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

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: At the Museum, , ,

6 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. ritaroberts says:

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

    Like

    • richard says:

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

      Like

    • 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

      Like

  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!

    Like

  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.

    Like

  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

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 13,011 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Writer and women's rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft was born #onthisday in 1759.
#history #art #portrait The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was born #onthisday in AD 121.

Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-80), who appears on the coin set in this ring, is best known for his philosophical work, The Meditations. Although he was the most powerful man in the Roman Empire, he dwelt on the emptiness of glory: 'Shall mere fame distract you? Look at the speed of total oblivion of all and the void of endless time on either side of us and the hollowness of applause... For the whole earth is but a point, and of this what a tiny corner is our dwelling-place, and how few and paltry are those who will praise you.' It is ironic that such sentiments as these have preserved his fame to this day.
#ancientRome #emperor #history #museum #BritishMuseum Good luck to all in the #LondonMarathon today! Be inspired by this Spartan running girl from 520-500 BC, which features in our exhibition #DefiningBeauty It’s World #PenguinDay! This handsome King Penguin on display in the Enlightenment Gallery is on loan from the @natural_history_museum
#penguin #museum #BritishMuseum Born #onthisday in 1599: Oliver Cromwell. Here’s a terracotta portrait bust from around 1759
#history #Cromwell #art #bust Greece lightning: this exquisite bronze depicts Zeus, chief of the Greek gods #FridayFigure

In ancient Greece, powerful, shape-shifting gods provided compelling subjects for artists. The famous sculptor Phidias created a gold and ivory statue of Zeus, ruler of the gods, that was over 13 metres high for his temple at Olympia. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it symbolised the awesome presence of the god at his sanctuary site. There was also drama to be found in the gods’ ability to change their form as a means of disguise. Zeus, ruler of the Olympian gods, could take animal form – he seduced Leda as a swan, carried away Europa as a bull and Ganymede as an eagle.

This bronze statuette splendidly represents the majesty of Zeus, ruler of the gods on Mount Olympus and lord of the sky. Zeus holds a sceptre and a thunderbolt, showing his control over gods and mortals, and his destructive power. Although just over 20cm high, this exquisite work appears to be a copy of a much grander statue that does not survive.

You can see this figure in our exhibition #DefiningBeauty, until 5 July 2015.
Bronze statuette of Zeus. Roman period, 1st–2nd century AD, said to be from Hungary.
#art #museum #exhibition #ancientGreece #Zeus #gods
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 13,011 other followers

%d bloggers like this: