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No Average Artists: Who Was Deemed Good Enough to Create Sculptures of Alexander the Great?

No Average Artists: Who Was Deemed Good Enough to Create Sculptures of Alexander the Great?

If Alexander the Great was alive now, he would probably be the most often photographed leader in the world. However, in his time, photography didn't exist. During the 4th century BC, a remarkable ruler like Alexander wanted to be commemorated with amazing sculptures that presented him as perfect being, more like a god than a man. To achieve this task, he needed the best artists.

A sculptor woke up in the morning and checked the lines of the statue in the morning light. If he was happy with the result, he could finally start the journey to offer his piece of art to the ruler, if not, the work had to continue until the artist felt that the ruler would be satisfied. The more powerful the ruler, the more sophisticated the monuments in his name had to be. Alexander the Great followed generations of rulers who wanted to be depicted in the best way.

One of the Sculptors: The Mysterious Leochares

Leochares was Athenian and born around 360 BC. His education and roots suggest that he was a nobleman and his remarkable talent placed him in the workshop of one of the best sculptors in the history of ancient Greece – the famous Skopas (Scopas). By the 4th century BC, many monumental sculptures had already been created by generations of artists. However, Alexander the Great grew up believing he was more important than any other ruler. He wanted eternal fame, so he couldn't accept average depictions. Alexander wasn't the first ruler with this idea, his father had the same point of view, and they both spent a lot of money to satisfy their egos.

Leochares was chosen by the court of Phillip II of Macedonia, Alexander’s father, to create sculptures of the entire royal family in 338 BC. The collection of works by Leochares consisted of statues of Phillip II, his wife Olympias, sister Amyntas III, father Amyntas III, and son Alexander - who went on to become known as ‘the Great.’

Philip II of Macedon, Alexander's father.

Philip II of Macedon, Alexander's father. ( Public Domain )

He shaped the statues in ivory and gold. By Phillip’s order they were placed at Philippeion, a circular structure located in the Altis at Olympia. The building was erected by Phillip while he was celebrating his victory at the Battle of Chaeronea. This achievement by Leochares was just the beginning of his career as an artist of stand-alone statuettes and sculptures.

Bust of a young Alexander the Great from the Hellenistic era, British Museum.

Bust of a young Alexander the Great from the Hellenistic era, British Museum. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

It is believed that apart from the monuments of Alexander and his family, he also created a marble sculpture known as Demeter of Cnidus, now located at the British Museum in London. He also worked on big projects for his king. Leochares is known as one of the creators of the famous depiction of Alexander hunting the lions in Delphi. This work connected him with Lysippos, who was also hired for that job.

The Impressive Work of Lysippos, Sculptures Fit for a King

Lysippos is one of the most famous classical Greek sculptors. He was valued more than most of the other artists of Alexander's time. He was born at Sicyon around 390 BC and when Alexander ruled the world, he was already an old man. He was a master of bronze since the youngest age, but with time he honed his skills in other materials too. The famous ancient writer Pliny wrote that Lysippos created more than 1,500 works. All of them were made of bronze. His fame made him a personal sculptor for Alexander. He is known as the only sculptor whom the son of Phillip saw as talented enough for him to pose in the artist’s works.

Hermes of Atalante, a Roman marble copy of a lost bronze attributed to Lysippos.

Hermes of Atalante, a Roman marble copy of a lost bronze attributed to Lysippos. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

According to Jordan Bradford, the story of Alexander's depictions is unique. As he wrote in his article titled ''Alexander the Great in Art'':

''From an early age, Alexander was depicted in art, and when he became king, he continued that tradition as a political tool. He wished to convey his special status – essentially that of a hero who had finally become a god. The creation of his image was so important, that Alexander personally selected artists to portray him. As the Roman historian Pliny the Elder stated, Alexander “decreed that no one other than Apelles should paint his portrait, no one other than Pyrgoteles engrave it, and no one other than Lysippos cast it in bronze”. Despite his edict, Alexander’s image was made by many other artists, both during and after his death, but there is not a single one that can be confidently attributed to any specific artist. Most of the original depictions of Alexander are lost today, but we do have some extant copies.''

Hermes Azara, a Roman copy of an Alexander bust found at Tivoli, attributed to Lysippos.

Hermes Azara, a Roman copy of an Alexander bust found at Tivoli, attributed to Lysippos. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

It is unknown how many sculptures Lysippos created of Alexander, but a known example shows the young king as a man with tousled hair and an incredibly royal face. In 2010, the Greek authorities announced they had arrested two men who illegally possessed antiquities, including a gorgeous bronze statue of Alexander, probably made by Lysippos. It may be the first original work by this artist ever discovered. Other existing sculptures from his workshop are copies.

Roman copy of a herma by Lysippos, Louvre Museum. Plutarch reports that sculptures by Lysippos were the most faithful.

Roman copy of a herma by Lysippos, Louvre Museum. Plutarch reports that sculptures by Lysippos were the most faithful. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Sculpting Alexander’s Smile

Dozens of artists worked for the “living god,” the leader of the massive army that conquered the world. All of them did their best to depict Alexander the Great in the best possible way. But did they create realistic images of the famous ruler? It seems unlikely because those artists didn't intend to depict a real human, but a god. Alexander had to be presented as a super-human, perfect, representation of man with the ideal body. Every legend needs a good writer to describe it on paper, and every powerful ruler needs a talented artist to commemorate him or her for his or her descendants.

Top image: Statue of Alexander the Great - Skopje – Macedonia Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Janusz A. Ostrowski, Słownik artystów starożytności, 2006.

J. J. Pollitt, The Art of Ancient Greece: Sources and Documents, 1990.

Alexander the Great in Art by Jordan Bradford, available at:
https://www.lagrange.edu/resources/pdf/citations/2012/02_Bradford_ArtHistory.pdf

Lysippos, available at:
http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/sculpture/lysippos.htm

Leochares, available at:
www.visual-arts-cork.com/sculpture/leochares.htm

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