Polyclitus’ Canon of Proportions

 

Doryphoros or The Canon, Polyclitus, Roman copy in marble of bronze original, c. 450-440 B.C.

Doryphoros or The Canon, Polyclitus, Roman copy in marble of bronze original, c. 450-440 B.C.

The 5th Century B.C. sculptor, Polyclitus, wrote the famous treatise about what methods make the beautiful (to kallos)  and good (to eu) in art, unfortunately now lost. We know something of it through historians such as Pliny and Plutarch. Often mentioned is Polyclitus’ belief in measurements of one finger joint with the next, then the fingers to metacarpus (base of the hand), and it to the wrist, and all of these to the forearm, the forearm to the arm, and so on.

Polyclitus, in his treatise, also dealt with issues other than proportions such as the organic balance of tension and relaxation of body parts.

Polyclitus called this sculpture, The Canon. I think it is wonderful that he wrote a treatise on art and “put his money where is mouth is” by showing what he meant as well.

Notice in the sculpture that he emphasized the man’s little finger, a little like an exclamation mark.

Polyclitus was working the proportions of the natural forms. For example, his fingers look natural, as do other parts of the body, and as does the whole of the body.  The forms weren’t generic shapes of measurements.

King Khafre seated Fourth Dynasty, reign of Khafre Graywacke Height: 120 cm (47 1/4 in) Egyptian Museum, Cairo

King Khafre seated Fourth Dynasty, reign of Khafre Graywacke Height: 120 cm (47 1/4 in) Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Contrast The Canon with this Egyptian sculpture, in which the rudimentary proportion of the overall figure is balanced. However,  when we take a detailed look the forms they remain generic and unnatural–as if they are rounded blocks.

Charles Laughton as the hunchback of Notre Dame

Charles Laughton as the hunchback of Notre Dame

It is also important to note that beauty is connected with pleasing proportions. The antithesis is that ugliness is unbalanced proportions. Think of an hunchback with a hump on one side of his back and topped off by a malformed and unsymmetrical head.

I hope you enjoyed seeing math in art in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
New York, March 6, 2007

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