Polykleitos (active ca. 450-420 B.C.), one of the great innovative Greek sculptors of the 5th century, stands alone in his concentration on the problems of the nude, male human body, for which he evolved a standard of proportion and representation that in one way or another influenced the subsequent development of sculpture in Western civilization.
Polykleitos, the elder of two sculptors of this name, was a master bronze caster of the Argive school. His earliest works, probably done about 450 B.C. or a little earlier, are statues of victors in athletic contests. The end of his career cannot have come long after 423, when the old temple of Hera in Argos burned and Polykleitos made a gold-and-ivory seated cult statue of Hera for the new temple.
In contrast to his contemporary Phidias, whose favorite subjects were gods and goddesses, Polykleitos portrayed mortals. He is most famous for creating an ideal nude male figure and explaining it in a book, calling both the Canon, that is, "rule" or "example." The Doryphoros, or spear bearer, a statue of a standing nude youth, has been identified as this statue, which Cicero and Pausanius plausibly attributed to Polykleitos. The original statue was in bronze; it is known from many copies, including excellent marble copies (Museo Nazionale, Naples; Uffizi, Florence). The figure is squarely built and stands in a relaxed contrapposto position, weight on right leg, left hand bent backward to hold a spear shaft over his shoulder. The identification most often suggested for the Doryphoros is Achilles. The face still preserves traces of early classical severity. Here, the human body now reacts in a relaxed, organic manner, with every part of the figure responding naturally to the principal action. The stocky torso is treated in an almost architectonic fashion, with chest and abdominal areas sharply separated from one another. That the figure was painstakingly designed cannot be denied; the system of proportions that Polykleitos embodied in his Canon, however, has so far eluded scholars.
The second work that can be attributed with reasonable probability to Polykleitos is a more slender and graceful athlete, the Diadoumenos, or youth tying a victor's fillet around his head. It is likely that this statue is considerably later than the Doryphoros, perhaps finished about 430 B.C. While tectonic organization, pose, and modeling all show a close relationship to the Doryphoros, extension of the arms horizontally away from the body at shoulder height in a more complex and active gesture points to a later, more evolved stage in Polykleitos's stylistic development. Of the numerous copies, an over-life-size marble version from Delos (National Museum, Athens) and a large terra-cotta statuette (Metropolitan Museum, New York) are outstanding. In one interpretation, the figure represents Apollo, the personification of victory; however, a specific, although unknown, human victor seems more likely.
A Herakles and a Hermes are attributed by Cicero (Deoratore) and Pliny (Natural History) to Polykleitos. The Herakles is still relatively little known; while several excellent heads have been shown with some probability to represent the Hermes, the position of the body remains unknown. Among many other athlete statues associated with Polykleitos, one may mention the Diskophoros, probably an early work, and the "Westmacott Athlete" and "Dresden Boy, " both statues of very young athletes, done toward the end of his career.
Polykleitos's only well-known statue of a female subject is his wounded Amazon, which Pliny (Natural History) tells us was the winning entry in the contest at the Artemision in Ephesus. E. Berger (1966) is undecided between the "Sciarra" and the "Capitoline" types, both of which exhibit the contrapposto pose characteristic of works like the Doryphoros. Further study and discoveries will be necessary before Polykleitos's Amazon can be convincingly reconstructed. Of his other female figures, his gold-and-ivory cult statue of Hera, made for the new temple of Hera in Argos, is unique. Pausanias describes it as seated, holding a scepter in one hand, on which a cuckoo rests, and a pomegranate in the other; his observation that she wore a diadem, worked with Charites and Horai, finds partial confirmation in the decorated polos work on the head of Hera on late classical Argive coins. The sculpture may have been smaller than the gold-and-ivory statues of Athena Parthenos at Athens and Zeus at Olympia by Phidias.
Further Reading on Polykleitos
For a discussion of the ancient sources on Polykleitos see Jerome J. Pollitt, The Art of Greece, 1400-31 B.C. (1965). Scholarly discussions of Polykleitos are found in Ernst Berger's article "Polykleitos" in the Encyclopedia of World Art, vol. 11 (1966); C. C. Vermeule, Polykleitos (1969); B. S. Ridgway, The Severe Style in Greek Sculpture (1970); and G. M. A. Richter, The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks (4th ed. 1970).