Contrapposto and the S curve – Parallels between Greek sculpture and a Chola Bronze

There is something ethereal about a Chola bronze that appeals to your senses and its very difficult to capture it on a photograph. Take this superb late Chola bronze 13th Century Skanda from Chennai Museum.

Prasad is one of the few artists who can bring out the beauty of a bronze in a sketch.

I have read many articles which talk of the Tribanga pose and its aesthetics, but is there more to it than just the triple flexion of the body around a central axis. Today we are to try and understand the inner working of this flexion, its evolution in Greek sculpture and if there are any parallels to it in the Indian bronze sculpting and if so – is it in the styling of these bronzes that make them so endearing to our senses. Watching this wonderful video on evolution of Greek sculpture, helped me realise how artists try and constantly innovate the form and proportion to showcase their creations better.

Greek Sculpture – Evolution

We have had this discussion many times within our friends, especially with Arvind, when we were studying the evolution of the Ardhanari form – the flexion of the leg, we summarised then was maybe partly to offset the male /female portions.

Tracing the refinement of the Ardhanari image

But today after seeing the video made me rethink the theory. For the bronze Skanda is not a composite form like ardhanari, but the flexion and exaggerated twist do add to its aesthetic appeal. Art and art forms evolve, the artist learn from themselves and the works of great masters who worked before them. Greek art, especially their marble sculptures are the pinnacle of sculpting. Thanks to Google and wiki, will try and present how their art evolved and its relevance to the Chola bronze’s styling.


A kouros is the modern term given to those representations of male youths which first appear in the Archaic period in Greece. (The archaic period in Greece -800 BCE – 480 BCE, is a period of Ancient Greek history. The term originated in the 18th century and has been standard since. This term arose from the study of Greek art, where it refers to styles mainly of surface decoration and sculpture, falling in time between Geometric Art and the art of Classical Greece

The characteristics of the sculptures of this period are :

* Frontal pose with no torsion of the body. Head erect, eyes front, face flat, head square, waist narrow, muscles squarish and poorly delineated.
* Left foot advanced with no corresponding hip displacement. This characteristically rigid frontal striding pose is reminiscent of statues of Egyptian pharaohs.
* Arms hanging straight at sides fingers curved, thumb foremost, although a few show one arm extended forward from the elbow, holding an offering.

Kritious Boy

The marble Kritios boy or Kritian Boy belongs to the Early Classical period of ancient Greek sculpture. It is a precursor to the later classical sculptures of athletes. The Kritian boy is thus named because it is attributed on slender evidence to Kritios who worked together with Nesiotes (sculptures of Harmodius and Aristogeiton) or their school, from around 480 BC. The statue is considerably smaller than life-size at 1.17 m (3 ft 10 ins).

With the Kritios Boy (ephebos) the Greek artist has mastered a complete understanding of how the different parts of the body act as a system. The statue supports the body’s weight on the left leg, while the right one is bent at the knee in a relaxing state. This stance, known as contrapposto, forces a chain of anatomical events: as the pelvis is pushed diagonally upwards on the left side, the right buttock relaxes, the spine acquires an “S” curve, and the shoulder line dips on the left to counteract the action of the pelvis


Contrapposto is an Italian term used in the visual arts to describe a human figure standing with most of its weight on one foot so that its shoulders and arms twist off-axis from the hips and legs. This gives the figure a more dynamic, or alternatively relaxed appearance. It can also encompass the tension as a figure changes from resting on a given leg to walking or running upon it (so-called ponderation)


The Doryphoros “Spear-Bearer”,is one of the best known Greek sculptures of the classical era in Western Art and an early example of Greek classical contrapposto. The lost bronze original would have been made at approximately 450-40 BC.

The Greek sculptor Polykleitos designed a work, perhaps this one, as an example of the “canon” or “rule”, showing the perfectly harmonious and balanced proportions of the human body in the sculpted form. A solid-built athlete with muscular features carries a spear balanced on his left shoulder. In the surviving Roman marble copies, a marble tree stump is added to support the weight of the marble. A characteristic of Polykleitos’ Doryphoros is the classical contrapposto in the pelvis; the figure’s stance is such that one leg seems to be in movement while he is standing on the other.

The S curve

The S Curve is a traditional art concept in Ancient Greek sculpture and Roman sculpture where the figure’s body and posture is depicted like a sinuous or serpentine “S”. It is related to and is an extension of the art term of contrapposto which is when a figure is depicted slouching or placing one’s weight and thus center of gravity to one side. However, the S Curve involves more of the body than the contrapposto, and is therefore considered to be a more advanced technical development.

Aphrodite of Milos, better known as the Venus de Milo, is an ancient Greek statue and one of the most famous works of ancient Greek sculpture. Created at some time between 130 and 100 BC, it is believed to depict Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans) the Greek goddess of love and beauty. It is a marble sculpture, slightly larger than life size at 203 cm (6 ft 8 in) high. Its arms and original plinth have been lost. From an inscription that was on its plinth, it is thought to be the work of Alexandros of Antioch.

Now, we return the Chola Bronze, to see if any of the above techniques are evidenced in the art and if so which one and most importantly did it assist in adding to its beauty.

I found some interesting articles on the same with some fantastic photos to illustrate the axis, the rhythm and how the flow of the body is deliberately altered to create the effects described above. I tried to reflect the same study in our bronze with some surprising results.

The diagrams of the movement and flow in the Greek sculpture so closely resemble the Chola bronze.

The rear view of bronze shows the exaggerated `S’ so talked off above to move in conjunction with the Contrapposto.

Would be interesting to hear your views and to dwell more into this. Really fascinating confluence of art.

Images Courtesy: Wiki, internet. sketches and Bronze are of Prasad.

11 thoughts on “Contrapposto and the S curve – Parallels between Greek sculpture and a Chola Bronze

  1. wow !!! Chozha vs Greek !!! both were pioneers in shipping, now on the sculptors as well !!! Kudos to your “Third Eye” approach !!!

  2. It is interesting to note that Sadilyan’s historical novel, Yavana Rani, talked of bouyant sea trade with the Greeks. Maybe this helped the accentuation of the Greek art of stone sculpture in these incomparable bronzes.
    Great photos Vijay and kudos for bringing out the parallels in Greek and Cholan art

  3. சிற்பக் கலை நுணுக்கங்‌களைக் கூர்மையாகக் கற்று, சிறந்த ஆங்‌கில மொழி நடையில் தருகிறீர்கள். கிரேக்க, எகிப்திய, தமிழ்ச் சிற்பிகளின் கற்பனைகளில் ஒருமை, கிரேக்கர் தராதன தந்த தமிழ்ச் சிற்பிகளின் சிறப்பு, யாவும் தந்துள்ளீர்கள். தொடருங்‌கள். தமிழில் சந்திப் பிழைகள் வராமல் தவிர்த்து உங்‌கள் உரைநடையையும் மேம்படுத்தலாம். மெய்யில் மொழி தொடங்‌குவதில்லை என்பதையும் நோக்குக. உரைநடைச் சிற்பியாகுக. வாழ்க.

  4. kouros = prince. next two so heavily muscled, after poring over so many Indian murthis they look top-heavy. They came upon that tribhanga way of presenting a figure in space, independentally, I believe.

  5. @ mani thanks..
    @ pravin – wish i could take better photos of the bronzes – the lighting and the glass make it really difficult

    @ சச்சிதானந்தன்…கண்டிப்பாக பிழை இல்லாமல் இட முயற்சி செய்கிறேன்

    @Kathie – The tribanga as i understood it at the beginning was just the 3 curves – but now realise there is so much more to it. I have a few early bronzes which we can easily study to see the evolution. I wouldn’t want to speculate on the independantly or otherwise…

  6. very nice….great post and links…

    and some thoughts….
    yes the artists learn and innovate from themselves and others….and maybe sometimes are limited by their cultural ambience and worldview. While the Greeks saw God in the perfect physical form – the Cholas ascribed Godly attributes to the human form. Maybe there lies the difference in the way the styling and forms finally evolved — though there are as you have pointed out clear similarities . Both Greeks and Cholas could not after all stray far from the most creative work ever – the human body!!

    • hi rhoda. for two different parallel systems to evolve and come out with similar solutions to a problem is plausible. But then this is art and aesthetic extrapolation. Plus the time spread between the two is huge. Credit to whoever – art is the winner. vj

  7. வருக சூர்யா . மற்ற பதிவுகளையும் படியுங்கள். நண்பர்களுடன் சுட்டிகளை பகிருங்கள் .


  8. Prof Ramachandrans Reith Lecture (BBC)-”
    I recently started reading about the history of ideas on art – especially Victorian reactions to Indian art – and it makes fascinating reading.

    For example if you go to Southern India, you look at the famous Chola bronze of the goddess Parvati dating back to the 12th century. For Indian eyes, she is supposed to represent the very epitome of feminine sensuality, grace, poise, dignity, everything that’s good about being a woman. And she’s of course also very voluptuous
    But the Victorian Englishmen who first encountered these sculptures were appalled by Parvati, partly because they were prudish, but partly also just because of just plain ignorance.

    They complained that the breasts were way too big, the hips were too big and the waist was too narrow. It didn’t look anything like a real woman – it wasn’t realistic – it was primitive art. And they said the same thing about the voluptuous nymphs of Kajuraho – even about Rajastani and Mogul miniature paintings. They said look these paintings don’t have perspective, they’re all distorted.

    They were judging Indian art using the standards of Western art – especially classical Greek art and Renaissance art where realism is strongly emphasized.

    But obviously this is a fallacy. Anyone here today will tell you art has nothing to do with realism. It is not about creating a realistic replica of what’s out there in the world.
    But what’s it got to do with the rest of art. Let’s go back to the Chola bronze of Parvati. Let’s talk about Indian art. Well the same principle applies. How does the artist convey the very epitome of feminine sensuality? What he does is simply take the average female form, subtract the average male form – you’re going to get big breasts, big hips and a narrow waist. And then amplify it, amplify the difference. And you don’t say: “My God, it’s anatomically incorrect”. You say: “Wow! What a sexy goddess!”

    But that’s not all there is to it because how do you bring in dignity, poise, grace?

    Well what you do is something quite clever, what the Chola bronze artist does is something quite clever. There are some postures that are forbidden to a male. I can’t stand like that even if I want to. But a woman can do it effortlessly. So what he does is he goes into an abstract space I call “posture space”, and then subtracts the average male posture from the female and then exaggerates the feminine posture – and then you get elegant triple flexion – or tribhanga – pose, where the head is tilted one way, the body is tilted exactly the opposite way, and the hips again the other way. And again you don’t say: “My God, that’s anatomically inappropriate. Nobody can stand like that.” You say: “My God! It’s gorgeous. It’s beautiful! It’s a celestial goddess”. So the image is extremely evocative and it’s an example of the peak shift principle in Indian art.

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