Polykleitos’ Kanon

By: Christian Watson

Polykleitos’ Kanon

By: Christian Watson



S culpting in Greece in the 5th Century BCE, Polykleitos is considered one of the most important sculptors of the classical world. Although perhaps not a household name, the impact that his work has had on the art community is irrefutable.

Inspired by the Pythagoreans’ ideas (followers of Pythagoras of Samos – yes, that Pythagoras…), Polykleitos created the first, datable, treatise on sculpture, ‘The Kanon’.

‘The Kanon’ had the aim of achieving not just ‘Kallos’ (the beautiful), but also ‘eu’ (the perfect) – the secret of which lay in the ‘symmetria’ (commensurability, or proportionality) of his ‘Kanon’.

The Pythagoreans believed that the key to physical bodies and abstract ideas like justice, could be found within a number. For example, they explored musical harmony and noted that the intervals needed to produce harmonic chords were expressible by a limited group of integers (2:1, 3:2, 4:3 etc).

Pythagoreans also viewed reality as being a pattern of opposites – of which, Aristotle provided a list of these binaries:

limited and unlimited,
odd and even,
one and plurality,
right and left,
male and female,
rest and movement,
straight and curved,
light and darkness,
good and bad,
square and oblong,

This can be shown in the contrapposto stance used by Polykleitos. Shown with he tensions between rest and motion, odd and even as well as left and right.


The Doryphoros


S culpted, from bronze, circa 440 BCE, The Doryphoros (spear-bearer) is undoubtedly Polykleitos’ most famous and influential sculpture.

Doryphoros (left – a marble Roman copy)


Due to its age, the original Polykleitan bronze was most probably melted down for profit sometime in its history. Not, however, before it was copied and admired by thousands of artists, mathematicians and philosophers. Although we do not have the original, the sculpture was so well recorded that the copies we have are very close to how it would have been originally.

The Doryphoros influenced heavily by the Pythagoreans’ beliefs, is composed of three pairs of opposites:

right/left; rest/movement; straight/curved.

In its naturalistic stance, both sides of the statue are opposed: on the left side, the arm and leg hang straight while on the right, the arm and leg are bent. The opposites however, are balanced across the body. The left leg is engaged, echoed by the engaged arm. The chest is turned right, the head is turned left. The left shoulder is lowered, so the right hip is lowered.

Scholars have also noted the ‘Chiastic Principle’ within the sculptures form. The principle is shown here on the right hand image as a backwards ‘s’ shape Derived from the Greek letter ‘chi’. The two curved ends correspond to each other as a mirror-image, the straight line stretching out across the body.

Polykleitos’ stance, developed through The Kanon, has come to be called Contrapposto, or counterpoise. Contrapposto describes the way different parts of the body balance against each other.


The Contrast Between Earlier Art


W hen studying Polykleitos’ ‘Kanon’, it is important to remember what sculpture looked like before the dawn of the Classical Period (480-323BCE).

Throughout the Archaic Period of Greek sculpture (600-480BCE), artists were more preoccupied with the idealistic than the naturalistic. Before, figures were stiff-looking and had ‘dead-stone’ securing their legs and arms to their bodies, as shown below.

Kouroi (statues that marked graves), are the most common of archaic sculptures and demonstrate the rapid progression of artistic style. However, no matter how quickly the style evolved, it wasn’t until 480 BCE that sculpture began to appear as one looked.


(left – New York Kouros 590-80BCE) (middle – Kleobis and Biton 580 BCE) (right – Kroisos Kouros 540-30BCE)


The Kroisos, or Anavyssos, Kouros (right) marks the desire to create a more naturalistic, rather than idealistic, figure. The eyes and musculature are noticeably closer to reality than the previous two.

However, the Kroisos Kouros is still stuck in the stiff step-forward stance, arms glued (an example of dead-stone) to its side. It wasn’t until the Kritios Boy, in 480 BCE – prompting the change into the Classical Period – that sculpture began to emulate real life.


Kritios Boy, 480 BCE, unknown artist, perhaps Kritios.


Contrapposto in Later Art


Contrapposto is not confined to the Classical World. The naturalism of the stance became increasingly popular in the Italian Renaissance, the ‘reawakening’, in which artists strived for the purity of ancient art. Contrapposto was particularly popular due to its ability to represent such natural tendencies.


(left – Donatello’s second, later, David) (middle – a copy of Da Vinci’s Leda and the Swan) (right – Da Vinci’s study of Leda and the Swan)


Leonardo Da Vinci and Donatello are credited with the Renaissance’s revival of Contrapposto – as can be seen by through their art. Indeed, they are credited with naming Polykleitos’ ‘Kanon’, Contrapposto. Although both of Da Vinci’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ oil paintings no longer survive, the study from around 1504 shows his deliberate use of the Contrapposto style.


Michelangelo’s ‘David’ c. 1501-04


Other artists of the High Renaissance, such as Michelangelo, followed suit. Michelangelo’s ‘David’ has grown to become the most famous example of Contrapposto to be created within the Renaissance. Michelangelo is, however, credited with the introduction of a tension of masses within the marble, created by pushing one forward, and another back.

Michelangelo’s ‘David’ is said to have deeply influenced Bernini (1598-1680), his most notable works including his own ‘David’, as well as The Rape of Proserpina and Medusa.

In the early 20th Century, the study of Contrapposto was used in order to create naturalistic representations of the relaxed standing figure, as seen in Aristide Malliol’s ‘Venus with a Necklace’ (c. 1918-28).


Bauman’s ‘Walk with Contrapposto’


In more recent times, artists have come to demonstrate how technical solutions in art can become a hindrance and a constraint on modern life. Bruce Nauman’s 1968 video ‘Walk with Contrapposto’, in which the artist laboriously traverses a narrow passage while maintaining the contrapposto stance, goes to prove this point.

There is no doubting the impact of the Polykleitos’ work throughout history. The Kanon has added to the progression of all areas of art since its conception and will always be considered a vital part of art history.

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