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Head of Polyphemos

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Head of Polyphemos

Dated 150 BC or later

        Recently, I was fortunate enough to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where I spent most of my time in the Ancient World collection. I was very excited to be able to study in close proximity the sculptures that have come down to us and be able to see the details in all the carvings.  In a room filled with beautiful classical sculptures and pottery, I found myself drawn to the more robust Head of Polyphemos (first attached image). With only a head to study, I believe it was the unique depiction of the one eye and the strong emotion in his face that initially drew my to focus here.

The style that drew me to the Head of Polyphemos in comparison to other sculptures in the room is what suggests the style is Hellenistic. There is debate however that it is not a Greek original and instead, a Roman copy of the Imperial period. The general style refers back to the Hellenistic period but the vibrate personality of the piece makes it difficult to determine if it instead a Roman copy. Dated back to 150 BC to possibly later, it potentially falls in about the center of the Hellenistic period from 323- 31 BC, after the time of Alexander the Great. Because of the distinctness of its features, personalizing the sculpture, makes it impossible for the style to be classical.  The iconic classical nose is replaced with a bulbous, oversize one, taking up the center of the face. The shaggy hair also stands out, with voluminous curls that are not uniform or simple, but instead flowing. The sculpture uses deep carvings that produce shadows and create a more realistic texture for the viewer.

The eye is notable, not just in that there is only one, but its placement on the head itself. It is set on the bridge of the nose as opposed to the center of the forehead. There are even indents where normal eye sockets would be. The thick, furrowed brow give the face a more personality and goes with the shaggy hair, almost making him seem approachable even with his monstrous size. Had the sculpture been classical, the features would have been uniform and idealized.  He never would have been portrayed with a beard, let alone one as bushy as that which the sculpture has. The sculptor also makes sure to carve in the crease of the forehead and the creases in the corners of the almond eye. This seemingly simple lines show emotion in a way that would never been seen in classical works. The marks give the impression that this figure is human, possibly aging, and starting off in a deep focus. This age and stare would not have been seen as the ideal figure. However, emotion is a necessity in Hellenistic works, often showing anguish or despair. The calm nature of this bust however is what leads historians to believe it is more contemporary Hellenistic or even possibly a Roman Imperial copy.

 I believe these features were the artist’s way of making the Polyphemos seem more human. The bust looks more malformed than monstrous. When I initially walked up to the sculpture, my mind was trying to see a human face and I was confused to realize the slope off the nose lead to empty sockets and the what I quickly thought were wrinkles on the nose was in fact the eye. This attempt to humanize could have been done for a number of reasons. One would have been that Greek sculptures typically portrayed characters in Greek mythology as human in image, except larger and immortal when Gods. This gave them a divine presence but relatable and something the average person could strive for.

The humanistic image was also used to convey a portion of Polyphemus’ story. Polyphemus is the one eyed, man eating Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey who faced Odysseus on the island of Sicily. The epic tells us that when returning from the Trojan war, the hero and his men stop on the island, wandering into a cave full of provisions that is the monsters home. Polyphemos traps them with a large stone and begins eating the men as time goes on. Odysseus tricks the Cyclops into drinking wine, during which he shares his name is “Nobody”, only to then stab the monster’s eye in his drunken sleep. Shouting “Nobody”, other Cyclops believe this is from a divine power and offer no assistance. Odysseus and his men escape by then tying themselves to sheep and boastfully proclaiming his real name, essentially calling himself that divine power in an act of hubris.

        This sculpture’s purpose is to share that story with those who view it. This is perhaps what the Cyclops is known most for, even though he appeared elsewhere among Greek mythology.  While I was at the Museum of Fine Arts within the Trojan war room of the Ancient World exhibit, I was able to compare this work this that of other similar subjects. The most direct comparison was Polyphemos reclining and holding a drinking bowl (Second attached image). This classical, terracotta statuette depicts the Cyclops in a monstrous way, with a distinct large eye in the middle of the forehead, an inhuman nose, and a pot belly. This artist’s depiction plays more on realism than that of the Head of

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