Charioteer of Delphi – Classical art (5th century BC)


When one thinks about Greek sculpture, or Greek Art in general, I feel like one imagines only the marble sculptures. But there is another kind of sculpture that is very impressive: the bronze sculpture. We have small examples of bronze sculptures, but Greeks also created life-size and bigger bronzes. Unfortunately, we don’t have many examples since the majority of them were melted down (to make weapons, money, other sculptures…) or sunk while being transported. For the 5th century BC, we know there were hundreds of them but we have only five left. Those five includes the Piraeus Apollo, the Artemision bronze (a sculpture of either Zeus or Poseidon), the two Riace warriors and the Charioteer of Delphi who is going to be the subject of this post.

The Charioteer of Delphi was made in bronze between 470 and 466 BC. It is still in Delphi, in the archaeological museum. We preserved this sculpture thanks to a landslide that happened in 373 BC near the theater. It covered completely the charioteer until archeological digs in May 1896, when the sculpture was discovered by archaeologists. The charioteer was found in three parts: the right arm holding 3 reins, the head and the upper part of the bust, and the part starting at the belt and going to the feet. The left arm is still missing. This life-size bronze has colored marble incrustations for the eyes, small strips of chiselled bronze for the eyelashes and silver for the teeth. The hair band meanders use the damascening technique.

                    charioteer face        charioteer side

The auriga (or charioteer) is wearing a long tunic and a belt which goes from his waist to his shoulder. It is characteristic of the auriga. He is supposed to be standing in a quadriga (a chariot with four horses). The folds are straight, and the only idea of volume is depicted by an irregularity near the hem. There are also asymmetrical thick folds over the belt which give some animation on the bust. His feet are turned towards his right and his legs are frontal but hidden by the tunic. The charioteer’s chest is also turned towards his right, which is enhanced by the position of the head. This movement is there to show that he won the race, as in Greek Art the right side is the favorable side. The charioteer has a large head, almost square, with a juvenile, impassive face. He has a strong chin, fleshy lips and a straight nose. The eyebrows are regular and incrusted with another metal. The incrusted eyes are preserved and exceptional. This face, by the technique and physical specifications, is typical of the Severe period to which the charioteer belongs. The group (including the charioteer, the chariot, the four horses and maybe two teenagers on each side) was supposed to be viewed from the front. Originally, the sculpture was placed on a base in a strong slope which forced the spectator to view it from a low-angle shot. Only from that angle we can understand the movement of the sculpture. The charioteer is turning to the right. This a progressive rotation, in helix, and every element is markedly moved compared to the lower element.

         charioteer back    charioteerdel^hi

I have already said that the charioteer won the race because he his turning towards the right, which is the favorable side, but the real winner is the owner of the quadriga. This sculpture was found with an inscribed limestone base saying “Polyzalos dedicated me. … make him prosper, honored Apollo.” The first line was modified, and the earlier inscription contained “lord of Gela dedicated”. Polyzalos was tyrant of Gela but he was banished in 466/5 BC. We have the list of the Pythian Games’ winners and he is not in it. However, we are missing the winners for 478 and 474 BC. This group was inspired by the Olympian group of Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, who happens to be Polyzalos’ brother. Hiero died in 467/6 BC and his son dedicated the Olympian group to him while Polyzalos dedicated the Delphian group.

In short, Hiero could have been the winner of the Pythian Games in 478 or 474 BC. He might have started his dedication but he died before he could finish it, so his brother Polyzalos finished the dedication. However, the modification of the inscription is important, as it tells us that the sculpture was finished when he was banished. Therefore, the most recent date possible for this sculpture is 466/5 BC.


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