When in Athens, our list of places to visit always includes the National Archaeological Museum. It houses the world’s finest collection of Greek antiquities, and occasionally hosts special exhibits of ancient art. While checking in at the Ministry of Culture office at the museum, we learn there is showing of Praxiteles’ works gathered from museums around the world. Of course, we have to see that.
Praxiteles (pronounced prak-sit-l-eez) lived and worked from the end of the Hellenic Period into the Hellenistic Period (during the 4th century BCE). He created some of the most beautiful sculptures ever conceived by the human mind, and started a whole new approach to art. His work was extensively copied during the Roman era and also influenced the work of great Renaissance sculptors, such as Michelangelo and Raphael, and modern artists as well.
To understand the originality of Praxiteles, you have to appreciate what came before. A generation earlier, the genius of the “Golden Age” was the Athenian sculptor Phidias. Chief artist for the Parthenon itself, he was most celebrated for two colossal gold and ivory statues: Athena, inside the Parthenon, and Zeus in the temple dedicated to the god at Olympia. The Athena statue, which was about 40 feet tall, is known through several (much smaller) copies.
In contrast to the grandiose monuments of Phidias, sculptures by Praxiteles achieve a human dimension never before seen. Praxiteles used novel techniques to make his artwork ripple with life. The first thing we see upon entering the exhibit is a Roman copy of the Aphrodite of Knidos – the most renowned sculpture by Praxiteles. It was one of the first nude female statues in the history of Western art. The goddess is shown dropping her clothes onto a hydria (water jug) as she steps into her bath. It is so realistic that a 4th century writer has Aphrodite herself remark, “Where did Praxiteles see me naked?”
The sculptor’s greatest ambition was to produce the illusion of life. He sculpted smooth curves, emphasizing light and shadow, and polished the marble to reflect the light, giving the statue a lifelike essence. He also employed a peculiar scheme of balance – a new pose known as the “Praxitelean curve” – where the hips are shifted and the weight balanced on one leg, creating a sort of S-curve. This is combined with contrapost, which is when the figure’s shoulders and arms twist off-axis from the hips and legs.
These optical tricks give the figure a relaxed appearance (unlike the erect and straight-backed monuments that came before) and also makes one think the statue is about to move. We see these features in nearly every sculpture in the exhibit. Perhaps the most notable of these is the Apollo Sauroktonos, or “lizard-slayer,” a youth leaning against a tree and idly striking at a lizard crawling up the trunk. The sculpture looks as if it could jump to life at any moment. This was the genius of Praxiteles.
Praxiteles also captured the temperament of the subject through great facial expression. You don’t have to look at the body posture to understand what the subject is feeling. Simply observe the face. For example, the Reclining Satyr (a mythical Dionysian creature with pointed ears) is obviously lounging on a tree stump – but what sort of creature is he, and what is he thinking? One look at his hooded eyes and vaguely salacious expression, and you know he is not to be trusted.
His unique style sets Praxiteles above all the old masters of his time, and his stylistic mannerisms blazed a path for future sculptors. He gave the body natural life and a luminous essence that no other sculptor had ever come close to before.
When it came to sculpting a cult work (statues in temples), Praxiteles often modified his style. But he was unique in this field as well. The statue of Dionysos, for example, depicts the bearded god holding a ritual thyrsos (a fennel staff topped with a pine cone).
The statue is unlike others of the time. Praxiteles depicts Dionysos not as a fun-loving Olympian god of wine but as the ancient Thracian god of vegetation and fertility. Although the two gods are essentially the same, representing the more ancient, earthy and sensuous deity is the artist’s way of focusing on humanity rather than remote Mount Olympus. The trademark Praxiteles pose can be seen even under the heavy cloak, giving the figure a more flexible, human appearance.
We continue to stroll among the luminous sculptures of relaxed gods and goddesses until we realize the morning has slipped away, it is past lunchtime and we are famished. If we had a bag lunch, we would stay longer.