Bust of Meleager. Parian marble, Roman copy after a Greek original attributed to Skopas of ca. 340-330 BC., British Museum.
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

1. Pothos in Rome, copy of a statue by Skopas for the sanctuary of Samothrace.
2. The Maenad in Dresden, copy of the famous Maenad by Skopas.

3. Representation of Amazon in the frieze of the Maussolleion in Halikarnassos.
4. Warrior’s head from the west pediment of the Athena temple at Tegea.

The subversive sculptor of ”passion”

Text: Dr DORA KATSONOPOULOU, Archaeologist, President of the Institute for the Archaeology of Paros and the Cyclades

Skopas of Paros

Paros has been my favourite site of research and study since my student years, especially the years of doctoral studies at Cornell University, USA, an institution of renowned academic excellence. There, in the context of an in-depth study of ancient Greek classical sculpture, I had the opportunity to get to know Skopas, a cosmopolitan Parian sculptor of the 4th century B.C., lesser known to the general public compared to the other great figures of his time, Praxiteles and Lysippus.

Skopas was an innovative personality whose artistic nature was of a two-fold constitution: that of an architect and that of a sculptor. His truly divine art, as an ancient epigrammatist of the Palatine Anthology calls it, immediately fascinated me, so I set my heart on studying it in order to decipher the artist behind it. Therefore, the study of the ancient Parian civilization was a one-way choice for me, and I had to go along with it.

In contrast to the sculpting masters of the 5th century B.C. who express the classical ideal –immortal beauty and perfection– through his works, Skopas wished to express compelling inner emotions of the soul in all their manifestations, ranging from the violent conflict and tension of the battlefield, and the deep pain and sorrow before death, through to desire and lust (fig. 1), and beyond that to divine frenzy and ecstasy. His typical means of expressing the “soul’s pathos”, which Scopas introduced into Greek sculpture, are the sunken eyes, the hurtful gaze, the dilated nostrils, the bulgy eyebrows, the half-open mouth, the sharp turn of the head and the agitated movement of the body to the point of a full twist.

No other sculpture from antiquity so masterfully portrays the dramatic swaying of a figure’s body seized with divine frenzy as his acclaimed Maenad, chiselled out of Parian marble, intended for the temple of Dionysus at Sicyon, Corinth. The ancient world’s utter admiration for this outstanding work is captured by 4th c. A.D. sophist Callistratus in his work “On the Statue of a Bacchante”, where, among other things, he describes the sculptor’s mastery in depicting, on the same block of marble, life (the possessed Maenad) and death (the sacrificed animal) to a degree that viewers cannot believe what they are looking at and, at the same time, they are looking at something impossible to believe. The challenge of sculpturally rendering such a mental and physical state is perhaps the reason why there is only one extant copy of the Maenad, in the Dresden Museum (fig. 2).

Comparable to the Maenad, in terms of rendering the marked arching of the body, is his Fighting Amazon featuring on the frieze of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (fig. 3), while elements of “pathos” can be discerned in the dramatic facial ex-pressions of the heads of the figures (fig. 4) that adorn the western pediment of the temple of Athena at Tegea, Arcadia, representing the battle between Telephus (Heracles’s son) and Achilles. As Pausanias informs us, the architect and initiator of this magnificent temple, the most beautiful in the Peloponnese, was no other than Skopas himself.

This subversive Parian sculptor of “pathos”, who greatly influenced the art of the Hellenistic period, was also a lover of tradition. He masterfully revived archaism in the cult statues he produced, ultimately creating an intricate artistic style that combined modernity with the tradition –an art that perfectly reflects the complex and at the same time explosive personality of Skopas of Paros.