Defining Beauty at the British Museum

What is Beauty? Is Beauty Truth? Is Truth Beauty? It’s a question and a definition that philosophers have been debating for millennia, so it’s brave of the British Museum to try and define such an indefinable concept in their current exhibition: Defining Beauty: the body in Greek art.

Let’s be clear here – we aren’t thinking about nebulous things like ‘inner beauty.’ No, this show is all about the body beautiful, with boobs and bums in abundance.


But it’s worth thinking about – why are there so many bums and boobs in Greek art? Nudity was seen as beautiful and moral in Greek art according to the text on the wall. Apparently, this viewpoint is unique in ancient art and is still alien to us today as nudity is usually synonymous with vice rather than virtue.

The Secrets of Beauty

As you might expect, Defining Beauty holds all kinds of beauty secrets. The most obvious one is this: good lighting. The dramatically lit statues showed off every soft curve, every line of muscle and every fold of drapery (if any!) perfectly.  Greeting you as soon as you walk in is a surprised bathing Aphrodite, and the discus-wielding Discobolos, both lit, if not dressed,  to impress. This stunning entry point is a world away from the woeful Vikings who have previously occupied the space.



The fluid motion of the discus-thrower and the motion implied by the goddess at her toilette struck me as far more interesting than the stationary statues of athletes surrounding them. The beauty of this pair is in their movement and their motion, which is always present yet always implied.

On a less serious note, I couldn’t talk about the Goddess of Love and Beauty alongside Discobolos without sharing one of my favourite images…

Marilyn Monroe and Discobolus
Marilyn Monroe and Discobolus

Defining Beauty had another beauty tip to share with its audience: mathematics. Beauty is measurable, just think of the Golden Ratio. We saw a few examples of these ‘perfect’ specimens, with their symmetrical faces and perfectly proportioned limbs, but they left me somewhat cold. Beauty doesn’t lie in perfection, it seems.

Go bold or go home

If you have read my posts on the Museum of Classical Archaeology with their gaudy Peplos Kore you’ll remember that ancient tastes are tacky to today’s sensibilities. “Colour” we are told ” is intrinsic to ancient ideas of beauty,” which offers an excuse for some of the more ‘bold design choices’ (he wrote euphemistically).

A brightly coloured archer
A brightly coloured archer

It’s funny how we think of Greek sculpture as very white, and very pure, with the subtle tones of the marble providing all the pigment needed. How wrong we are! With ancient sculpture, the pallet was very much a “Go bold or go home” mentality. Think about it though, with the blazing sun beating down, these statues would be even more blinding than they are already.

Golden Athena
Golden Athena

This gloriously golden goddess is Athena, and she was one of my favourite things about the exhibition. The picture doesn’t do her justice at all, and she serves to illustrate the above beauty tip: always have good lighting! Her eyes twinkled in, you could almost sense the goddess of wisdom’s mind whirring away at a mile a minute.

A bit of fun

The thing I enjoyed most about Defining Beauty was that it wasn’t afraid to get a bit silly. Whether inviting us to look at some naughty pottery that was “… found in tombs, apparently placed there for the delight of the dead in the afterlife,” or reminding everyone of the story of Aphrodite of Knidos which one gentleman *ahem* enjoyed very much. A bit too much, really.

Or even this statue, in which a game of knucklebones gets a bit out of hand…

Two youths fighting over knucklebones
Two youths fighting over knucklebones

To be honest, this is tame compared to what I’ve seen occur after an innocent game of Monopoly.

The Fairest of them All

So after examining the evidence offered by the British Museum, just one question remains: just who is the most beautiful man and woman in Greek art? To take all subjective notions out of the equation, I returned to the second of the beauty tips suggested: mathematics. To work out who was the fairest of them all, I took a tally of how many times certain characters appeared. To count, all the person needed was a name, so that rules out all the anonymous athletes and bathing beauties.

Let’s start with the men. In my book, the Number 1 Ancient Heart-throb is Antinous, but he’s Roman rather than Greek so he doesn’t appear here.

  • With 3 appearances, Zeus comes third in the race for Hottest Ancient Man.
  • With an impressive 4 showings, Dionysus places second.
  • But, our runaway winner with 8 features is Heracles.

Let’s look at the ladies now…

  • With 1 showing is the regal Hera, who takes third place.
  • Surprisingly, the Goddess of Love and Beauty, Aphrodite only has a paltry 3 appearances and comes in second.

So, who could be number 1?

It’s Athena! The Goddess of wisdom racks up an astonishing 6 appearances thanks to her penchant for hanging out with heroes such as Heracles. I like to think she’s demonstrating that smarts are sexy as she has twice as much presence as her more glamorous colleague, Aphrodite.

Here’s a real life ancient hotty for you, someone who is literally Dead Sexy (although his looks may have been airbrushed stone-brushed (?): Alexander.

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great

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