The Perfectly Posed Artemision Bronze

Even though I’m holding off on visiting Europe for now, I believe a regular dose of travel dreaming can be good for the soul. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art and architecture — which I’ve collected in a book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Here’s one of my favorites:

One of the jewels of the ancient world is the Artemision Bronze, a perfectly posed statue of a god at war.

The god steps forward, raises his arm, sights along his other arm at the distant target, and prepares to hurl his weapon. (Or is he about to serve a tennis ball? Or pound a nail? Or maybe he’s riding a surfboard?)

If the statue is meant to be Zeus (as some think), he’d be throwing a thunderbolt — if Poseidon, a trident. When the statue was discovered — in a sunken ship off the coast of Greece (Cape Artemision) in 1928 — no weapon was found, so no one knows for sure who it represents. (For simplicity, I’ll call him Poseidon, and hope jealous Zeus doesn’t strike me down with a thunderbolt.)

Poseidon stands 6 feet 10 inches tall, and has a physique like — well, like a Greek god. He’s trim, graceful, and muscular.

His hair is curly and tied at the back. His now-hollow eyes were once white, made with inset bone. He plants his left foot and pushes off with the right. Even though every limb moves in a different direction, the overall effect is one of balance.

The statue’s dimensions are a study in Greek geometry. His head is exactly one Greek foot in length. He stands 6 Greek feet tall, or exactly one Greek fathom. The entire figure has an “X” shape that would fit into a perfect circle — his navel at the center, and his fingertips touching the rim.

The unknown artist has frozen Poseidon’s movements in time, so we can examine the wonder of the physical body. He’s natural yet ideal, twisting yet balanced, moving while at rest. With his geometrical perfection and godlike air, this figure sums up all that is best about the art of the ancient world.

Sculpted around 460 BC, this statue is an example of the so-called Severe style, describing the style of Greek art between 500 and 450 BC. Historically, this is when Greece battled the Persians. During this time of horrific war, the Greeks made art that was serious and unadorned, and expressed naked, muscular strength. Severe-style statues celebrate the nobility of the human form and the heroism of the individuals who carried them through these tough times.

Shortly after this statue was created, the Greeks emerged victorious from their wars, shook off tyrants at home, and took control of their own destiny through democracy. This Poseidon shows Greece poised at the dawn of that new era of prosperity and enlightenment, his gaze fixed on the coming future. That future would be known as the Golden Age…an age that would inspire Western civilizations to come.