A kouros (Ancient Greek κοῦρος, plural kouroi) is the modern term given to those representations of male youths which first appear in the Archaic period in Greece. The term kouros, meaning (male) youth, was first proposed for what were previously thought to be depictions of Apollo by V. I. Leonardos in 1895 in relation to the youth from Keratea, and adopted by Lechat as a generic term for the standing male figure in 1904. Such statues are found across the Greek-speaking world, the preponderance of these were found in sanctuaries of Apollo with more than one hundred from the sanctuary of Apollo Ptoios, Boeotia, alone. These free-standing sculptures were typically marble, but also the form is rendered in limestone, wood, bronze, ivory and terracotta. They are typically life-sized, though early colossal examples are up to 3 meters tall.
The female sculptural counterpart of the 'kouros is the kore.
The kouros type appears to have served several functions. It is only thought that it was used to represent the god Apollo, as attested by its depiction on a vase painting in the presence of supplicants, as does the description of the statue of the Pythian Apollo at Samos by Diodoros as "Egyptian works, with his arms hanging by his sides and his legs parted". However, not all kouroi are images of a deity; many have been discovered in cemeteries where they most likely served as commemorative tombstones of the deceased, also the type was used as a memorial for victors in the games (like trophies), and was used as offerings to the gods. (Pausanias describes the statue of Arrhichion, an Olympic pankratiast, as in the kouros scheme), and some kouroi have been found in sanctuaries other than that of Apollo. Indeed some kouroi placed in sanctuaries were not inscribed with the name of the god but with a mortal, for example the 'Delphi Twins' Kleobis and Biton were honoured for their piety with matching kouroi.
A direct influence between Egyptian monumental (in particular the figure of Horus) and the kouros type has long been conjectured, not least because of trade and cultural relations that are known to have existed since the mid-seventh century BCE. A 1978 study by Eleanor Guralnick applied stereophotogrammetric measurement and cluster analysis to a number of Greek and Egyptian statues and found the correlation between the Second Canon of the 26th Dynasty and Greek kouroi to be widely distributed but not universal.
Origin and evolution
The problem of the evolution of the kouros type is inevitably linked to that of the overall development of monumental Archaic Greek sculpture. There are fundamentally two schools of thought on how those Daedalic forms, some of which we know of only from the literature (kolossos, bretas, andrias and xoanon), became the free-standing sculpture in the round of the 6th century; namely, that it was a response to the internal development of Greek types and religious needs or a product of foreign influence. For an external cause for change possible sources of influence have been cited as Egypt, Anatolia and Syria, with the strongest case made for Egypt. It is known that the Greeks had longstanding trade relations with Egypt prior to the founding of the Greek entrepôt of Naukratis in the mid-7th century from where the Greeks could have learned Egyptian sculpting methods.
The work of Guralnick along with the previous studies by Erik Iversen and Kim Levin have added considerably to the argument for an imitation by Greek sculptors of Egyptian sculpture. The system of proportion in the second Egyptian canon of the Saite period consisted of a grid of twenty-one and one fourth parts, with twenty-one squares from the soles of the feet to a line drawn through the centres of the eyes. The grid was applied to the surface of the block being carved, allowing the major anatomical features to be located at fixed grid points. Iversen has shown that the New York kouros conforms to this ratio of proportion. It was Guralnick, however, who developed this discovery by comparing other kouroi by means of cluster and Z-score profile analysis to the Egyptian Canon II and a control group composed of statistically average Mediterranean men. As a result she has identified two strains within methods of proportioning in sixth century kouroi, where the majority follow the general line of evolution from the foreign model towards an idealized human norm.
Attributes and meaning
Kouroi are beardless, take a formulaic advancing posture, and are most often nude. A small number of early kouroi are belted around their waists, a practice that died out at the turn of the sixth century. Such belts have traditionally been assumed to be an abbreviated symbol of a more complex costume, however fully clothed contemporary figures also exist, suggesting that it was not just a sculptor's shorthand for clothing but a signifier in itself. Art historian Brunilde Ridgway  suggests in her 1977 The Archaic Style in Greek Sculpture that this may have been an attribute of Apollo, athleticism or magical powers, though its iconography remains obscure. Further, there is the question of the nudity of the kouros and if this is also an attribute. Again this may have represented athletic or heroic nudity – immortalising the youth as he appeared in the palaestra, but no examples have been found at Olympia nor do they bear any allusion to athletic equipment.
As well as being found in the sanctuaries of Apollo at Delphi, Delos and Mt. Ptoion, kouroi have been found dedicated at the sanctuaries of Hera at Samos, and of Athena and Poseidon at Sounion, so the contention that they depict Apollo is at the very least problematic. However, the majority are from Apollonian sites and dedicated to that god, which has led Ridgway to suggest that the early, belted form of the kouros-type statue was introduced in the late seventh century as a replacement for the colossal representation of Apollo. Over time, the votive and funerary functions of the sculpture became divorced whilst its attributes were shed and its form became more generic until, in the late sixth century, it could serve a number of uses depending on context and location. This 'polyvalent' argument, initially put forth by historian Jean Ducat, was elaborated by art historian Andrew Stewart, who contends the distribution of kouroi coincides with city-states where the aristocracy were in ascendancy and that this alternation between the divine and the memorial was an identification of aristocratic arete with the immortal.
The earliest extant examples may be the two life-sized marble figures from the Ionic sanctuary on the island of Delos dating from the second or third quarter of the seventh century. The canonical form of the kouros persists until the beginning of the classical period, by which time artists had achieve a high degree of anatomical verisimilitude, if not naturalism, as can be observed on such transitional works as the Kritios Boy, ca. 480 BC.
The absolute chronology of the kouros form is uncertain; none of the sculptures have secure dates. Further there is a strong homogeneity across the various regional schools: where anatomical innovations were adopted they seem to have spread quickly amongst the different workshops so that "regional distinctions become merged in a common progression". Consequently the development of the kouros type as we now understand it is based on the relative chronology delineated by Gisela Richter. She distinguishes six groups by their common anatomical features, with particular reference to the major muscle groups as illustrated in the écorchés to the right.
C. 615-590 BC. The dates of this period are tentative, roughly late seventh-early sixth century, which Richter infers from the duration of development necessary for the previous generations from the more securely dated Tenea-Volomandra group. Additionally she notes a similarity of sculpture from this time to early Athenian pottery, particularly the Nessos amphora and the human figures on the Horse amphorae. She also detects a resemblance between the New York-Sounion kouroi and an early Corinthian pyxis of the last quarter of the seventh century. Notable works of the time include the New York kouros (Met 32.11.1), Dermys and Kittylos (NAMA 56), Delphi Twins (Delphi Mus. 467 and 1524), the Sounion kouros, and the Delos colossus.
The conception of form in this period is abstract and geometrical, emphasis is on architectural shape and the interrelation of parts which favoured expressive pattern over realism. Figures display the four faces of the block from which they are carved, their form is cubic with details incised, and their anatomy is only partially understood. Harmony and expressive pattern are the goal, and as such the proportions are abnormal. The torso is four-sided and flat, the back is higher than chest with the vertebral column expressed as a straight line. The skull is undeveloped; flat at the back and often on top. The ear is carved in one plane, and highly stylized. Tragus is knob like, either on cheek or lobe. Antitragus is not indicated. The eyes are large and flat, canthus is not marked, lachrymal caruncle is not indicated. The mouth is horizontal, with lips on same plane, and corners of mouth forming triangular depressions. Hair is arranged in parallel beaded tresses, which rarely radiates from the vertex. The Sterno-mastoids, when marked, are indicated by grooves running to the sternal notch. There is no indication of swelling of trapezius on the outline of shoulders. The clavicles are flat ridges along whole course of shoulders. Median line is sometimes marked by a groove from sternal notch to navel. The lower boundary of the thorax has the shape of a pointed arch. Rectus abdominis is formed by three or more transverse divisions above navel. The navel is generally a knob in a circular groove. Serratus magnus is not indicated. The shoulder blades are outlined by grooves on the surface of back. The erector spinae attachment to posterior part of the iliac crest is sometimes indicated by grooves in the lumbar regions. Forearm is supinated, with palm towards the body. Arms often separated from body between armpit and hand. Thumbs are large. Vastus internus descends to about the same level as vastus externus, the shin is vertical, and the malleoli are level. Weight is evenly distributed on both legs and the flanks are level.
New York Kouros, Metropolitan Museum of Art 32.11.1
C. 590-570 BC. This period witnesses a lull in Attica with perhaps only two identifiable works from the beginning of the era until the second quarter of century (NAMA 3858 and 4181), this might be due to the Solonic reforms and their restriction on the extravagance of private funerals. Activity is more vigorous in Boeotia, especially those from the Ptoan sanctuary and the Orchomenos kouros (NAMA 9), early work there is probably native. Also Corinth, Actium produces one of best examples of the period (Louvre MNB 767), detailing still of in the form of grooves and ridges but there is the beginning of modeling in the full roundness of natural form. One of the more accomplished products of the time is the Thera kouros (NAMA 8), softer and less muscular in modeling it is more Ionian than Dorian though Thera was a Dorian colony. We may deduce the chronology of this period only if the dates for the Sounion and Volodmera groups are correct since there is no external evidence for the dates of this style; however, we can usefully compare the heads on vase painting of middle Corinthian 600-575 which share the same stolid expression, flat skull, large eyes and horizontal mouth.
The characteristics of this style are as follows. The ear is still carved in one plane, but less stylised. Eyes are not so large as before and more rounded. Mouth is horizontal but no longer always in one plane. The slight protrusions of flanks are sometimes prolonged into a girdle-like ridge, the sculptor occasionally marks the anterior spine of the crest. Shoulder blades are now separate raised planes. The erector spinae sometimes indicated as raised planes. Arms are generally joined to body. The depression over great trochanter is generally omitted. Shin sometimes curves inwards. Left flank is occasionally placed slightly forward.
British Museum, BM474, London.
Ca. 575-550 BC. Named after an Attic kouros found at Volomandra (NAMA 1906) and a Corinthian specimen from Tenea (Munich 168) this period marks the flowering of the Middle Archaic, and these kouroi are contemporary with such works as the Berlin Standing Kore, the Moschophoros and the Bluebeard Pediment. There is a tension observable in this group between the solid, architectonic quality of early styles and the expressive possibilities of a vigorous, fluid naturalism . The anatomical novelties of this time are as follows. The ear is carved in more than one plane. A roundness of the eye is indicated henceforth. Lips curve upwards and meet more or less at corners, the upper lip protrudes over lower. Construction of neck is generalized, sterno-mastoids when indicated are marked by slightly modelled shapes. On the median line a groove along sternum is generally replaced replaced by modelled shapes and only the linea alba is marked by only a groove. The lower boundary of thorax assumes the shape of a somewhat rounded arch. There is a slight indication of the external oblique bulging over the iliac crest. Shoulder blades are indicated as modelled shapes. The erector spinae is sometimes modelled. Size of thumb is normal. The vastus internus descends lower than vastus externus. Shins curve inwards. The external malleolus is lower and further back than the internal one. The little toes slant inwards. The metatarsal bones are lightly indicated.
The absolute chronology of this period is provided by the dedication of Rhombos on the Moschophoros, which may belong to the same time as a decree referring to the Panathenaia of 566. The Moschophoros is stylistically similar to early in this group giving us an approximate upper limit of 570. Additionally the terracotta kneeling boy found in a well in the Agora and dated by its black-figure pottery sherd stratum to circa 550 shares the flat almond eyes, absence of the trapezium and pointed arch of the lower thorax that characterizes the late Tenea-Volomandra, furnishing us with a tentative lower boundary for the style.
Tenea kouros, Munich 168.
C. 555-540 BC. Figures of this period are simpler than before; their muscles are no longer separately accentuated. There is a tendency to flowing contour and a generalization of form. The tragus now sometimes assumes its natural form. The anterior part of the helix, which is directed backwards (crus helicis), is often prominent, and joined with the upper end of tragus. The antitragus is sometimes tentatively indicated, though wrongly placed. The anterior triangle of the neck is now better understood. Navel generally modelled as a depression. Indication of external oblique bulging over iliac crest. The lower boundary of abdomen occasionally forms a deep curve. Forearm and arm sometimes correctly semi-pronated; both directed towards body. Arms sometimes arched towards body below the armpit. Big toe projects a little further or same as second toe. Four smaller toes and toe nails curve gently downwards.
"Astonishingly uniform" the products of this period are found across the Greek world in large quantities. This group is named after the best preserved example of the era (NAMA 1558). The date of this group is conjectured on the basis that one generation would be required for the development of the Melos group style prior to the more securely dated Anavysos-Ptoon style. However Richter argues there may be some relationship to other contemporary Greek art works, namely: the figures on Late Corinthian pottery circa 550 BC. exhibit the same degree of naturalism, and the archaic column sculptures from the Temple of Artemis Ephesos, thought to have been supplied by Croesus of Lydia, share some anatomical features. Of the important works that come done to us there is the colossal kouros from Megera (NAMA 13), a transitional early piece from Boeotia (Thebes 3) and an early Parian example (Louvre MND 888).
C. 540-520 BC. This is the era of the Peisistratos dynasty and marks the assumption of Athens as the centre of artistic activity in Greece. In this period of great development the anatomical proportions become normal, the forms modelled and the spine clearly S-shaped. The head is now spherical and well-developed. The tragus takes on its natural form, the antitragus is also indicated. Hair occasionally descends as far as nape of neck. The sterno-mastoids when marked are indicated by modelled shapes. Their attachment to sternum and clavicles is often not indicated, this results in a continuous hollow groove or run above the clavicle. There is an attempt to indicate the backward curve of clavicle. Groove along linea alba is sometimes continued below the navel. The lower boundary of thorax arch is indicated. In the flanks the swelling of the external part is well developed. Lower boundary of abdomen assumes shape of small semicircle or deep curve. The erector spinae always indicated as modelled shape. Generally hand and forearm is semi-pronated. Hands are no longer attached to body but joined by short supports. The metacarpal bones are sometimes indicated. The bulge of the vastus internus increases. Toes are no longer parallel but do not recede along a continuous curve. Toes and nails point upwards. The articulation of joints is well rendered. Sometimes the flank of the advanced leg is placed forward and higher than receding leg.
The characteristics of this group can be observed on the Siphnian Treasury which is dated on external evidence before 525 BC, therefore allowing time for the maturation of the style we can date the beginning of this group to, roughly, a generation prior. The earliest is perhaps the Munich kouros (Glyptothek 169) judging by the rendering of some of the muscles. Other significant Attic kouroi in this style are the Anavyssos (Base reads: "Stand and mourn Kroisos, first in line of battle and whom Ares [God of War] killed")(NAMA 3851), the akropolis torso (Akropolis 665, 596), and the Rayet head (Carlsberg Glyptothek 418). The island of Keos supplies us with one of the best examples of the time (NAMA 3686), notable for its advanced rendering of the back where the greatest protrusion of the back is level with that of the chest. Keos was likely under the cultural influence of Athens at this time and this kouros is comparable to and chronologically close to the Anavyssos kouros and akropolis head. From the Ptoan sanctuary in Boeotia we have the Ptoon 12 kouros (NAMA), "softer, less sturdy" suggests Richter it is, she asserts, a native Boeotian product and not an Athenian import.
Munich Kouros, Munich 169.
Ptoon 20 group
C. 520-485 BC. The last stage in the development of the kouros type is the period in which the Greek sculptor attained a full knowledge of human anatomy and used it to create a harmonious, proportionate whole. The features that now become expressed are as follows. The lachrymal caruncle is sometimes indicated. Lips curved upwards only in early examples, the upper lip protrudes markedly over the lower and lips are well shaped. Hair is generally short or rolled up behind, it radiates from a point near vertex and carved in wavy strands. The structure of neck is now correct. There is an indication of swelling of trapezium on the outline of shoulder, becoming more pronounced over time. Clavicles assume an s-shape and lose themselves in shoulders. The lower boundary of thorax assumes a semicircular arch. The rectus abdominis, now reduced in number to two, with the top one incorporated into lower boundary of thorax. There is a small raised plane caused by projection of xiphoid appendage sometimes observable at lower end of sternum. Navel has fold of skin above in most examples. The lower boundary of abdomen assumes shape of semicircle, and the upper edge of torso with two concave curves becomes regular in form. Forearm and hand correctly pronated. Arms sometimes held free from body. Flanks; occasionally at first later regularly, flank and buttock of supporting leg rise in conformity with action.
This period is framed by the stasis of the Peisistratid era and the beginning of Athenian democracy and the Persian war. The upper limit of this group may be fixed by the sculpture of the temple of Apollo, Delphi. Architecturally earlier than the Hekatompedon of Athens the Delphi temple has a probable date of c.520, thus the kouroi of its pediment which betray the swelling trapezium and semicircular lower boundary of the abdomen can be associated with later examples of the group. Yet these same youths have a grooved, narrow lower boundary to the thorax and their flanks are level, suggesting that they are early specimens of the style. Richter names this group after the kouros Ptoon 20, NAMA 20, which is likely a Boeotian work dedicated by Pythias of Akraiphia and Aischrion to Apollo of the silver bow. This along with the torso form Eutresis (Thebes 7) indicate a vigorous Boeotian school of sculpture which may have existed to serve the Ptoan sanctuary. Attic production is considerable up to c.500 BC after which it seems to peter out. Important late kouroi from Athens include the Aristodikos kouros (Ptoon 20 group, NAMA 3938), an akropolis statuette (NAMA 6445) and the bronze Apollo from Piraeus.
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- Biton and Kleobis
- Getty kouros
- Greek art
- List of museums in Greece
- National Archaeological Museum of Athens
- Rampin Rider
- Strangford Apollo
- In the accompanying epigraphy the dedicatory formula was X dedicated me to Y, there seems to have been no generic term for these sculptures used in the ancient literature, see Ian Morris, Classical Greece: Ancient Histories and Modern Archaeologies, 1994, p.90
- Archaeologike Ephemeris, 1895, col.75, n.1.
- Lechat, La sculpture attique avant Phidias, 1904.
- J. Ducat, Les kouroi du Ptoion, 1971
- BM, E336
- I.98.9, see Richter Kouroi p.1
- Delphi, 467, 1524
- E Guralnick, Proportions of Kouroi, p.461, AJA, 1978
- i.e. E. Athes, ProcPhilSoc, 107, 1963, pp.60-81. Also R.M. Cook, Origins of Greek Sculpture , JHS 87, 1987, pp.24-32, and P. Kranz, AthMitt 81, 1972, pp.1-55
- Herodotus, II.1.54
- Though little Archaic sculpture has been found in Naukratis and that is not monumental, Ridgway, 1993, p.36.
- Iversen MittKairo 15, 1957, 134-147, and Canon and Proportion in Egyptian Art, 1955. Levin AJA 68, 1964, 13-28.
- Subsequent study by Jane B. Carter and Laura J. Steinberg, Kouroi and statistics, AJA, 114.1, 2010, casts doubt on Guralnick's results. They maintain that while there two principal groups of kouroi there is not a statistically significant correlation between the Greek and Egyptian forms, and the differences can be accounted for by the variation in the development of regional styles.
- This is begging the question, of course, whether kouroi so defined form a different category from other male figures, namely draped youths, cuirassed or armed warriors, or bearded figures. See Ridgway, Archaic Sculpture, pp. 91–94.
- Deonna, Broadman for example, see Ridgway p. 72 note 28.
- Ridgway p. 72–73
- Whitley, J. The archaeology of ancient Greece, 2007, p. 218.
- Ridgway, B. The Archaic style in Greek sculpture, 1993, p. 74
- Ducat, 1971, pp. 444-5
- Stewart, 1990, pp. 109–110
- Delos Museum A4085 and A334, See Richter, Kouroi, p.27
- For a corrective to the teleological assumption that the archaic artist's aim was for naturalism see Hurwit, The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 BC., 1985, pp.255-7.
- Richter Kouroi, p.5
- Richter, Kouroi, p.38.
- NAMA 1002
- Lullies CV Munich, fasc. 1, pls. 1-11.
- Richter, Kouroi, p.38.
- Payne, Necrocorinthia, p.293, pl. 47, 7-9.
- Richter, Kouroi, p.59.
- Payne, Necrocorinthia, pl.48, nos. 1-4.
- Richter, Kouroi, p62
- Richter, Kouroi, p.77.
- Vanderpool, Hesperia, VI, 1937, p.434
- Richter, Kouroi, p.90.
- Richter, Kouroi, p.93
- Herodotus I.92 claims Croesus supplied the columns, that the surviving fragments are those is unsure, see F.N. Pryce, Catalogue of Sculpture in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities of the British Museum, 1928, 1, 1, p.47. Richter, Kouroi, p.94.
- Herodotus III.57-8, based, of course, on the orthodox chronology and not the Vickers-Francis revised chronology.
- Richter, Kouroi, p.115.
- Richter, Kouroi, p.113
- Richter, Kouroi, pp.129-30
- Though other origins have been suggested, see Deonna, p.158 f.
- Richter, Kouroi, p.127
- Richter, Kouros, p136, 159 bis
- Boardman, J. Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period, a handbook, 1991.
- Buschor, E. Frühgriechische Jünglinge 1950.
- Caskey, L.D. The Proportions of the Apollo of Tenea, American Journal of Archaeology, 73, 1924.
- Deonna, W. Les 'Apollons Archaïques', étude sur le type masculin de la statuaire greque au VIme siècle avant notre ère, 1909.
- Guralnick, Eleanor Profiles of Kouroi, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 89, No. 3 (Jul., 1985), pp. 399–409.
- Guralnick, E. The Proportions of Kouroi, American Journal of Archaeology, 1978
- Richter, Gisela M.A. A Handbook of Greek Art: Third Edition, 1963.
- Richter, G.M.A. Kouroi, Archaic Greek Youths, A study of the development of the Kouros type in Greek sculpture, 1960.
- Ridgway, R.S. The Archaic Style in Greek Sculpture, 2nd. edition, 1993.
- Stewart, A. Greek Sculpture, 1990.
- Franssen, J. Votiv und Repräsentation. Statuarische Weihungen archaischer Zeit aus Samos und Attika. Verlag Archäologie und Geschichte, Heidelberg 2011. (Archäologie und Geschichte, Bd. 13) ISBN 978-3-935289-36-8