Calf bearer, Athens, Greece, 560 BCE

The earliest examples of life-size statues that bear resemblance to the iconic classical Greek statues are known as kouros (“youth”; plural kouroi), typically depicting a young man.

The earliest kouroi were very similar to Egyptian sculptures of pharaohs and their wives. (For images of early kouroi click here, or here. To read about the blog post of the Egyptian statue of Menkaure and Khamerernebty, click here. Just by a glance, I think there are a few evident similarities.) In both Egypt and Greece, the statues were sculpted in a rigidly frontal position, with arms hanging straight down. Fists are clenched with thumbs facing forward. The left foot is slightly in front of the right leg, as if the figure were taking a small step.

However, there are two key differences between Greek kouroi and Egyptian sculptures of pharaohs. The first difference is that the Greeks loosened their figures from the marble. Their Egyptian counterparts rarely included negative space. This is because Egyptians wanted their figure to be very stiff and rigid, as it was supposed to house the ­ka (the spirit of the deceased pharaoh) for eternity. The second difference between the sculptures of the two cultures is that Greek kouroi are nude. Although kouroi depict young men, they are sculpted with perfect, ideal bodies, many them virtually indistinguishable from the sculptures of deities.

As the sculpting of Greek kouroi progressed, they came to be markedly different from the Egyptian statues. An example of a kouros created a generation later than the one depicted above is the calf bearer.

The statue of a moschophoros, or calf bearer, was found in the Athenian acropolis (today, it can be found in the Acropolis Museum, in Athens, Greece). An inscription on the base of the marble statue (not visible in the picture above) states that a man named Rhonbos dedicated the statue. Scholars are almost certain that Rhonbos is the calf bearer. He is bringing the calf to goddess Athena as an offering.

The calf bearer is similar to the traditional kouroi and earlier Egyptian sculptures as he stands in the same “left foot forward” manner. He is similar to Greek kouroi in that they are all depicted nude. There are, however, key differences. The calf bearer has a beard, indicating that he is no longer in his youth. Also, he wears a thin cloak (which was originally painted, creating an even greater contrast with his nude body). Although no one in ancient Athens dressed this way, the artist clothed him because it would have been considered extremely disrespectful and inappropriate to be nude while presenting an offering to a god.

The statue is also structurally different from its precedents. Because the calf bearer is holding the calf around his neck, his arms are obviously no longer hanging downward with fists clenched and thumbs pointed forward. There is also a bold “X” that is formed by the arms of the calf bearer and the legs of the calf. This shape unites the man and the animal.

One other important difference is the face of the calf bearer. It differs from previous statues because he smiles, or he at least seems to smile. However, it is important to note that the smile may not necessarily indicate happiness. Rather, Archaic artists used the smile to indicate that the person sculpted is alive. From this point on, the smile, known as the Archaic smile, became a defining characteristic of Greek archaic sculptures.

2 thoughts on “Calf bearer, Athens, Greece, 560 BCE

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