The Kritios Boy, Perserschutt, and the Early Classical Style

Kritios Boy, c. 480 BCE. Archaeological Museum, Athens. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Kritios Boy, c. 480 BCE. Archaeological Museum, Athens. Image courtesy Wikipedia via user Tetrakys

When I saw the Kritios Boy on display in Athens (back in 2003, in the old version of the Acropolis Museum), I was struck by how the statue was smaller than I anticipated. I naturally assumed that the scale of the sculpture was akin to the large size of the reproductions I had seen in my editions of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. However, this work of art, which had loomed so large in my mind as an undergraduate, is only 3’10” (1.17 m) tall.

In truth, though, the Kritios Boy’s role in art history has been anything but small. This figure dominates many canonical art history books as the forefront example of the Early Classical period (also called the Severe Style). And, in some ways, we know more about the start of the Early Classical period because of the Kritios Boy.

This sculpture is an example of “Perserschutt” (meaning “Persian debris”). This sculpture, along with several others sculptures, form part of the sculptural “debris” that resulted from when the Persians burned and sacked the Athenian acropolis in conjunction with the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE.1 Some think that head of the Kritios Boy might have been lopped off during this same time, perhaps as a way for the Persians to symbolically express their anger toward and desired conquest over the Greeks.Another theory is that this head was intentionally decapitated by an Athenian, perhaps for something as elevated as a religious sacrifice, or something as mundane as prepping the sculpture to be packing material for the acropolis.3

Kritios Boy, back of the head, c. 480 BCE

Kritios Boy, back of the head, c. 480 BCE

At some point after the sack of the acropolis, the Greeks took the damaged sculptural rubble, including the Kritios Boy and other sculptures, and buried it in pits underneath surface of the religious complex. The placement of this Perserschutt may have happened as soon as 479 BCE, or it could have taken place incrementally until the rebuilding of the acropolis by Pericles in c. 447-432 BCE. Regardless, the Kritios Boy was hidden from the world for well over two thousand years, and it finally was unearthed long after art history was established as a discipline. The body of the Kritios Boy was discovered in 1865, although its decapitated head was not discovered until 1888.2

The Calf-Bearer and the Kritios Boy Shortly After Exhumation on the Acropolis, with the Danseuse du Temple de Bacchus, ca. 1865. Albumen silver print from glass negative. Public domain image courtesy

The Calf-Bearer and the Kritios Boy Shortly After Exhumation on the Acropolis, with the Danseuse du Temple de Bacchus, ca. 1865. Albumen silver print from glass negative. Public domain image courtesy

As a result, it would be easy to assume that we pretty specific date for the Kritios Boy: it is possible that this sculpture was made before 480 BCE, which is when the Persians sacked the acropolis. This is based on the assumption that the Perserschutt is a homogeneous deposit of items made on or before 480 BCE. However, not everyone agrees with this date or theory, though. Here are two arguments regarding the dating of the Kritios Boy, and the ramifications of adopting either argument:

1) Argument that the Kritios Boy was made on or before 480 BCE:

One of the assumptions that the Kritios Boy was made before Persian attacks is that the body was found with other works of art in the Archaic style. If this is the case, then the Kritios Boy was a leader in introducing the Classical Style. This can segue into a discussion of pinpointing the beginning of the Early Classical period: before the Kritios Boy was excavated in 1865, the popular starting date for the Early Classical period was 480 BC. Winckelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764) pinpointed the Persian Wars of 480-479 BCE as the starting point for the Early Classical periods, since the victorious Greeks would have felt a sense of self-confidence, capability, and worth.

However, if the Kritios Boy predates 480 BCE and therefore was attacked in the Persian sack of the acropolis, this means that the shift in artistic style took place before the time that Winckelmann pinpointed. Instead, it seems more likely that the Early Classical period should be pinpointed to the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, in which the Greeks won a decisive victory over the Persians.

2) Argument that the Kritios Boy was made after 480 BCE:

Hurwit finds that the statue is not in good enough condition to have been made, broken by the Persians, and then buried with the rest of the Perserschutt, all within a matter of years. Moreover, he thinks that this sculpture may have been made, perhaps as a copy, after a bronze sculpture. The smaller scale of the statue (roughly two-thirds or three-fourths life size) is typical for bronze, and the fine attention hair strands and curly wisps on the neck suggest the plastic capabilities of the bronze medium.6 Furthermore, Hurwit points out that the hair ornament, a ring, around the Kritios Boy’s head are uncommon before 480. Furthermore, the looped curls around the hair ring only comes into fashion on and after 480 BCE.7

Hurwit finds stylistic similarities with a head of Harmodios (original Greek versions of 477-476 BCE) and suggests that the Kritios Boy may not only post-date 479 BCE, but perhaps specifically post-date this sculpture between 475-470.8

There are other nuances to this argument as well, which are discussed by Hurwit and Stewart. However, overall one can say that this post-Persian argument places the Kritios Boy not as an instigator of the Early Classical style, but within a greater continuum of (and likely as a response to) vanguard stylistic elements that appeared in other works of art. If this is the case, I wonder if textbooks should rethink the way that the Kritios Boy is introduced to art history students? One has to be careful to make stress that the Kritios Boy is indicative of these changes in style, but our loss of extant examples and a truly clear understanding of Perserschutt chronology prevent us from knowing whether the Kritios boy was an instigator or follower of the nascent Severe Style.

1 “The Calf-Bearer and the Kritios Boy Shortly After Exhumation on the Acropolis, with the Danseuse du Temple de Bacchus,” accessed 14 November 2016, available online at:

2 Rachel Kousser, “Who Killed the Kritios Boy,” CHS Research Bulletin, 13 December 2010. Accessed 14 November 2016, available online at:

3 Jeffrey M. Hurwit, “Kritios Boy: Discovery, Reconstruction, and Date,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 93, No. 1 (Jan., 1989): 61-62.

4 From 1865-1888, the Kritios Boy’s body was attached to the head of a youth, known as Acropolis 699. To see an image of this inaccurate reconstruction,  see Jeffrey M. Hurwit, “Kritios Boy: Discovery, Reconstruction, and Date,” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 93, No. 1 (Jan., 1989): 51. It could be that the head conjoined with the Kritios Boy today is not the original head, but a head that served as an ancient repair for the original head; such a theory supports why both the body and head both are chiseled away, to allow for as neat of a fit as possible. Hurwit argues that the head is original and always was meant to be with the body, since there is not evidence of tool marks or recutting on the broken sides of the head and body. See Hurwit, p. 56-59.

5 Ibid., p. 56.

6 Ibid., p. 67.

7 Ibid., p. 74.

8 Hurwit, p. 68. See also Andrew Stewart, “The Persian and Carthaginian Invasions of 480 B.C.E. and the Beginning of the Classical Style,” American Journal of Archaeology 112 (2008): 391-392. Available online here:,_Beginning_of_the_Classical_Style_1.pdf


The Farnese Bull and Messy Art History

Apollonios of Tralleis and Tauriscus, The Farnese Bull, 2nd century BC or 3rd century CE

Although I’m not a specialist in Hellenistic or Roman sculpture, I like to feel like I am pretty savvy regarding the major works of art from these periods. Up until earlier this year, however, I was not familiar with the “Farnese Bull” (shown above). This sculpture, which was excavated in 1545, was soon placed in the Palazzo Farnese as part of the collection of Pope Paul III (formerly Cardinal Alessandro Farnese).

At almost 12 feet (3.7 m) in height, this sculpture has a dominating presence. In fact, the complex composition and large scale made me wonder why I hadn’t seen this work of art in more art history textbooks. Although I have since learned of a few sources which discuss this book (including a great entry in Haskell and Penny’s Taste of the Antique), I still think that this work is underrepresented in art history textbooks geared for college students. And, after doing some research, I think I have figured out why this book isn’t discussed in more: the subject matter, history, and historical reception of this piece are really complex and messy. Taking my cues from Haskell and Penny’s entry, I thought I would outline a few things to prove my point:

  • Subject matter: It is hard to concretely say what is being represented in this piece. The Farnese inventory (of 1568) describes this piece as “the mountain with the Bull, and four statues around it.” Vasari tried to take things further and described this piece as a Labor of Hercules. Others believe that this sculpture represents the story of Dirce, the wife of Licus. Dirce hated her niece Antiope and tried to have her killed. However, Antiope’s sons intervened and tied Dirce to a wild bull as punishment.
  • Ancient history: It is hard to date this piece. Scholars still debate whether this piece, which was excavated at the Baths of Caracalla, is a Roman copy or an original Hellenistic copy. Some scholars argue that this sculpture was specifically made for Caracalla’s baths (as a Roman copy). Scholars also disagree as to whether this was the work of art that was described by Pliny the Elder: the statue doesn’t quite match the descriptions of a statue which was brought to Rome during the time of Augustus.

Anonymous Artist "CL", The Farnesian Bull, 1633. Etching.

  • Renaissance and Baroque history: It is clear that the Farnese Bull underwent some restorations after excavation, and they may have been completed by Michelangelo and his students (similar to the restorations of the “Farnese Hercules”). The “Farnese Bull” became very well-known in the Renaissance and afterward, popularized in part by prints (see etching above). Federico Zuccaro said that this was “the most remarkable and marvelous work of the chisel of the ancients” In fact, the ostentatious Louis XIV tried to acquire the piece in 1665!
  • Criticisms of the work: Despite the original praise for this piece, the “Farnese Bull” began to receive criticism in the 17th and 18th centuries for its lack of quality. Bernini noted that the sculpture was only well-known because it was carved from a single piece of stone and created on a large scale. Other criticisms were more pinpointed. The Richardsons noted, for example, that the rope was of “poor quality.” Edward Wright felt like Dirce’s face was “quite without Passion.” Although Winckelmann was also dismissive of the work, although he did note that the extensive restorations have affected the many opinions regarding the piece.1

So, despite the high praise that this work of art experienced in the Renaissance period, it doesn’t seem to have gotten a lot of attention today from art history textbooks. Is it too difficult for textbooks to introduce “messy” situations to undergraduate students? Perhaps it is tricky at times, but I also think that students are bright enough and capable enough to grasp the complexity of art history. In fact, I think it’s good for them to realize how art history is a compilation of various opinions that have built up over time. (It seems like the omission of this sculpture in art history books is an indication of what is and is not valued today in art history.) I also think that it is a good idea to introduce issues of “quality” to students, so they can think about how the concept of quality is a construct.

Has anyone seen the “Farnese Bull” or one of its copies? What was your opinion of the piece? Also, has anyone seen the “Farnese Bull” treated at length in a traditional (and relatively recent) art history textbook for college students?2 I’d be interested to see how this sculpture is treated in such a text, if it exists. Haskell and Penny’s catalog is great as a scholarly resource, but I’m not sure if it is very practical as a textbook for a college course.

1 Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 165-167. Citation available online HERE.

2 I did find one online academic source which discusses the Farnese Bull at length, but quotes an art history textbook by Gisela M. A. Richter which was written in 1930!


Altar of Pergamon and Baroque Scholarship

I’m in the middle of reading The Origins of the Baroque Art in Rome by Alois Riegl. This recent publication is a really exciting and influential textbook in its own right, since it is the first time that Riegl’s essays on Baroque art have been translated into English. I plan on writing a full review of the book very soon, but I just wanted to write something that I found particularly interesting.

As an introduction to Riegl’s discussion of Baroque art, this book is prefaced with three essays. These essays largely deal with historiography in regards to Baroque scholarship. It’s pretty fascinating stuff. I was particularly interested in the discussion about the excavation of the Altar of Pergamon in the late 19th century. Fragments of the altar started to arrive in Berlin in 1879 (which, incidentally, was the same year that prehistoric cave paintings were first discovered. But that’s a topic for another day. My point: 1879 was a big year for art history.)

The Altar of Pergamon is from the Greek Hellenistic period (c. 175-150 BCE). It was excavated in the late 19th century by Carl Humann, a German road construction engineer. The continuous frieze depicts the Gigantomachy (“Battle of the Giants”) with extremely high relief figures, dramatic emotional expressions, lots of diagonal compositions, and light/dark contrasts (see detail on left). Baroque scholars (such as myself) eat this kind of stuff up, since the stylistic characteristics are very similar to those of the Baroque period. I think that even the placement of the frieze near the steps (as opposed to being placed above the columns, which is the traditional location for an Ionic frieze) ties into the Baroque characteristics of viewer participation and involvement.

So, how did the arrival of the Altar of Pergamon in Berlin change scholarship on Baroque art? Before this point, the Baroque period had been viewed with some disdain by art historians and scholars. In fact, in the 18th century Winckelmann used the word “baroque” as an abusive term (and unsurprisingly, Winckelmann also disliked Hellenistic art!). But the unquestionable quality of the Pergamon frieze caused 19th century scholars to reassess their previous negative interpretations of not only Hellenistic art, but Baroque art as well. In fact, the Hellenistic period began to be known by scholars as the “ancient Baroque.”2

Consequently, because of the Altar of Pergamon’s influence, German art historians began to write about Baroque art. Heinirch Wölfflin wrote his seminal book Renaissance and Baroque in 1888, less than a decade after the Pergamon altar began to arrive in Berlin. Wölfflin even wrote in the preface “that he had intended to include an evaluation of the ‘ancient Baroque’ but that his ‘little book’ did not afford enough scope for this project, and he promised to return to it at a later date.”2 Unfortunately, Wölfflin never returned to write about the “ancient Baroque,” though other scholars (such as Arnold von Salis) did. Now, I think that Baroque scholars take the connection between the Hellenistic and Baroque period for granted. But Baroque scholarship is quite indebted to the Altar of Pergamon. Without the arrival of the altar in Berlin, perhaps “baroque” would still be a demeaning term in art history.

1 Alina Payne, “Beyond Kunstwollen: Alois Riegl and the Baroque” in The Origins of Baroque Art in Rome by Andrew Hopkins and Arnold Witte, eds. (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010), 8.

2 Ibid.

*Image for Pergamon altar photograph © Raimond Spekking (via Wikimedia Commons) CC-BY-SA-3.0


The "Sumptuous" Arts in Greece

The quarter is over. Over the past few days I’ve reflected on what lectures I enjoyed teaching to my ancient art students. I think that my favorite lecture was based on Kenneth Lapatin’s essay, “The Fate of Plate and Other Precious Metals: Toward a Historiography of Ancient Greek Minor (?) Arts”1.

The reason why Lapatin includes a question mark after the word “minor” is important: his whole essay revolves around the argument that the Greeks valued the so-called “minor arts” much more than they are valued today. For Lapatin, the “sumptuous” artistic materials like ivory, gold, silver and gemstone were the artistic mediums that the Greeks most prized. In other words, the Greek marble, bronze and (painted) pottery (all of which are placed at the heart of Western art history) weren’t as valued by the ancient Greeks.

To prove his point, Lapatin gives one especially interesting example. He writes that “in the middle of the sixth century BC, the inhabitants of Phocaea decided to abandon their city rather than submit to the Medes. Herodotus reports, ‘They loaded onto their ships their children, women, and household property, and above all the images of the gods from the sanctuaries and other dedications, everything, in fact, except bronzes, stoneworks, and paintings, and they sailed to Chios.'”2 Now I realize that there may have been some practical reasons why the Greeks didn’t load their ships with stonework (it is heavy, after all!), but isn’t it interesting that the art we value today is precisely the art that the Greeks chose to abandon?

In some ways, this news shouldn’t come as a surprise to art historians. We have known for a long time that the main purpose of the Parthenon was to house Phidias’ chryselephantine cult statue of Athena (see above left for a reconstruction of an original of c. 438 BC). The cult statue was the most valued thing by the Greeks, not the building which housed the statue. This is very ironic, because today much more emphasis is placed on the architecture and exterior sculpture of the Parthenon. In fact, it’s interesting that one ancient Greek writer, Pausanias, only mentions the two pediments and cult statue when he described the Parthenon. He ignored the metopes and frieze completely, which suggests that they weren’t very important.3

So, why do we value painting, architecture, and sculpture above the “minor” materials and objects created by the Greeks? Lapatin traces this ideology back to Vasari’s writings of the 16th century (see a 1566-68 self-portrait of Vasari on right). Vasari’s Lives focused on the achievements of three artistic types: painters, sculptors, and architects. As a result, painting, sculpture, and architecture became “the canonical triad” in art history.4 In some ways, it’s not surprising that Vasari promoted these types of art: after all, he was a painter and architect himself. Although the effect of Vasari’s “triad” was not immediate (gems were still were considered part of the arts for a long time afterward), Vasari’s writings took part in “the displacement and demotion of items fashioned from sumptuous materials from the lofty position they held in ancient art and culture (as well as in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance).”5

Lapatin’s argument is fascinating. He also delves into interesting discussions of how Winckelmann affected our modern perception of Greek sculpture, particularly in terms of what we value today (i.e. unpainted white marble). It’s great stuff. I recommend that everyone should get their hands on a copy of this article. Unfortunately, his essay is found in a book that currently is out of print. But I promise that your efforts in securing a copy of this essay will be well worth the effort!

1 Kenneth Lapatin, “The Fate of Plate and Other Precious Metals: Toward a Historiography of Ancient Greek Minor (?) Arts,” in Ancient Art and its Historiography by A. A. Donohue, ed. (Cambridge: 2003): 69-91.

2 Ibid., 71.

3 Colin Cunningham, “The Parthenon Marbles,” in Academies, Museums and Canons of Art by Gill Perry and Colin Cunningham, eds. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 53-54. Part of the citation is available online here.

4 Lapatin, 74. It should be noted that Vasari did discuss and laud the importance of gold work and glyptic in the first edition of his Lives (1550). However, the 1568 revision of the text demoted the sumptuous arts and elevated painting instead.

4 Ibid.


The Capitoline Wolf is Medieval?!?

I don’t know how I missed this news (it’s over two years old), but I thought that I would post it for others who may not have heard. In recent years scholars have questioned whether the “Capitoline Wolf” (an iconic statue of a she-wolf that is related to the mythological founding of Rome, see left) is Etruscan. Winckelmann first attributed this statue to the Etruscan period; he based his reasoning on the way that the wolf’s fur is depicted. In turn, it generally became accepted that the statue was created in the 5th century BC.

However, a couple of scholars have questioned this attribution since the 19th century. The most recent critique was published by art historian Anna Maria Carruba in 2006. Carruba noted that in the 1997 restoration of the statue, it was observed that the she-wolf was cast as a single unit – a technique that was common during the medieval period.

Carruba’s work eventually led to radio-carbon dating tests on the sculpture. About twenty dating tests were conducted at the University of Salermo, which resulted in the announcement that the she-wolf was created in the 13th century AD! In other words, she was created up to 1,700 years later than we originally thought. Wow. Sorry Winckelmann: it looks like you’ve struck out again. Ouch.

This is a crazy paradigm shift for me. I’ve always connected the Capitoline Wolf with the Etruscans (and the Romans by extension, since she is connected with the story of how Rome was founded). I’ve always known that the Romulus and Remus figures underneath were made during the Renaissance (they were fashioned in the late 15th century AD, probably by Antonio Pollaiolo), but it’s crazy to think that the Capitoline Wolf is medieval.

I should note, though, that the attribution of this statue is still far from resolved. Not only can one get a sense of the ongoing debate here and here, but right now the Capitoline Museum still has the Etruscan date on their official website. As for me, though, I’m currently inclined to go with the radio-carbon tests and the several scholars which have questioned the attribution. (And maybe I feel this way because I often question Winckelmann’s judgment, even outside of this Etruscan attribution.)

Is this news for anyone else? Maybe I’m just behind the times. What do other people think about this new date?


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.