placed and lit objects, gleaming in a kind of timeless ideality. Though the Kritios Boy is lifelike, a Platonic Form of perfected youth seems to glow through the specifics of his figure. In short, people will get what they expect at this show, the Greek culture of their schooldays, “classicism” in the Winckelmann sense. Since Edith Hamilton is dead, Nicholas Gage recycles some of her clichés in the introduction to the catalog: “The individual can be trusted,’ Perikles said. ‘Let him alone.’ ” In Gage’s account, what was truly uncanny about this Greek miracle is the way it embodies all the best of nineteenth-century liberalism and eighteenth-century aesthetics. As Gray’s churchyard was populated with mute inglorious Miltons, the Kerameikos cemetery, it appears, was chockablock with mute inglorious Gladstones.

This exhibit is a stunning example of the way highly sophisticated museumship can go hand in hand with the most starry-eyed naiveté at the historical and conceptual level. Profound masterpieces are linked to convey the shallowest possible notion of classicism. The elaborate equation assumed by this whole approach runs something like this: Democracy=ideality=humanism=rational ism=naturalism=individualism=Athens. The nexus between each item in this list is necessarily assumed, since it would be hard to establish. And even the items taken singly are applicable only in approximate ways (if any) to the actual works on display. Look at a few of them in isolation:

Democracy: The pinning of the show to a specific Athenian statesman—Kleisthenes—encourages the Athenocentrism that Greek studies often succumb to. Yet much of the work here comes from other parts of Greece. The bronze horse, for instance, is a votive offering from the sacred precinct at Olympia. It gave thanks for victory in the most esteemed—and the most expensive—contest of the Olympic games. Only a tyrant or a very rich aristocrat could afford to enter the four-horse chariot race, which involved extensive breeding-and-training stables, vast exercise grounds, and numerous handlers. The bronze chariot-and-team offered to the god was itself a costly artifact, commissioned from a foundry that specialized in pleasing clients of that period’s Greek “jet set.”

To grasp the scale of this business we have to remember that the famous life-sized charioteer of Delphi, found in 1896, was part of a votive offering that included four life-sized bronze horses. The casting of huge bronze figures was a complicated process recorded on a famous red-figure vase. Like the chariot victory itself, bronze statues were more prized than their competition—marble statues. The material was scarcer than marble, and the process of hollow casting took an establishment with slaves to work the furnace and do the many unskilled stages of work.

Who could afford such things? The Delphic charioteer gives us the answer, since it is inscribed: Polyzalos, tyrant of Gela, dedicated this sculptural group for his victory in the Pythian games of either 478 or 474. This is the plastic counterpart to one of Pindar’s victory odes—those vast and expensive choral ceremonies commissioned by tyrant-victors at the games. What has any of this to do with democracy? By putting the little bronze horse next to the Parthenon frieze, the curator undermines the assumption that Greek artistic excellence was somehow the product of democracy. Admittedly, Athens had more artistic activity than any other city of the fifth century, but this was not because it was a democratic city. It hired artists from all over—and even a non-Athenian architect for the Parthenon—because it was an imperial city, with the huge funds collected from its subjects in the Delian League.


Even in Athens itself, much of the finest art shows little connection with democracy. Take that stele of Hegeso. The woman is shown sitting on an exquisitely carved chair, resting her feet on a delicate footstool, as she runs a necklace through her hands. She has taken the necklace from a box proffered her by a slave. This servant is a grown woman—she has prominent breasts—but she is of a different order of being from her mistress. She is barely taller, standing, than her mistress is when seated—the different body sizes resemble the standing human beings of the Parthenon frieze who are only as tall as the seated gods. The slave’s plain dress and netted hair are in marked contrast to the richly folded material of the mistress’s gown and her elaborate hairstyle (with snood in the back). This is a very wealthy woman whose family wanted to remember her by her wealth—not only in the jewels she owned but in the servants who guarded them. The slave is smaller than her mistress because she is an inferior being.

Ideality: It is both true and obvious that Greek artists dealt in ideal types, not only in their sculpture and poetry but in their rhetoric. It is rather disconcerting, in reading Greek forensic oratory, to see how criminal conduct was all reduced to several typical patterns (“likely” behavior, kata to eikos). But the kind of idealism expressed in Greek sculpture was misapprehended by the founders of modern art history. Even G.E. Lessing, who differed with Winckelmann on the passion that could be expressed in Greek poetry, agreed with him that the canons of ideal beauty kept a statue of Laokoön from expressing more than the mildest discomfiture as a serpent squeezed him and his sons to death. The legacy of that view is still with us, though it would not be expressed so crudely in our day. We need look no further than the descriptions normally given of the Kritios Boy. We are told that this figure not only begins to move but to think. The relaxed turn of his head from the severe frontal stare of the kouroi suggest that he now possesses his own mind, that he is contemplative or musing in his more relaxed pose.

Well, maybe. But the empty eye sockets promote the generalizing and unfocused mood suggested by such descriptions—almost as if his lids were partly lowered. Originally, he had lifelike eyes in those sockets. We can see on a nearby bronze what pride Greek artists took in placing colored irises and black pupils, with their surrounding white, in the sockets of statues that have come down to us with the “eternal” gaze of blank sockets. It would no doubt be a shock for us to see the marble nude looking, open-eyed, at us with vivid irises—almost as if a real face were behind the mask, peering through the eye holes.

Many of the statues in this show would be “spoiled” for people with a modern set of expectations about Greek art if they could see them as they first existed. The head of the warrior from Munich, for instance, had painted marble to indicate his helmet, a metal noseguard and cheek plates affixed to this “helmet,” and painted lead hair hanging beside the cheek guards. The result, along with painted eyes, would look not only garish to us but misguided—all the dangling bits of metal distracting from the finely modeled head underneath. The head is from a temple pediment in Aegina, where it was part of a battle scene thronged with other armored warriors bright in their war paint.

The “Theseus” from the pediment (apparently) at Eretria had an affixed fringe or embroidered hem to his cloak, and a garland on his head (the holes for anchoring it circle the head), besides a “real” sword in his hand. The most famous statues of Pheidias—his Athena of the Parthenon and Zeus of Olympia—were richly surfaced with ivory for the skin, gold and silver for the armor, and brightly painted patches here and there. Even the Parthenon frieze was not only painted but fitted out with metal bridles, spears, “real” reins, and other non-marble adjuncts.

The National Gallery installation sends light from above onto the Parthenon horse-frieze, to bring out the different levels of incision that suggest depth of perspective. But there could be no light from above when the frieze was in situ, under the roof of the Parthenon colonnade. And the angle of vision for seeing the frieze at the top of the cella was very restricted. In Washington, as with the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, the friezes are placed at eye level, so we see them from an angle and in lighting that are both far different from those first intended. When I first saw the Parthenon cavalry frieze, the one shipped to Washington, I lay on the floor under it, in an attempt to see it from something like the intended angle; but the guard in the Acropolis Museum bustled over to make me rise. At the National Gallery, since I was there during the mounting to meet the early deadline of this article, I was able to lie down as long as I wanted, under this as under other temple reliefs.2

The viewer inside the Parthenon colonnade would ideally “follow” the procession marshaled around the temple’s circuit. One cannot see much looking straight up. The best angle is forward, as the celebrants precede one. Seen from that angle, the cavalry frieze gave me a strikingly foreshortened view past the horses’ rumps and their prominently veined bellies. The heads and bodies of the riders are only partly seen, projecting out over the horses’ anatomy—bridles and other accouterments would have flashed at one in the shadowy roof area. The angle recalls the shots, imitated from John Ford’s Stagecoach, of horses thundering over a movie camera.

I asked the curator why the frieze was mounted at eye level. She said they considered raising it, but the National Gallery would not allow it to be lifted to the actual height of its first installation. And, besides, “it’s hard to see from that angle.” What does that suggest about the stupidity of Pheidias’ artistic team, which put the frieze where one could only see it “from that angle”? Actually, in the gallery, one could have looked up at it from across the spacious room—a luxury not possible for those who looked from within the temple colonnade. What the curator meant, of course, is that we would not be able to see the frieze the way we want and expect to see it—“liberated” from its cult site for inspection sub specie aeternitatis, as befits ideal works. No doubt there were unseeable parts of the frieze in its original site, and the artists knew they would be unseen.3 They completed the forms nevertheless—just as freestanding pediment figures were finished behind, where no mortals would see them. Why? Pure aesthetic perfectionism, or from a need to offer only perfect things to the gods? This brings us to the religious aspect of fifth-century art.

Humanism: It was inevitable that the catalog would quote the Sophokles chorus: “Nothing is more wonderful than man.” The Kritios Boy escapes the rigid theological purpose of the kouroi and breathes a lower air along with us, his human fellows. All Greek art is treated, by “classicism” (in quotation marks), as a celebration of humanity. But we easily forget why the great procession depicted on the Parthenon was taking place. The aim of it can seem childish if we advert to it too carefully—and its means can seem savage. The aim was to change the dress on the wooden cult statue of Athena, and the means for completing the celebration in her honor included the bloody butchering of the sacrificial cattle that move so gracefully along in the frieze.

By a happy chance I saw an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, one devoted to the art of the indigenous American cultures, just before going to Washington for the Greek Miracle exhibit. A life-sized stone statue by an Aztec artist—the so-called “Texcoco Venus”—is carefully carved to bring out the female anatomy; but all this would have been hidden in her day, since she too was ceremonially clothed as part of her cult, just like the ancient statue in the Parthenon (or like the Catholics’ Infant of Prague). An oblong hole between the Texcoco goddess’s breasts is the place where a precious stone would have been put to make the statue come to life. That was a custom of the ancient Greeks, too, “the practice of putting pharmaka [magic stuff] in hollow statues in order to animate them.”

The words I just quoted are from Christopher Faraone’s brilliant book on the magic uses of Greek artifacts. The animated statues are derived from the artistic primacy of Hephaestus. Other magic uses of statues include the “bound” statues that control divine activity—the Art Institute exhibit includes bound snake figures of the Mimbres culture. But the phenomenon Faraone concentrates on is the use of evil-averting (apotropaic) statues that guarded sacred precincts—there are apotropaic Olmec masks in the Chicago show.

The apotropaic figure that was a part of every Athenian’s experiences was the Hermes at the door. We call these figures herms, to distinguish them from the god. It is typical and important that the Athenians made no such distinction. It would have given the National Gallery exhibit a whole new coloration if a herm had been included. The herms that have survived are of stone—a Hermes head on a pillar otherwise plain except for male genitals affixed to the pillar’s front surface. On stone herms, the only ones that have survived, the phallus is extended upward flat against the pillar, part of the same worked stone. But vase paintings show the phalloi jutting out, horizontal, with wreaths hung on them. This kind of phallus could not have been carved from the pillar-stone except in very difficult and wasteful ways.

Faraone adopts a suggestion of Michael Jameson that the stone herms, expensive and decorous, were those of wealthy and sophisticated householders. The older form, with jutting phalloi, was kept on wooden herms that most citizens could afford.4 Faraone does not address an extra bit of evidence. The mass mutilation of the herms that got Alkibiades and others into so much trouble on the eve of the Sicilian expedition would have been hard to accomplish with the phalloi lying flat on the pillar’s surface. To chisel them off would be time-consuming and noisy work. But knocking off extended wooden phalloi would have been easy. Why did such vandalism not occur regularly, given such a tempting target for the mischievous? Precisely because the act was so blasphemous, as we can see from the years of sacred litigation that followed on the horrible occurrence.

Why were herms placed at the entrance to homes? Because they were phylakteries, meant to protect the house. Walter Burkert compares this domestic protection by a display of male potency with the practice of monkeys who brandish erect penises at the boundaries of their turf, defying enemies.5 If one thinks this too crude a form of intimidation, the Greeks’ use of severed heads and monsters for the same purpose should be recalled. Hanging images of gorgon heads, or that of the Medusa, to ward off foes is well attested in the literature. The ox-skull ornaments on Doric friezes (boukrania) came from such grisly decoration of walls. The elegant decoration on (e.g.) Jefferson’s Monticello interior had a bizarre origin.

Even the Athena of Pheidias was a kind of standing bulletin board for the hanging of weird memorials. Her aegis-shield, itself a trophy of bloody encounters, had a gorgon-head on its breast, to petrify opponents. The tassles on the aegis were snakes. Her shield had another gorgon head for its boss, and fights with monsters were sculpted on either side. Even her sandals had centaur-battles carved on the high edges of the soles. Large horses charged across the top of her helmet. Fitted out with such Halloween scare-stuff, magically armored and alive with beast-parts, she looks grotesque to us in the most plausible reconstructions of this wonder. She was a reassuringly potent phylaktery to the Greeks, the great Averter of foes from her treasury on the Akropolis. Even the precious metals and materials lavished on her were, like the rare stone put in the Texcoco Venus, symbols of vital power. One gets closer to the religion of the Greeks—and therefore to their art—by studying “primitive” cultures than by remasticating for the thousandth time the ambrosial reflections of J.J. Winckelmann.

The National Gallery show has a small marble image of the Athena Promachos (Charging) that stood in the open on the Akropolis. The garment she wears is exquisitely carved, and the catalog to the exhibit wants us to notice in such works how “the sober vertical folds…are sometimes taken to symbolize democratic mores.” But far more noticeable, before they were lost, would have been the non-marble helmet, spear, and writhing snakes rising from all along the edge of her aegis. The donor of this votive statue was more interested in her magic powers than in the “democratic” way she was wearing this season’s garment.

Naturalism: But the Athena is carved to bring out her version of the Kritios Boy’s contrapposto naturalness. The humanism of the Greeks is often used to explain the naturalism of their art. In fact, Greek aesthetic theory has often been criticized for its naive emphasis on verisimilitude—for its praise of paintings or statues that “fool” the onlooker. Faraone amasses a great deal of evidence to show that the Greeks prized statues not for being lifelike but living. Pindar describes carved birds on a pediment that actually sing. Aeschylus describes satyr-masks on a temple as so “living” they fool the satyrs’ mothers—and are therefore potent in scaring others off. This is literally “magic realism”—in fact, it is supernatural naturalism. What is desired is not resemblance to the everyday but extraordinary power shown in carved life. Cult statues are of or for the gods, of or for the demigods (heroes).6 Even the bronze mirrors in the National Gallery show invoke Aphrodite and her attendants (Erotes) as the grantors and protectors of beauty.

Individualism: “Classicism” manages to claim that Greek artifacts are both ideal and individual. Yet the faces of Athenians on the Parthenon frieze are worked from one master drawing. The show celebrates the way the Kritios Boy broke free of ancient formulas. But he set new formulas that would be adhered to for centuries. Greek art is always formulaic. It has an extraordinary stability, faithfulness to a canon, and conservatism. It looks back, especially to Homer, and argues from precedent. Faraone would say that the same Athena poses were endlessly copied, on vases as well as in bronze and marble, because this was the apotropaic image that worked. It did its job. Scarecrows can be works of art pleasing to men and women, but their real test is on crows. Did she keep the crows away? Hymns keep their literary shape for centuries. Drama, choral song, temples, and oratory have patterns that are never entirely discarded.

Greek culture certainly had an individualist aspect, but it is not the kind we are familiar with, either from Romantic aesthetics or Manchesterian economics. Readers of Aristotle’s Rhetoric often find it depressing that human beings are supposed to respond so predictably according to their type (or to the proper type of argument). This works on the young, as that works on the old. Arguments recur through all the speeches of the forensic orators, often in the very same words. Once a thing is seen to work—on fellow humans as well as on the gods—it is foolhardy to use a formula of less proven potency.

Aristotle is sometimes treated as psychologically reductive because he was a rationalist wielding, ahead of time, Occam’s razor on extraneous causes. It is more likely that his approach is derived from magic. Magic and science were closely allied in classical Greece, as in Renaissance Italy—a fact the Enlightenment found it increasingly hard to understand. The eighteenth century taught us to assume that naturalism and individuality came as a package wrapped up with rationality and secularity. That is the informing assumption of the National Gallery exhibit. It would be “betraying” the Greeks, reducing their importance, to doubt that they put the same emphasis on “humanism” that we do. That is why Nicholas Gage tells us, in the catalog, that “Mortal man became the standard by which things were judged and measured. Buildings were built to accommodate the body and please the eye of a man, not a giant.” Yet the Parthenon was vastly enlarged over its predecessor-temple to house an Athena 11.5 meters high. Gage tells us that the Greek artist sought to

strip away confusing details and variations to uncover the purest ideal of the human body…. No symbols or special trappings of divinity were required beyond the figure’s physical harmony. The most perfect beauty, to the Greek of the fifth century, was the pure and unadorned.

Tell that to the Athena of Pheidias, with her decapitated monsters and crawly snakes. Time has made much Greek art “pure and unadorned” by stripping away what the artist carefully stuck on—including the silver eyelashes fitted onto some marble and many bronze eyelids, or the copper nipples inlaid on bronze statues. The jewels Hegeso fingers on her funeral stele were originally painted there, focusing the whole composition on a specific “adornment,” the family treasure.

Another contributor to the catalog (Olga Palagia) tells us of the Parthenon frieze: “The overlapping horsemen carved in low relief introduce a contemplative mood.” This of the John Ford hooves thundering above us in the crowded colonnade! She also tells us that Aeschylus’ Persians, with its Oriental wailings, was a “meditation on the meaning of the war.” We are back to the “contemplative” stereotype of the Kritios Boy.

“Nothing is more wonderful than man.” The chorus of Sophokles puts this line as climax to an inverted catalog (not surprisingly, a Greek formula, called by modern scholars a Priamel). The chorus is being hopeful and euphemistic (an apotropaic device). The average Athenian knew that line was false. His and her world was teeming with terrible beasts. A giant Athena was needed to scare away the giants. Faraone is very good on the Greeks’ need of homeopathic magic—snakes to scare snakes off. The more realistic the magic snake, the better it worked on attacking snakes—the Mimbres people of the American Southwest understood that. So did Athenian householders, who used images of Hermes the thief to keep away thieves. Recognizable images fought against specific foes—cures fitted to diseases, as hymns are crafted to specific appeals, or speeches adapted to targeted audiences. There was far more to Greek “naturalism” than one would suspect from this show’s rationale. The world of the Greek artist was a far odder and more terrifying place than Gladstone could ever have guessed.

This Issue

December 17, 1992