First appearing in ancient Greece, cuirasses (also known as muscle cuirasses or heroic cuirasses) are a form of ancient armour that came to prominence during the 4th and 5th centuries B.C throughout the ancient world. Normally made from sheets of bronze, they were designed to mimic an idealised male torso, stressing the importance of maintaining a good physique as crucial to be a successful warrior, highlighting the virtues of fitness, power and perseverance. They appear throughout Classical art, worn by generals, emperors and deities, with later examples often being ornamented with mythological references such as gorgon heads (as was seen on the now lost Athena Parthenos as described by Pausanias) or with gods and rearing horses (as seen on the Augustus Prima Porta statue now in the Vatican). Unadorned examples such as this were more commonly used for actual combat, while highly decorated examples were for reserved for public procession.
The earliest known Greek example of a statue wearing a cuirass comes from a warrior torso found on the Acropolis in Athens and is dated 460 – 470 B.C, while vase painting depicts muscle cuirass on Attic red figure pottery from 530 B.C. A Roman 2nd century B.C. monument of Aemilius Paulus at the Sanctuary of Delphi depicts warriors wearing muscle cuirass adorned with leather straps around the shoulders and waists, used to distinguish the ranks of the infantrymen and gives an indication as to how this armour would have appeared when worn by various soldiers.
The shape of this cuirass highlights the musculature of the male body, with nipples, pectorals and the abdomen all accentuated in bronze – possibly inspired by the Classical Greek notion of heroic nudity, popularised by the 5th century B.C. sculptor Polykleitos. Cast in to individual pieces which have then been hammered in to shape, the average cuirass weighed around 25 pounds.
This example follows the Greek tradition of an unadorned cuirass, known as an anatomical type, and was intended to be used in hand to hand combat, thus elevating function as highly as form. The back and breast plates were designed to be worn over a chitos – an ancient Greek form of sewn garment.
Several similar cuirasses from Greece can be found in public collections, including a Greek cuirass but found in Apulia currently with the Met (Accession Number 1992.180.3.) and two in the British Museum(1856,1226.614, 1873,0820.223.)
Combined, these cuirasses are highly suggestive of both Classical warfare and the need for armour in combat, but also speak of a tradition of sculptural form and idealized beauty, along with a desire for the virtues of strength and power. Worthy of any museum collection, our cuirass is a rare and fine example which would have once graced the torso of a great warrior in antiquity, providing them with a sense of both pride and protection as it was worn in to battle.
Previously in a European Private Collection.
Subsequently French Art Market, prior to 2000.
Subsequently in a Private French Collection until 2016 (accompanied by French Cultural Passport 180712).