Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Compare a paper airplane to one of those remote-controlled helicopters. Which one is more prestigious? The helicopter! But why? They both fly, don't they? The helicopter is made of more expensive parts, it takes much more skill to create, and costs more to buy. So, it's more prestigious.
This basic concept is true of art as well. A wooden statue is neat. A marble statue is much more prestigious. But a bronze statue takes the cake. The ancient Greeks were prolific sculptors, carving masterpieces out of many materials, and bronze was by far the most prestigious. Metal is expensive, takes great skill to work with, and creates a strong, durable work of art.
For most of the ancient world, bronze statues were small, often less than a foot tall. Not only was the material expensive, but bronze in large amounts tends to warp as it cools so large statues were just not possible.
Sculptors would create a mold of their image and pour molten bronze into it. When it cooled, the mold was removed and a solid bronze statue was inside. The Greeks used this technique as well, but they wanted to make life-size bronze statues, just like they made life-size marble statues. This meant developing a new style of casting bronze.
This led to the development of the lost wax casting method, also called 'hollow casting'. In this method, the statue is cast in individual pieces then reassembled, and the casting is done by creating a hollow wax mold that is replaced by bronze. The Greeks were not the first to ever use this technique, but they were the first to really embrace it on a major size and scale. The lost wax method was time consuming, but allowed sculptors to create large bronze statues.
So, here's how it works. First, the sculptor creates a full-scale model of the figure in clay. Next, the model is covered in a large clay or plaster mold. After the mold sets, it is removed in pieces. Remember that in the lost wax method, the statue is cast as smaller pieces that are later reassembled. In each mold, melted beeswax is applied to the inside surface, left to dry, and then removed. At this point, you have a hollow wax figure that looks exactly like the original clay model. The sculptor has one last chance to look over the wax model and make any corrections, smoothing out air bubbles or wrinkles and adding details.
In a last phase, liquid clay is poured inside the wax model to form a clay core and the outside is covered in a clay mold. Both are left to dry, and metal pins are driven through the mold into the clay core. Finally, the entire mold is heated and the wax melts, pouring out of the mold. This is where the 'lost wax' name comes from. Molten bronze is then poured into the hollow cast where the wax used to be.
After the bronze dries, the clay mold and core are removed and the metal pins soldered off. Now, you have a hollow piece of bronze. The sculptor solders all of the pieces back together and voilà, you have a life-size bronze statue. Whew! What a process! I'm exhausted just talking about it! No wonder these things are so prestigious!
Examples of Greek Bronze Statues
With the lost wax technique, the ancient Greeks developed some of the first examples of large bronze sculpture. One notable example is the Charioteer, made around 475 BC. Originally, this figure was part of a group of bronze statues including a team of life-size horses and a chariot. The entire composition was made of hundreds of individual bronze sections that were soldered together.
Note the details in the hands, feet, hair, and clothing. This amount of realism in bronze was unheard of before the Greeks. As was typical of the time, the eyes, eyelashes, and teeth are inlaid with various materials, including silver.
Another prime example of the Greeks' use of lost wax is the Zeus of Artemision, discovered in an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Greece.
Talk about realistic sense of movement. The figure is clearly and solidly posed for motion. The right hand most likely would have originally held a thunderbolt, although it should be noted that this is also the standard pose of a javelin thrower.
But look at the feet:
The weight of the entire statue rests on the heel of one foot and the ball of the other. Being hollow, lost wax sculptures are relatively light, giving the sculptor a wider range of movement for the figure. The Greeks absolutely mastered bronze sculpture using the lost-wax technique. Just check out some of these statues:
The Greeks loved to make bronze statues. Bronze is a relatively expensive material and takes immense skill, as well as lots of time, to turn into a statue. This makes bronze extremely prestigious.
For a long time, everyone in the ancient world used simple molds to cast small statues of solid bronze. However, this technique does not work with large bronze statues both because the bronze would warp and because it would be too expensive.
The Greeks began using a different technique, called lost-wax casting, in which a hollow clay cast was made by creating a wax mold, surrounding it with clay, then melting the wax. Molten bronze was then poured into the hollow cavity where the wax used to be. The result is a hollow piece of a bronze statue, which is soldered to the other individually-cast pieces of bronze to make a complete figure.
The statue was large and sturdy but light, as we can see by the balance and movement of the statue Zeus of Artemision. With the lost wax technique, ancient artists were able to make larger bronze statues, reaching new levels of artistic production.
Work through the lesson before attempting to:
- Explain why bronze statues are prestigious and why they were originally only made as small statues
- Describe the lost-wax casting method developed by the Greeks
- Identify famous examples of the lost-wax technique
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