Skip to content

The beginnings of Greek sculpture 2.

By Walter Pater.


CRITICS OF GREEK sculpture have often spoken of it as if it had been always work in colourless stone, against an almost colourless background. Its real background, as I have tried to show, was a world of exquisite craftsmanship, touching the minutest details of daily life with splendour and skill, in close correspondence with a peculiarly animated development of human existence—the energetic movement and stir of typically noble human forms, quite worthily clothed—amid scenery as poetic as Titian’s.

If shapes of colourless stone did come into that background, it was as the undraped human form comes into some of Titian’s pictures, only to cool and solemnise its splendour; the work of the Greek sculptor being seldom in quite colourless stone, nor always or chiefly in fastidiously selected marble even, but often in richly toned metal (this or that sculptor preferring some special variety of the bronze he worked in, such as the hepatizôn or liver-coloured bronze, or the bright golden alloy of Corinth), and in its consummate products chryselephantine,— work in gold and ivory, on a core of cedar.

Pheidias, in the Olympian Zeus, in the Athene of the Parthenon, fulfils what that primitive, heroic goldsmiths’ age, dimly discerned in Homer, already delighted in; and the celebrated work of which I have first to speak now, and with which Greek sculpture emerges from that half-mythical age and becomes in a certain sense historical, is a link in that goldsmiths’ or chryselephantine tradition, carrying us forwards to the work of Pheidias, backwards to the elaborate Asiatic furniture of the chamber of Paris.

WHEN PAUSANIAS VISITED Olympia, towards the end of the second century after Christ, he beheld, among other precious objects in the temple of Here, a splendidly wrought treasure-chest of cedar-wood, in which, according to a legend, quick as usual with the true human colouring, the mother of Cypselus had hidden him, when a child, from the enmity of her family, the Bacchiadae, then the nobility of Corinth. The child, named Cypselus after this incident (Cypsele being a Corinthian word for chest), became tyrant of Corinth, and his grateful descendants, as it was said, offered the beautiful old chest to the temple of Here, as a memorial of his preservation. That would have been not long after the year 625 B.C. So much for the story which Pausanias heard—but inherent probability, and some points of detail in his description, tend to fix the origin of the chest at a date at least somewhat later; and as Herodotus, telling the story of the concealment of Cypselus, does not mention the dedication of the chest at Olympia at all, it may perhaps have been only one of many later imitations of antique art. But, whatever its date, Pausanias certainly saw the thing, and has left a long description of it, and we may trust his judgment at least as to its archaic style. We have here, then, something plainly visible at a comparatively recent date, something quite different from those perhaps wholly mythical objects described in Homer,—an object which seemed to so experienced an observer as Pausanias an actual work of earliest Greek art. Relatively to later Greek art, it may have seemed to him, what the ancient bronze doors with their Scripture histories, which we may still see in the south transept of the cathedral of Pisa, are to later Italian art.

Pausanias tells us nothing as to its size, nor directly as to its shape. It may, for anything he says, have been oval, but it was probably rectangular, with a broad front and two narrow sides, standing, as the maker of it had designed, against the wall; for, in enumerating the various subjects wrought upon it, in five rows one above another, he seems to proceed, beginning at the bottom on the right-hand side, along the front from right to left, and then back again, through the second row from left to right, and, alternating thus, upwards to the last subject, at the top, on the left-hand side.

The subjects represented, most of which had their legends attached in difficult archaic writing, were taken freely, though probably with a leading idea, out of various poetic cycles, as treated in the works of those so-called cyclic poets, who continued the Homeric tradition. Pausanias speaks, as Homer does in his description of the shield of Achilles, of a kind and amount of expression in feature and gesture certainly beyond the compass of any early art, and we may believe we have in these touches only what the visitor heard from enthusiastic exegetae, the interpreters or sacristans; though any one who has seen the Bayeux tapestry, for instance, must recognise the pathos and energy of which, when really prompted by genius, even the earliest hand is capable. Some ingenious attempts have been made to restore the grouping of the scenes, with a certain formal expansion or balancing of subjects, their figures and dimensions, in true Assyrian manner, on the front and sides. We notice some fine emblematic figures, the germs of great artistic motives in after times, already playing their parts there,—Death, and Sleep, and Night. “There was a woman supporting on her right arm a white child sleeping; and on the other arm she held a dark child, as if asleep; and they lay with their feet crossed. And the inscription shows, what might be understood without it, that they are Death and Sleep, and Night, the nurse of both of them.”

But what is most noticeable is, as I have already said, that this work, like the chamber of Paris, like the Zeus of Pheidias, is chryselephantine, its main fabric cedar, and the figures upon it partly of ivory, partly of gold,1 but (and this is the most peculiar characteristic of its style) partly wrought out of the wood of the chest itself. And, as we read the description, we can hardly help distributing in fancy gold and ivory, respectively, to their appropriate functions in the representation. The cup of Dionysus, and the wings of certain horses there, Pausanias himself tells us were golden. Were not the apples of the Hesperides, the necklace of Eriphyle, the bridles, the armour, the unsheathed sword in the hand of Amphiaraus, also of gold? Were not the other children, like the white image of Sleep, especially the naked child Alcmaeon, of ivory? with Alcestis and Helen, and that one of the Dioscuri whose beard was still ungrown? Were not ivory and gold, again, combined in the throne of Hercules, and in the three goddesses conducted before Paris?

The “chest of Cypselus” fitly introduces the first historical period of Greek art, a period coming down to about the year 560 B.C., and the government of Pisistratus at Athens; a period of tyrants like Cypselus and Pisistratus himself, men of strong, sometimes unscrupulous individuality, but often also acute and cultivated patrons of the arts. It begins with a series of inventions, one here and another there,—inventions still for the most part technical, but which are attached to single names; for, with the growth of art, the influence of individuals, gifted for the opening of new ways, more and more defines itself; and the school, open to all comers, from which in turn the disciples may pass to all parts of Greece, takes the place of the family, in which the knowledge of art descends as a tradition from father to son, or of the mere trade-guild. Of these early industries we know little but the stray notices of Pausanias, often ambiguous, always of doubtful credibility. What we do see, through these imperfect notices, is a real period of animated artistic activity, richly rewarded. Byzes of Naxos, for instance, is recorded as having first adopted the plan of sawing marble into thin plates for use on the roofs of temples instead of tiles; and that his name has come down to us at all, testifies to the impression this fair white surface made on its first spectators. Various islands of the Aegean become each the source of some new artistic device. It is a period still under the reign of Hephaestus, delighting, above all, in magnificent metal-work. “The Samians,” says Herodotus, “out of a tenth part of their profits—a sum of six talents—caused a mixing vessel of bronze to be made, after the Argolic fashion; around it are projections of griffins’ heads; and they dedicated it in the temple of Here, placing beneath it three colossal figures of bronze, seven cubits in height, leaning upon their knees.” That was in the thirty-seventh Olympiad, and may be regarded as characteristic of the age. For the popular imagination, a kind of glamour, some mysterious connexion of the thing with human fortunes, still attaches to the curious product of artistic hands, to the ring of Polycrates, for instance, with its early specimen of engraved smaragdus, as to the mythical necklace of Harmonia. Pheidon of Argos first makes coined money, and the obelisci—the old nail-shaped iron money, now disused- -are hung up in the temple of Here; for, even thus early, the temples are in the way of becoming museums. Names like those of Eucheir and Eugrammus, who were said to have taken the art of baking clay vases from Samos to Etruria, have still a legendary air, yet may be real surnames; as in the case of Smilis, whose name is derived from a graver’s tool, and who made the ancient image of Here at Samos. Corinth—mater statuariae—becomes a great nursery of art at an early time. Some time before the twenty-ninth Olympiad, Butades of Sicyon, the potter, settled there. The record of early inventions in Greece is sometimes fondly coloured with human sentiment or incident. It is on the butterfly wing of such an incident—the love-sick daughter of the artist, who outlines on the wall the profile of her lover as he sleeps in the lamplight, to keep by her in absence—that the name of Butades the potter has come down to us. The father fills up the outline, long preserved, it was believed, in the Nymphaeum at Corinth, and hence the art of modelling from the life in clay. He learns, further, a way of colouring his clay red, and fixes his masks along the temple eaves.

The temple of Athene Chalcioecus—Athene of the brazen house—at Sparta, the work of Gitiades, celebrated about this time as architect, statuary, and poet; who made, besides the image in her shrine, and besides other Dorian songs, a hymn to the goddess—was so called from its crust or lining of bronze plates, setting forth, in richly embossed imagery, various subjects of ancient legend. What Pausanias, who saw it, describes, is like an elaborate development of that method of covering the interiors of stone buildings with metal plates, of which the “Treasury” at Mycenae is the earliest historical, and the house of Alcinous the heroic, type. In the pages of Pausanias, that glitter, “as of the moon or the sun,” which Ulysses stood still to wonder at, may still be felt. And on the right hand of this “brazen house,” he tells us, stood an image of Zeus, also of bronze, the most ancient of all images of bronze. This had not been cast, nor wrought out of a single mass of metal, but, the various parts having been finished separately (probably beaten to shape with the hammer over a wooden mould), had been fitted together with nails or rivets. That was the earliest method of uniting the various parts of a work in metal—image, or vessel, or breastplate—a method allowing of much dainty handling of the cunning pins and rivets, and one which has its place still, in perfectly accomplished metal-work, as in the equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Coleoni, by Andrea Verrocchio, in the piazza of St. John and St. Paul at Venice. In the British Museum there is a very early specimen of it,—a large egg-shaped vessel, fitted together of several pieces, the projecting pins or rivets, forming a sort of diadem round the middle, being still sharp in form and heavily gilt. That method gave place in time to a defter means of joining the parts together, with more perfect unity and smoothness of surface, the art of soldering; and the invention of this art—of soldering iron, in the first instance—is coupled with the name of Glaucus of Chios, a name which, in connexion with this and other devices for facilitating the mechanical processes of art,—for perfecting artistic effect with economy of labour—became proverbial, the “art of Glaucus” being attributed to those who work well with rapidity and ease.

Far more fruitful still was the invention of casting, of casting hollow figures especially, attributed to Rhoecus and Theodorus, architects of the great temple at Samos. Such hollow figures, able, in consequence of their lightness, to rest, almost like an inflated bladder, on a single point—the entire bulk of a heroic rider, for instance, on the point of his horse’s tail—admit of a much freer distribution of the whole weight or mass required, than is possible in any other mode of statuary; and the invention of the art of casting is really the discovery of liberty in composition.2

AND, AT LAST, about the year 576 B.C., we come to the first true school of sculptors, the first clear example, as we seem to discern, of a communicable style, reflecting and interpreting some real individuality (the double personality, in this case, of two brothers) in the masters who evolved it, conveyed to disciples who came to acquire it from distant places, and taking root through them at various centres, where the names of the masters became attached, of course, to many fair works really by the hands of the pupils. Dipoenus and Scyllis, these first true masters, were born in Crete; but their work is connected mainly with Sicyon, at that time the chief seat of Greek art. “In consequence of some injury done them,” it is said, “while employed there upon certain sacred images, they departed to another place, leaving their work unfinished; and, not long afterwards, a grievous famine fell upon Sicyon. Thereupon, the people of Sicyon, inquiring of the Pythian Apollo how they might be relieved, it was answered them, ‘if Dipoenus and Scyllis should finish those images of the gods’; which thing the Sicyonians obtained from them, humbly, at a great price.” That story too, as we shall see, illustrates the spirit of the age. For their sculpture they used the white marble of Paros, being workers in marble especially, though they worked also in ebony and in ivory, and made use of gilding. “Figures of cedar-wood, partly incrusted with gold”—kedrou zôdia chrysô diênthismena3—Pausanias says exquisitely, describing a certain work of their pupil, Dontas of Lacedaemon. It is to that that we have definitely come at last, in the school of Dipoenus and Scyllis.

Dry and brief as these details may seem, they are the witness to an active, eager, animated period of inventions and beginnings, in which the Greek workman triumphs over the first rough mechanical difficulties which beset him in the endeavour to record what his soul conceived of the form of priest or athlete then alive upon the earth, or of the ever-living gods, then already more seldom seen upon it. Our own fancy must fill up the story of the unrecorded patience of the workshop, into which we seem to peep through these scanty notices—the fatigue, the disappointments, the steps repeated, ending at last in that moment of success, which is all Pausanias records, somewhat uncertainly.

And as this period begins with the chest of Cypselus, so it ends with a work in some respects similar, also seen and described by Pausanias—the throne, as he calls it, of the Amyclaean Apollo. It was the work of a well-known artist, Bathycles of Magnesia, who, probably about the year 550 B.C., with a company of workmen, came to the little ancient town of Amyclae, near Sparta, a place full of traditions of the heroic age. He had been invited thither to perform a peculiar task—the construction of a throne; not like the throne of the Olympian Zeus, and others numerous in after times, for a seated figure, but for the image of the local Apollo; no other than a rude and very ancient pillar of bronze, thirty cubits high, to which, Hermes-wise, head, arms, and feet were attached. The thing stood upright, as on a base, upon a kind of tomb or reliquary, in which, according to tradition, lay the remains of the young prince Hyacinth, son of the founder of that place, beloved by Apollo for his beauty, and accidentally struck dead by him in play, with a quoit. From the drops of the lad’s blood had sprung up the purple flower of his name, which bears on its petals the letters of the ejaculation of woe; and in his memory the famous games of Amyclae were celebrated, beginning about the time of the longest day, when the flowers are stricken by the sun and begin to fade—a festival marked, amid all its splendour, with some real melancholy, and serious thought of the dead. In the midst of the “throne” of Bathycles, this sacred receptacle, with the strange, half-humanised pillar above it, was to stand, probably in the open air, within a consecrated enclosure. Like the chest of Cypselus, the throne was decorated with reliefs of subjects taken from epic poetry, and it had supporting figures. Unfortunately, what Pausanias tells us of this monument hardly enables one to present it to the imagination with any completeness or certainty; its dimensions he himself was unable exactly to ascertain, and he does not tell us its material. There are reasons, however, for supposing that it was of metal; and amid these ambiguities, the decorations of its base, the grave or altar-tomb of Hyacinth, shine out clearly, and are also, for the most part, clear in their significance.

“There are wrought upon the altar figures, on the one side of Biris, on the other of Amphitrite and Poseidon. Near Zeus and Hermes, in speech with each other, stand Dionysus and Semele, and, beside her, Ino. Demeter, Kore, and Pluto are also wrought upon it, the Fates and the Seasons above them, and with them Aphrodite, Athene, and Artemis. They are conducting Hyacinthus to heaven, with Polyboea, the sister of Hyacinthus, who died, as is told, while yet a virgin. . . . Hercules also is figured on the tomb; he too carried to heaven by Athene and the other gods. The daughters of Thestius also are upon the altar, and the Seasons again, and the Muses.”

It was as if many lines of solemn thought had been meant to unite, about the resting-place of this local Adonis, in imageries full of some dim promise of immortal life.

BUT IT WAS not so much in care for old idols as in the making of new ones that Greek art was at this time engaged. This whole first period of Greek art might, indeed, be called the period of graven images, and all its workmen sons of Daedalus; for Daedalus is the mythical, or all but mythical, representative of all those arts which are combined in the making of lovelier idols than had heretofore been seen. The old Greek word which is at the root of the name Daedalus, the name of a craft rather than a proper name, probably means to work curiously—all curiously beautiful wood-work is Daedal work; the main point about the curiously beautiful chamber in which Nausicaa sleeps, in the Odyssey, being that, like some exquisite Swiss châlet, it is wrought in wood. But it came about that those workers in wood, whom Daedalus represents, the early craftsmen of Crete especially, were chiefly concerned with the making of religious images, like the carvers of Berchtesgaden and Oberammergau, the sort of daintily finished images of the objects of public or private devotion which such workmen would turn out. Wherever there was a wooden idol in any way fairer than others, finished, perhaps, sometimes, with colour and gilding, and appropriate real dress, there the hand of Daedalus had been. That such images were quite detached from pillar or wall, that they stood free, and were statues in the proper sense, showed that Greek art was already liberated from its earlier Eastern associations; such free-standing being apparently unknown in Assyrian art. And then, the effect of this Daedal skill in them was, that they came nearer to the proper form of humanity. It is the wonderful life-likeness of these early images which tradition celebrates in many anecdotes, showing a very early instinctive turn for, and delight in naturalism, in the Greek temper. As Cimabue, in his day, was able to charm men, almost as with illusion, by the simple device of half-closing the eyelids of his personages, and giving them, instead of round eyes, eyes that seemed to be in some degree sentient, and to feel the light; so the marvellous progress in those Daedal wooden images was, that the eyes were open, so that they seemed to look,—the feet separated, so that they seemed to walk. Greek art is thus, almost from the first, essentially distinguished from the art of Egypt, by an energetic striving after truth in organic form. In representing the human figure, Egyptian art had held by mathematical or mechanical proportions exclusively. The Greek apprehends of it, as the main truth, that it is a living organism, with freedom of movement, and hence the infinite possibilities of motion, and of expression by motion, with which the imagination credits the higher sort of Greek sculpture; while the figures of Egyptian art, graceful as they often are, seem absolutely incapable of any motion or gesture, other than the one actually designed. The work of the Greek sculptor, together with its more real anatomy, becomes full also of human soul.

That old, primitive, mystical, first period of Greek religion, with its profound, though half-conscious, intuitions of spiritual powers in the natural world, attaching itself not to the worship of visible human forms, but to relics, to natural or half-natural objects—the roughly hewn tree, the unwrought stone, the pillar, the holy cone of Aphrodite in her dimly-lighted cell at Paphos—had passed away. The second stage in the development of Greek religion had come; a period in which poet and artist were busily engaged in the work of incorporating all that might be retained of the vague divinations of that earlier visionary time, in definite and intelligible human image and human story. The vague belief, the mysterious custom and tradition, develope themselves into an elaborately ordered ritual— into personal gods, imaged in ivory and gold, sitting on beautiful thrones. Always, wherever a shrine or temple, great or small, is mentioned, there, we may conclude, was a visible idol, there was conceived to be the actual dwelling-place of a god. And this understanding became not less but more definite, as the temple became larger and more splendid, full of ceremony and servants, like the abode of an earthly king, and as the sacred presence itself assumed, little by little, the last beauties and refinements of the visible human form and expression.

In what we have seen of this first period of Greek art, in all its curious essays and inventions, we may observe this demand for beautiful idols increasing in Greece—for sacred images, at first still rude, and in some degree the holier for their rudeness, but which yet constitute the beginnings of the religious style, consummate in the work of Pheidias, uniting the veritable image of man in the full possession of his reasonable soul, with the true religious mysticity, the signature there of something from afar. One by one these new gods of bronze, or marble, or flesh-like ivory, take their thrones, at this or that famous shrine, like the images of this period which Pausanias saw in the temple of Here at Olympia—the throned Seasons, with Themis as the mother of the Seasons (divine rectitude being still blended, in men’s fancies, with the unchanging physical order of things) and Fortune, and Victory “having wings,” and Kore and Demeter and Dionysus, already visibly there, around the image of Here herself, seated on a throne; and all chryselephantine, all in gold and ivory. Novel as these things are, they still undergo consecration at their first erecting. The figure of Athene, in her brazen temple at Sparta, the work of Gitiades, who makes also the image and the hymn, in triple service to the goddess; and again, that curious story of Dipoenus and Scyllis, brought back with so much awe to remove the public curse by completing their sacred task upon the images, show how simply religious the age still was—that this widespread artistic activity was a religious enthusiasm also; those early sculptors have still, for their contemporaries, a divine mission, with some kind of hieratic or sacred quality in their gift, distinctly felt.

The development of the artist, in the proper sense, out of the mere craftsman, effected in the first division of this period, is now complete; and, in close connexion with that busy graving of religious images, which occupies its second division, we come to something like real personalities, to men with individual characteristics—such men as Ageladas of Argos, Callon and Onatas of Aegina, and Canachus of Sicyon. Mere fragment as our information concerning these early masters is at the best, it is at least unmistakeably information about men with personal differences of temper and talent, of their motives, of what we call style. We have come to a sort of art which is no longer broadly characteristic of a general period, one whose products we might have looked at without its occurring to us to ask concerning the artist, his antecedents, and his school. We have to do now with types of art, fully impressed with the subjectivity, the intimacies of the artist.

AMONG THESE FREER and stronger personalities emerging thus about the beginning of the fifth century before Christ—about the period of the Persian war—the name to which most of this sort of personal quality attaches, and which is therefore very interesting, is the name of Canachus of Sicyon, who seems to have comprehended in himself all the various attainments in art which had been gradually developed in the schools of his native city—carver in wood, sculptor, brass-cutter, and toreutes; by toreuticê being meant the whole art of statuary in metals, and in their combination with other materials. At last we seem to see an actual person at work, and to some degree can follow, with natural curiosity, the motions of his spirit and his hand. We seem to discern in all we know of his productions the results of individual apprehension—the results, as well as the limitations, of an individual talent.

It is impossible to date exactly the chief period of the activity of Canachus. That the great image of Apollo, which he made for the Milesians, was carried away to Ecbatana by the Persian army, is stated by Pausanias; but there is a doubt whether this was under Xerxes, as Pausanias says, in the year 479 B.C., or twenty years earlier, under Darius. So important a work as this colossal image of Apollo, for so great a shrine as the Didymaeum, was probably the task of his maturity; and his career may, therefore, be regarded as having begun, at any rate, prior to the year 479 B.C., and the end of the Persian invasion the event which may be said to close this period of art. On the whole, the chief period of his activity is thought to have fallen earlier, and to have occupied the last forty years of the previous century; and he would thus have flourished, as we say, about fifty years before the manhood of Pheidias, as Mino of Fiesole fifty years before the manhood of Michelangelo.

His chief works were an Aphrodite, wrought for the Sicyonians in ivory and gold; that Apollo of bronze carried away by the Persians, and restored to its place about the year B.C. 350; and a reproduction of the same work in cedar-wood, for the sanctuary of Apollo of the Ismenus, at Thebes. The primitive Greek worship, as we may trace it in Homer, presents already, on a minor scale, all the essential characteristics of the most elaborate Greek worship of after times— the sacred enclosure, the incense and other offerings, the prayer of the priest, the shrine itself—a small one, roofed in by the priest with green boughs, not unlike a wayside chapel in modern times, and understood to be the dwelling-place of the divine person—within, almost certainly, an idol, with its own sacred apparel, a visible form, little more than symbolical perhaps, like the sacred pillar for which Bathycles made his throne at Amyclae, but, if an actual image, certainly a rude one.

That primitive worship, traceable in almost all these particulars, even in the first book of the Iliad, had given place, before the time of Canachus at Sicyon, to a more elaborate ritual and a more completely designed image-work; and a little bronze statue, discovered on the site of Tenea, where Apollo was the chief object of worship,4 the best representative of many similar marble figures— those of Thera and Orchomenus, for instance—is supposed to represent Apollo as this still early age conceived him—youthful, naked, muscular, and with the germ of the Greek profile, but formally smiling, and with a formal diadem or fillet, over the long hair which shows him to be no mortal athlete. The hands, like the feet, excellently modelled, are here extended downwards at the sides; but in some similar figures the hands are lifted, and held straight outwards, with the palms upturned. The Apollo of Canachus also had the hands thus raised, and on the open palm of the right hand was placed a stag, while with the left he grasped the bow. Pliny says that the stag was an automaton, with a mechanical device for setting it in motion, a detail which hints, at least, at the subtlety of workmanship with which those ancient critics, who had opportunity of knowing, credited this early artist.

Of this work itself nothing remains, but we possess perhaps some imitations of it. It is probably this most sacred possession of the place which the coins of Miletus display from various points of view, though, of course, only on the smallest scale. But a little bronze figure in the British Museum, with the stag in the right hand, and in the closed left hand the hollow where the bow has passed, is thought to have been derived from it; and its points of style are still further illustrated by a marble head of similar character, also preserved in the British Museum, which has many marks of having been copied in marble from an original in bronze. A really ancient work, or only archaic, it certainly expresses, together with all that careful patience and hardness of workmanship which is characteristic of an early age, a certain Apolline strength—a pride and dignity in the features, so steadily composed, below the stiff, archaic arrangement of the long, fillet-bound locks. It is the exact expression of that midway position, between an involved, archaic stiffness and the free play of individual talent, which is attributed to Canachus by the ancients.

His Apollo of cedar-wood, which inhabited a temple near the gates of Thebes, on a rising ground, below which flowed the river Ismenus, had, according to Pausanias, so close a resemblance to that at Miletus that it required little skill in one who had seen either of them to tell what master had designed the other. Still, though of the same dimensions, while one was of cedar the other was of bronze— a reproduction one of the other we may believe, but with the modifications, according to the use of good workmen even so early as Canachus, due to the difference of the material. For the likeness between the two statues, it is to be observed, is not the mechanical likeness of those earlier images represented by the statuette of Tenea, which spoke, not of the style of one master, but only of the manufacture of one workshop. In those two images of Canachus—the Milesian Apollo and the Apollo of the Ismenus—there were resemblances amid differences; resemblances, as we may understand, in what was nevertheless peculiar, novel, and even innovating in the precise conception of the god therein set forth; resemblances which spoke directly of a single workman, though working freely, of one hand and one fancy, a likeness in that which could by no means be truly copied by another; it was the beginning of what we mean by the style of a master. Together with all the novelty, the innovating and improving skill, which has made Canachus remembered, an attractive, old-world, deeply-felt mysticity seems still to cling about what we read of these early works. That piety, that religiousness of temper, of which the people of Sicyon had given proof so oddly in their dealings with those old carvers, Scyllis and Dipoenus, still survives in the master who was chosen to embody his own novelty of idea and execution in so sacred a place as the shrine of Apollo at Miletus. Something still conventional, combined, in these images, with the effect of great artistic skill, with a palpable beauty and power, seems to have given them a really imposing religious character. Escaping from the rigid uniformities of the stricter archaic style, he is still obedient to certain hieratic influences and traditions; he is still reserved, self-controlled, composed or even mannered a little, as in some sacred presence, with the severity and strength of the early style.

But there are certain notices which seem to show that he had his purely poetical motives also, as befitted his age; motives which prompted works of mere fancy, like his Muse with the Lyre, symbolising the chromatic style of music; Aristocles his brother, and Ageladas of Argos executing each another statue to symbolise the two other orders of music. The Riding Boys, of which Pliny speaks, like the mechanical stag on the hand of Apollo, which he also describes, were perhaps mechanical toys, as Benvenuto Cellini made toys. In the Beardless Aesculapius, again—the image of the god of healing, not merely as the son of Apollo, but as one ever young—it is the poetry of sculpture that we see.

This poetic feeling, and the piety of temper so deeply impressed upon his images of Apollo, seem to have been combined in his chryselephantine Aphrodite, as we see it very distinctly in Pausanias, enthroned with an apple in one hand and a poppy in the other, and with the sphere, or polos, about the head, in its quaint little temple or chapel at Sicyon, with the hierokêpis, or holy garden, about it. This is what Canachus has to give us instead of the strange, symbolical cone, with the lights burning around it, in its dark cell—the form under which Aphrodite was worshipped at her famous shrine of Paphos.

“A woman to keep it fair,” Pausanias tells us, “who may go in to no man, and a virgin called the water-bearer, who holds her priesthood for a year, are alone permitted to enter the sacred place. All others may gaze upon the goddess and offer their prayers from the doorway. The seated image is the work of Canachus of Sicyon. It is wrought in ivory and gold, bearing a sphere on the head, and having in the one hand a poppy and in the other an apple. They offer to her the thighs of all victims excepting swine, burning them upon sticks of juniper, together with leaves of lad’s-love, a herb found in the enclosure without, and nowhere else in the world. Its leaves are smaller than those of the beech and larger than the ilex; in form they are like an oak-leaf, and in colour resemble most the leaves of the poplar, one side dusky, the other white.”

That is a place one would certainly have liked to see. So real it seems!—the seated image, the people gazing through the doorway, the fragrant odour. Must it not still be in secret keeping somewhere?— we are almost tempted to ask; maintained by some few solitary worshippers, surviving from age to age, among the villagers of Achaia.

In spite of many obscurities, it may be said that what we know, and what we do not know, of Canachus illustrates the amount and sort of knowledge we possess about the artists of the period which he best represents. A naïveté—a freshness, an early-aged simplicity and sincerity—that, we may believe, had we their works before us, would be for us their chief aesthetic charm. Cicero remarked that, in contrast with the works of the next generation of sculptors, there was a stiffness in the statues of Canachus which made them seem untrue to nature—”Canachi signa rigidiora esse quam ut imitentur veritatem.” But Cicero belongs to an age surfeited with artistic licence, and likely enough to undervalue the severity of the early masters, the great motive struggling still with the minute and rigid hand. So the critics of the last century ignored, or underrated, the works of the earlier Tuscan sculptors. In what Cicero calls “rigidity” of Canachus, combined with what we seem to see of his poetry of conception, his freshness, his solemnity, we may understand no really repellent hardness, but only that earnest patience of labour, the expression of which is constant in all the best work of an early time, in the David of Verrocchio, for instance, and in the early Flemish painters, as it is natural and becoming in youth itself. The very touch of the struggling hand was upon the work; but with the interest, the half-repressed animation of a great promise, fulfilled, as we now see, in the magnificent growth of Greek sculpture in the succeeding age; which, however, for those earlier workmen, meant the loins girt and the half-folded wings not yet quite at home in the air, with a gravity, a discretion and reserve, the charm of which, if felt in quiet, is hardly less than that of the wealth and fulness of final mastery.


In this series, from the Fortnightly Review archive:

I.The Heroic Age of Greek Art
II.The Age of Graven Images

The Marbles of Ægina

An essayist, critic and novelist, Walter Horatio Pater was a frequent contributor to the Fortnightly Review. His three essays on Greek sculpture – “The Beginnings of Greek Sculpture” parts one and two and “The Marbles of Aegina”  – appeared in the Fortnightly Review in February, March and April 1880 and were collected by his friend Charles Shadwell and published under the title Greek Studies in 1895, the year after his death at age 54.

NOTES (Pater’s are unsigned; those by the helpful Gutenberg Pater etext editor, Alfred J. Drake, Ph.D., are indicated in text comments and in the notes below):

  1.  Χρνσοûν (chryseos) is the word Pausanias uses, of the cup in the hand of Dionysus—the wood was plated with gold. (Drake adds: Liddell and Scott definition of the adjective chryseos: “golden, of gold, inlaid with gold.”
  2. Pausanias, in recording the invention of casting, uses the word echôneusanto, but does not tell us whether the model was of wax, as in the later process; which, however, is believed to have been the case. For an animated account of the modern process:—the core of plaister roughly presenting the designed form; the modelling of the waxen surface thereon, like the skin upon the muscles, with all its delicate touches—vein and eyebrow; the hardening of the plaister envelope, layer over layer, upon this delicately finished model; the melting of the way by heat, leaving behind it in its place the finished design in vacuo, which the molten stream of metal subsequently fills; released finally, after cooling, from core and envelope—see Fortnum’s Handbook of Bronzes, Chapter II.
  3. Liddell and Scott definition of the noun chônê and the verb chônnymi: “a melting-pit, a mould to cast in. . . . to throw or heap up . . . to cover with a mound of earth, bury.”
  4.  Now preserved at Munich.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x