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What is a kouros?

Kouroi Sizing Chart      A kouros is an Archaic Greek statue usually produced mainly during the sixth century B.C.E. The ancient Greeks began to carve these statues after being exposed to Egyptian prototypes. Yet the Greeks took the form offered by the Egyptians and made it their own. Rejecting the naturalism of the Egyptian statues, they chose instead to emphasize decorative pattern and ornament.[1] Kouroi were more commonly found in the northern parts of Greece and the islands rather than the southern Peloponnese.[2] The Greeks also chose to carve their kouroi in the nude due to nudity's connection with concept of heroism. Kouroi displayed the ideal physical characteristics archaic Greeks found to be the most desirable in a man, which ranged depending on the region of Greece. For example, kouroi from Attica were typically more muscular with definitive anatomical divisions. Kouroi from the island of Samos, however, had smoothed and softened bodies.[3] All kouroi represented a combination of arete, manly excellence, and kalokagathia, the union of beauty and goodness. Most were anonymous, though a few could carry identities through the attributes they held, their accompanying inscriptions, or the their context and surroundings.[4]

      Artists could carve kouroi in many sizes, ranging from slightly smaller than life-size to monumental. They are standing, beardless male youths striding forward with their left foot. The positioning of the arms and hands could be changed, but typically were held straight against the sides with hands clenched into fists. Completely square compositions, they are meant to be viewed from the front, back, and sides.[5] They gaze forward with a mask-like expression, smiling an archaic smile. This mask-like face is meant to stop the viewer from assigning the kouros any emotion or humanity.[6] Kouroi became more naturalistic throughout the sixth century, but the reason for this is complex. Naturalism was not the ultimate goal of the archaic artist.[7]

New York Kouros

         Kouroi usually functioned as either votive offerings or grave markers. This function depended on region, with some favoring kouroi as grave markers and others preferring to offer them in sanctuaries.[8] These statues were incredibly expensive to produce, and were thus associated with the elite members of archaic Greek society, flourishing at the same time aristocracies did.[9]

 


[1] Jeffrey M. Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 B.C. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 194.

[2] Richard Neer, Greek Art and Archaeology : A New History c. 2500- c. 150 BCE (New York: Thames & Hudson Inc., 2012), 115.

[3] Neer, Greek Art and Archaeology, 152.

[4] Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 B.C., 197-198.

[5] Ibid., 197.

[6] Ibid., 26.

[7] John Griffiths Pedley, Greek Art and Archaeology, 4th ed. (New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc., 2007), 179.

[8] Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 B.C., 197.

[9] Ibid., 199.