Canonical beauty: Ancient Greece

19.10.2017 — by Victoria Ventonni


In Ancient Greece beauty was much more than just a pleasant appearance: it was a blessing, a gift given to a person by gods, a sign of beautiful mind. We could see the proof of it if we refer to the well-known phrase “καλὸς κἀγαθός”, which was highly used in classical period by Greek writers combines the attractive appearance with bright mind. All of that is true only if you are a man. Beautiful woman was synonym to evil woman. However, special beauty contests were held regularly in Olympics at Elis and on the islands of Tenedos and Lesbos.

So, what was a beauty canon upon which the women were judged?


The first beauty for Ancient Greek was Aphrodite – chosen by Paris during his famous Judgement [1], which led to Trojan war. This goddess favored big-bottom girls, what made wide hips an essential component of beauty. Another important part of it were white arms. Moreover, often make-up was used to whiten them. The enchanting power of red hair combined with its rarity made this hair color considered as the most beautiful one among the women. When intense and extremely comforting Mediterranean sun is getting lost in red hair, the hair enlightens, seem to be golden.

Even more important than these criteria was the way the woman acted.

Referring to the Judgement of Paris, noted above, the most beautiful of all goddess was not Aphrodite but Hera (Athena was held as an asexual being, wise and talented in war as men were supposed to be). Nevertheless, Hera was the goddess of the marital order, according to the myths, quite shrewish, jealous and vengeful. She tried to look modest, standing naked in front of Paris, while Aphrodite was a goddess of sexuality and made no attempt hiding something (quite the opposite, actually).

Another well-known first beauty of Ancient Greece was Helen of Troy. She was considered so not only because of her biological features resulting in a pleasant appearance, but mostly because of the power she had on men, making them do whatever she wanted. Her beauty serves as a weapon of mass destruction as it drew men both to Helen’s bed and to their deaths.

All of written above refers to the Bronze era. As the Greek society evolved, so did the concepts of beauty.

What made a person beautiful was one of the questions widely discussed among Greek philosophers. So, Plato saw beauty as a result of symmetry and harmony, created the “golden proportion” in which, among other things, the ideal face width was considered as representing two-thirds of its length, and the face must be perfectly symmetrical. His idea has proven to be right by recent researches. Moreover, it was Plato who decided that beauty cannot be defined [2].

However, it’s a part of human psychology that we always want something we don’t have. In Ancient Greece, enlightened with intense sunlight, pale skin was a sign not only of prestige, but also of beauty as it meant that person came from a wealthy family and didn’t have to do hard work. In order to lighten the skin tone, women used white lead, which was toxic (but hardly had they known about that). To make it lay smooth, women first moisturized their skin using creams with honey and sometimes olive oil.

Bright makeup was not in favor among Greek women. First of all, intense pigments were quite expensive. Secondly, because of the heat they won’t last long. So, they used red pastels to bright only a little bit their lips and cheeks.

It may come as a surprise to us that one of the “parts” of beauty was a unibrow – a symbol of intelligence and beauty painted by both male and female using kohl or lampblack (a black pigment made from soot).

Greek women used the vinegar and sunlight to lighten their hair tone: whereas most of the women were born with a dark hair, golden hair tone was the most beautiful one. Free women had the long hair and the slaves had to cut their locks short. Only single women were allowed to wear their hair loose, married ones usually made buns.

However, all of these are just single details of the concept of beauty. We perceive each human in a whole, all his features mixed: appearance, personality, style, inner harmony. And the last one is probably the most important of them all.

[1] Judgement of Paris. If you are not good at Greek mythology, here’s the summary of this story, which was well-known in Ancient Greece even before Homer told his Iliad:

[2] Ironically, Greek portrayals of perfect bodies are the most copied and acknowledged ones in art history.



Canonical beauty: Ancient Egypt

24.08.2017 — by Victoria Ventonni



3100-2950 B.C. – Late Predynastic Period

2950-2575 B.C. – The Early Dynastic Period (1st-3rd Dynasties)

2575-2150 B.C. – The Old Kingdom (4th-8th Dynasties)

2125-1975 B.C. – The 1st Intermediate Period (9th-11th Dynasties)

1975-1640 B.C. – The Middle Kingdom (11th-14th Dynasties)

1630- 1520 B.C. – The 2nd Intermediate Period (15th-17th Dynasties)

1539-1075 B.C. – The New Kingdom (18th-20th Dynasties)

1075-715 B.C. – The 3rd Intermediate Period (21st-25th Dynasties)

715-332 B.C. – The Late Period (20th-30th Dynasties, 2nd Persian Period)

332 B.C.-395 A.D. – Greco-Roman Period (Macedonians, Ptolemies, and Romans)

When we speak about canons and something what is canonical, the very first thing to come to one’s mind is Ancient Egypt. Exactly there the canons were specified and followed, their shaped works of art, symbolizing the continuity from the great rulers of the past.

The idea of beauty itself had a huge influence on the whole culture: in ancient Egyptian beautiful things or people were described using the adjective “N” or “nfr”, same syllables one can find in many words such as teenager (male – “nfrw”, a virgin young woman – “nfrwt”). However, we shall keep in mind that the perception of beauty in Ancient Egypt was completely different from the one we share now. Moreover, hardly could we accurately restore it: not only we are separated from Egyptians by more than 1600 years, the nation itself does not exist anymore for a long time. All we have left are astonishing works of art and discovered texts, which we can read thanks to Jean-François Champollion, who was, by the way, a very interesting person himself. Surprisingly, even if we do not know much about the Egyptian culture or the original meaning of the beauty for them, what we know shapes our definition, too.


One of the main “components” of the beauty was (and still is) youth. In almost all the works of art you could not see any wrinkle or a sign of aging. In the Ebers Papyrus, which is one of the most important papyruses in Ancient Egypt, which contains medical knowledge, we could find herbal remedies not only for wrinkles, but also for baldness and graying hair. The importance of youth was highlightened by Heb Sed festival which was held in order to rejuvenate the pharaoh’s strength and probably have been instituted to replace a ritual of murdering a pharaoh who was unable to continue to rule effectively because of age or condition. Not much has changed as we still perceive youth as synonym of beauty, women and men all around the world are trying to look young and to be full of energy.


Huge attention among Egyptians was paid to how they smelled, which is not surprising in a warm climate. Scent is the one of the most important elements in the erotic texts written in Ancient Egypt. For example, a male of Cairo Vase 25218 says that he feels immersed in perfume when he embraces his beloved, as if he were in the land of incense. Scents play an important role in telling the autobiography of pharaohs (partly mythological, of course). In order to demonstrate this point we shall refer to autobiography of Hatshepsut, who was the second historically confirmed female pharaoh and reigned longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. According to Egyptologist James Henry Breasted she is also known as “the first great woman in history of whom we are informed.” At Deir-el-Bahri Hatshepsut tells us the story of her conception, according to which her mother is awakened by the divine fragrance of the god Amun when he appears in her bedroom. It seems clear that in Ancient Egypt there was a straight connection between divine beauty and captivating smell. This connection, slightly changed, however, still persists.


Thanks to many observations and studies we know nowadays that in our brain there is a connection between symmetry and beauty as we subconsciously conceive symmetrical face as the beautiful one. This connection was reflected in Egyptian art as the masters tried to make the portraits of people as symmetrical as possible, adding to idealization of them.


It is well known that many beauty products were invented and widely used in Ancient Egypt. Among them red ochre for lips (forerunner of modern lipstick), cohl for eyes (forerunner of eyeliners) or burnt almonds which were used to tint the brows. Nowadays such makeup could be perceived as seductive, but in Ancient Egypt it was mostly a necessity, which protected the person from bright sun and sand. Elaborate wigs reduced the risk of lice and protected from the sunstroke and overheating. The perception of cosmetics has greatly changed: we use it mostly in order to beautify ourselves even if the usage of beauty products is not necessity justified: for example, wearing concealer in a warm day instead of sunscreen.

Gender difference

Unlike in the Prehistoric era, there is no emphasis on breasts or hips in women’s depictions. Quite the opposite: they look very much alike men and are built in a similar way: narrow hips, almost flat chest (this could be seen as a result of K-strategy). However, they are distinguishable as women have very light skin color, resembling pale gold and the men usually have the opposite reddish-brown tone. It could be explained by determination of roles and perception of both sexes in the Egyptian society. Like in many others cultures, women were associated with softness and effeminacy, which are incompatible with hard work under the sunrays, what was the privilege of the men, demonstrating their strength and masculinity.

After discussing the main “components” of beauty in Egyptians’ perception, let’s pay attention to the two main well-known nowadays “beauties” of Ancient Egypt: Nefertiti and Cleopatra.



Bust of Nefertiti and all her portraits were created during the reign of her husband – Akhenaten, which is, probably, the most revolutionary time in both politics and art in the whole history of Ancient Egypt. Akhenaten made huge changes in Egyptian society concerning religion, which was central to all the aspects of life in Ancient Egypt. The whole concept of beauty during that time has changed, canons of art were almost destroyed. Usually Egyptian art is marked by its geometrical forms, immobility and total restraint. Art of Amarna period is completely different: soft and intimate, very humane and sincere.

comp1.1    comp 1.2

Comp. 2

Comparison: Akhenaten (Cairo Museum) and Statue of Thutmosis III at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The concept of feminine beauty has changed, too. For example, deformed skulls were regarded as sign of beauty.



Daughters of pharaoh Akhenaten

The proportions of Nefertiti’s face are distorted, too, in an attempt to create an impressive appearance of the queen. We shall keep in mind the circumstances in which this bust was discovered as it resulted in its fame. The bust was unveiled in Berlin in 1923, what was crucial to its reception: not only ‘Egyptomania’ was in the air, but also Nefertiti’s angular, geometric appearance chimed with fashionable taste of the art deco. Thanks to the fuss made in mass media, she became a star and beauty ideal.


Ever since antiquity, Cleopatra has been known as a woman of unimaginable beauty. In fact, if we refer to her lifetime portraits on coins (which were also partly idealized, of course), we would discover that Cleopatra had a big nose, a protruding chin, and wrinkles, which were hardly components of “beauty” even then. We may find description of her in Plutarch’s works, who has never met her and tells us that her beauty was in her vivacity and her voice, and not in her appearance.


Bust believed to be of Cleopatra VII, Altes Museum, Berlin

Il 3

A tetradrachm of Cleopatra VII, Syria mint

We must admit that Cleopatra was very clever, what resulted in seduction of two well-known Roman rulers: Caesar and Mark Anthony, who postponed the conquest of Egypt. However, we can hardly talk about her as an Egyptian: she reigned during the Ptolemaic dynasty, which was Greek and Greek was her native language. We shall point out that she made attempts to learn Egyptian and represented herself as the reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis. That made her, probably, the most Egyptian ruler in the whole Ptolemaic dynasty. It may have been caused by her (and Egypt) opposition to Rome, the culture of which mostly originated from Ancient Greece.

I love Cleopatra case in light of this article for one simple reason: her example proves us that being smart is more important than being beautiful. Even if you are not pretty by nature, if you are smart, you could become one of the most beautiful woman in the whole history, inspiring thousands of great people and William Shakespeare among them.


Canonical beauty: Prehistory

11.07.2017 — by Victoria Ventonni


Trying to look like someone else or desire to empathize certain aspects of the person’s own body in order to be beautiful is not a modern trend. In fact, it is a very old partly psychological phenomenon. Beauty canons are often regarded as a direct consequence of the K-strategy* working. However, I would like to argue against this point of view, which has a lot of oversimplification in it.

Indeed, K-strategy has a lot to do with definition of beauty, subconsciously preventing humanity from both the overpopulation and dying out. Other factors of main importance are habitat and the leader, his taste in women if this leader is a man. Moreover, a bright personality should be taken into account, too, as the desire to be like someone mentally and sociologically reflects on the first place in the change of the style and appearance.

Beauty standards are constantly changing, differing in various societies even in a modern globalized world. We shall start with an attempt to define canonical beauty in prehistory era.

Most of art objects left from this time represent animals. In prehistorical society the study of the anatomical structure of an animal was of vital importance as the good knowledge of it could not only save life of the hunter, but also bring some food to home. The inclusion of the image of a human is quite rare, with the exception of the female imagery. All of such females are called “Venuses”.


Vénus de Laussel – example of female in the relief


Venus von Willendorf – example of female in sculpture


Venus of Dolní Věstonice – example of female in ceramics

The faces of all of them do not matter, the artist’s attention is focused on their bodies, highlighting their fertility through empathizing primary and secondary sexual characteristics. The woman was, first of all, a mother, who should have made good and healthy numerous progeny and breed them until the age of maturing. These functions were accentuated by the artist and taken into account when choosing a partner by men. Moreover, these images probably had the sacral meaning, promising praising people abundant harvest and comfortable existence with enough food and less death.

Nevertheless, even at these hard for survival of the humankind times beauty canons were not the same around the globe. In Siberia, where the climate is much harsher than in Europe, where the most of curvy Venuses were found, were discovered totally different statuettes.


Venus of Buret

Very tall and thin, probably wearing fur, without breasts, but with outlined facial features – that’s how typical (or perfect) woman looked like for our ancestors who lived there. According to the K-strategy, the imagery should have been quite the opposite as survival in northern territories was very hard and men probably needed the emphasized fertile women to make offspring and live long enough to raise it.

Even then the beauty canons varied depending on public foundations and presumably many other things about which we have no idea.



*To discover more about K-strategy search r/K selection theory or  click here


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