Charioteer of Delphi

The Charioteer of Delphi. 470 BC., 1.80 cm tall (5' 11")
Cast in Bronze (also copper, silver, and onyx are present, see below)
Delphi Museum

The "Charioteer of Delphi" is one of the best known ancient Greek statues, and one of the best preserved examples of classical bronze casts. It is considered a fine example of the "Severe" style.

The sculpture depicts the driver of the chariot race at the moment when he presents his chariot and horses to the spectators in recognition of his victory. Despite the severity of the moment, the youth's demeanor encapsulates the moment of glory, and the recognition of his eternal athletic and moral stature, with abundant humility.

  • The Charioteer of Delphi is one of the most important sculptures of ancient Greece partly because it vividly represents the passage from the Archaic conventions to the Classical ideals. It exemplifies the balance between stylized geometric representation and idealized realism, thus capturing the moment in history when western civilization leaped forward to define its own foundations that braced it for the next few millennia.
  • Charioteer --though victorious-- stands with admirable modesty and faces the crowd in total control of his emotions. This Self-discipline was a sign of civilized man in Classical Greece, and a concept that permeates the art of this period. The ability to restrain one's emotions especially during the most challenging of moments came to define the entire Classical era of Greek art and thought.
  • The posture of the Charioteer is well balanced, and his long chiton drapes over his abundant athletic body with architectural certainty, allowing idealism to flow through the serene parallel folds that run the length of his lower body before they begin to curl neatly over his torso. The geometric folds of the chiton overlie an obvious and well proportioned muscular body, thus achieving a rare harmony between idealism and realism.
  • The facial expression betrays none of the exuberance we would expect a victorious athlete to project, especially immediately following the race. Instead the athletic youth stands and stares with a natural ease that allows him to levitate in a realm between earthly and divine spaces. The statue's eyelashes and the lips are made of copper, while the head band in the shape of a meander is impressed in silver, and the eyes are made of onyx. The detailed curls of his wet hair and soft beard speak of the preceding race in intimate and subtle details that lend the sculpture an aura of luxury and idealized realism.
  • The Charioteer's garment, the xystis, is the typical chiton that all chariot drivers wore during the race. It spans his whole body all the way to his ankles, and is fastened high at the waist as was customary with a plain belt. The two straps that cross high at his upper back and round his shoulders are also typical of a chariot racer's attire, and they prevent the xystis from "ballooning" as the air is forced inside the chiton during the race.
  • The feet of the Charioteer have been modeled with scholarly realism, and exist not as a mere base for the statue, nor as a simple representation of human anatomy. Instead they act as the negotiator that instigates the delicate twist of the entire body, and infuses fluidity and lightness to the naturally heavy bronze mass.
  • Iniohos (he who holds the reins) as is his Greek name, was part of a complex of statues that included his four horses and the chariot upon which he stood. With the exception of his missing left arm, the bronze statue is preserved in remarkable state. Most of the surface details are evident as the attractive green patina has protected the bronze for centuries when it was buried underground.

    What remains of the entire complex of statues besides the Charioteer is small parts of the horses and the reins as witnesses to the lost, grandiose, three dimensional composition.

    Parts of the base have also survived with an inscription indicating that the statue was commissioned by Polyzalus who was the tyrant of Gela -- a Greek colony in Sicily as tribute to Apollo for helping him win the chariot race during the Pythian games.

  • The Charioteer as exhibited at the Delphi museum (left) in a dedicated room with excellent lighting, appropriate of the statue's importance.

    The tangled reins in his hands either show how the reins were unearthed, or they were placed this way by a creative restorer. In either case, the tangled randomness of the reins provide a nice balance to the austere statue.