British Museum blog

‘the most tantalising sculpture in the entire world’….


Judith Swaddling, curator, British Museum

The Motya charioteer

That’s what Andrew Graham-Dixon, television presenter, thinks of the Motya Charioteer. To me, not only is it an incredibly beautiful sculpture, but an extremely rare example of a Greek victor’s statue, representing the winner of a chariot race that took place almost 2,500 years ago.

The Motya Charioteer. Photo: Maurizio de Francisci and Salvo Piano, courtesy of the Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana.

The Motya Charioteer. Photo: Maurizio de Francisci
and Salvo Piano, courtesy of the Regione Siciliana,
Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana.

For the past couple of months the charioteer has been on display in the Parthenon gallery at the British Museum. As part of the ‘Winning at the ancient Games’ trail, this statue with unquestionable attitude is one of 12 objects telling us about different aspects of victory in ancient sport. The sculpture has gained a vast number of fans and has even moved visitors to tears by its beauty.

I can’t help but contemplate what we’ve lost in the way of original Greek sculpture over the centuries. What survives is only a tiny fraction of the thousands of statues that stood in the sanctuaries of the gods and in public spaces. So we’re all the more lucky to have the charioteer here on loan from his usual home in Sicily, as the spectacular highlight of our trail. Did many other statues exist that were as exquisite as this one, I wonder?

Victors in the games of ancient Greece were allowed to set up statues of themselves where they won the contest. Sometimes, because a win in one of the major games, then as now, was such good propaganda, his town or city would set up a similar statue in his honour back home. Nowadays we set up gold-painted post-boxes in their home towns instead!

The Charioteer was found in excavations in Sicily in 1979. It was more than likely a monument honouring the achievement of a local ruler in Sicily. The grassland of Sicily and southern Italy was first-class for horse-breeding, and the Greek rulers of cities there, in what was known as ‘Greater Greece’, won lots of equestrian victories in the major games, especially at Olympia and Delphi, back in Greece itself. Their coins boast the theme – a kind of parallel for our postage stamps with the 2012 winners.

In an ancient chariot race, with reputedly up to 40 chariots in a contest, there’s no doubt that charioteers put their lives at risk. Some say the charioteer looks like a poser, but look more closely at that hand on the left hip. It doesn’t just rest there decorously – it’s really supporting his weight and digging into the flesh, pulling the fine cloth of the long tunic into incredibly realistic folds.

The back of the sculpture

The back of the sculpture, on display at the British Museum

The thrust-out hip is unquestionably provocative, but isn’t that how you’d stand with an exhausted body, yet proud and triumphant enough still to push out the chest and hold the head erect? The virtually transparent cloth clings to his body with the sweat and effort of the race. The veins on his upper arms still stand out with the blood coursing through.

True, there have been a large number of alternative interpretations of the figure, but the main reason for identifying it as a charioteer is the long tunic, the xystis, and the broad belt on to which the reins would have been fastened – on the statue, this would have been via fixings in the two holes in the belt at the front. This prevented the reins from being pulled out of the hands, but also dangerously prevented the charioteer from being thrown free in a crash. Most disasters happened at the turning posts at either end of the oblong track.

But there are so many other intriguing questions about the Charioteer.

Why was the statue found on a tiny island at the western tip of Sicily, – Motya, in ancient times a Phoenician stronghold? We know that it was from here that the Phoenicians, towards the end of the 5th century BC, raided a number of the Greek cities in Sicily, looting many sculptures and taking them back to their homeland – Carthage, in north Africa. If this was one of the looted statues, why was it taken to Motya instead? It was actually found built into fortifications which the Phoenicians must have rapidly constructed when Dionysios I, the Greek ruler of Syracuse, invaded in retaliation and sacked Motya not many years later in 397 BC. In ancient times it wasn’t unusual to utilise statues or any other stonework at hand to hastily build up a barricade in times of siege.

Winning athletes in the ancient games became super-heroes, were given massive home-coming parades, and public honours such as free meals and theatre tickets for life. Some were even thought to have healing powers. They became celebrities, and could command prize money for appearances at festivals. Maybe our winner here would find a lot in common with our 2012 sporting heroes!

The statue is normally displayed at the Museo Giuseppe Whitaker on Motya and is on loan at the British Museum until 19 September courtesy of the Regione Siciliana, Assessorato dei Beni Culturali e dell’Identità Siciliana, with thanks to the Italian Cultural Institute in London.

Winning at the ancient Games is on display in various galleries until 9 September 2012

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6 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. ritaroberts says:

    This is beautiful,but have you seen the statue of The Unknown Charioteer at Delphi.

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    • richard says:

      Yes, the charioteer at Delphi is as stunning and, of course, a much more complete piece,

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    • Judith Swaddling says:

      Yes, which is beautiful in a very different, stylised way, being perhaps about 20 years earlier than the Motya statue. It’s interesting that the inscription links the Delphi statue with another ruler of a Greek city in Sicily, Polyzalos, who won in 478 or 474 BC. More so that the term ruler/tyrant, ἀνάσσων, was obliterated after Polyzalos was overthrown, so that it was no longer a state dedication but a private one!
      Judith Swaddling, British Museum

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  2. sherringham says:

    Thanks. Good post on a beautiful looking statue. I’ll have to pop round to the museum and have a look now!

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  3. VHarvey says:

    It is not only beautiful but interesting, the marriage of power and elegance is rarely found in a single artifact; this manages that pairing without any conflict between the two.

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  4. vbharvey says:

    It is both beautiful and interesting, marrying elegance and power, a feat that is found in few artifacts. There is no discordance between the two but a wholeness in their pairing.

    Like

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Construction of St Peter’s Basilica began #onthisday in 1506. It was completed 120 years later. This print by Giuseppe Vasi was made in 1774
#print #art #history #Rome #Italy Happy 134th birthday @natural_history_museum! Here’s the British Museum before the natural history collection moved to South Kensington
#giraffe #history #BritishMuseum #museum Most Greek sculpture that survives from antiquity is carved from white marble, of which the Mediterranean has many natural sources. A relationship has often been assumed between the pure white of freshly cut marble and the idealism of Greek art. In fact, the opposite is true. Colour was intrinsic to ancient ideas of beauty. For centuries this has been a subject of fascination and controversy. The great Italian Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo revived the Greek idea of the human body but denied the use of colour. This was partly due to negative associations with the painted saints of the medieval period. During the European Enlightenment of the 1750s onwards, and increasingly into our own time, the preferred aesthetic was a truth to materials. Painting and gilding were seen as unnecessary and undesirable.

Sculpture in antiquity was often adorned not only with colour but also with different materials. The Greek marble statue of an archer reconstructed here was drilled and fitted with metal attachments. The figure originally held a bronze bow and arrow and a quiver was fixed to his left hip by a metal dowel. Individual locks of hair were made of lead. The colourful design of the man’s knitted all-in-one garment, often worn by peoples from the east, is clearly seen weathered into the marble surface under controlled lighting.

You can see this wonderful object in our exhibition #DefiningBeauty, until 5 July 2015.
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Plaster cast of archer with reconstructed paint, based on a Greek original of about 490–480 BC, from the Temple of Aphaia at Aigina. Staatliche Antikensammlung und Glyptothek, Munich. Uta Uta Tjangala's masterpiece Yumari is a highlight of‪ #IndigenousAustralia, opening a week today
#exhibition #art #history #BritishMuseum #Australia #museum Hans Sloane's collection also ended up as the basis of the @natural_history_museum and the @britishlibrary!
To make more room for the increasing collections held by the British Museum, the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington in the 1880s. This eventually became the Natural History Museum. These images show some of the natural history specimens on display, including giraffes and a mastodon!
In 1997, the library departments left the Museum to be re-housed at the new British Library in St Pancras.
#history #BritishMuseum #collection #animals #books Hans Sloane's encyclopaedic collection became the cornerstone of the British Museum.
This drawer was once part of the materia medica - a sort of pharmaceutical cabinet - in the collection of Sloane. The cabinet had several drawers, each carefully constructed to keep out destructive insects. Some drawers had small compartments like this example, others contained glazed boxes with seeds, fruit, bark, roots, gums and resins inside. Each had a label written by Sloane with a catalogue number. The botanical or medicinal name of the subtance, where it came from and who collected it were then recorded in his catalogues of his collection.
As Sloane's interest in natural history grew along with his income, he was able to widen the scope of his collection from being primarily medical to being more encyclopaedic, representing the widest possible variety of substances and artefacts for his own reference and for others to consult.
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