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MEN LIKE GODS
Alexander Eliot
January 09, 1961
Striding, leaping, running, the athletes of ancient Greece were immortalized, in bronze that breathes and marble that ripples, by sculptors whose art has never been surpassed. In the following pages a noted art critic and sportsman re-creates the spirit of an age that believed its athletes—more than other men—approached the perfection Greece attributed to its gods
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January 09, 1961

Men Like Gods

Striding, leaping, running, the athletes of ancient Greece were immortalized, in bronze that breathes and marble that ripples, by sculptors whose art has never been surpassed. In the following pages a noted art critic and sportsman re-creates the spirit of an age that believed its athletes—more than other men—approached the perfection Greece attributed to its gods

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Stillness is the statue's chief quality, stillness elevated to an essential virtue. The Charioteer moves no more than need be, yet the still grace of his stance sufficiently hints at all that he might do with four mettlesome horses in the dust and clangor of a crowded turn. In poise he resembles a high diver or a fencing master or an acrobat, or a young tree that raises its green crest straight against the wind.

There are two clues as to how this extraordinary grace was achieved, one technical and the other philosophical. First the technical point: it is now realized that the model for the Charioteer must have been carved in wood. A clay mold was made from the model, and the solid bronze cast therein. Afterwards the bronze was elaborately chased. The youth's diadem was damascened with silver, he received separate bronze eyelashes and onyx eyes with enameled whites, his lips were inlaid with red copper. Yet all this fine work served only to enhance the still finer simplicity of the artist's conception, which sprang straight from his sensitive use of wood. The Charioteer stands like a young tree because he came from a tree.

The second clue rests in the old philosophical problem of the One and the Many. Archaic sculptors strove to produce and reproduce one perfect type of man. There were distinct formulas for carving his ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hair, hands, drapery—everything, in fact. This made for strong, arbitrary patterns, as in formal poetry. It meant constant reiteration of single archetypal forms underlying nature's infinite variety. Archaic sculptors grasped the principle of the One but not of the Many; they ignored the little differences that make each person unique; they showed ideal man in various poses but never individual men. Then came the creator of the Charioteer, early in the fifth century B.C., and gathered both these principles in his hands. This marked the transition from archaic to classical Greek sculpture. The artist retained the traditional, semi-abstract patterning of hair, face and tunic; he composed the entire figure with practically mathematical exactitude. Yet, on the other hand, he changed everything—from the tilt of the head to the thrust of the toes—just enough to shake the formal fabric with the breath of life. What might have seemed cut and dried, however beautiful, he made real and warm. What might have been merely an ideal athlete now became a unique individual.

The ancients believed that their gods existed in the physical and not merely symbolic sense. This might of imagination, giving solid form to quicksilver concepts, was a primal source of the Greek genius at its height. Our civilization has lost this powerful sense. Some favored adolescents achieve it, only to lose it again. Artists now and then aspire to it. Western poets still pine for it, like Wordsworth when he wrote:

Great God! I'd rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn,
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

We hear breakers resounding in a sea cave, and nothing more. But the ancients also heard old Triton himself trumpeting there. We see whitecaps; they saw Poseidon's horses. We may wistfully acknowledge a poetic metaphor; they felt the presence of the gods. There lies the heart of the matter: it makes all the difference between Homer and, say, Tennyson. Or between Paul Manship's Prometheus at Rockefeller Center in New York and the fifth century Zeus at Athens—the greatest Greek sculpture we possess.

This life-size bronze, shown on page 53, was found in the sea off Artemision. The circumstance may have helped to persuade people, by an unconscious process of analogy, that it represents Poseidon Earth-shaker, god of the wine-dark sea. The statue, at any rate, is generally labeled Poseidon, and the guides will tell you that it once held a trident ready to hurl like a javelin. But the trident, Poseidon's invariable attribute, was a classical equivalent of the modern tunny fork, or fisherman's spear; it was meant for thrusting, not for throwing. The traditional thunderbolt of cloud-gathering Zeus fits the position much better.

Furthermore, the same Athens museum contains a statuette of Zeus that must have been modeled on this masterpiece, still brandishing the thunderbolt. It appears from this statuette that the ancients imagined the thunderbolt as a kind of blossoming cudgel. Doubtless a cudgel rocketing about the sky would make better thunder than would a mere bright jagged line, and its blossoms might well signify the fructifying force of the storms that Zeus in his anger wrought.

Ancient doctors maintained that the best years for begetting children lay between the ages of 30 and 55, the prime life for active men. Presumably Zeus falls within those age limits, since he was Father of the Gods. His striding form is electric with young, self-renewing energy. His image seems no more "sexual" than that of a lion or fighting bull, yet it does radiate virility. His face, shown in detail on page 46, looks impassive and implacable. He is swift as an eagle, firm as an oak, fine-drawn as a spider's web, smooth as a wave, tall as a hill—divine, in fact.

The statue was intended not only as an object of worship but also as an inspiration to men. Remove the imagined thunderbolt, picture a javelin balanced there instead, and one sees a mortal warrior or an athlete in the games. The god resembles a man, who resembles a god. Here dissolves the "difference of power in everything" that separates men from the gods. Here sculpture makes manifest precisely what Pindar proclaimed:

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