1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Polyclitus
POLYCLITUS, the name of two Greek sculptors of the school of Argos; the first belonging to the fifth century, the second to the early part of the fourth.
1. The elder and best known Polyclitus was a contemporary of Pheidias, and in the opinion of the Greeks his equal. He made a figure of an Amazon for Ephesus which was regarded as superior to the Amazon of Pheidias made at the same time; and his colossal Hera of gold and ivory which stood in the temple near Argos was considered as worthy to rank with the Zeus of Pheidias. It would be hard for a modern critic to rate Polyclitus so high: the reason is that balance, rhythm and the minute perfection of bodily form, which were the great merits of this sculptor, do not appeal to us as they did to the Greeks of the 5th century. He worked mainly in bronze.
As regards his chronology we have data in a papyrus published by Grenfell and Hunt containing lists of athletic victors. From this it appears that he made a statue of Cyniscus, a victorious athlete of 464 or 460 B.C., of Pythocles (452) and Aristion (452). He thus can scarcely have been born as late as 480 B.C. His statue of Hera is dated by Pliny to 420 B.C. His artistic activity must thus have been long and prolific. Copies of his spearman (doryphorus) (see Greek Art, Plate VI. fig. 80), and his victor winding a ribbon round his head (diadumenus) have long been recognized in our galleries. We see their excellence, but they inspire no enthusiasm, because they are more fleshy than modern figures of athletes, and want charm. They are chiefly valuable as showing us the square forms of body affected by Polyclitus, and the scheme he adopted, throwing the weight of the body (as Pliny says of him) on one leg. We must not, however, judge of a great Greek sculptor by Roman copies of his works. This has been enforced by the discovery at Delos, by the French excavators, of a diadumenus of far more pleasing type and greater finish, which also goes back to Polyclitus. The excavations at Olympia have also greatly widened our knowledge of the sculptor. Among the bases of statues found on that site were three signed by Polyclitus, still bearing on their surface the marks of attachment of the feet of the statues. This at once gives us their pose; and following up the clue, A. Furtwangler has identified several extant statues as copies of figures of boy athletes victorious at Olympia set up by Polyclitus. Among these the Westmacott athlete in the British Museum is conspicuous. And it is certain that these boys, although the anatomy of their bodies seems to be too mature, yet have a real charm, combining beauty of form with modesty and unaffected simplicity. They enable us better to understand the merit of the sculptor.
The Amazon of Polyclitus survives in several copies, among the best of which is one in the British Museum (for its type see Greek Art, fig. 40). Here again we find a certain heaviness; and the womanly character of the Amazon scarcely appears through her robust limbs. But the Amazon of Pheidias, if rightly identified, is no better. The masterpiece of Polyclitus, his Hera of gold and ivory, has of course totally disappeared. The coins of Argos give us only the general type. Many archaeologists have tried to find a copy of the head. The most defensible of all these identifications is that of C. Waldstein, who shows that a head of a girl in the British Museum (labelled as Polyclitan) corresponds so nearly with that of Hera on 5th century coins of Argos that We must regard it as a reflex of the head of the great statue. It seems very hard and cold beside such noble heads of the goddess as those in the Ludovisi Gallery (Terme Museum) Rome. American archaeologists have in recent years conducted excavations on the site of the Argive temple of Hera (Argos and Greek Art, fig. 39); but the sculptural fragments, heads and torsos, which seem to belong to the temple erected in the time of Polyclitus, have no close stylistic resemblance to other statues recognized as his; and at present their position in the history of art is matter of dispute.
The want of variety in the works of Polyclitus was brought as a reproach against him by ancient critics. Varro says that his statues were square and almost of one pattern. We have already observed that there was small variety in their attitudes. Except for the statue of Hera, which was the work of his old age, he produced scarcely any notable statue of a deity. His field was narrowly limited; but in that field he was unsurpassed.
2. The younger Polyclitus was of the same family as the elder, and the works of the two are not easily to be distinguished. Some existing bases, however, bearing the name are inscribed in characters of the 4th century, at which time the elder sculptor cannot have been alive. The most noted work of the younger artist was a statue in marble of Zeus Milichius (the Merciful) set up by the people of Argos after a shameful massacre which took place in 370 B.C. The elder artist is not known to have worked in marble.