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Attributed to the Pisticci Painter, Terracotta bell-krater mixing bowlca. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Alexxa Gotthardt.
Jan 21, am. Poseidon Zeus46 B. Statue of a Kouros6th century B. The ancient Greeks famously fetishized the male body in sculptures that represent powerful, illustrious men as hulking figures with taut, rippling muscles. Sometimes these figures appear partially clothed in drapery or cloth; often, they are stark naked.
To the contemporary eye, their bodies are ideal—except for one, ahem, seminal detail. Countless contemporary art lovers and historians have been struck by the modest nature of the phalluses that feature in classical sculptures of gods, emperors, and other elite men—from Zeus to celebrated athletes.
The small members seem at odds with the massive bodies and mythically large personalities they accompany. But the ancient Greeks had their reasons for this aesthetic choice. In his play The Clouds c. Historian Paul Chrystal has also conducted research into this ancient ideal. As Lear and other historians suggest, part of the answer lies in how the phalluses of less admirable men were portrayed.
Terracotta amphora jarca. Lustful, depraved satyrs, in particular, were rendered with very large, erect genitals, sometimes almost as tall as their torsos.
According to mythology, these creatures were part-man, part-animal, and totally lacked restraint—a quality reviled by Greek high society. Indeed, across many an amphora pot and frieze, well-endowed satyrs can be seen drinking and pleasuring themselves with abandon. So, too, did artistic representations of the Egyptians, says Lear, who were long-time enemies of the Greeks.
In this way, satyrs, fools, and foes served as foils to male gods and heroes, who were honored for their self-control and intelligence along with other qualities requiring restraint, like loyalty and prudence. There is no doubt that across ancient Greek art, the representation of the phallus—and its varying size—was symbolic. As Lear suggests, this might hint at why artists of the age depicted male nudes so often, even when a character or narrative might not require it. Back then, it indicated whether or not a man was upstanding. Related Stories. Further reading in Art.
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