Adam Zahara on the Doryphoros

Doryphoros 1In Archaic Greece large stone sculptures named kouroi depicted idealized humans, a kind of mannequin of the perfect human figure. In the Classical era this practice did not die out, but the context and intent changed. One of the most dazzling pieces in Classical Greek sculpture is Polykleitos’s Doryphoros, a bronze statue cast in the late 5th century BCE depicting a man of perfect physique standing with a spear in hand.[1] The Doryphoros exists in an ephemeral state of movement and stillness as one leg carries the figure’s weight while the other is bent with seemingly little weight on it; this differs from the kouroi which either stood directly upright or were shown putting one foot flat in front of another.[2] Ambiguity of exact action in conjunction with his immaculate physique relate the statue to a passage from Sophocles’ Antigone (ll. 377-416):

Numberless wonders, terrible wonders walk the world but none

the match for man … Speech and thought, quick as the wind, and

the mood and mind for law … all these he has taught himself …

Man the master, ingenious past all measure, past all means, the skills within his grasp, he forges on – now to destruction, now to greatness.

Here Sophocles describes the power of man, all men, and how any one of them is capable of greatness or its opposite. In the case of the Doryphoros, the face and pose are generic, suggesting that this statue is an idealized depiction rather than a specific hero, a male archetype. His steadfast stance is ethereally impressive, even supernatural, almost too great to be human. And it is true that in his physique he is similar to statues of Zeus and other gods, something that Polykleitos likely made note of when casting the bronze. In the Antigone, Sophocles envisions man as something greater than he actually is, almost reaching the level of divinity. Polykleitos and Sophocles both communicate the idea that man knows no limit and is capable of anything – even if that entails encroaching on the power of the gods.

[1] Neer, Richard T. Greek Art & Archaeology: A New History, C. 2500-c. 150 BCE. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2012. Pp. 144-145, 183, 188-189, 226, 233-234, 237.

[2] Stewart, Andrew F. Corinthiaca: When Is a Kouros Not an Apollo? The Tenea “Apollo” Revisited. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986. P. 56.