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James Robson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. A new exhibition at the British Museum promises to lift the lid on what beauty meant for the ancient Greeks. But while we gaze at the serene marble statues on display — straining male torsos and soft female flesh — are we seeing what the ancients saw?
The feelings that beautiful faces and bodies rouse in us no doubt seem both personal and instinctive — just as they presumably did for the ancient Greeks who first made and enjoyed these artworks.
But our reactions are inevitably shaped by the society we live in. Greek attitudes towards sex were different from our own, but are all those myths about the sex lives of the ancient Greeks true? And how does this affect how we view the art? It was certainly the norm in ancient Greece for a man to find both sexes attractive.
Relationships between men of the same age were not at all common: rather, the standard same-sex relationship would involve an adolescent boy and an older man. As for marital relations, men seldom married before the age of 30, and apart from the wedding night, it was common for married couples to sleep apart. These different sexual relationships are captured in classical vase painting in strikingly different ways.
This is largely true. These arrangements might be expected to lead to unhappy marriages, but we do find examples of loving couples. In terms of art, what I find particularly touching are the tender portraits of wives on tombstones, where women are characteristically displayed as faithful, loving mothers. Interestingly, the bride becomes a figure of intense erotic interest in 5th-century BC Athens.
Vase paintings often depict young women putting on clothes and jewellery ahead of their weddings or being led by the hand by their groom, with a winged Eros floating nearby. Just as young brides were sexy, it was as adolescents that males were found attractive by other men. We have little idea what eye-shapes or lip-shapes were found attractive, for instance.
Is there a connection to be made between this lack of interest in faces and the serene — some would say, blank — expressions we find on many classical statues? In addition to gym-fit, smooth-skinned youths, Greeks also admired the physique of adult men — as the statues of athletes, gods and heroes in Defining Beauty show. The symposium an all-male drinking party was one occasion when Greeks would let their hair down. This was an opportunity for men and older youths to bond and was highly erotically charged.
The cups from which diners drank at these events are often painted with erotic scenes, ranging from lingering glances to full-blown orgies. But whether these scenes reflect the real goings-on at these parties is another matter. Disappointingly for anyone who likes to think of the ancient Greeks as free from sexual hang-ups, these depictions of orgies may just be an erotic fantasy or a tongue-in-cheek warning of the consequences of drunkenness.
But taut flesh is still in evidence — and whether the beauty on display is still found sexy ultimately lies in the eye of the beholder.
Plymouth Contemporary — Plymouth, Devon. Edition: Available editions United Kingdom.
James RobsonThe Open University. Here are the facts behind four commonly held beliefs.Greece married sex
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Sex And Marriage In Ancient Greece