Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Apollo part 1

Apollo the God

The Piraeus Apollo, late 6th century BCE

The Tiber Apollo, a Roman marble copy from the time of the Emperor Hadrian (2nd century CE) of a Greek bronze original from the early 5th century BCE.

This post was inspired by the chapter on the male nude titled "Apollo" in Kenneth Clark's great book The Nude from over 60 years ago (1956).  Clark uses the god as the embodiment of the perfectly beautiful man.  I want to do something a little different.  In this post I want to discuss the god himself and what he stood for, and how he has fared down the centuries to the present day.


Roman copy of the head of the 5th century BCE Apollo Omphalos by Calamis

Apollo is the god of light, and of all that is done in the light.  He always manifests himself as a beautiful young man, a nude athlete with long golden hair.  Apollo presides over all of those activities that shine light into the world and clear up the darkness.  Apollo shines light into human actions and motivations to determine right.  He is a god of Justice.  Apollo drives out disease and suffering with his healing light.  He presides over medicine.  Apollo shines his light into nature and unveils its mysteries.  Pythagoras, the first philosopher to apply mathematics to discern nature's workings, derives his name from the great Pythian Apollo.  Apollo was the ultimate kouros, the best and most beautiful of athletes; a champion competitor and the object of much love and adoration, just like the young athletes who competed in his honor in the Pythian games at Delphi.  Apollo is the god of inspiration, poetry, music, and the liberal arts as leader of the Muses who dwell with him on Mount Parnassus.  Over time, Apollo became conflated with Helios the god of the sun, and became literally the light of the earth.  Apollo was also a god of prophecy with oracles at Delphi, Bassae, Ptoion, and Didyma among other places.   Apollo championed the forces of light over the forces of darkness.  He slew the Python when it threatened to destroy the earth (according to Ovid).  Apollo guarded flocks of animals from thieves and predators.

A musician holding a lyre making a libation, 
from a 5th century BCE kylix

Like the young impetuous Greek aristocrats in whose image he was made, Apollo had a cruel vindictive side.  He presided over the brutal execution of Marsyas who dared to challenge him in a musical contest.  Apollo together with his twin sister Artemis killed the children of Niobe in retaliation for her insults to their mother Leto.  Apollo the healer could be a vindictive sender of plagues.

Apollo was usually victorious in matters of sexual conquest fathering numerous heroes.   In matters of love his affairs frequently ended in heartbreak through death or rejection.  As the mythical poet Thamyris was the first mortal to fall in love with someone of his own gender, so Apollo was the first god to do so, according to ancient legend. Both Thamyris and Apollo fell in love with the same youth, Hyacinthus.  Homoeroticism forms a crucial part of the nature of Apollo that never really leaves him, and goes from biographical detail to scandal to a passionate obsession, back to scandal, and then to liberation over the centuries.

Another rival with Apollo for Hyacinthus was Zephyr, the west wind seen here in a 5th century red figure vase having sex with the youth as he carries him off.  Some versions of the story of the death of Hyacinthus say that a jealous Zephyr blew Apollo's discus off course and straight into Hyacinthus' head and killed him.

Apollo from the Temple of Zeus, Olympia 

Apollo is a god of conscious deliberate thought and activity.  While Artemis his twin sister presides over the wilderness, Apollo is a god of cities and civilization, of civilized values.

This role did not come naturally to Apollo.  He was not born civilized.  On the contrary, soon after his birth on the island of Delos where his mother the goddess Leto had been banished to conceal yet another of Zeus' adulteries, Apollo emerged as an angry impetuous young prince.  He immediately took up a bow and arrows and ran off to Delphi to slay his mother's enemy the monster Python.  Apollo provoked the anger of Zeus when his son, Aesclepius the greatest of physicians, raised a man from the dead depriving Hades of a subject.  The god of the dead lodged a complaint with Zeus who killed Aesclepius with a thunderbolt.  Apollo retaliated by killing the Cyclopes who worked as Zeus' favorite armor makers.  A furious Zeus would have sent Apollo to the blackest parts of Tartarus but for the pleading of Leto for her son (all of this according to Apollodorus and Diodorus Siculus).  Leto urged her son to mend his ways and to accept the much reduced penalty of a year of hard labor tending the flocks of sheep that belonged to Admetus King of Therae.  Apollo took his mother's advice and did his service diligently and humbly and won the King's favor and respect.  Apollo learned his lesson and controlled his passions by knowing his own weaknesses as well as his strengths.  He resolved to master his passions rather than let them master him.  "Know Thyself" and "Moderation in all things" became his mottoes inscribed on his temples.

For the ancient Greeks, Apollo embodied everything they valued most in life, everything they believed necessary for a happy and successful life.  He was strong and beautiful.  He always tried to be the best and to be even better whether in athletics or in music or any other endeavor.  Apollo worked to shine out and win the respect of other competitors like him.  He was the ultimate striver.  Apollo knew himself, not in some pop new age psychological sense that we think of now, but in the sense that he knew what he could do and what he couldn't.  He knew his abilities and he knew their limitations assigned by fate.  He knew himself well enough not to let his passions of pride or fear master him. Apollo was the living image of strength, courage,  excellence, knowledge, and wisdom that the Greeks so valued in themselves and others.  He was the sound mind in a sound body.

Apollo who learned civilized values the hard way does not have much appeal for us these days, and hasn't for a long time.  For us, he's a tiresome bore, an athletic square-britches, the dazzlingly handsome quarterback or star of the track and field team who scolds his teammates for their foul language and coarse jokes.  We much prefer his sexy rock star half brother Dionysos with his wild frenzied parties where we can take a swan dive into our deepest ids and share what we bring up; where we can tear apart sacrificial deer and sometimes people (such as Pentheus or Orpheus).  Whatever else Dionysos is, he's never dull.  Apollo bores us with his constant demands that we always strive to live up to our better selves and be even better.

Classical culture was a worldly culture that valued success in this life.  Apollo is not a Christian (though he would be drafted into the service of the Christian religion).  He and his worshipers looked for reward in the here and now, in this world, not in the hereafter.  Nothing succeeded like success in Classical culture.  The question was what constituted success.  Apollo is not a modern character.  That brutal nihilistic success-at-any-price struggle for wealth and power at the heart of modern life was never in Apollo's nature.  Victory in some brutal pointless animal struggle for domination was not what Apollo meant by success.  The means of getting there were as important as the end for Apollo.  The victorious athlete or the triumphant musician won those laurels because they earned them through excellence.  A truly glorious triumph was best achieved by glorious means was the ultimate bella figura.

Above and below, the birthplace of Apollo and his sister Artemis, the island of Delos that has remains of sanctuaries to both.

Mount Parnassus where Apollo dwelt with the Muses.

Apollo's temple and sanctuary at Delphi.  There is evidence that this was a sacred site going back into prehistory.  The famous Oracle had her seat here in this temple.

The Omphalos stone at Delphi was believed to be the center of the earth, the "navel" of the world.  Tradition said that Zeus sent his eagles to measure the earth and determined that Delphi was at its center.  He threw down a stone from the sky to mark the spot.  The original stone (based on the context of the story it was possibly a meteorite) was covered in a cloth mesh gilded and studded with jewels.  This is a marble copy from Delphi.

By sheer luck, the head of the cult image of Apollo from the mid 6th century BCE from his sanctuary at Delphi survives.  It is made from ivory with long hair of gilded silver.  Archaeologists found the head of Apollo along with ivory heads of Artemis and Leto in 1939 ritually buried.  These objects were too holy to sell or to transform, so they were reverently buried.  A fire sometime in the mid 5th century BCE damaged the cult images.

The New York Kouros, from around 590 - 580 BCE

This kouros served as the tombstone of a young Athenian aristocrat.  Apollo is just such an athletic aristocratic youth, the kouros.  Sir Kenneth Clark in his famous book The Nude begins his chapter on the male nude with this statue, and remarks that Apollo was ideal before he was beautiful.  Stone figures such as this were inspired by Egyptian art, but to our eyes, kouroi disappoint us in comparison.  The Greek kouroi are not only less realistic, but less refined than the older Egyptian works.  The Greek kouros looks like a stone robot.
The Egyptians believed that sculptures were homes for the spirit, even substitute bodies for the soul.  A priest need only say the right prayer or incantation, and somehow in some form, the statue would come to life.  The spirit would animate it and make it live.  How literally the Egyptians believed this is anyone's guess, but they believed in it somehow, and very strongly.  Egyptian sculpture at its best has the expectant quality of beings in suspension waiting to come to life.
The Greeks believed in no such magic for their statues (though they believed in plenty of other kinds of magic).  If the statue was to seem to live, it would be entirely by the power of art.

The Egyptians should get the credit for creating that sense of confident repose, self possession, clarity, and completeness that we call Classical.  They invented the confident self-knowledge and moderation in all things that Apollo would represent long before Apollo appeared in history.  The divine charisma of the Pharaohs shaped the first visual conceptions of beautiful and perfect manhood.  It was the Greeks who would breath life into those ideas and set them in motion.

The earliest kouroi, such as the splendid one in New York's Metropolitan Museum represent early attempts to visualize an ideal and to set it in motion.  The very abstract kouros reminds us that all Greek art no matter how realistic begins not in imitation, but in concept.  The whole point of all Greek art is not to imitate the world as we see it, but to flesh out abstract concepts and to make them seem to walk and talk.  The early Archaic kouros is the first attempt to realize those measured conscious qualities that Apollo stood for.
The early Archaic sculptors confronted with something so mobile and complex as an athletic young male body did what most ancient artists do when rendering something dynamic, amorphous, or challenging.  They resorted to pattern.  The marble carver working with very hard and brittle stone reduced the forms of a young male torso to more manageable and comprehensible shapes.   Those who commissioned and looked at such work in ancient times valued the expense of their material (marble), and the workmanship of the sculpting.  Workmanship did not always mean realism, but a satisfying result that showed skill and virtuosity.
This torso is severely abstract.  But those abstract shapes suggest the build and proportions of an athletic adolescent.

As abstract as this work is, it begins the amazingly swift Greek quest for life and mobility in sculpted figures.  Unlike most Egyptian stone sculpture, the kouros is carved fully in the round creating a technical problem that raised other larger questions.  The Egyptians avoided the problem of trying to make a heavy stone torso sit on two narrow legs with narrower ankles by leaving something of the stone block behind, usually in the back.  It could be as large as a slab or as narrow as a post, but the Egyptian figure almost always remained tied to the block.  The Greeks took on that challenge and seem to have met it, though if you look carefully at Archaic kouroi, they've almost all been broken at the ankles at some point in their history.  Egyptian sculpture may be refined and beautiful, but even on the most naked of figures, there is only a superficial interest in anatomy.  Crude and robotic as the early Greek figures may be, there is already an intense interest in bones and muscles.  The point of artistic anatomy is not to take inventory of parts, but to understand motion.  These early stiff figures were meant to move.  Full nudity is very rare in Egyptian art, especially in stone sculpture, but the kouros was almost always nude, as were the warrior athletes that inspired it.  Greek soldier-athletes trained and competed without a stitch of clothing on for most events.  Most competitive athletic events came out of military training such as the javelin toss, wrestling, boxing, racing, and discus throwing.  Nothing appeared more beautiful or more desirable to the Greeks than the young athletic male body in peak condition in the prime of life; the very embodiments of sound minds in sound bodies.

Even more abstract is the head.  Eyes, ears, and hair are reduced to very striking shapes and patterns.

The Piraeus Apollo, late 6th century BCE

Archaeologists found this magnificent bronze statue buried in a cache with three other bronze statues of differing ages in 1959.  So far as I know, this is the earliest surviving full sized Greek bronze statue.  Less than a century separates this splendid statue from the New York Kouros above.  Within a few decades, the ferociously competitive Greeks always eager to outdo one another succeeded in creating statues that seem to live on the pedestal.   We are on the cusp of fully developed Classical form.  The figure remains in the Archaic.  The pose is still tied to the Egyptian prototypes.  But the stiff leg forward pose starts to turn into a stride.  Bones and muscles no longer are reduced to more manageable patterns.  They become the living mechanics of a body in motion.  We get a sense of skin covering the bones and muscles and tying all the parts together into a single complete body.  For the first time, Apollo is truly beautiful.
He stands in the by now traditional pose of a kouros and probably held a bow in his left hand and a bowl for offerings or incense in his open right hand.

This remains one of my favorites of all images of Apollo.
Apollo faces forward in most of his ancient statues.  For the ancient Greeks, he was an object of prayer and worship.  These images were meant to be seen in temples, in religious context with chanted prayers, the fragrant smoke of incense, and the sacrifice of animals.  Apollo was a god long before he was an allegorical figure or a character in literature.

Among the most fearsomely majestic images of Apollo remaining from ancient times comes from the the west pediment of the famous Temple of Zeus at Olympia.  Apollo stands as the calm center of a violent brawl between the Lapiths and the Centaurs.  The Centaurs betrayed the hospitality of the Lapiths when they got drunk at the wedding feast to which they were invited and tried to carry off the Lapith women.  The Greeks saw this story as an allegory of the superiority of human consciousness over animal instinct, and also as a xenophobic reflection on the perfidy of barbarian foreigners.  None of the combatants appears to see Apollo as the fighting swirls around him.  Perhaps he appears at the moment of decision of the fight, raising his right arm to command it to stop.

And here he stands in isolation in all of his commanding majesty.  An admirable more than a lovable figure.    He stands in a simple frontal pose with his weight on both feet.  The square torso with its somewhat abstracted musculature is as magnificent as the temple facade it once adorned.

The head of the Olympian Apollo is the best and most expressive part of the statue.  Apollo looks with a sovereign grandeur at the struggle around him and rebukes the drunken fury of the centaurs with a mighty gesture and commanding gaze.  Kenneth Clark described the expression on this face as pitiless in its majesty with more than a little hint of cruelty.  The central command of Classical morality, to be and act heroically, was a harsh ethic to live by.  Never was that ethic more splendidly or more mercilessly expressed than in the great Olympian Apollo.

A somewhat less commanding, but still regal Apollo chats with Poseidon on the Parthenon frieze designed by Phidias.  Next to him is his sister Artemis.

 The ancient images of Apollo and all of the gods have a kind of repose about them.  They dwell serenely in an eternal present tense of the realm of Olympus.  The gods for all of their actions and emotions are always and unalterably themselves, above the fleeting changes and chances of mortal life.  Ancient Greek art, especially the art of temples, was about the gods and that changeless blessed state of immortality.  The doings of mortals did not belong in or on the temple.  The gods and their attendants are always in the prime of life.  Greek art appears to be made up almost entirely of magnificent athletic teenagers.  That some gods such as Zeus and Poseidon appear both old and young at the same time show us their timelessness.   Old age and early childhood rarely appear anywhere in Greek art apart from paintings on vessels for banquets.

The Tiber Apollo is a Roman marble copy of Greek bronze original from about 450 BCE.  This copy dates from sometime in the reign of the famously philhellene Emperor Hadrian.  It is called the Tiber Apollo because it was dredged up from the bottom of the Tiber in 1885 during the construction of the Ponte Garibaldi in Rome.

I think that this is among the most beautiful images of Apollo to survive from ancient times.  I can only imagine what the bronze original must have looked like.

This larger than life figure is especially fine, even among Roman copies of famous Greek sculptures.  The quality of this work caused some scholars in the late 19th century to speculate that this might be a copy of a work by Phidias, the sculptor of the Parthenon.  It does have qualities of grandeur and naturalism that we ascribe to the best surviving work of Phidias, especially from the Parthenon.

Though worn by centuries in river water, it has a depth and complexity that few other images of the god manage.  He stands a little taller and more slender than most figures from the 5th century BCE.  While standing in a graceful contrapposto, the pose remains frontal enough to suggest a hieratic cult image befitting a divine being.

The torso has little of the schematic pattern of ribs and muscles that we usually see in early Classical art; for example in the Olympian Apollo above.  Even worn by the centuries, the torso seems to breathe with a palpable life with skin stretched over bones and muscles that seem to respond and move.

The splendid head hangs down thoughtfully from high square shoulders.  Apollo is majestic as is fitting for a god, yet remains complex in his feelings.  I would imagine that we are looking at the Apollo who learned civilized values through bitter experience; the temperamental arrogant aristocrat educated by that harshest of all teachers, trial and error.  There is a depth of feeling in this statue that I don't think I've seen in any other statue of Apollo (or any other inhabitant of Olympus) before or since.
Sir Kenneth Clark writes about this statue with enthusiastic admiration in his book The Nude.  I share his enthusiasm.  Clark speculates about how different Western art history might have been if instead of the Apollo Belvedere, this statue had been available to Johann Joachim Winckelmann.  How different our conventional image of Apollo might have been.

A beautiful variation on the type seen in the Tiber Apollo is this bronze Apollo from Pompeii, from the House of the Citharist.  This statue once held a lyre or a cithara.  He still holds the plectrum in his right hand.  It is a 1st century CE Roman copy of a 5th century BCE Greek original.

The very beautiful head of the Apollo from the House of the Citharist.

Another very fine ancient Apollo is the Omphalos Apollo, so called because the 5th century BCE bronze original stood near the Omphalos at Delphi.  Apparently this was a famous work of art in the ancient world since a number of copies survive.  This is one of the best from the National Museum in Athens.  Most scholars attribute this sculpture to Calamis.

In its long proportions, and its very subtle pose that turns slowly on the axis of gravity -- best seen from the back -- this sculpture anticipates the more complex and ambitious poses of later Greek sculpture.  Lyssipos and Praxiteles may have made more ambitious sculptures, but none finer than this one.

The Tiber Apollo shows a sincerity of conviction about what the god stood for, and hints at the cost of attaining those values.  After the long grinding catastrophe of the Peloponnesian War, the Greeks began to lose confidence in their own culture.

The late Classical sculptor Praxiteles brought his sophistication and irreverence to depictions of the gods.  He made these for a much more disillusioned public that lived in the years following the Peloponnesian War.  Here, Hermes once dangled a bunch of grapes to tease the infant Dionysus.  Praxiteles gives the Messenger of the gods a very ungodlike sensuality and shows both deities in a light-hearted even comic moment.   The contrapposto that once animated sculpted athletes, heroes, and deities on their pedestals becomes so exaggerated that Hermes must lean on a tree stump.  The point of the exaggerated pose is not simply to make him seem to move, but to display his beauty and to make it alluring.  The sculptor gave the god longer and taller proportions and a complex pose that leans and turns at the same time.  At one time, the arm holding up the grapes made the pose even more complex, and more of a kind of spiral.  The legs are strong and graceful.  The leaning torso has beautifully articulated musculature far and above the featureless rubbery torsos we usually see in copies of Praxiteles' work.

For a long time, scholars and critics thought this magnificently carved statue to be an original by Praxiteles.  Most now consider it to be an exceptionally fine copy, probably Roman from the reign of Hadrian.  It's a copy that suggests why the ancient writers were so enthusiastic in their praise of Praxiteles' work.

The Apollo Sauroctonos in the Louvre shows Praxiteles at his most extreme in bringing the gods down to earth.  Apollo the Python Slayer turns into a pretty boy spearing a lizard on a tree with an arrow.  Once again, the exaggerated contrapposto puts the god on display and makes him alluring in a way that might have been considered sacrilegious in an earlier time.  Indeed, the people of Kos considered Praxiteles fully nude Aphrodite stepping into her bath to be very sacrilegious and refused it.  The people of Knidos sensing an opportunity in the scandal and sensation created by Praxiteles' Aphrodite bought it and kept it.  We've come a long way from the majestic Apollo on the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.


Those qualities in Western architecture and design that we call "Apollonian" begin with the Greek temple.  Completion, harmony, proportion, integration, health, all of those qualities began in ancient Greece and still to this day form basic criteria of excellence for modern design, criteria that long outlived their original religious intention.

The Egyptians hid their temples from the profane world behind high walls.   The Egyptian temple looked inward into vast twilight spaces that formed the "mansion of the god." most of them accessible only to the priests.
The Greek temple looked outward and engaged its surrounding whether it was a city or the countryside.  The Greek temple always called attention to itself and proclaimed the presence of the god housed within.

The ancient travel writer Pausanias singled out the Temple of Apollo at Bassae for special praise acclaiming is as one of the 2 or 3 finest of Greek temples.  Now, as in ancient times, the temple is unusually remote.  It sits on a mountainside in what was once ancient Arcadia.  Pausanias identifies the architect as Iktinos, one of the architects of the Parthenon.  And like the Parthenon, the Temple at Bassae makes several departures from convention.  The narrow mountain slope determined the unusual north south orientation of the temple.  Most Greek temples follow an east west axis.  Traditionally, Greek temples are built in only one of the three orders; Doria, Ionic, or Corinthian.  The Parthenon was built using two orders, the Doric and Ionic.  The Temple at Bassae originally used all three orders.  The temple once housed the oldest known Corinthian column (that earliest Corinthian column and its capital were lost at sea on their way to the British Museum).

The Greek temple was whole and complete in the same way we are whole and complete.  Nothing more can be added and nothing can be taken away.  A third arm might be useful to me, but would make me freakish in appearance.  If I lose a digit of my finger or my whole arm, the result would be the same.  I would be mutilated.  So too with the Greek temple.  Whether it is missing one block from the stereobate, or four columns from the peristyle, the result is the same, mutilation.  Greek temples in general and this temple in particular were formed out of ideas of health and soundness, of completion and internal harmony that we value in our own bodies.  These very Apollonian ideas began with the Greek temple and remain very much central to Western Classical architecture down to the present day.

The design of a Greek temple could express the nature of the god housed within.  Apollo's temple at Bassae shows the outside world a very muscular and austere Doric peristyle; a suitably masculine exterior for a warrior athlete.  The complex interior with its Ionic and Corinthian columns, its sanctuary lighted by a side door, its dark naos with its even darker recesses perhaps express something of the mystery of the god of prophecy.

The Temple of Apollo at Bassae is currently undergoing a very lengthy and thorough restoration.

The temple's exterior is a an austere unadorned Doric peristyle.  The truly eccentric part of its design is the interior.

The interior was a naos lined with eight engaged Ionic columns with unusually shaped bases.  The oddly engaged columns created dark recesses almost like side chapels in the walls.  A single Corinthian column created a kind of screen between the naos and separate chamber with a side door that admitted direct sunlight from the east into the otherwise very dark interior.  The brightly sunlit room behind the silhouetted Corinthian column facing a dark naos. must have made a striking effect.
Scholars do not agree over whether or not there was a cult image in the temple and where it was placed.  Above is the currently accepted reconstruction of what the interior may have looked like.

Here is a very fanciful reconstruction from 1860 that attempts to reconstruct the lighting effects.  I'm very skeptical of that vaulted ceiling with the skylight, but it points to another unusual feature of the interior; a continuously carved Ionic frieze on the interior.  This artist (and some archaeologists still) insist there must have been some kind of skylight in order for anyone to see the frieze.  I think it probably didn't matter how visible it was or wasn't.  The frieze, along with the rest of the temple, was a sacrificial offering.  What mattered was not whether we could see it and enjoy it, but that Apollo did.

The running Ionic frieze from the interior of the Temple at Bassae is now in the British Museum.  It shows the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, the same subject as found on the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia and on some of the metopes from the Parthenon in Athens.


The Apollo Belvedere is the most famous and familiar of all images of Apollo.  It was famous as early as its discovery around 1489.  It is a Roman marble copy of a 4th century BCE bronze original by Leochares.  The original showed Apollo holding a bow just after firing an arrow, presumably at the Python, but perhaps also at the children of Niobe (is that inexpressive grace just or cruel?).

The familiar and conventional image of Apollo begins with this statue, that was always admired since at least the 16th century when its original owner Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere became Pope Julius II and moved it to the Cortile in the former Villa Belvedere in the Vatican where it remains today.  Artists such as Antico and Sansovino along with Raphael and Marcantonio Raimondi copied and adapted this sculpture into their work and propagated it to where it soon became the standard issue Apollo.  Artists of the 17th century such as Rubens and Poussin frequently used some variation of the Apollo Belvedere in their paintings.  He even appears in Bernini's work.

The person who really made the Apollo Belvedere famous was the 18th century writer Johann Joachim Winckelmann whose extravagant purple prose made this sculpture into an international celebrity:
His build is sublimely superhuman, and his stance bears witness to the fullness of his grandeur. An eternal springtime, as if in blissful Elysium, clothes the charming manliness of maturity with graceful youthfulness, and plays with soft tenderness on the proud build of his limbs....
In gazing upon this masterpiece of art, I forget all else, and I myself adopt an elevated stance, in order to be worthy of gazing upon it. My chest seems to expand with veneration and to heave like those I have seen swollen as if by the spirit of prophecy, and I feel myself transported to Delos and to the Lycian groves, places Apollo honored with his presence—for my figure seems to take on life and movement, like Pygmalion’s beauty. -- from History of the Art of Antiquity
Winckelmann made the Apollo Belvedere the most famous and celebrated work of art in the Western world for over a century.  By the late 19th century, the reputation of this statue waned quickly thanks to the advent of modernism, and to art academies turning the Apollo Belvedere from an example into into an imperative from which there is no appeal.  Sir Kenneth Clark didn't think much of this statue, and neither did his mentors, Ruskin and Hazlitt.

I think another aspect to the rapid fall from grace of this former paragon of art is the scandal of homosexuality.  Winckelmann was famously and openly homosexual, and that passion unapologetically informed his critical writing.  That he was murdered in squalid circumstances in a tavern in Trieste only adds to the scandal (though he was long rumored to have been murdered by male prostitute, the evidence indicates a botched robbery).  It was William Hazlitt who suggested that Winckelmann's enthusiasm for the statue might have been driven by homosexual desire, a suggestion that tainted the reputations of both Winckelmann and the Apollo Belvedere with late 19th and early 20th century art enthusiasts.

Homoeroticism was always an aspect of Apollo from the beginnings of his worship.  He was the first god to desire his own gender, and he was likewise desired as the most beautiful of males.  Certainly the love and homoeroticism that attended the ancient athletic games informs the many ancient images of Apollo as the most perfect and beloved of athletes, the ultimate kouros.  The scholars of the late 19th century knew all of this, but love of one man or another was an ultimate and unforgivable taboo in the hard brittle world of Victorian social convention.  So, these matters would remain undiscussed until the late 20th century.

I must admit that I've never loved the Apollo Belvedere.  The serene self-possession of the god as he fires his arrows is as dull as it is divine as far as I'm concerned.  That featureless body that Winckelmann so praised is just that to me, featureless.  Over the years however, I've developed a certain respect for this sculpture and understand a little what its admirers from Raphael to Winckelmann saw in it.  That complex pose of striding, turning, and shooting looks so easy and inevitable in the statue.   Leochares the sculptor only made it look easy when in fact it is very difficult.  It certainly wasn't easy for any of the statue's imitators from Antico to Mengs.  The uncomplicated and inexpressive head is very beautiful and noble looking.  The striding body is beautifully proportioned and articulated if not quite alluring.


The great unfinished Hellenistic Temple of Apollo at Didyma once was a much more immense and even more theatrical journey from darkness into light than the much earlier temple of Apollo at Bassae.  The Temple at Didyma housed a very ancient and revered oracle of Apollo associated with a sacred spring and an ancient cult image.  This huge temple was never finished.  Pediments were never added and much of the elaborate sculptural decoration remains unfinished.

The current temple is a rebuilding of a much more ancient temple that stood on this site.  Alexander the Great reconsecrated the oracle when he captured the city of Miletus.  The Milesians soon after began construction on the present temple and never quite finished it.

Worshipers once entered the enormous temple through a forest of tall Ionic columns into the dark temple interior.  They would then enter a room with two columns.  Behind those two columns were three doors.  Passing though those doors, worshipers suddenly found themselves in the outdoors; the inner sanctum was a roofless sunken court.  They walked down the steps into a grove of laurel trees toward the spring  (long ago dried up), and to a smaller temple within the temple that held the oracle and the much revered ancient cult image.

The remains of the inner sanctuary, a sunken court that was once wide open to the sky.  This desolation was originally a grove of laurel trees, a sacred spring, and a smaller temple within the temple that housed a very ancient cult image of Apollo.

Another view of the inner sanctuary back toward the steps leading down into the sunken court from the temple naos.

The very elaborate carving in so much of the temple that together with its large size reflects the much larger and more cosmopolitan world of Hellenistic Greece.


The Roman Emperor Hadrian had his beautiful melancholy boyfriend Antinous deified after his untimely death drowning in the Nile.  The new cult filled the Imperial realm with numerous statues of Antinous, many of him playing the role of a Greek or Egyptian god.  Probably the most beautiful of all his surviving statues is this one from Delphi where Antinous plays the role of Apollo.  He probably held a lyre originally.

The ancient Greeks would have been scandalized at the very idea of any mortal portrayed as Apollo no matter how beautiful.  Antinous with his full curly hair, melancholy expression, and broad chest is immediately recognizable in this Apollo.
Art for the ancient Greeks was not about imitating nature.  It was about making ideas walk and talk, to make them living personifications.  The realm of art for them was about ideas and the gods, not so much a dwelling place for mortals and their concerns.  It was important for them to make Apollo seem to be credibly alive and present.  It was not important for them that he "look like" anyone.

Roman art begins in the particular and concrete.  It is almost always about particular people and historical events, and how ideas are revealed through their actions.  For them, it was not out of place for a beautiful young man whose features suggest Apollo be portrayed as Apollo.

Apollo the Light of the Earth

Long before the advent of the Christian religion, Apollo was already prepared to take the job of an actor playing the role of Christ.  That began when the ancient world started to conflate Apollo with the sun god Helios.

A 2nd century Roman floor mosaic of Apollo/Helios from Tunisia.

Helios began as a separate deity.  He was, like Apollo, a beautiful young man but wearing the radiant nimbus of the sun's light.  He drove his four horse chariot across the sky from east to west everyday and then under the depths of the cosmic Ocean from west to east over night.  The earliest surviving conflation of Apollo with Helios appears in a fragment of Euripides play Phaeton.  But the merging of the two gods is not really complete until toward the end of the Hellenistic period.  By the time of the Roman conquest of Greece, Apollo becomes the god of the sun and sunlight.  Apollo appears wearing the solar nimbus and driving the horses of the sun.  The Romans added the title Phoebus, "shining" to Apollo's name.

Helios Apollo from 1st century Pompeii carrying a whip to drive his chariot, and the globe of the world.  He wears a seven rayed nimbus of light, a crown that several centuries later would adorn the colossus of Liberty in New York harbor. 

The most famous of all images of Helios/Apollo was the short-lived Colossus of Rhodes built to commemorate the island kingdom's victory over Cypriot invaders in about 280 BCE.  An earthquake destroyed the Colossus in 226 BCE.  Standing at about 180 feet high (about the same height as the Statue of Liberty), it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  It appears here in a 19th century print.

The Fall of Phaeton from a 4th century BCE red figure vase.
Phaeton, the son of Helios, persuaded his father to take the chariot of the sun out for a joy ride.  He lost control of horses and nearly incinerated the earth causing Zeus to strike him down with a thunderbolt in order to save the world.

A magnificent Helios/ Apollo from the 4th century BCE.

The radiant seven-rayed nimbus of Apollo/Helios is the prototype of the halo worn by saints and angels in Western and Eastern art.  Apollo Light of the Earth is already prepared to assume his next role acting the part of a very different god in a very different heaven.  The serene repose of Olympus becomes the radiant abstract paradise of transcendent everlasting light.

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