The sculptural decoration of the Parthenon

by niktheo | February 17, 2015 4:22 pm


By Evagellos Fylaktos

The sculptures decorating the Parthenon consist of three separate units: the statues on the pediments, the metopes and the frieze. Within the two triangular tympana of the pediments the gods of Mt. Olympus, demi-gods and heroes of Attica relate two myths about the goddess Athena.

The group on the eastern pediment depicts, with divine majesty, the birth of the goddess. According to one of the oldest of all myths, Zeus was afflicted by a terrible headache and ordered Hephaestus to open up his head. When Hephaestus obediently struck the head with an axe, Athena sprang out, fully armed, with helmet and spear. Zeus is shown enthroned in the centre of the pediment, with the newly-emerged goddess Athena standing beside him. In the left-hand corner of the triangle we see the heads of the four horses of the chariot of the rising sun, the god Helius. The other deities are reduced to amazement by the extraordinary event they have just witnessed. In the right hand corner the scene is completed by the heads of the horses of the chariot of the setting Moon.

The western pediment shows the myth of the contest between Athena and Poseidon for control of Attica. The two deities have just descended from their chariots and stand in the centre of the pediment; majestic and full of life, ready to confront one another Poseidon strikes the earth with his trident and salt water springs forth. Athena plants her spear in the soil and an olive tree issues from the spot. The other deities, demi-gods and heroes are present to witness the confrontation. King Cecrops proclaims Athena protector of Attica. She lends her name to the city and the olive tree becomes its sacred emblem.

These two sculptural compositions of the Parthenon pediments are the supreme achievement of human inspiration and creativity. The detail, the masterly craftsmanship with which the Pentelic marble has been carved, the rendering of movement and the sheer life of the figures – are all miraculously balanced at every point of the composition, even on the rear side of the fully carved statues which constituted the invisible side of the composition.

The metopes of the Parthenon are free-standing slabs measuring roughly 1.30 by 1.30, each of them carved in relief with a depth of 25-30cm, They were carved in the sculptors’ workshops and then hauled up to their place between the triglyphs. The alternating metopes and triglyphs form a continuous band around the building, below the horizontal eaves of the pediments, continuing along both long sides to a small distance from the edge of the marble bordering the roof. The eastern side depicts battle scenes between gods and mythical giants who sought unsuccessfully to unseat the inhabitants of Olympus.

The western side also depicts battle scenes, this time between Greeks and Amazons. The latter were a tribe of warlike women from the shores of the Black Sea. The northern end of the building has scenes of fighting from the capture of Troy, and the southern depicts Centaurs in battle with Lapiths. The Centaurs were mythical creatures, men from the waist up, horses below. They lived in the mountains of Thessaly, while the sturdy Lapiths inhabited the plains between Pelion and Ossa. Invited to the wedding of Peirithous, king of the Lapiths, the Centaurs, intoxicated with wine, assaulted the womenfolk of their, hosts, provoking violent scenes of hand-to-hand fighting. Assisted by Theseus, Peirithous finally prevailed over the Centaurs.

The frieze adorns the upper part of the walls and the two architraves, of the pronaos and opisthonaos, outside the central chamber, at the level of the roof. It consists of stones of various lengths, 60cm in thickness and about 1m in height, forming a continuous relief scene 160 metres long.

In a remarkable feat of artistic conception, Pheidias presents the magnificent procession of the Panathenaia. Held every year, this was the festival at which the Athenians celebrated the birth of me goddess Athena. But each four years there was me Megala (Great) Panathenaia, which involved the official procession carrying the sacred peplos in which the cult statue of me goddess Athena was to be attired.

In a splendid procession, ceremonial leaders, priests, virgins with pitchers, baskets and ritual implements, horsemen, chariots, hoplites, artists, old men bearing branches, young men carrying sacrificial animals, all wound their way from the south­western corner of the temple in two separate lines towards the centre of the eastern façade. One line passed by the western and northern sides of the building and the other, starting from the same point, passed along the southern side, until they came to the centre of the eastern façade, where the high priest, framed by the figures of the Olympian gods, received the sacred peplos of the goddess.

Three hundred and sixty human and divine figures, as well as a host of animals, make up this inspired sculptural masterpiece. The dynamic of the work seems to freeze the passing of time at a moment when each face and each movement is marked with tension, vigilance and joy, competitive showmanship on the part of the riders, enthusiasm, dignity, piety and devotion – in accordance with the role played by every form in the procession.

The last group in the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon is formed by the four lion’s heads at the corners of the monument, which served as water spouts and the acroteria with their floral decorations which adorned the top and ends of the pediments. The sculptures of the Parthenon were carved in limpid Pentelic marble. Some fifty Greek sculptors worked on the decoration, under the brilliant guidance of the great Pheidias. The most talented among them, known from other works they created, were Myron, who was senior to Pheidias in age, Callimachus, the creator of the Corinthian capital, Alcamenes, Crition, Cresilas, Agoracritus and Colotis. Their creations have been studied by scholars and historians down the ages and have offered invaluable lessons to artists all over the world.

Much has been written and said about the sculptures of the Parthenon. I shall confine myself here to reporting the words of a Turkish traveller – yes, a Turk! Evliya Celebi – who visited the Parthenon in 1667, twenty years before the powder magazine within the temple was blown up by Morosini.

“The Parthenon sculptures are nothing less than miraculous, surpassing in their conception and execution the powers and the mind of an ordinary mortal. Only an Aristotle could hope to appreciate the scale of their artistic value. Every single piece bears the stamp of the most sublime creativity. These are not the products of mere human skill, but rather the result of some divine command. Everything brought into being by God on the day of creation, and everything that ever has been made or will be made by man can be found here at the Temple of Athena -rendered in perfect equilibrium by the chisels of divine craftsmen”.

Unfortunately these masterpieces of ancient Greek art, which have shed their lustre over the whole of world civilization, have suffered irreparable damage over the course of the centuries, from a variety of different causes. The most serious damage which has been inflicted over the long history of the monument was caused by the explosion of the powder magazine within the temple, and the looting of the mutilated sculptures by Lord Elgin. The first incident occurred in 1687, when the Venetian Morosini was besieging the Turks who had taken refuge on the Acropolis and were storing their ammunition within the temple. A shell fired by the Venetians penetrated the roof of the temple and caused a terrific explosion, tearing the ancient monument apart.

A hundred and fifteen years after the explosion, the sculptures, despite the damage they had sustained, retained the power to inspire young artists and fill foreign travellers with awe. And we would still be able today to admire the damaged remains of the Olympian gods, the demi-gods and heroes of Attica, in the positions where Pheidias intended them to be seen, had it not been for the arrival in Athens in 1801 of Lord Elgin – now reviled internationally for his acts of barbaric vandalism against the monument and the world cultural heritage it represents. As ambassador to Constantinople he was ideally placed to exploit the authority and status of England at that time and succeeded in extracting from the Turks the infamous decree which permitted him to draw and copy the sculptures of the Parthenon. Having thus secured permission to move as he pleased about the Acropolis, Elgin installed a team of ‘artists’ who spent the next five years engaged in the task of stripping the monument of its sculptures.

Works of art extolled by poets, masterpieces at which all humanity had marvelled, statues which the great sculptor Canova declared it would be sacrilege even to touch – without any qualms, any sense of profanity. Lord Elgin set about detaching them from the monument, causing irreparable damage to the sculptures themselves and the architecture which they had adorned.

15 metopes were removed from the southern side of_ the Parthenon. In the process, the overhanging eaves were hurled to the ground by the workmen, suffering serious damage, and even one of the metopes slipped from the workmen’s hands and shattered when it struck the ground 12 metres below. The British, professor, Edward Daniel Clark, reported that the accident brought a tear to the eye of even the Turkish governor.

56 slabs were removed from the frieze – comprising an overall length of sixty metres. The stones making up the frieze are 60cm thick and are a key structural feature of the monument. Elgin’s workmen used special saws to slice off the carved surface of the stones.

Elgin’s destructive mania and the scale of the sacrilege he was perpetrating culminated in the stripping of the pediments; seventeen figures of the gods were clumsily and violently detached from the building. The damage done to the sculptures is still visible to the eye, while that done to the composition and inspiration of Pheidias was a crime deserving the harshest divine retribution.

The despoliation of the Parthenon was completed by the looting of a column shaft and Doric capital. There is now a unique opportunity – as important restoration work is being carried out on the monument – for these two structural features of the northern colonnade to be replaced in their original position. At a recent conference, the civil engineer Konstantinos Zambas, in charge of the restoration, and the architect employed at the Acropolis technical office, Nikos Toganidis, both pointed out that if the replacement is not made now, the opportunity will never be repeated.

Other treasures plundered from the Acropolis by Lord Elgin include the Caryatid and a column from the Erechtheum, as well as four slabs from the Parthenon frieze and a Doric capital from the Propylaia. All these masterpieces – a veritable treasure of world cultural history – were looted by Elgin purely and simply to adorn his country house in Scotland. This is evident from a letter sent by Elgin to Lusieri, the foreman of his crew of workmen, on 10 July 1801, and also from the diary of his wife Mary (3 May 1802).

We are thus able to refute the claims of Lord Elgin’s defenders, who maintain that the British ambassador to Constantinople was motivated by a desire to promote the fine arts in England. Unfortunately for Lord Elgin, he never succeeded in this goal, since divine retribution brought down financial disaster upon him – forcing him eventually to sell his collection to the British government, in 1816. The sculptures were housed in the BritishMuseum.

During the negotiations Lord Elgin stipulated that the sculptures of Pheidias, Callimachus, Alcamenes, Myron and other great artists of classical Greece should bear his own name, and so sadly even today these great works are known not by the name of their creators, nor by that of the monuments for which they were created, but instead by the name of Lord Elgin, plunderer of ancient treasures.

Thus the “Elgin Marbles” are now displayed in the British Museum – and have for the last two hundred years been a blemish on the proud reputation of the British nation.

In a gallery which bears the name Duveen, arranged in a way which gives the visitor little idea of their original positions and the relations between sculpture and monument, fifteen metopes from the southern side of the Parthenon are exhibited with 56 stones from the frieze and the seventeen divine figures from the pediments. It was Lord Duveen, according to the revelations made by Christopher Hitchens and William St. Clair, who ordered that the statues be cleaned using metal brushes, causing irreparable damage to the surfaces of these historic masterpieces.

With regard to the Caryatid, which now supports a loft space in gallery 19, and the column from the Erechtheum, I have written previously in a letter published in the newspaper Eleftherotypia on 3 September 2002 and in the journal Diakosmitika Petromata (Ornamental Stones) in January 2003.1 expressed my concern at the danger to which these objects are exposed from the innumerable visitors who are free to photograph one another embracing the vulnerable surfaces of the sculptures. In a dark corner of fro same gallery the tour slabs from the frieze of the Temple of Athena Nike are also exhibited.

While as for the shaft and Doric capital from the northern colonnade – which are displayed in highly unorthodox fashion at a central point in the British Museum, intended to represent the upper portion of a corner column of the Parthenon – they demonstrate a lack of the appropriate seriousness on the part of the curators of the British Museum.

Of the remains of the monument after the depredations of Morosini and Lord Elgin, some sculptures are still in position on the monument, while others are housed in the Acropolis Museum or its laboratories. The head of a centaur and that of a Lapith are to be found in a museum in Copenhagen, one slab from the frieze is in the Louvre, and part of another slab in Vienna. The western frieze is the only part which had survived or almost intact on the monument itself. In 1993, however, it was dismantled and removed for conservation in the Museum laboratories.

Published in English  in the magazine  “marmaro marble” (international edition)                       on  11-3-2003.



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