Action man

10th October 2003 at 01:00
How do we know this statuette is Alexander the Great? Carolyn Perry explains

Alexander the Great of Macedon (356-323bc) is one of the most famous figures in history, and an action hero of his age. It is fitting that this Hellenistic bronze statuette of a huntsman, dating about 250-100bc, has been named by scholars as Alexander. Identifying ancient sculptures is no easy task, but with Alexander there are quite a few clues. He was one of the first rulers to realise the importance of image and to take steps to control the way he was portrayed. Ancient writers tell us that he would sit for only three artists - a sculptor, a painter and a gem-engraver, each of whom he thought the best in their field - and also that he had "a number of individual featuresI for example, the poise of the neck which was tilted slightly to the left, or a certain melting look in the eyes," that were beyond the skill of most artists.

Alexander's portraits show him with leonine hair and a widow's peak or anastole. His brow was heavy over the eyes and often drawn into a crease, and his eyes large. This bronze shows all of these features, and the act of hunting is also significant. We know that Alexander had himself depicted in sculpture groups participating in hunts; additionally, this figure seems to be wearing a Macedonian-style cloak (chlamys). Hunting wild beasts, and particularly lion-hunting, was much favoured by royalty in the ancient world.

In choosing to have himself portrayed like this, Alexander placed himself in an art tradition reaching back to the Kings of Assyria and Babylonia and to the Pharaohs of Egypt. Examples of Mesopotamian wall reliefs and Egyptian reliefs and tomb paintings which show royal hunts can be seen in the British Museum. Alexander's conquests made him ruler of lands where lions roamed; he may have consciously decided to continue and expand on such royal iconography by commissioning sculpture groups to be set up at temples and other public sites.

The theme certainly became more popular in Greece and the Mediterranean from Alexander's time onwards, and this statuette may be part of a small-scale version of a much larger group of bronzes at Delphi in Greece that were said to depict an actual lion hunt which took place in Persia.

Alexander was threatened by a lion and his friend Krateros came to his aid.

According to ancient sources, Alexander had a policy of going on dangerous hunting expeditions in order to set an example to his men who, he thought, had become soft after defeating the Persian army and living in luxury on their spoils. On this particular occasion, Krateros is said to have saved Alexander's life and, in thanks for the King's safe deliverance, he had statues of the scene sculpted by Lysippos and dedicated at the sacred site of Delphi. That group included Alexander and his companions and the lion and hounds.

This statue certainly seems to bear all the hallmarks of a copy of a work by Lysippos, who was one of the most influential and prolific artists of the Ancient Greek world. He was much admired as an artist and is considered to be the father of Hellenistic sculpture, breaking with many traditions of the Classical period. His works were much copied, and several of the portraits of Alexander in museums today are versions of originals by Lysippos. Copies of busts and statues of Alexander were also popular because he was believed to be lucky: his achievements in amassing an empire of more than two million square miles before his early death at the age of 32 seemed to many to be a superhuman feat. Having a statuette of Alexander might make a little of his luck rub off on the owner.

Lysippos is said to have remarked that he showed his subjects as they wished to appear, rather than as they actually were. Many of his monumental works were mounted on high plinths and would be seen at an angle, and so he altered the proportions of the body in order to make the statue pleasing to the eye. This is clearly the case with the proportions of the bronze statuette. Lysippos was also renowned for the wonderful poses of his sculptures. Many of them are interesting to look at from any angle, which is a departure from the work of sculptors in the Classical period, whose statues were almost always static and standing on two feet. He often injected movement into his works by having the pose fit a spiral axis, as is the case here, with Alexander's body twisting away from where the lion would have been.

One of the most striking things about the statuette is the sense of movement it conveys. It is easy to imagine Alexander leaping towards his prey, spear poised and ready to strike. In the 4th century bc, subjects would see what their kings or statesmen looked like mainly through statues set up at temples or other sites, in paintings hung in temples or public buildings and, most commonly, on coins. Alexander realised how powerful such images could be. In controlling his representations, he was able to show himself to his subjects as a fearless and active ruler, prepared to endanger himself in the pursuit of regal and honourable activities. And he had a master craftsman in Lysippos who could embody these ideals into sculpture.

Carolyn Perry is director of programmes at the MBI Foundation, a UK charity which promotes links between the Middle East and Europe and beyond LESSON IDEAS

This bronze is currently on display in Room 22, the Hellenistic World Gallery, in the British Museum and in the collections database COMPASS on the website:

Key stages 1 and 2: If pupils have previously studied Ancient Egypt, compare and contrast the Pharaoh in a hunting scene with Alexander here.

Use in unit 6A of the art and design scheme of work: 'People in Action'.

How has the sculptor managed to inject so much movement into his work? (The key is the use of torsion, twisting up from the left foot through the turned torso and into the raised right arm.) Ask children to pose one another to show movement in a static figure. Can they find examples in other works of art? Experiment with their own models.

KS3-4: We are swamped by images of famous people, but the problem of controlling one's image is as relevant today as it was to Alexander: witness the recent court case with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas. Look at how those in power seek to portray themselves: this statue shows Alexander as a man of action and daring, following a pursuit which instantly conveys his royalty. Commission a sculpture or other image of a person in the public eye today. What messages would you seek to convey, and how would these be put across?

Further reading: The British Museum Book of Greek and Roman Art, by L Burn, British Museum Press Alexander the Great, by R Lane-Fox,Penguin Art in the Hellenistic World, by J J Pollitt, CUP Faces of Power: Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics, by A Stewart, University of California Press

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