Arts: What is the Charioteer?

On my old website, I had a section called ‘Charioteer’ which discussed art. Here is the original heading for that section:

Under the rubric of art, Charioteer will discuss the pre-eminence worldwide of Western ideas in art, architecture, engineering and design, which is the result of the idealization and harmonization of the highest forms to produce a function. The function of art is beauty and intellectual stimulation. The function of great architecture and engineering is beauty too, but also the holding of, say, hundreds of viewers for a play, or thousands of passengers in a sublime airport design like Eero Saarinen’s Dulles International terminal outside Washington, DC.

And why was it called ‘Charioteer’?

Here is the explanation:


In Delphi, Greece, archeologists unearthed a statue (above) which is a bronze original from the earliest years of the High Classical 5th century BC period of Greek life. The Charioteer, which now is in the Delphi Museum, is dated from 474 BC and originally was part of a larger sculpture that included four horses and a chariot (or quadrigae in Latin). It was created in order to glorify a winning charioteer whose name – and whose horses and chariot as well – are lost to time. The work was dedicated to the Delphi Apollo by Polyzalos, the ruler of Gela, in Asia Minor.

Charioteer is sometimes attributed to the sculptor Sotades. It is the first known sculpture from the Greek world to have a “modern” and natural physical disposition and drapery design.

Previously sculpture in Greece reflected the ethos of Persia and even Egypt 2,000 years before. That style was called Archaic and figures were stiff, looked straight ahead, and had mechanical drapery forms. Goddess With A Pomegranate (above)  from 580 BC, which today is in the Staatliche Museum in Berlin, is typical Greek Archaic. It looks wooden, is poorly proportioned, and has a schematized and unnatural drapery.

So the forms in Archaic art represented that which the Greeks would come to see as anathema to a forward-looking Western culture. Imagine an airliner that described unnatural principles, like the Goddess’ unnatural drapery, or that was ungainly and oddly proportioned. It would not fly.

Thus Charioteer represents a great leap ahead for art and for “modern” form in general. And thus a conversation about our advanced concept of form and its triumph in art, architecture, design and engineering can appropriately be tied to this seminal bronze.

No longer was this upstart race called The Greeks willing to hew to ancient superstitions and styles. They planned to move forward in every way – artistically, politically, philosophically and technologically. Charioteer marks the first step of our long and very fruitful journey toward Western supremacy in form.

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