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 10,191 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces it's Room 53, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Ancient South Arabia. Ancient South Arabia was centred on what is now modern Yemen but included parts of Saudi Arabia and southern Oman. It was famous in the ancient world as an important source of valuable incense and perfume, and was described by Classical writers as Arabia Felix ('Fortunate Arabia') because of its fertility.
Several important kingdoms flourished there at different times between 1000 BC and the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD. The oldest and most important of these was Saba, which is referred to as Sheba in the Bible.
Room 53 features highlights from the Museum’s collection, which is one of the most important outside Yemen. The display includes examples of beautiful carved alabaster sculptures originally placed inside tombs, incense-burners and a massive bronze altar. You can see the East stairs in the background of this picture. We've reached Room 52 on our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces – the Rahim Irvani Gallery of Ancient Iran. Iran was a major centre of ancient culture. It was rich in valuable natural resources, especially metals, and played an important role in the development of ancient Middle Eastern civilisation and trade. Room 52 highlights these ancient interconnections and the rise of distinctive local cultures, such as in Luristan, during the age of migrations after about 1400 BC.
During the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great founded a mighty Persian empire which eventually stretched from Egypt to Pakistan. Objects on display from this period include the Cyrus Cylinder (in the centre of the picture) and the Oxus Treasure (in the case to the left of the picture). Monumental plaster casts of sculptures from Persepolis are also displayed in Room 52 and on the East stairs.
The later periods of the Parthian and Sasanian empires mark a revival in Iranian culture and are represented through displays including silver plates and cut glass. The next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 51, Europe and Middle East 10,000–800 BC. Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, making possible the social, cultural and economic changes which shaped the modern world. It arrived in Britain around 6,000 years ago bringing a new way of life. This change in lifestyle meant people competed for wealth, power and status, displaying these through jewellery, weapons and feasting.
The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC. This is Room 50, Britain and Europe 800 BC–AD 43, the next gallery space in our ongoing #MuseumOfTheFuture series. The Iron Age was a time of dramatic change for the people of Britain and Europe. Iron replaced bronze as the material used to make tools and weapons, while religion, art, daily life, economics and politics changed dramatically. The story of these civilisations (known to the Greeks and Romans as Britons, Celts, Germans and Iberians) and their distinct material cultures, is told through decorated Iron Age artefacts known as 'Celtic art' and more everyday objects. In the foreground of this picture you can see a selection of torcs and to the right is the Battersea shield, found in the River Thames in the 1850s. Next up in the #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series it's the Weston Gallery of Roman Britain – Room 49. The Roman occupation of Britain between AD 43 and 410 dramatically transformed the material culture of the province. Imported goods and settlers from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa created a richer, more diverse society and a wealth of mosaics, wall paintings, sculpture, glassware and metalwork was produced.
The laws, administration, currency, architecture, engineering, religion and art of Rome met Britain’s Iron Age societies to create a distinctive 'Romano-British' identity, which is illustrated in Room 49 through a variety of objects and artworks including the Mildenhall treasure, the Hoxne Hoard and the Hinton St Mary mosaic. Born #onthisday in 1600: Charles I. During the Civil War this medal was worn in support of the King
#history #medal #king
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,191 other followers

%d bloggers like this: