Archaic smile

Head of a kouros in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens bearing a typical archaic smile.

The Archaic smile was used by Greek Archaic sculptors,[1][2] especially in the second quarter of the 6th century BCE, possibly to suggest that their subject was alive, and infused with a sense of well-being. To viewers habituated to realism, the smile is flat and quite unnatural looking, although it could be seen as a movement towards naturalism. One of the most famous examples of the Archaic Smile is the Kroisos Kouros.

The dying warrior from the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, Aegina, Greece is an interesting context as the warrior is near death.

In the Archaic Period of Ancient Greece (roughly 600 BCE to 480 BCE), the art that proliferated contained images of people who had the archaic smile.[1][2]

Gandhara Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE

During those two centuries before the mid-5th century BCE, the archaic smile was widely sculpted, as evidenced by statues found in excavations all across the Greek mainland, Asia Minor, and on islands in the Aegean Sea.[1] It is a smile which, to some modern interpreters, suggests a feeling of happiness via ignorance.. It has been theorized that in this period, artists felt it either represents that they were blessed by the gods in their actions, thus the smile, or that it is similar to pre-planned smiles in modern photos..

The Moscophoros of the Acropolis, ca 570 BCE

The significance of the convention is not known, although it is often assumed that for the Greeks this kind of smile reflected a state of ideal health and well-being. It is best anthropological practice to assume expertise in execution of craft and to look for formal/stylistic reasons why cultural artifacts appear as they do.[3] It has also been suggested that it is simply the result of a technical difficulty in fitting the curved shape of the mouth to the somewhat blocklike head typical of Archaic sculpture.

There are alternative views to the archaic smile being "flat and quite unnatural looking". This is how John Fowles describes the archaic smile in his novel The Magus (Chapter 23): "...full of the purest metaphysical good humour [...] timelessly intelligent and timelessly amused. [...] Because a star explodes and a thousand worlds like ours die, we know this world is. That is the smile: that what might not be, is [...] When I die, I shall have this by my bedside. It is the last human face I want to see."

See also


  1. 1 2 3 A Brief History of the Smile, Angus Trumble, 2005, ISBN 0-465-08779-5, p.11, Google Books link: books-google-AT11.
  2. 1 2 "Archaic smile", Britannica Online Encyclopedia, 2009, webpage: EB-Smile.
  3. Middle Archaic Phase(Smile) Retrieved 24 September 2010
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