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Polykleitos' Diadoumenos

Updated on January 12, 2015

Famous Greek Sculpture: The "Ribbon Binder"

The Diadoumenos, which means "[man] tying on a diadem," is a beautiful sculpture by Polykleitos of Argos in the High Classical period of of Greek art. If it looks familiar and a little clichéd, no wonder. Polykleitos was the Shakespeare of Greek sculpture, setting a trend ("contrapposto" - see below) whose influence continues to this day.

Like most ancient Greek statues, the original bronze statue was melted down long ago. What survives is numerous marble copies from the Roman period. This copy, found on the island of Delos, dates from about 100BC. It now resides at the Athens National Museum (NM 1826).

Roman Copy of Diadoumenos  (Photo by Ellen Brundige)
Roman Copy of Diadoumenos (Photo by Ellen Brundige)

Why Is the Diadoumenos Tying on a Ribbon?

An Olympic Victor, or Perhaps a Delphic Superstar

Athletes in ancient Greece were heroes, just like today. Many Greek sculptures honor victors of sacred games like the Olympics, in which Greece's finest athletes competed to honor the gods. This statue depicts an anonymous athlete tying on a woolen fillet -- that means a wreath or diadem, not a fish! Its hands have been lost (parts that stick out tend to break off of ancient statues).

As soon as an athlete in Greek games was declared victor, he would tie on a ribbon. Later, he would receive an honorary olive wreath, laurel wreath, or celery (!) wreath, depending on the festival. (Link: The Olympic Games in Antiquity).

Some athletes received statues as awards, or simply as a fan homage. But I suspect this statue was not a portrait of a particular athlete, but rather, Polykleitos' salute to the beauty of the human form.

(NOTE: Some have interpreted this statue as the god Apollo, but that's due to the Delian copy having a quiver down by his right foot. Other versions don't have it. Delos was supposed to be the birthplace of Apollo, so the copyist may have put a new slant on an old classic.)

How Did Romans Copy Greek Sculptures?

The 3D Copiers of the Ancient World

Ancient artists were amazingly skilled at eyeballing and imitating existing sculptures precisely -- after all, they had to be able to carve identical temple columns, architectural decorations like rosettes, and rows of identical statues very accurately. Sometimes they made plaster casts of the originals, but they still had to carve marble versions.

The Romans, masters of mechanics, also developed a "pointing process" using instruments like calipers for tracing statues in three dimensions onto a hunk of marble. This allowed them to rough out the proportions accurately, then go in by hand to add fine details like curls, eyes, lips, much the way modern computer graphics use motion capture to map stunt doubles' bodies, then animators add in the facial features.



Greek Kouros

Greek Sculpture Before Polykleitos

In the mid fifth century B.C., Polykleitos wrote an influential handbook, the Canon, outlining his method for representing the human body. He was working in the tradition of symmetria, proportions, which the Greeks had adapted from ancient Egyptian art. We still see this concept today in art books which teach you to draw figures and faces using the head or eyeas a unit of measurement.

Greek workshops had settled on formulas like, "the human body is eight heads high." Polykleitos, however, wanted to do more than just represent the human figure accurately. He believed that the human body, like music, had hidden rhythms and proportions that were an expression of to eu, "the perfect." (This was when the Greeks were discovering geometry and the mathematics of music, which suggested that the real world was shaped by simple, elegant mathematical ratios). Polykleitos wished to bring out these hidden harmonies as clearly as possible.

"Man is the Measure of All Things" -- Protagoras


In addition to his own set of "perfect" proportions, Polykleitos came up with the famous contrapposto posture: one leg bent and relaxed, one leg straight and weight-bearing, causing the hips to tilt. The shoulders tilt in the opposite direction. In some sculptures, the arms also "harmonize" with the legs, with the straight arm relaxed, the bent arm tense. The balance between stiff and relaxed, bent and straight creates a visual rhythm like a dance, making motionless statues seem animated. This pose is also called chiastic, after the Greek letter Χ, chi.

At left is Polykleitos' most famous statue, the Doryphoros or "spear carrier," which demonstrates contrapposto. I've colored the tilted hips and shoulders orange, the tensed, weight-bearing limbs purple, and the relaxed limbs yellow. (The bent left arm is broken, missing its forearm-- it once held a spear).

The pose was so visually appealing that numerous Greek sculptors adapted and played with the basic idea: weight shifted onto one leg, opposite knee bent, hips and shoulders tilted at opposite angles. To this day, many sculptors still use some version of contrapposto.

Polykleitos Jr.

Polykleitos of Argos had a son also named Polykleitos, a sculptor like his father. Polykleitos the Younger probably carved the beautiful capital (column cap) seen in my Photo Gallery of Epidaurus Museum.

Bibliography: J.J. Pollitt - Art and Experience in Classical Greece

Art & Experience Classical Greece
Art & Experience Classical Greece

This is one of the three books I most recommend to students of Greek art. My summary of symmetria and Polykleitos' Canon is based on Pollitt's discussion of Polykleitos, p. 106.


© 2010 Ellen Brundige

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  • profile image


    6 years ago

    I deeply appreciate how you've made something a bit mysterious to most people easy to understand. I know most of my friends would have a lightbulb or two coming to life if they read pages like this to help them realize why sculptures like the Aphrodite of Milos of the Nike or Samothrace look as they do (unfortunately I tend to over-emphasize details and leave them more confused than they started out).

  • PromptWriter profile image

    Moe Wood 

    8 years ago from Eastern Ontario

    I wish there were more of these sculptures around to enjoy.

  • Hairdresser007 profile image

    James Jordan 

    9 years ago from Burbank, CA

    great information

  • indigoj profile image

    Indigo Janson 

    9 years ago from UK

    Very interesting, especially the part about the development of a contrapposto posture to bring more life to statues. I like the way you make these kinds of things accessible to readers, and fun too!


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