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The Marbles Of The Parthenon

( Originally Published 1920 )


The Parthenon, the most famous of Greek temples at Athens, and perhaps the most beautiful of all buildings ever erected by man, stood on the Acropolis and was dedicated to Athene, the patron goddess of the Athenians. It was of the Doric style of architecture, of white marble and shone on its hill, so that its radiance was visible miles around. It was surrounded by pillars massive and severe, and around the entire building was the famous frieZe of singular and matchless beauty. The figures that remain of this frieZe and the pediments are subject of this article. In the midst of the hall stood the marvellous ivory and gold statue of Athene by Phidias. The building had a varied history. Beside the purpose for which it was built it was a Christian church, then a Mohammedan mosque and still later was used as a powder house by the Turks and was blown up. Many of the sculptures were taken to London and are known as the Elgin Marbles. They are a priceless possession of mankind. The ruin is still a thing of great beauty.

THOUGH we are reduced to conjectures with reference to the masterpieces of Phidias, the Parthenon marbles furnish us with invaluable testimony for the due appreciation of at least a part of the work conceived by him, if not executed by his own hand. Through divers catastrophes these marbles have at last come down to us. Early converted by two obscure Byzantine architects into a church, under the name of Mother of God, the Parthenon became a mosque after the capture of Athens by Mahomet II (1456) ; its history is then forgotten until the point when the Greek Zygomala ascribes its statues to Praxiteles. Up to this time the marbles were al-most intact, if we are to judge from the sketches of San Gallo (1465). 1n 1674 at the time when De Nointel was French ambassador at Constantinople, Carrey, a draughtsman, under the directions of De Nointel, drew the statues of the pediments, the metopes, and the frieze. These drawings are of the greatest value in restoring the sculptural decoration of the temple. The Parthenon was in existence almost as a whole when the Venetian army of Morosini and of Konigsmark laid siege to the Acropolis (1687) ; a bomb-shell, aimed by a Luneburg lieutenant, burst through the roof, and made a large breach in the center of the temple. Entering within the Acropolis, the Venetians destroyed a portion of the statues. Finally, in the earlier years of the nineteenth century, Lord Elgin completed the spoliation of the Acropolis by carrying away more than two hundred feet of the frieze, and almost all that remained of the pediment sculpture. These spoils enrich the British Museum.

The only information left us from antiquity as to the two pediments is furnished in a sentence of Pausanias: "The subject of the front pediment is the birth of Athena; that of the opposite pediment is the struggle between Poseidon and Athena for the possession of Attica." We are not able to group the fragments into the original design, except by the aid of Carrey's drawings. Of the eastern pediment, representing the birth of Athena, there remain the fragments, now in the British Museum, and one other still in its place in the Parthenon. Arranging them in the following order, passing from left to right, we are able to restore the scene as conceived by the Athenian master. First appears the Titan Hyperion, guiding his horses as they emerge from the waters; then a seated figure, known as Theseus, (or Dionysus), admirable in style, of energetic design, and finished execution; further along come Demeter and Core together; behind them Iris runs to announce to the world the birth of the goddess. The center of the scene is lacking, and can be supplied only upon conjecture. On the right, a male torso, a fragment of a Victory, with expanded wings, the wonderful group called the Fates, where Pandrosus is doubtless to be recognized, and two of the Seasons, Thallo and Carpo. Finally, the chariot of Selene, descending into the waters, closes the composition, the several parts of which were arranged after the laws of studied symmetry. The groups of statues in a half-reclining position correspond to each other with perfect harmony, as do the various parts of strophe and antistrope in the ancient chorus; while the figures of Day (Hyperion) and Night (Selene), closing in the scene, seem to show that it had for its theatre the sky, glowing with sunlight.

The western pediment is more mutilated. 1n the principal fragments are recognized the seated figure of a river-god, doubtless the Cephissus; a group composed of Aglaurus and Cecrops; a part of the body of Athena; a powerful torso, which can be that of no other than Poseidon, "with a mighty chest" Carrey's drawing shows that the artist chose for his subject the instant when the two divinities are in each other's presence. By a blow of his trident Poseidon has just made a spring of water gush forth-a sign of his power. He starts back in amazement before Athena, who, with lance still poised, has caused an olive tree to spring forth from the rock of the Acropolis. Some archaeologists have found the same scene depicted on a vase from Kertch. These two divinities occupy the center of the pediment, and behind them are grouped the gods and heroes commonly associated with them; near Athena are the divinities of Attica, Pandrosus, Herse, Aglaurus, and their father Cecrops, Victory guiding the horses; near Poseidon are Thetis, Amphitarte, the divinities of the sea, Aphrodite, and, further on, Ilissus, who occupies this angle of the pediment as Cephissus occupies the opposite angle. The aid of color was employed to bring out the figures with due prominence. The background of the tympanum against which they stood was painted blue, and was bordered with a red moulding; the accessories were of gilded bronze.

The metopes have shared the fate of the pedimental statuary; but little of them is left. Of the ninety-two metopes in high relief that adorned the portico of the temple, there remained after the explosion of 1687 only thirteen on the north and seventeen on the south; those decorating the eastern and western facades were then in place, but were afterwards broken into fragments by the Turks. In attempting to find unity in the subjects portrayed, we are obliged to resort to conjecture at many points. On the east, the scenes in each of the metopes were taken from the War of the Gods and the Giants, where Athena was figured at the side of Zeus. From other sources we are informed that the young maidens of Athens, devoted to the service of the goddess, embroidered upon her peplus her exploits in this conflict; such a subject, therefore, easily attaches itself to the religious tradition of Athena. On the west, the metopes alternately represent a struggle between a foot-soldier and a mounted warrior, and between two per-sons on foot. Michaelis recognizes here the conflict between the Amazons and the Athenians, also represented on the shield of the goddess. On the north, the extremely mutilated condition of the metopes renders great caution necessary in their interpretation; on a very plausible hypothesis they represent scenes from the Trojan war. The metopes on the south are in a better state of preservation, and in them may be easily recognized the conflict between the Lapithae and the Centaurs, with scenes taken from the Attic myths, such as the myth of Demeter and Triptolemus, of Pandora and Epimetheus, of Aglaurus and Herse, daughters of Cecrops, who threw themselves from the heights of the Acropolis for having violated the secret of Athena.

In the conflict between the Centaurs and Lapithae, we can happily appreciate the success with which the artist overcame the difficulties in a somewhat monotonous subject. In each of the metopes, which invariably represent a Centaur fighting a Greek, the conflict is expressed with different feeling; here a Centaur leaps upon the body of his foe with all the pride of victory; there another pauses, as if struck with pity, before the half prostrate form of a young Greek. The artist has not shrunk from most realistic details, which show a direct imitation of nature. The workmanship of the metopes is unequal; but we may still believe that they were executed by artists grouped about Phidias. The marbles are colored in part ; the background of one of the metopes found at the Parthenon was red, and the draperies green. Paccard has likewise noticed other traces of red, but these indications are not sufficient to enable us to restore the whole in color.

Most of the fragments of the frieze which was around the cella are in London; the museum on the Acropolis possesses a few, and the western frieze is still in place. We know that the whole of the frieze represented, in an unbroken series of subjects, the ceremonies of the Panathenaic festival. The eastern frieze, above the temple entrance, shows the sacred rites performed in honor of Athena Polias by the maidens known as Arrhephori, and by the chief priestess. This central subject is set between groups of the gods that have their sanctuaries near the Acropolis,-on the one side Aesculapius and Hygeia, Poseidon, Aglaurus, and Pandrosus; on the other, Zeus, Hera, Ares, and others, who in majestic attitudes seem to watch the procession passing in the distance. The plan of the composition is simple though grand; the procession advances in two detachments, divided in order to pass along each of the long sides of the temple though united at the starting point in the western facade. After this plan, at once symmetrical and harmonious, advance the old men of the Attic tribes, resting upon long staves; young girls, clad in robes that hang in straight folds, carrying paterae and vases; the daughters of resident aliens, carrying chairs and parasols destined for the young Athenian women of free birth. Then follow the sacrificial victims, oxen and sheep, the gift of Athenian colonies, guided by young men; then the sons of the resident aliens, bearing trays and amphorae; flute players and players upon the cithara; also the old men with branches of olive in their hands; finally war-chariots and their charioteers in long tunics, and a cavalcade of horsemen galloping onward at a varying pace. The frieze on the western front shows the preparations of the young Athenians about to join the procession, some of whom are already mounted, while others are standing near their horses.

Undoubtedly the hand of Phidias is not to be discerned in the execution of the frieze. Portions of it betray the harsh style of the old At-tic school. The masters who wrought under Phidias had not been able completely to free themselves from their earlier traditions. But the composition is so grand and so free in its design, so thoroughly in harmony with the remaining decorative sculptures of the edifice, that we must believe that Phidias made the design for the frieze, though he did not execute it in person. In its totality the frieze is wonderfully characteristic of the style of the school of Phidias, as it prevailed long after the master's death. This style, noble and flowing, the flower of beauty, is the most perfect expression of the genius of Greece at its most brilliant epoch. After long toil Greek art had evolved its finest qualities,-simplicity and exquisite and sober taste,-which sought the harmony of the whole before all else. We often speak of the ideal of Greek art, but we must always remember that Greek art, even at its best period, never ceased to draw inspiration from nature. If we examine the frieze in detail, we shall find that the portion of it due to artistic conventionality is very small; even in attitudes and costumes nothing is artificial. The artist, with startling fidelity, has rendered details taken from life itself; the ideal is nothing more than beauty made real to the sight, but that is ennobled by a peculiar charm that baffles analysis, a charm which only long acquaintance with ancient marbles enables one to feel in all its delicacy.

In spite of differences in execution, the marbles of the Parthenon have a certain character in common, due to the influence of Phidias. But what is exactly that part in which we may recognize the actual hand of the master? The question is a difficult one to answer. The execution of the figures of the eastern pediment is generally attributed to him, while those of the western pediment are regarded as the work of one of his pupils. We may thus form an accurate conception as to the Phidian style, which sums up and unites in itself the progress of all the Greek schools in the fourth century B. C. Phidias was not only an Attic Greek; trained among the Dorians, he represents the genius of Greece in its general type. If the Seasons and the group of Demeter and Core give evidence of the qualities of the purest Attic art, the Theseus and the Cephissus show to what a degree Phidias had made his own the strength and energy of the Dorian style. This is a unique epoch in the history of Greek art, an epoch when an Athenian school, by the achievements of one of its masters, personifies, as it were, the genius of Greek art, with all its varied qualities.

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