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Vitruvius & Canon

Canon is a term used to describe the standard of a genre, or what exists to which other art pieces must adhere. Polycleitus created the canon for Greek art with his Doryphorus (Spear Bearer). This was the penultimate beauty standard for Greek Art and every artist wanted to rise to meet it. Myron, also an artist during Polycleitus’ time (450 B. C. ), his marble statue Discobolus (Discus Thrower) also rendered itself towards definition of being a canon. The concept of hero in the following essay as it applies to both of these works will be discussed.

Furthermore, Vitruvius’ aspects and principles of art and what makes art will be introduced. In the concept of Greek Art and creating statues resembling heroes, the definitions of how these statues are considered to be ‘classical’ and why in these statues artists try to achieve the ideal human form will also be presented and dissected with references to Vitruvius’ De Architectura. The concept of the hero in Greek art is one that represents male perfection.

In either statue listed prior there exists pose and position which is the expression of emotion. The stoic representation on either hero’s face is simply made into an expression through body movement, and posture. Beauty then was the focus for Greek art, and in beauty there had to be symmetry. In the hero for Greek art the human or the statue became divine and godlike. The canon then emphasized the conglomeration of symmetry breed with stoicism. The body for each of these hero statues was measured in head lengths.

In this measurement then was found perfection because the length of the body was in perfect proportion to the head. Everything about the Polycleitus statue was in harmony with its counterpart (that is the contrapposto was halved and every muscle from the face to the rest of the body laid in perfect symmetry with the opposite side). In addition, balance was important in classical Greek art (as opposed to the more flamboyant Hellenistic era, where movement of the body played a favorite as opposed to the more static statues of the classical age).

For Doryphorus the working left arm (the one which was supposedly holding a spear) is countered by the weight bearing right leg. The free arm on the right of the body, the flaccid arm is balanced by the left leg. This was the classical ideal of beauty: balance. Perfection could only be accomplished through balance and thus was born the Canon rule. In Myron’s statue Discobolus (Discus Thrower) the classical Greek style was getting ready to redesign its status from stiff statues to more engaging pieces with more movement.

This was a more mature Classical style piece. Myron’s statue brought forth fluidity of movement and spaciousness. Myron’s statue focuses on breaking down a series of movements into one moment represented by the statue. The conquest was to create movement in something that was frozen in a specific time. The single pose in a series of motions was complex in its endeavor to represent. The torso of Myron’s sculpture is twisted dramatically which brings the discus thrower’s arms into the same plane as the movement of the legs.

The contorted figure conveys a sense of action as well as balance. The face of this hero is still composed of the classical Greek stoicism despite the hero being in full motion and exerting a plethora of strength and power. It is thus prevalent in classical Greek art that symmetry was important in the hero’s representation, as Vitruvius states, “Without symmetry and proportion there can be no principles in the design of any temple; that is, if there is no precise relation between its members, as in the case of those of a well shaped man” (72).

With the concept of balance each figure of classical Greek art must have a counterpoint, as in Polycleitus’ statue, the limbs each gave balance in their relaxed and active states. In Myron’s statue, though in movement, the outstretched arms and the positions of the relaxed leg and the active leg (weight bearing leg) as well as the turned foot all gave the statue equal proportions. If symmetry equals beauty and these heroes were godlike then the exact proportions of the entire body were what the canon of classical Greek art noteworthy.

The measurement pertaining to the body being designated by headlengths is emphasized by Vitruvius in this manner, “For the human body is so designed by nature that the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowest roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the whole height; the open hand from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger is just the same…The other members, too, have their own symmetrical proportions, and it was by employing them that the famous painters and sculptors of antiquity attained to great and endless renown” (72).

Other statues of Polycleitus and Myron’s time attest to this rule of symmetry as well, such as is found in the Riace Warrior. The warrior statue (still in bronze and not reproduced by Roman artists) again shows balance with the position of the arms and legs. One arm is flexed in movement while the other is relaxed; one leg is stiff while the other is in repose, creating perfect balance. The human body, especially in representing heroes was designated as godlike for Greeks, and for more current viewers of classical Greek art.

Vitruvius states in his book that the human body’s central point is found with the navel. This goes back to da Vinci’s Vitruvian man which is represented as a man inside a circle both with outstretched limbs and relaxed limbs. The point of the Vitruvian man and Vitruvius’ definition of perfection is, “If a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centered at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom” (73).

It is in nature also to give exact proportions to objects, and the human body is no exception to the natural rule. The Greeks only sought to emphasize what they already believed existed; perfection in the human body. The term contrapposto was used earlier, which simply means counterpoise. This counterpoise is exhibited in Polycleitus’ statue and is further emphasized with slight exaggeration in Myron’s work. The famous statue that represented contrapposto was the Kritios Boy.

The amazing fact of this statue is that it is the first discovered statue that is free standing, and not only that but the statue appears to be standing at ease. The contrapposto was important because it allowed the statue to become more lively, less static and also permitted the viewer to see the potential of movement in the marble as opposed to the Kouros figures prior to 450 B. C. that were modeled in military fashions and stiffness. Though symmetry has been stated as very important it is not defined in these statues mentioned as perfect symmetry.

Classical Greek art focused on the movement of the body, and since symmetry did not permit the statues to have this fluidity, symmetry was attained through contrapposto. The body itself, though in positions of movement balanced by creating an S-curve. This asymmetry opposed early convictions of art with its straight vertical take on the human body and with classical Greek art and the S-curve statues became more human, though still stoic. Classical Greek art created flexibility in stone, and marble and pushed back the more archaic statues that seemed mechanical and stiff.

Although Vitruvius gives examples of perfection in the human body and how to apply that perfection in art, classical Greek sculptures do not entirely obey symmetrical terms laid out in De Architectura. Vitruvius strived for complete perfection and yet in classical Greek art this perfection is slightly altered with contrapposto. The action created through this discovery of the S-curve is exactly represented in the Zeus bronze statue c. 460-450 B. C. This freestanding statue creates motion.

The open pose (Zeus is supposed to be holding a spear and getting prepared to throw it according to the position of the feet) was new and daring, filled with action as opposed to the static statues of the Archaic Kouros. The hero in Greek art was into a god and men were made into gods. Gods were thought to be nearly infallible and in this perfection the hero also had to measure up to this preordained thought. If gods had to be perfect, and heroes were nearly gods then perfection had to be attained through art, through the representation of their body.

Though Vitruvius speaks of symmetry his nature of the term also gives leeway, “Therefore, since nature has designed the human body so that its members are duly proportioned to the frame as a whole, it appears that the ancients had good reason for their rule, that in perfect buildings the different members must be in exact symmetrical relations to the whole general scheme” (73). In all works for classical Greek art, perfection and symmetry were the mandates.

From nature, to the human body to temples, Vitruvius gives rise to how each influenced the other and how classical Greek art accomplished its canon in Polycleitus’ Doryphorus. In the Kritios Boy the viewer can see a new repose for classical Greek art and instead of the stiff bodies of Kouros animation is given to the statues through the S-curve (designed after the axis of the human body). Contrapposto gives true ‘life’ to classical Greek statues because it makes reference to real human bodies.

Contrapposto creates a natural recline in the body; making one knee free from weight which in turn makes the stature appear more at ease in their stance and more real. The bend in the knee further emphasized the relation of the body parts by making the pelvis tilt slightly. The body compensates for each movement by counterpoise. This is prevalent throughout classical Greek sculpture. The hero then is not only perfect in its representation of Greek gods but it also brings forth the human aspect of the body.

Nature designed humans to be perfect; every action is followed in the body by a reaction which creates fluidity. Polycleitus and Myron represented this very well in each of their classical Greek statues. Vitruvius was inclined to bring perfection as the apex of art/architecture and this perfection found a canon in these two artists.

Work Cited

Vitruvius, Pollio. De Architectura. Trans. Morris Hicky Morgan. Dover Publications, New York. 1960.

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