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Proportion and scale

by Dr. Asa Mittman

Proportion

Proportion refers to the relationship of parts of a body or form to one another and of the parts to the whole, for example, the size of the head of a figure in relation to the entire body.
Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer), c. 450-40 B.C.E., ancient Roman marble copy found in Pompeii of the lost bronze original, 211 cm (Archaeological Museum, Naples)
Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer), c. 450-40 B.C.E., ancient Roman marble copy found in Pompeii of the lost bronze original, 211 cm (Archaeological Museum, Naples)

Scale

Scale is the relationship of parts of an image to the image as a whole, or to something in the world outside of the image, for example, the size of the figure of a king in an image as compared to the size of the figure of his servant in the same image, or the size of a statue of the king as compared to the size of an actual person. Beginning with proportion, we can look again at Doryphoros. We will compare his proportions to those of an Altar Group from Benin with Oba (King) Akenzua I and Two Attendants.
Doryphoros’ proportions were laid out according to mathematical formulas in order to create an image that the sculptor believed presented the “ideal man.”
Doryphoros is about seven “heads” tall, so to speak, whereas the Akenzua is approximately two and a half “heads” tall. Doryphoros’ limbs fit within the range of average human proportion, whereas Akenzua’s legs are considerably shorter than his torso.
Altar group with Oba Akenzura I, Benin, Nigeria, eighteenth century, brass, 63 cm. (Ethnological Museum, Berlin)
Altar group with Oba Akenzura I, Benin, Nigeria, eighteenth century, brass, 63 cm. (Ethnological Museum, Berlin)
While their proportions are quite different, both present figures considered to be ideal by their cultures. Doryphoros embodies quite literally the focus on external beauty — according to the tastes of the day — that was prevalent in Classical Greece, whereas the image of Akenzua shows, with the intentional enlargement of the head, the greater importance of the intellect in the culture.

Hieratic scale

Scale can refer to any relationship of parts to the whole, but one particular type is of great significance in many periods: Hieratic scale is scale based on relative importance. That is, the more important a figure, the larger he or she is in relation to the figures around him or her. This is quite different from the naturalistic scale found in works organized by linear perspective, like Perugino’s painting.
Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter, Sistine Chapel, 1481-83, fresco, 10 feet 10 inches x 18 feet (Vatican, Rome)
Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter, Sistine Chapel, 1481-83, fresco, 10 feet 10 inches x 18 feet (Vatican, Rome)
Akenzua, for example, is considerably larger than the figures that flank him. These are not children, but adult male attendants. We are not supposed to therefore assume that Akenzua is a giant, but rather, that he is far more important than the other two men. Also note that the other two have rather different proportions: their heads are much smaller in relation to their bodies, and their arms and legs longer. This reminds us that Akenzua’s proportions are absolutely deliberate, not the result of incompetence but of a conscious effort to convey a cultural meaning.
Before leaving this work, though, two more details should be mentioned. At their feet are small cats, but these are leopards — traditional symbols of the king — and so even the attendants are comparatively giant. And below the cats are fallen men, bound with their hands behind them, decapitated. The symbolism of decapitation as the ultimate, dehumanizing death highlights the importance of the scale of the head of the king who towers over them.

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  • blobby green style avatar for user Arlene  Hewitson-Townley
    On the Benin bronze, there is a very small human figure above the right leopard, presumably very insignificant due to its size, but important enough to include, any
    thoughts on who this represents?
    (7 votes)
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  • old spice man blue style avatar for user CamarenC
    I cannot really read, how do you read?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      If you look at ANYTHING and derive meaning from it, you are "reading". Getting a "message" from another's eyes or gestures is "reading". Looking out the window and seeing tree branches moving, and deciding that it's windy out there, is a form of reading. So, as for your question, "how do you read?" you use what senses you have (sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell) to get information, and you use your mind to interpret that information. You're already a reader. Enjoy!
      (15 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Natalya Tasso
    To help others who are confused:
    Scale refers to the relationship between the size of an object (a whole) to another object (another whole).
    Proportion refers to the relationship between the size of parts of a whole (elements within an object).
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Zaza
    Is hieratic scale the same as hierarchical scale? Using "hierarchical" to describe who is bigger/more important make senses but I can never understand how "hieratic" is related to scale at all.
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user sicheng.ding
    Can anyone tell me the difference between scale and proportion? Thanks~
    (2 votes)
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    • blobby blue style avatar for user e.angelica.gr
      I think the scale of something then represents a proportion, e.g. in arquitecture a map of 0 represents that the scale is 10% of real image, then inside that map, is how things are related i.e the living room is bigger than the bedroom for kids and the house is the whole.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user ravyn
    scale is how much something is.
    proportion is close to the scale drawing.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user yalani pagan
    scale is close to looking at peportion right?
    (1 vote)
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