Does Size Matter in Ancient Art?

Singapore may not be a place where you’d find nude works of art everywhere, but even with the absence of them, you’d be very familiar with many classic works of art from artists like Michelangelo or Da Vinci. And if you were curious (as you should be) about the – ahem – ‘size’ of certain body parts of statues like Michelangelo’s ‘David’, some academics and artsy types have an answer for you.

Don’t worry, you’re not alone in your curiosity. Even folks in Europe who’re used to seeing naked statues are wondering about the phallus sizes depicted in art. If being ‘big’ is a sign of masculinity and dominance, why is David’s so… tiny?

Blogger Ellen Oredsson explains that it’s all down to a culture shift. The appreciation of “big” is a more modern context – people these days associate tall skyscrapers the way people associate big members with power. But it wasn’t the case when Michelangelo first carved his David.

“Back then, small penises were considered better than big ones,” says Oredsson. She’s not alone in that assessment. Apparently, Ancient Greece was a highly masculine culture that favoured ‘small and taut’ genitals, as opposed to big ones, to show male self-control – this is according to photographer Ingrid Berthon-Moine, who’s very familiar with photographing ancient Greek testicles.

The male form

In ancient art, nudity is important, because according to art historian Anna Tahinci, it was seen as the ‘perfect form’ for the representation of the human body – both in ancient Greece, and later, Rome.

This allows viewers a good way to view the ideal male form, described in one of Aristophanes’s plays as having “good chest, a clear complexion, broad shoulders, sturdy buttocks, and…a small genteel penis.”

But it’s not just the size that mattered – ancient Greeks valued certain types as well. For example, they preferred longer foreskins (in relation to the length of the entire organ) which was considered more attractive and modest than an exposed (aka circumcised) one, according to Frederick M. Hodges, a scholar who writes about circumcision.

According to his research, male genitals in ‘sophisticated art’ featured “unretracted, teat-like, and neatly tapered” members. An erect, bare one would be dishonourable (no surprise there).

However, while the “genteel penis” is what’s shown in public, they often have “rakishly protuberant phalluses in private” that’s more commonly depicted in erotic art, like those found on vases. Timothy McNiven, author of “The Unheroic Penis: Otherness Exposed”, considers this “the best of both worlds.”

While all of these theories may be pure speculation, we can all probably agree on one thing: all these scholars have a very interesting job.