My favorite sculpture is the Dying Gaul. Why am I so attached to him? I have no idea – it’s sad, but at the same time, the calm (in shock?) of the dying warrior fascinates me.
Supposedly the sculpture is of a warrior from Gaul, an ancient Celt, who was part of a troop fighting in what is now Turkey. He is lying on his shield, with his broken sword in front of him. Also, at his feet, is a large, curved trumpet.
In fact, the Gaul was a trumpeter as well as a fighter. Around his neck is the torque the Gauls wore, and his hair is chopped roughly short. He has a moustache – a strangely modern touch in an otherwise archaic scene. The statue was made to commemorate a victory of the Greeks over the invading Gauls. The artist was Greek – and this subject is a barbarian. Therefore, he doesn’t have the blank, classical beauty of a Greek sculpture. The nose is larger, the forehead wrinkled in pain, His hair is tousled and roughly cut. There is no grace in his hands, his knuckles are calloused. He has the hands of a fighter. This example is a Roman copy of the original (in bronze, I believe). I first saw this statue in the park of Versailles. The copy in Versailles is outside and has been exposed to the weather. It’s rough in places, like sandpaper. Then I went to the Capitoline Museum in Rome and saw this copy – the oldest copy of this statue. The marble is nuanced with traces of bronze and gray – it’s not pure sparkling white marble – it looks worn and bruised, as if the stone itself has just been in a battle. The nose, arm and part of one leg have been repaired, making more scars. But there is no hiding the pure lines of this warrior’s body. It’s one of the most human sculptures I’ve ever seen – the one that looks most like the person is alive – even though he’s dying.
He’s clearly dying from a wound in the chest. The blow happened recently and is still bleeding freely. He’s dizzy, and he’s propped himself up with his arm, one hand on his sword, the other on his leg, perhaps seeking comfort in the touch of his own flesh. He’s nude – the Gauls fought in the nude – except for a torque around his neck.
From one angle to the next, his expression changes. From pain, to shock, to a sort of tired acceptance – as you walk around the statue you see the differences the sculpture captured in this one, eternal moment.
The dying Gaul sits on his shield and the sounds of the battle have faded to nothing. He is looking inwards – nothing outside him affects him anymore. There are no more clanging swords, crashing shields, cries, screams, or curses. There is a peacefulness around him. The edges of his consciousness have faded – all that is left is the essence of his existence. He is contemplating his life, seeking a deeper meaning, or perhaps he is just using all his energy to sit up, because he knows that as soon as he lies down, he won’t get up again. It’s a heroic effort, and it’s taking great strength and concentration. As you look at the statue, you can see the genius of the artist – he has captured not only a perfect athlete betrayed by his body, but also the one moment nothing can disturb – tourists can gawp, flashbulbs can pop, we can run our hands over the smooth flat planes of his muscles – but he is beyond us. That is the magic of this sculpture; the subject is beyond our reach and that makes us want to reach him even more – perhaps we all want to somehow turn back time and save him.