Definitions

frontality

Kouros

[koor-os]

A kouros (plural kouroi) is a representation of a male youth, especially those dating from the Archaic period in Greece (about 650 BC to about 500 BC) and especially plastic (artistic sense), notably free-standing Greek sculpture in stone (typically marble).

The English word is a loan from Ancient Greek κοῦρος, the Ionic dialect form of general Greek κόρος, "male youth." Compare ephebos. Koros was a common word used millions of times in all substantial ancient Greek literature. Homer, writing the first known literature, uses the Ionic form. The word is from the extended o-grade of the Indo-European language root *kor-wo- (e-grade *ker-), "grow".

Earlier free-standing plastic representations of humans were made of wood (see xoanon), but by the seventh century B.C. the Greeks had learned from the Egyptians the art of carving stone with iron tools, and were making kouroi from stone, particularly marble from the islands of Paros and Samos. Modern art historians have used the word to refer to this specific type of male nude statue since the 1890s. Kouroi were also commonly known as "Apollos," since it was assumed that all kouroi depicted the ideally youthful Apollo.

Their female counterparts in sculpture are the korai. In addition are a smaller number of seated pairs. Also representations of mythical beasts of the period may evidence the archaic features of the statuary.

Cultural origin and evolution

According to Herodotus, Psammetichus I (664-610 BC) invited Ionians and Carians to settle in lands provided for them along the Nile and these were the first foreigners to settle in Egypt. It is no coincidence that large marble sculptures began to replace the smaller xoana in Greek temples at about 650. The initial kouroi were created at a time when Greece was under the cultural influence of Egypt. Some features apparently taken from Egyptian sculpture are:

  • Frontal pose with no torsion of the body. Head erect, eyes front, face flat, head square, waist narrow, muscles squarish and poorly delineated.
  • Left foot advanced with no corresponding hip displacement. This characteristically rigid frontal striding pose is reminiscent of statues of Egyptian pharaohs.
  • Arms hanging straight at sides fingers curved, thumb foremost, although a few show one arm extended forward from the elbow, holding an offering.
  • A faint smile (the "archaic smile") on their lips.

Some differences are:

  • Egyptian statues are supported by a pillar behind; Greek are free-standing.
  • Egyptian males have a loin cloth; kouroi are always naked.

Purpose

At the end of the sixth century BC, kouroi begin to show more relaxed poses and their hair styles become more typical of mainland Greece. By the seventh century, the earliest period for which full-size sculptures exist in this culture, kouroi had come to serve two purposes. They were presented to temples as votive offerings by prominent Greeks, as is shown by the inscriptions which frequently appear on their plinths. They also were placed in cemeteries to mark the graves of prominent citizens. In cemeteries, kouroi showed the deceased as the Greek ideal of masculinity. In very early times, it is likely that kouroi were thought to possess magical properties, and to be inhabited by the daimon of the gods.

Kouroi, however, were never intended to be representations of individuals. One of the best known kouroi is the grave-marker of Kroisos, an Athenian soldier. The inscription on his statue reads: "Stop and show pity beside the marker of Kroisos, dead, whom once in battle's front rank raging Ares destroyed." The word "marker" (sema) tells us that this is a symbolic representation of Kroisos, not a portrait.

A well-known example is the double kouros of Kleobis and Biton, found at Delphi. These statues date from about 580 BC and are representations of two legendary heroes of Argos in the Peloponnese. Although an inscription identifies them as Kleobis and Biton, they are typical kouroi, embodying the Archaic Peloponnesian virtues of filial piety and physical strength rather than specific persons. Another well-known archaic kouros is the sixth-century Kouros of Melos, which retains archaic frontality in the standardised pose.

The Kritios Boy, a kouros attributed to Kritios from about 490-80 BC (Acropolis Museum, Athens), exemplifies the change from Archaic to Classical sculpture at the time of the First Greco-Persian War; his realistic proportions and details are based on visual experience rather than the schematic ideals of the preceding generation, or mathematically derived ideals, such as the Polyclitean canon established by Polyclitus.

Early archaic period 660-580 BC

Middle archaic period 580-535 BC

In the sixth century kouroi grew larger as the Greeks became richer and more confident with marble sculpture. Some were three or even four times life-size. Some of the largest were made for the Heraion of Samos, a great sanctuary of the goddess Hera on Samos, which was lavishly endowed by the tyrant Polycrates. One of these giant kouroi, at five metres tall, the largest ever found, was unearthed in 1981 and is now in the Samos Archeological Museum, which had to be rebuilt to accommodate it. An inscription on its left thigh tells us that the statue was dedicated to Hera by an Ionian nobleman called Isches.

Late archaic period 540-480 BC

By the end of the sixth century, the kouroi were giving way to naturalistic sculptures of living people. Among the earlier representations of specific people are the statues of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, erected in Athens in about 500 BC. These figures (see the illustration at the Harmodius and Aristogeiton article) still show some of the formality of the kouros tradition, but are generally more lifelike. It is significant that these statues were a memorial to the establishment of Athenian democracy. They thus represent the replacement of both the kouros and the system of aristocratic rule which it represented..

Notes

Bibliography

  • Richter, Gisela M.A. A Handbook of Greek Art: Third Edition Newly Revised. London: Phaidon Publishers Inc..

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