Julia Dry

Polykleitos, Doryphorus, Roman copy of a Classical Greek original. Sculpture. Museo nazionale di Napoli, Italy.

Figure 1. Polykleitos, Doryphorus (Spear Thrower). Roman marble copy from Pompeii after an original Greek bronze, ca. 450-440 BCE. Marble. Museo Archeological Nazionale, Naples.

A canon is an ideal or criterion by which something is judged. When applied to art history, it establishes a group of works by “sculptors and painters [who] might transcend everyday appearances by idealization, by selecting only the best models and eliminating all apparent flaws.”1 Every culture and time period sets its own ideal of mastery, cultivating a canon of achievements that have been passed down via tradition, and thought to represent excellence.2 A canon of proportions, for example, is a determined set of mathematical ratios in art that are based on the human figure, regarded as the ideal model for all creation.3 This essay will focus on the canon of proportions established during the Classical period of Ancient Greece, spanning c. 480-323 BCE.4

The canon of classical art in Greece was based on humanism, rationalism, and idealism. These values stressed that logic and pattern inform nature and life. 5 Philosophers such as Sophocles, Plato, and Aristotle valued reason over emotion. Greek artists followed these philosophies by adhering to these artistic guidelines: “‘Man is the measure of all things,’ that is, seek an ideal based on the human form; ‘Know thyself,’ seek the inner significance of forms; and ‘Nothing in excess,’ reproduce only essential forms.”6 The human body was represented according to these principles and epitomized ancient Greek notions of beauty, sexuality, and social significance.7 Visual images were considered mere copies of copies, therefore imperfect. The statue was regarded as a visual equivalent rather than a duplication of its subject, leading to artists investing in marble and bronze in order to further express the appearance of life.8 Memory images were never used. Instead, artists based their work on the close study of nature, and “only after meticulous study did they begin to search within each form for its universal ideal, rather than portraying their models in their actual, individual detail.”9 While many approach canons and their seemingly rigid standards of aesthetic beauty with skepticism and reservations, it is ingrained in art history. As Ernst Gombrich wrote, “we cannot start from scratch and that anybody who wants to know about the history of art, whether social scientist or amateur, really uses these ‘guidelines’.”10

Around 450 BCE, the sculptor and theorist, Polykleitos of Argos created a set of rules for constructing the ideal human figure.  In the fifth century BCE, he then wrote a treatise which he called “The Canon” after the Greek kanon meaning measure, rule, or law.11 To illustrate his theory, he created Doryphoros (Spear Bearer) in 440 BCE, a bronze statue of a standing nude male athlete (possibly the hero Achilles) in his prime holding a spear [Figure 1]. While the original sculpture and treatise did not survive, his findings are still widely known via marble and stone copies made by Roman artists.12 One well-known marble replica is the Imperial Roman copy at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, created in 2nd-1st BC [Figure 1]. By looking at the details in this copy, from the defined musculature to the facial features, one can see that extreme naturalism was crucial to the Canon. Polykleitos was also innovative in his design by considering multiple viewpoints. A viewer can walk around the entire sculpture to experience a complete depiction of the human figure.

While the precise unit of of measurement in Polykleitos’ Canon is unknown, studies suggest that “the basic unit may have been the length of the figure’s index finger or the width of its hand across the knuckles; others suggest that it was the height of the head from the chin to the hairline.”13

The Canon also proposed that a human figure be depicted with a dynamic counterbalance. Polykleitos is best known for his invention and use of contrapposto, “the cross-balancing of supporting and free elements in a figure.”14 For example, the figure’s upper body is supported by the straightened right leg, while the left leg is bent and lifted onto the ball of the foot as if the man is taking a step forward. With the right arm relaxed on the active side of the body and the left arm bent on other to brace the weight of the (missing) spear, a balance is created through the reversal of tension and relief.15 Through these characteristics, the male figure is aesthetically pleasing in a multitude of ways.  With his Canon, Polykleitos established an often-imitated ideal of beauty that was subsequently used as criterion for works of art accepted into the larger Western canon of art history.


  1. Hugh Honour and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002), 149.
  2. E.H. Gombrich, Ideals & Idols: Essays on Values in History and in Art (London: Phaidon, 1994), 156.
  3. Marilyn Stokstad, Art History (New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2008), 54.
  4. Ibid., 128.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid., 151.
  8. Ibid., 149.
  9. Stokstad, Art History, 128.
  10. Gombrich, Ideals & Idols: Essays on Values in History and in Art, 171.
  11. Stokstad, Art History, 129.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.