Originally published 04/09/2013
A perfectly matched intimacy of scale and subject resides in this remarkable image from the ancient past. A young black man sits on a low mound, looking down with puffed cheeks as he extracts a thorn from his foot. He is dressed simply in a cap and a short cloak pinned at the shoulder with a gem. Some of the original skin color remains on the youth's face, and the cloak crossing his chest bears slight traces of yellow stripes. Less than 7 inches high, the figurine preserves the subtlety of a larger, lost original of the third century B.C. The type is known as the Spinario, or "thorn puller." The terra-cotta version shown here dates from circa 135 B.C., a good deal later than the original but still much earlier than other surviving copies. The engaging candor of self-absorbed, fleeting everyday activity typifies the Hellenistic culture of the last few centuries before the common era....