Bronze man and centaur

Period: Geometric

Date: mid-8th century B.C.

Culture: Greek

Medium: Bronze

Dimensions: H. 4 3/8 in. (11.10 cm)

Classification: Bronzes

Credit Line: Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917

Accession Number: 17.190.2072


This magnificent bronze statuette represents a man and a centaur locked in combat. The man stands upright, naked except for a broad belt and tall conical helmet. With both legs firmly planted on the ground, he towers over the centaur, reaching out with his extremely elongated left arm while holding back the raised right arm of the centaur. It is likely that the centaur originally held the branch of a tree or another weapon in this hand. With his left hand the centaur grasps the man's right arm, which held a weapon, a spear or sword, the remains of which protrude from the centaur's side. The centaur also stands upright with all four legs firmly planted on the ground. Depicted with the body of a man attached to the hindquarters of a horse, the mythological beast wears a tall conical helmet similar to that of his antagonist. A line of hair, represented as a herringbone pattern, delineates the centaur's equine spine all the way to the tail. The general characteristics of man and centaur—the proportions of the bodies, the large rounded heads with small pointed beards and pronounced ears—are similar, but the man is distinguished by his taller stature and deep-set eyes, which originally may have held inlay. The simplified geometric style belies the tense action of the scene and imbues it with a static, almost monumental quality.
On the underside of the base, concentric rectangles frame two symmetrical zigzag patterns, whose hollow areas pierce the base as series of triangles between the legs of the centaur. Careful ornamentation of both the top and bottom of the base is characteristic of many fine small bronze statuettes of this period. Interest in the geometry of form and the tendency to finish all parts of the object, even those not readily visible, such as the underside of the base, become fundamental tendencies of the finest Greek art in the ensuing centuries.
Figural groups are rare in Geometric Greek art. The statuette is said to come from Olympia and may be associated with a Laconian or other Peloponnesian workshop. The lack of attributes and close parallels make it impossible to identify the figures with any certainty, although a mythological scene is almost certainly represented. A careful reading of the action clearly indicates that it is a violent scene of combat, particularly evident from the blade in the centaur's side. Scholars have suggested a variety of plausible interpretations. The figures could represent Zeus and an early conception of the monster Typhon. Alternatively, the scene has been identified as Zeus and one of the Titans, or even Zeus and Kronos. More likely, the scene depicts the hero Herakles and one of the centaurs, such as Nessos. The superior height of the man and the mortal wound of the centaur indicate the outcome of the combat.
This bronze figural group was cast using the lost-wax method. The craftsman modeled the figures and their base in wax, then encased them in clay, and heated the clay-covered model to melt the wax. The hollow left in the clay served as a mold, which the craftsman filled with molten bronze, heated to a very high temperature. This method of casting bronze is technically and conceptually demanding, suggesting the sophistication of the craft behind the man and centaur's simplicity of form.