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Polykleitos' Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer), an early example of classical contrapposto.

Polykleitos (or Polyklitos, Polycleitus, Polyclitus; Greek Πολύκλειτος); called the Elder[1], was a Greek sculptor in bronze of the fifth and the early fourth century BC. Next to Phidias, Myron and Kresilas, he is considered the most important sculptor of Classical antiquity: the fourth-century catalogue attributed to Xenocrates (the "Xenocratic catalogue"), which was Pliny's guide in matters of art, ranked him between Phidias and Myron[2].

He was of the school of Argos, a contemporary of Phidias (possibly also taught by Ageladas) and, in the opinion of the Greeks, his equal. His figure of an Amazon for Ephesus was regarded as superior to those by Phidias and Kresilas at the same time; and his colossal gold and ivory statue of Hera which stood in her temple – the Heraion of Argos – was compared with the Zeus by Phidias. He also sculpted a famous bronze male nude known as the Doryphoros ("Spear-carrier"), which survives in the form of numerous Roman marble copies. Further sculptures attributed to Polykleitos are the Discophoros ("Discus-bearer"), Diadumenos ("Diadem-wearer") and a Hermes at one time placed, according to Pliny, in Lysimachia (Thrace). Polykleitos' Astragalizontes ("Boys Playing at Knuckle-bones") was claimed by the Emperor Titus and set in a place of honour in his atrium[3].

Polykleitos, along with Phidias, created the Classical Greek style. Although none of his original works survive, literary sources identifying Roman marble copies of his work allow reconstructions to be made. An essential element of his and the Classical Greek style is the use of a relaxed pose with the shifted balance of weight known today as contrapposto yielding a naturalness that was a source of his fame.

A Polykleitan Diadumenos, in a Roman marble copy (National Archaeological Museum of Athens).
(British Museum)

Polykleitos consciously created a new approach to sculpture; he wrote a treatise (Kanon) and designed a male nude (also known as Kanon) exemplifying his aesthetic theories of the mathematical bases of artistic perfection, which motivated Kenneth Clark to place him among "the great puritans of art":[4] His Kanon "got its name because it had a precise commensurability (symmetria) of all the parts to one another"[5] "His general aim was clarity, balance, and completeness; his sole medium of communication the naked body of an athlete, standing poised between movement and repose" Kenneth Clark observed.[6] Though the Kanon may be represented by his Doryphoros, the bronze has not survived, but references to it in other ancient books imply that its main principle was expressed by the Greek words symmetria, the Hippocratic principle of isonomia ("equilibrium"), and rhythmos. "Perfection, he said, comes about little by little (para mikron) through many numbers"[7]. By this Polykleitos meant that a statue should be composed of clearly definable parts, all related to one another through a system of ideal mathematical proportions and balance, no doubt expressed in terms of the ratios established by Pythagoras for the perfect intervals of the musical scale: 1:2 (octave), 2:3 (harmonic fifth), and 3:4 (harmonic fourth). The refined detail of Polykleitos' models for casting executed in clay is revealed in a famous remark repeated in Plutarch's Moralia, that "the work is hardest when the clay is under the fingernail"[8].

Polykleitos and Phidias were of the first generation of Greek sculptors to have a schools of followers. Polykleitos' school lasted for at least three generations, but it seems to have been most active in the late 300s and early 200s BC. The Roman writers Pliny and Pausanias noted the names of about twenty sculptors in Polykleitos' school, defined by their adherence to his principles of balance and definition. Skopas and Lysippus are the best-known successors of Polykleitos.

His son, Polykleitos the Younger, worked in the fourth century BC. Although he was also a sculptor of athletes, his greatest fame was won as an architect. He designed the great theater at Epidaurus.




  1. ^ Only in cases where it is necessary to distinguish him from his son, a major architect but minor sculptor.
  2. ^ Andrew Stewart, "Polykleitos of Argos," One Hundred Greek Sculptors: Their Careers and Extant Works, 16.73
  3. ^ Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia
  4. ^ Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, 1956:63;"...they derive the principles of their art, as if from a law of some kind, and he alone of men is deemed to have rendered art itself in a work of art." Pliny's Natural History, 34.55-6.
  5. ^ Galen, De Temperamentis.
  6. ^ Clark 1956:63.
  7. ^ Philo, Mechanicus, quoted in Stewart.
  8. ^ Plutarch, Moralia, quoted in Stewart.


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