Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.12.8

Guy P.R. Métraux, Sculptors and Physicians in Fifth-Century Greece: A Preliminary Study. McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal & Kingston, 1995. Pp. xvi + 154, Ill. 15. US$39.95. ISBN 0-7735-1231-4.

Reviewed by Mark D. Fullerton, History of Art, Ohio State University,

This study is representative of a growing interest in recent scholarship in exploring the relationships between medical texts and sculpture in Classical Greece.1 The premise is a logical one. Each sculptural representation of the human body has as its frame of reference the human body itself. Traditionally, we have constructed that frame of reference from what we perceive the human body to look like as well as what we know about its functions. The use of ancient medical texts should ideally allow us to evaluate sculptural representations according to what the ancients themselves thought about human anatomy and physiology. In this way we can attach meaning to certain renderings of anatomical features and thus can construct what may be called an iconography of anatomy. The study of sculpture would thereby replace formalistic views of stylistic change and subjective judgements about "Classical idealism" with more scientific and semiologically compelling analyses of form and meaning.

The enterprise is not without problems, as Métraux is clearly aware. First, the textual evidence is slight and indirect for the Early Classical period -- the topic of this book. The bulk of written material is fourth century or later, and the views of the earlier Classical era must be reconstructed from fragmentary philosophical writings and later ideas presumed to maintain earlier traditions. Second, it is common knowledge that the makers of things, including sculptors and painters, were in Classical Greece not considered to be of the same intellectual level as the makers of ideas, including philosophers or even sophists.2 Consequently, there is some question as to whether a sculptor would even have been aware of the intricacies of medical theorizing. Métraux addresses both of these problems by pointing out how medical knowledge represents the intersection of philosophy with popular knowledge, given immediate relevance of the topic to each individual's personal experience. In popular knowledge, there is, Métraux argues, an especially strong element of tradition, thus it is highly likely that much in works of the fourth century preserves ideas from the fifth. Similarly, because of the popular interest in medical knowledge, it is reasonable to assume that sculptors like other citizens, were aware of its teachings, at least along general lines.

As a self-described "preliminary study" Métraux's book is narrowly focussed. It considers an extremely small number of sculptures placed within the short span of time 480-450 B.C. He isolates several common features as characteristic of Early Classical sculpture and seeks to explain their appearance in medical terms. From this modest objective there emerges a broad and inclusive explanation for the change from Archaic to Classical style -- an explanation which is based on the medical reading of stylistic features as signifying particular beliefs about the body and objectives of the artist. Since the stylistic change in question is the most obvious and significant such change in the history of Greek art and since Métraux's explanation varies considerably from the two traditional views (formalist and historicist), the implications of his study reach far beyond its narrow topic.

The specifics of Métraux's interpretation, presented in the third and fourth chapters and conveniently summarized on pp. 91-92, are as follows: Physicians and natural philosophers (and presumably sculptors) shared an interest in identifying 1) the manifestations of animating forces in the body, and 2) those features of the human body unique to the human species. Primary among the former were respiration and motion. Respiration was indicated in sculpture by various means, including the depiction of veins and a redesigned torso -- especially a peculiarly Early Classical form for the so-called iliac-inguinal line separating the abdominal area from the pubic region and hips. Motion was suggested by contrapposto. Uniquely human characteristics include the depiction of eyelashes and showing the eyes neither completely open nor closed. These features are among the defining traits of the Early Classical period, and their use in sculpture was motivated by a direct influence from contemporaneous medical/philosophical thinking. The Early Classical style evolved for the purpose of creating images which were both more animate and more "human" than those of the preceding Archaic era.

Conceptually this approach is very promising in that it offers a means to analyze sculptural images which is based in something other than subjective assessments of idealism and verisimilitude. However, Métraux's study falls short of its mark most conspicuously in its treatment of the sculpture itself. First, a very small number of sculptures are considered: the Omphalos Apollo type, the relief of a girl with doves from Paros in the Metropolitan Museum, and the Riace bronzes. Aside from the excessively small size of the sampling, only the relief -- which actually plays a very small role in the argument -- is assuredly an Early Classical work. The date and origin of the Riace pieces is much debated, and there is a very good chance that the Omphalos Apollo type reflects only very generally, if at all, any Early Classical bronze. In fact, Métraux provides a long discussion in an attempt to explain the anomalously small head of the Omphalos Apollo, when the most obvious explanation -- that the type is a classicizing creation -- is not even considered.

Even more problematic than the selection of material are some elements of interpretation. That the erect and shoulders-back stance of the standing male figures reflects a deliberate attempt to indicate breathing seems impossible to establish. Similarly, that the open peplos of the Parian girl indicates a girdle which has just fallen off as a result of breathing seems remote. At times a closed mouth is argued to be indicative of breathing (Parian girl) at other times an open mouth signifies the same (Riace Warriors). While Métraux can establish that the depiction of veins on the Riace bronzes corresponds to an arrangement described in ancient texts and that the ancients did connect blood vessels with respiration, it does not necessarily follow that the depiction of blood vessels is a sign of respiration. Throughout, Métraux presumes that since sculptors could have known of the medical teachings, then they must have had them firmly in mind when deciding what to include and what to omit in the representations they created. Indeed, it would seem that to a degree it was the sculptors' intention to make their images seem alive, within the limitations of stylistic convention. However, the devices developed by artists and the conclusions reached by physicians were similarly developed from empirical observation. It is a tricky proposition to separate the instances when the artistic process derives from the medical from the instances when the processes were parallel.

The book was not well proofread. There are numerous typographical errors and internal page references were not changed from pp.00 in several places. The plates, especially the images of the Omphalos Apollo and Riace Warriors, are not of good quality and frequently it is impossible to follow the author's argument through visual material. It is exciting to think that one could establish on a more concrete basis an iconography of anatomy as a part of a general concern with the semiology of style. However, the successful exploration of this possibility will require a more complete and competent treatment of the sculptures themselves than has been provided here.


  • [1] E.g. the unpublished dissertation of Gregory Leftwich, Princeton University, 1987 and his contribution to the recently published W. Moon ed., Polykleitos, the Doryphoros and Tradition (Madison, 1995). See also the article by Richard Tobin in the same volume.
  • [2] For a recent review of this problem, see Ira Mark, in Moon, see n.1, supra.