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Art in Science: The Boxer at Rest

Chan, Shin Mei BS1; Moran, Jay BS1; Friedlaender, Linda K. MS2; Friedlaender, Gary E. MD3

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Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research: July 2021 - Volume 479 - Issue 7 - p 1441-1443
doi: 10.1097/CORR.0000000000001847
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The Boxer at Rest (Fig. 1), a life-sized bronze statue of Greek origin, depicts an unknown pugilist of the Hellenistic Period (323-331 BCE), a time wedged between the death of Alexander the Great and the birth of the Roman Empire.

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Fig. 1:
The Boxer at Rest depicts an unknown pugilist of the Hellenistic Period (323-331 BCE). (CC BY-SA 4.0). https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en. Photo credit: Livioandronico2013.

Some suggest the subject is an ancient Olympian fighter Theogenes, or Herakles, the hero of ancient mythology [6, 10], while others propose that the piece is a genre work (sometimes called petit genre), a type of art that portrays deidentified, everyday subjects [11]. The artist, also unknown, metal-casted this work in individual pieces using a wax-melting method called cire-perdue (lost wax) before welding together the subject’s arms, legs, and torso [12].

Unearthed from the Roman Baths of Constantine in 1885, Boxer at Rest is presumed to have been intentionally hidden to protect it from the various marauding warriors that overtook Rome soon after the fall of the Empire between 400 and 500 AD. The archeologist who discovered the piece wrote: “I have never felt such an extraordinary impression as the one created by the sight of this magnificent specimen of a semi-barbaric athlete, coming slowly out of the ground, as if awakening from a long repose after his gallant fights” [7].

An unearthed piece. An unknown artist. An uncertain subject. We know so little. But despite the mystery, careful observation of the sculpture allows us to surmise a great deal about our subject's challenging life. In ancient Greece, athletes, including boxers, were likened to heroes and represented a connection to Greek gods and the divine. Boxer at Rest displays athletic nudity commonly seen in ancient Greek art. His brawny build—protruding deltoids and well-defined abdominal muscles—as well as his nasal fracture and overall facial expression depict years of fighting experience.

But this subject’s life likely was a hard one. The boxer’s physical power stands in contrast to his exposed wounds and hunched back, imposing vulnerability upon his apparent strength. Evidence of this vulnerability is also captured in his pained and introspective facial expression, his tilted head, and his mouth, slightly ajar. This departure from idealism differentiates the Boxer at Rest from other athletic sculptures of this era. One wonders what he may be looking at, what he may be thinking. Perhaps he ponders his next opponent, or his enthusiastic audience. Maybe he’s waiting for somebody to tend to his wounds, or maybe he fears his next bout and the pain it inevitably will bring him.

This sense of mystery makes Boxer at Rest a striking piece, as onlookers get a glimpse of a less obvious and, certainly, less glamorous side of athletic competition. As physicians, we are reminded that our own patients come to us not at their moments of glory, but rather at times of need and vulnerability.

That we can discern all this from the anatomic details of a sculpture is a function of the artistic shift that occurred during the Hellenistic period, a pivot from idealism to realism. Bodily movement and emotion became important themes apparent in sculptures from this period of time [1]. Along with these attributes, the concept of age and the biology of aging were increasingly represented in works of art [3]. This emphasis is captured by the sculptor with attention to the boxer’s apparently mature age, a departure from other renderings of athletes made just prior to this time period, which usually represented young and vibrant athletes. Although his original inset eyes are absent, we note that they are sunken and framed by emerging wrinkles. The subject is seated and hunched over, in contrast to the normative classical Greek or Roman depictions of young men standing confidently in contrapposto (erect with weight primarily on one foot) (Fig. 2).

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Fig. 2.:
The boxer is seated and hunched over, in contrast to the classical Greek or Roman depictions of young men standing with their weight primarily on one foot. (CC BY 2.5). https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/deed.en.

Upon closer examination, it is clear that the boxer has sustained many injuries in the practice of his craft. Ancient vases, sculptures, and even written accounts like Homer’s Iliad all convey the types of injuries boxers experienced [8], and these are well illustrated in Boxer at Rest. The artist depicted deep abrasions in the boxer’s face, and carefully placed copper inlays tell a story of hardships characterized by lacerations and scars. His ears are swollen and deformed (Fig. 3), common then as now among veteran fighters. Repeated blows to the sides of his head have likely resulted in trauma to the ears’ pinnae, with subsequent devascularization of the underlying cartilage, fibrotic changes, and the characteristic “cauliflower” appearance [9].

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Fig. 3.:
The boxer’s ears are swollen and deformed, a common ailment among veteran fighters both then and today. Photo credit: Carole Raddato. (CC BY-SA 2.0). https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en.

The boxer’s hands and wrists are wrapped in caestus, an encircling strip of leather (Fig. 4). These fingerless gloves sometimes were filled with stones or adorned with spikes, serving more as weapons than protection. With so little protection, hand injuries were common. While not apparent in Boxer at Rest, repeated closed-fist blows result in metacarpophalangeal joint collateral ligament injury, synovitis, or capsular tears [5]. “Boxer’s knuckle” is a term used to describe common and severe injuries to the joint capsule and extensor apparatus [5]. Similarly, boxer's fracture is the well-known consequence of unprofessional punching!

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Fig. 4.:
The boxer’s hands and wrists are wrapped in caestus, an encircling strip of leather that was sometimes filled with stones or adorned with spikes, serving more as weapons than protection. Photo credit: Carole Raddato. (CC BY-SA 2.0). https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en.

In totality, close observation of these realistic physical findings provides considerable insight into who the pugilist was as a fighter and as a member of Hellenistic society. Careful observation, likewise, can help physicians today to learn more about our patients; their physical and emotional circumstances often are visible to the attentive clinician.

Treatment of these inevitable lacerations, ligamentous injuries, fractures, and joint dislocations, acquired during athletic competitions, are mentioned in the contemporaneous writings of physicians and care providers, notably Hippocrates [4].

Physicians first meet their patients with little more knowledge beyond a chief complaint and the visual image of the person in front of them. Boxer at Rest reminds us that there is much to be gleaned from careful observation [2]. It is the combination of our curiosity and our ability to observe that inspire us to understand injury and disease and to provide the opportunity for its meaningful care.

References

1. Deahner JM, Lapatin K. Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World. J. Paul Getty Museum; 2015.
2. Friedlaender GE, Friedlaender LK. Art in science: Enhancing observational skills. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2013;471:2065-2067.
3. Hemingway C, Hemingway S. Athletics in ancient Greece. Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/athl/hd_athl.htm. Accessed July 3, 2020.
4. Hippocrates. Writings of Hippocrates. Translated by Francis Adams. Excercere Cerebrum Publications; 2018.
5. Javed M, Hemington-Gorse S, Shokrollahi K. A new recreational mechanism for the boxer’s knuckle: cause for concern? Ann R Coll Surg Engl. 2011;93:e55.
6. Jones T. The Pugilist at Rest: Stories. Little, Brown and Company; 1993.
7. Lanciani RA. Ancient Rome: In The Light Of Recent Discoveries (1888). Houghton Mifflin Company; 2010.
8. Nomikos NN, Nomikos GN, Korres DS, Lallos SN, Efstathopoulos NE. Boxing trauma in ancient games. Eur J Orthop Surg Traumatol. 2012;22:433-436.
9. Patel BC, Skidmore K, Hutchison J, Hatcher JD. Cauliflower ear. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2020.
10. Rosenberg K. ‘The Boxer’. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/05/arts/design/the-boxer.html. Accessed December 22, 2020.
11. Smith RRR. Hellenistic Sculpture. Thames & Hudson; 1991.
12. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Boxer: an ancient masterpiece. Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2013/the-boxer. Accessed December 19, 2020.
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