Polykleitos of Argos (fl. c. 440 BC) sought to represent in his statuary the ideal proportions of the human figure, and to this end, he developed a set of aesthetic principles and guidelines codifying these proportions that was known as the kanon or “rule.” In formulating this canon, Polykleitos devised a system based on a simple mathematical formula which divided the human body into measured parts that were all proportionally related. These conventions reflect the earlier teachings of Pythagoras, who believed […] that underlying proportions could be found in all of nature, determining the form of the cosmos as well as of things on earth, and that beauty resided in harmonious numerical ratios.
Though we do not know the exact details of Polykleitos’s formula, because he chose to expound the canon by sculptural rather then discursive means. Although one would expect the free-standing image of the spear-bearer to have been commissioned for a memorial to a deceased warrior, the Doryphoros was not intended to refer to any specific individual , but rather to an idealized composite of all individuals. The Doryphoros is the perfect expression of what the Greeks called symmetria. In art of the High Classical period (ca. 450–400 BC), symmetria not only encompassed a sense of proportion and balance, but was also an exercise in contrasts. The body of the Doryphoros, for example, stands in what is termed contrapposto, meaning that his weight rests on his right leg, freeing his left to bend. In the process, the right hip shifts up and the left down; the left shoulder raises and the right drops. His body is brought into a state of equilibrium through this counter-balancing act.
Although the Doryphoros represents a warrior poised for battle, he does not don a suit of armor or any other protective gear. In fact, were it not for the actual spear that that statue originally held, it would have been difficult to identify him as such. A hallmark of classical Greek sculpture, male nudity or nakedness was understood as a marker of civilization that separated the Greeks from their “barbarian” neighbors.
The Doryphoros was originally executed in bronze, the tensile strength of which allowed for a greater freedom of motion in the statue. The weight of the stone requires the marble copies to have ungainly supports props which diminish the effect intended by Polykleitos.