19 Mar 2011

The charioteer of Delphi, in Greece

I visited the site of Delphi a few years ago. Apart from the impressive scale and beauty of this site, a single object has stuck in my mind ever since as one of the most beautiful pieces of sculpture I have ever seen. Delphi is a well-documented site and you can find much about it on the usual sources such as Wikipedia.

I am talking about the work known as the Charioteer of Delphi, also known as Heniokhos (the rein-holder), which can be seen in the museum at the foot of the archaeological site. It was found in 1896, in amazingly good condition, on the site of the temple of Apollo. Originally part of a much larger work that included the chariot and horses, it is said to be the most complete of ancient bronze sculptures.

Parts of the original base of this statue and the legs of one of the horses have also survived. The base shows an inscription indicating that the statue was commissioned by Polyzalus, a ruler of Gela, a Greek colony in Sicily, as tribute to Apollo for helping him win the chariot race during the Pythian games which were held every four years at Delphi. The hippodrome and stadium are still visible. The statue was erected at Delphi in 474 BC.

I have yet to find a photograph (and I regret not having taken one myself) that truly shows the subtleties of this sculptural figure of the charioteer. Somehow, most photographs of sculptures seem to totally miss the subtle dynamics that makes some sculptures come almost alive. In this case, I think it all starts with the feet....

Above is a plaster-cast of the feet of the charioteer, held, I believe, in the Louvre in Paris. It cannot give you the whole idea of what I am attempting to convey, but, if you look at the heel of the foot on the left (your left that is), you will notice that it is clearly carrying less weight than the other foot. And when you see the sculpture and move around it, that right hand heel (the charioteer's right) appears to lift ever so slightly off the ground, poising the weight of his body towards his toes. And the body has that slight twist that turns his head, his torso and his hands ever so slightly to the right, guiding the horses.  

I have looked at hundreds of photographs of this scupture and have yet to find a single one that shows the detail that, to me at any rate, makes it really work: the lightening of the body's weight from one heel. The feet, which are beautifully sculpted, are shown here, but they are seen from the front, which partially misses the point, although you can sense the man's left-foot toes just lifting off the ground, balancing him against the raising of the heel of the other foot (which is not shown on this pictire).

There are also fine detail shots of the right arm and the hand holding the reins, or of the drapes of his garment, all of which of course participate in the beauty of this work.

But I can find no image to show the sublety of what links him to the soil (in fact the platform of the moving chariot), all of which stems from the back of his feet that give the impulsion to balance and set in movement what otherwise could appear to be quite a rigid stance on the part of the charioteer.

I cannot think that I am the only one to have noticed this. Anyone got a picture out there?