There is no shortage of things that could be described as beautiful in the Museum of Cycladic Art, and indeed other sites and museums across Athens. The art of ancient Greece continues to attract many admirers. For some – including modern artists like Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Amedeo Modigliani, and Ai Weiwei – it is the striking Early Bronze Age sculpture of the Cycladic Islands, with its elegant female figurines, that appeals. For some, it is the energetic leaps of Minoan frescoes and rings, and for others the grand monuments of Classical Athens, like the Parthenon and Erechtheion, that still dominate the city.
Even within antiquity, the beauty of the earlier Greek past was admired. Classical Greek sculpture was held in great reverence, with copies commissioned by Romans. Even better than a copy was the real thing, highly desired by Roman collectors wealthy enough to buy and transport works of art in marble and bronze. One exquisite example of this collection practice and taste for the antique comes from the 2nd-century AD Roman villa of Herodes Atticus in the Peloponnese. It is a marble sculpture of a Laconian maiden, frozen in a moment of movement as she leaps in dance, her left foot leading, her right thigh emerging from her characteristic Laconian peplos with a high slit that allows for easier mobility, and her mantle flowing down behind her. Her whole body is engaged in movement, and with it her swirling clothing. The large fold of the peplos that falls around the waist is caught in mid-air, lifted by the rushing movement. On her head there is a hole thought to be for a kalathiskos, a basket-like headdress worn by dancing women in some depictions.
The dancing Lakania probably originally stood on the Acropolis in Athens, and was sculpted around 420 BC, centuries before it graced Herodes Atticus’ villa. The work is attributed to the sculptor Kallimachos, who also produced marble reliefs of dancing Maenads for an Athenian monument to Dionysos or a theatrical context. He was believed by the Roman architect Vitruvius to be the inventor of the Corinthian capital, distinguished by its ornate acanthus leaves. Kallimachos’ Maenads were copied many times and the Lakania adorned a Roman household (while the Corinthian column, whether invented by the same sculptor or not, spread far and wide), so his work clearly remained of value. Though, as is normally the case, even this treasured art was not beyond critique. For his overly refined execution, he was known as catatexitechnos, ‘he who enfeebles his art by excessive polishing’.
This sculpture, a lasting reminder of Herodes Atticus’ taste, is currently on view at the Museum of Cycladic Art in an exhibition that surveys the broad and multifaceted concept of kallos. This is translated into English as ‘beauty’, but it is a beauty that is not just skin deep, also referring to the nobility of the soul.
Founded in 1986 to present the Goulandris collection of Cycladic art to the public, the museum’s permanent galleries showcase this Cycladic subject, featuring some remarkable artefacts, including one marble female figure in the familiar Spedos variety (named after a cemetery on Naxos) that towers over most other examples at a height of 1.4m. Space is also devoted to ancient Greek art from the Mycenaean and Minoan periods up until the late Hellenistic and Roman periods. The museum expanded to include a collection of Cypriot artefacts (among them some charming terracotta rattles shaped like pigs), and, spatially, into a neighbouring 19th-century neoclassical mansion where some of the temporary exhibition rooms now reside. So there is more to the museum than Cycladic art, and its far-reaching content is reflected in its exhibition programme.
Kallos: the ultimate beauty is the last exhibition under the auspices of Nikolaos Stampolidis, who has taken up a new role as director of the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Co-curated with Ioannis Fappas, the exhibition follows others devoted to universal human subjects as they manifest in ancient Greece, including eros, money, death, and health. With artefacts drawn from sites and museums across Greece, but also from Greek colonies in southern Italy (Magna Graecia) and Sicily, it offers a broad, but by no means superficial, Hellenic view of kallos, attempting to treat it as an objective ideal, rather than a matter of taste.
Cycladic art does not appear (there is plenty of Cycladic beauty in the permanent galleries), rather the exhibition begins in earnest in the 7th century BC. Stampolidis says, ‘We start with the 7th century BC until the 1st century BC, because during the Archaic and Classical, and also during the Hellenistic period, all these ideas are supported by philosophers, by connoisseurs of antiquity, by ancient sources. Ancient sources mean we, the archaeologists, do not do what we like, but they put us in a frame of what we know kallos is, or was, in antiquity.’
One of the earliest pieces in the exhibition is an enigmatic 13th-century BC head of a female figure, found near the Cult Centre of Mycenae. Her white face is what was the ideal for women at the time, but she also has painted features – black pigment marks out her eyes and arched eyebrows, and red her lips as well as four rosettes on her cheeks, chin, and forehead. This face from the past is thought to belong to a deity or sphinx, and offers a glimpse of divine, female beauty before it was written about.
When we think of divine beauty it is perhaps Aphrodite, goddess of love and frequent subject of ancient sculpture, we think of first. She is depicted many times, for instance, leaning as she loosens a sandal or holding the golden apple she won in a beauty contest that included Athena and Hera. The prize (inscribed ‘to the most beautiful’) was given to Aphrodite by Paris, after she offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, which led to the events of the Trojan War related in Homer’s Iliad. That woman was, of course, Helen, whose beauty was said to be like that of the gods.
In another sculpture, dating to the 1st century BC, Aphrodite, crouching, grabs her wet hair in bunches after bathing. She is shown in the same pose, though in greatly reduced form, atop a late 2nd-century BC gold pin, surrounded by four small Eros figures holding a mirror, butterfly, bowl, and a small flask for oils or perfumes. Wearing the image of the goddess in an exquisite gold, garnet, and emerald accessory such as this was one way to incorporate kallos into your dress.
Other deities were noted for their beauty, among them Apollo and – in his young form – Dionysos. But Greek images of gods were created in the image of humans. For the famous Aphrodite of Knidos, it is said the sculptor Praxiteles used the courtesan (hetaira) Phryne as his model. So even divine kallos has earthly origins.
Some mortals were renowned for their beauty. Alexander the Great was praised for his looks, while in the realm of myth, as well as Helen of Troy, there was the mortal lover of Aphrodite, Adonis. One red-figure painting in the exhibition shows Adonis pouring scented oils out from a small flask into the palm of his hand. Fragrances were an important component of preparing oneself. For Adonis to be depicted using them is a reminder that even those celebrated for their beauty still needed to beautify themselves in the Greek world.
A masterpiece of Archaic sculpture from the pediment of the temple of Apollo Daphnephoros in Eretria draws attention to one of the problematic aspects of kallos in Greek myth: the ‘abductions of beauty’, as the exhibition puts it. In this skilfully executed marble work dating from 510-500 BC, the Athenian king Theseus carries the Amazon Antiope off to his chariot. Versions of this myth vary. In some, Theseus captures Antiope in battle or she is given to him as a ‘prize’ by Heracles, while in others Antiope falls in love with Theseus and so surrenders her stronghold. The sculpture shows the abduction, Antiope lifted in the air, but there is little violence to it. Both figures have serene faces, Theseus in particular looking satisfied, and his hand is gently clasping Antiope’s body.
Other Archaic sculptures, kouroi (meaning ‘youths’), stand as symbols of kalokagathia (beauty and goodness). The ideal for ancient Greeks is to be kalos kagathos, beautiful and good. One of the first to express this idea was the lyric poet Sappho (late 7th/early 6th century BC), who is seen composing a poem on one vase, minute letters just visible. In one of her surviving fragments (50), she writes, ‘for he that is beautiful is beautiful as far as appearance goes, while he that is good will also consequently be beautiful’. These kouroi are standing, nude sculptures of young men. Their female counterparts are clothed korai, also embodying youthful beauty immortalised in stone. A number of these korai have been found at the Acropolis and once held doves, fruit, or flowers in their hands as offerings to the goddess Athena.
Beyond gods and myth, kallos had a prominent role in the everyday lives of many people. ‘You can discern that if you observe that many of these objects are not of marble or of bronze or of gold but they are of clay,’ says Stampolidis. ‘Either they are terracottas, smaller or bigger, or vases. They reflect that in all social strata the notion of beauty was there.
‘When Socrates or Plato or the other philosophers were going to watch or teach in the gymnasium, and the youths were exercising, they were not all of them rich. Of course they were free men, they were not slaves, but they were not all of them of the same social stratum.
‘In the same way, we know that married women or daughters were always in their houses, but there were also hetairai and other women who were praised for their beauty.’
Exercise was one way in which to develop kallos, and the physique of athletes was admired and commemorated in sculpture. Bathing, too, was crucial. Once bathed, it was time to use, like Adonis, perfumes, among them rose-, saffron-, and iris-scented oils. These were held in containers of all shapes and sizes, and different materials. Some were shaped like sea-shells, evoking Aphrodite, who was born from sea foam; others like animals; while others, including one in the form of an almond, hinted at the origins of the oil inside. The lekythos, a relatively slender flask, was a popular vessel for containing perfume. These oils were costly though, so sometimes the lekythos was essentially just an outer case for a smaller vessel inside, meaning just a small fraction of what you can see from the outside was actually used to hold the liquid. Make-up survives from some ancient graves, with small containers still holding yellow cosmetic powder or pellets of Egyptian blue. Small painted figurines of women give a hint of how make-up would have been worn, as well as what clothing and hairstyles were popular. Mirrors – both the objects themselves and their depictions in vase-paintings, in which we can occasionally even glimpse a reflection of the person looking into them – also show a preoccupation with kallos.
As a number of inscriptions on different objects bear witness, people beyond Adonis and Helen of Troy were praised for their beauty. Some objects simply have the word kalos (beautiful) written on them; others name beautiful people. A skyphos (a type of cup) tells us that ‘Philista is beautiful, very beautiful’ – possibly a remark about a hetaira written by an attendee at a symposium. A kylix with a red-figure painting of a naked young man about to fill his own kylix with wine also has an inscription, informing us that this is the beautiful Lysis.
External beauty could win you praise, but internal qualities were part of kallos. As Sappho wrote, one’s goodness makes one beautiful. Kallos and love are discussed in philosophy, too. In Plato’s Symposium, Diotima tells Socrates her model of a ‘ladder’ of love. Love for someone’s body or outward appearance could progress into a more general appreciation of physical features, and therefore love of all bodies. Then that, too, could move on to an abandonment of physical features, instead loving a beautiful mind, eventually (through a couple more steps) leading to the final rung of the ladder – loving the beauty of love.
Internal qualities associated with kallos can be detected in benevolent facial expressions. Mildness, calmness, and pride – even in depictions of the gods – all give a sense of the kallos of the soul, Stampolidis said. One vase from Chiusi in Italy, with a red-figure painting of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, shows a different type of internal kallos. ‘Penelope is not standing there showing her beauty’, says Stampolidis, ‘but she is sitting, humble and nice in front of her loom with her son. And there you understand that even though she is a queen, she is humble, she has faith for her husband, and patience.’
Beauty could also be immortalised on gravestones. One Archaic grave stele dating from 510 BC shows a young man, holding in one hand a cockerel (symbolising his manliness), in the other a flower that has not yet opened (symbolising youthfulness) and that he raises to his nose to smell. Another, this time a Classical stele of 440 BC, commemorates a young girl, her head bowed and a dove (representing innocence) in her right hand. Both works are touching, tranquil visions of beauty, and life cut short by untimely deaths. Their youthful kallos has been preserved in marble.
For those who live long enough, no matter if you are an archetype of heroic kallos carrying out deeds to show off your strength and to help others, you will face old age. In one vase-painting Heracles – beloved hero of the ancient world, skin of the Nemean lion adorning him – is confronted by old age, withered and crouched over a staff. Even the most beautiful will become old.
What should we consider beautiful, then? For Sappho (Fragment 16), though some may think masses of ships, horsemen, or warriors the most beautiful, the most beautiful thing in the world is quite simply whatever you love best.
Kallos: the ultimate beauty runs at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens until 16 January 2021. See https://cycladic.gr for details. The exhibition is supported by the L’Oréal Group. It is accompanied by an ambitious publication, over 700 pages long, including essays on the concept of kallos, covering early poetry, Plato, and perfume, and a catalogue of the artefacts that make up the exhibition. The book is available from the museum or its online shop (ISBN 978-618-5060411, price €78).