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Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Kouros from Delphi





In an earlier post it was noted that most Daedalic figures are female.  Here we consider a male example: a bronze statuette of a youth, only about seven and a half inches tall.  It was found in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi.  This is a significant piece, marking as it does the transition from Daedalic to Archaic.  The head is Daedalic, with its inverted-triangle face, large eyes, flattened crown, low forehead, straight hairline, and stylized coiffure in horizontal layers (the so-called Etagenperücke or “layered wig”) hiding the ears.  The hair closely resembles the Protocorinthian aryballos shown in our earlier post (3/3/17) and thus may be dated to around 650 BC or perhaps a bit later.

Like other Daedalic males, the youth is naked but for his rather prominent belt.  But what sets him apart from the Daedalic type is that his body is no longer static.  He is moving.  He has put his left leg forward, although most of his weight seems still on his right foot.  His arms are at his sides and he is clenching his fists.  This is a kouros, a form typical of the Archaic period, indeed the earliest example that has been completely preserved.





The term kouros means “youth” and refers to a standing nude male youth.  Martin Robertson offers this general description: “The figure stands with the left leg forward, the weight evenly distributed, arms at the sides, looking straight before him.  He is absolutely frontally constructed, in that there is no turn, twist or bend except the deflections caused by the movement of the legs, and these have no repercussions above the waist.  Nose, navel, fork are in one vertical plane; eyes, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, ankles in parallel horizontal planes at right angles to it” (1.40).




It is generally supposed that this formula was borrowed directly from Egypt.  Let us compare the kouros from Delphi with a contemporary Egyptian piece, a statue of Metuemhet, a prince of Egyptian Thebes (right).  What leaps to the eye?   The two poses are very similar.  Nonetheless, there are notable differences:
  • The Egyptian wears a kilt while the Greek has only a belt.
  • The Egyptian is extending his left leg much farther forward than the Greek.
  • The Egyptian is leaning against a backboard of stone (seen between legs and between arms and torso), while the Greek is free-standing, independent. In fact the Egyptian statue is a block carved in very high relief, while the Greek one is in the round.




How exactly was the kouros type introduced from Egypt in the mid seventh century?  How did the Greek sculptors have contact with Egypt?  The historian Herodotus (2.152) reports that the pharaoh Psamettichus I (Psamtik I, 664-610 BC) hired Greeks as mercenaries and allowed them to settle in the Nile Delta.  Once there, the Greeks had but to go south to see life-size and over-life-size statuary in hard stone such as the statue of Metuemhet pictured above.

But Egyptian and Greek artists had different aims.  Thus the dynamism of a piece as early as the Delphi kouros already marks a departure from the Egyptian schema.  The Egyptian monumental sculptor was “not concerned to produce an impression of life (though marvelously vivid little statuettes show what he could have done in this line had he wished) but rather of static grandeur” (Robertson 1.41).  Indeed the Egyptian type had not changed much in two millennia, so that to “static grandeur” we might add “permanent.”  The Greek, by contrast, was on the path that would lead, in time, to statues that seemed to be alive.

It was to Daedalus, the craftsman of King Minos of Crete, that the Greeks credited this achievement.  The fifth-century playwright Euripides has a character say “Daedalus’s works all seem to move about and his statues to speak: clever man, that one!” (Eurystheus Satyricus fr. 372 ed. Nauck).  And Palaephatus reports: “It is said that about Daedalus that he made statues that walked on their own.  That seems impossible to me….  The truth is this: in those days the sculptors of gods and men made the feet joined together and the arms hanging down at the sides. Daedalus was the first to make one foot striding forward, which is why people said ‘Daedalus has made this statue walk!’” (De Incredilibus 21).

This seems odd to us, since Daedalus has given his name to the Daedalic Style, which was hardly dynamic.  But as we have already seen in our previous post (3/3/17), the name “Daedalic” is a misnomer.  And in the passages quoted above the underlying notion is that Greek artistry, embodied in the mythical figure of Daedalus, gave life to the lifeless.  The long line of kouroi, in the next two centuries, show the development quite clearly.  At the end of that long line stands the Kritian Boy, the piece generally taken to mark the transition from Archaic to Classical and often called the “poster boy” of the “Greek Revolution,” defined as close imitation of natural forms “corrected” or “perfected” so as to transcend the mundanely natural, with the result that a work could be at once astonishingly true to life and yet unlike anything ever seen.

Our little bronze statuette, the Kouros of Delphi, is a transition piece, too.  But it stands at the beginning of that long line, as a hint of things to come.



  • Boardman, John.  Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period.  1978.
  • Hurwit, Jeffrey M.  The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 BC.  1985.
  • Robertson, Martin.  A History of Greek Art.  2 Vols.  1975.
  • Spivey, Nigel.  Greek Sculpture.  2013.  Esp. 17-53.
  • Stansbury-O’Donnell, Mark D.  A History of Greek Art.  2015.
  • Stewart, Andrew.  Greek Sculpture.  2 Vols.  1990.



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