Bewitched by the Peplos Kore

By LIZ HAGER

Peplos Kore, 530-525 BC
Marble, about 4 1/2 feet (statue only) not including plinth,
(courtesy Acropolis Museum, Athens)

In the 1880s archeologists clearing the Acropolis stumbled across an amazing find—dozens of broken statues of male (kouroi) and female (kourai) figures dating from the 4th century BCE.  The figureswere remarkably similar—all were depicted in the same forward-standing pose, the left foot thrust slightly ahead of the right foot.

In 480 BCE the Persians captured Athens and in the process laid waste to the Acropolis, presumably leaving the shattered remains of buildings and statues behind.  It seems the Athenians reverentially buried the pieces, perhaps as a way of paying homage to the dead, and they remained there until the late 19th century.

The “Peplos Kore” (above) was one of those Archaic-era (800—500 BCE) statues unearthed on the Acropolis. Like all kourai she is clothed (the convention of depicting the male figures naked and females clothed persisted until the fourth century BCE).  Peplos refers to her garment, common to the period, in which multiple layers of different weight fabrics were often elaborately folded and belted at the waist. The figure above wears quite a plain peplos in contrast to other korai (below), and it is not altogether clear whether less depiction of fabric folds was a stylistic choice or a competency limitation.

The right arm of the “Peplos” hangs at her side; it is thought that her left arm was extended with a hand either holding a sculptural offering or palm up to hold a devotee’s offering.  Though only a few fragments of paint survive, scholars surmise that this statue would have been painted all over in bright colors as was the tradition in ancient Greece. In this manner the textile patterns of her garments would have been gloriously emphasized; some of this is partially visible in the belt of the kore below.

Standing Female Figure (Akropolis #594), 530-520 BCE,
marble
(Acropolis Museum, Athens)

The “kour” statues evolved from a well-established sculptural tradition. Greek and Egyptian cultures mixed fairly freely by the mid-seventh century BCE, owing to the establishment of a Greek trading station on the Nile delta and numbers of Greek mercenaries left in Egypt after the campaigns of Pharoah Psammetichos I. Thus, Greek sculptors would have had great familiarity with Egyptian sculptural techniques.

Statue of Mentuemhet, Prince of Thebes, early 6th century BCE,
Granite

The Greeks adopted the signature characteristics of Egyptian statuary—the frontal erect pose, left foot advancing, arms hung straight at sides, and the faint smile. However, they began to experiment with free-standing figures (unattached to a supporting backdrop); paradoxically this experimentation must have paved the way for the more fluid poses of subsequent Classic-era sculpture.

Although the “kour” figures were largely life-sized, sculptors abandoned the correct human body proportions—additional length in the torso—and this must have been related to the use of the “kours.” As evidenced by the inscriptions on their bases, these figures had two uses—as votive offerings from wealthy patrons to temples and as grave markers of prominent citizens.  Additionally, kourai displayed more stylized features than their Egyptian forerunners.  “Kours” were not conceived as portraits of individuals and thus not meant to be identified a separate beings, hence the standardized handling of pose and features.  Despite her rigidity, the Peplos Kore draws us in, her dancing almond-shaped eyes and bewitching smile beckoning our 21st century gaze.

Wider Connections

John Boardman—Greek Art (World of Art series)
Venetian Red—“Airport Art;” Michael Stutz’s contemporary interpretation of the “Peplos Kore.”
Egyptian Museum
Greece in the Archaic Period
Museum of Antiquities
“True Colors“—Matthew Gurewitsch’s Smithsonian article on painted sculpture
Egyptian vs. Greek statuary

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