"And I, as I watched, was taken
outside time, far from time,
free of forms enclosed
within the ages, of statues and icons "
Angelos Sikelianos -The sacred way
When we enter
into discussions on the Parthenon sculptures, the ideas that we are presented
with tend to fall into two possible groups that we can conveniently summarise
as the political and the aesthetic. Where we hear of the political and historical
aspects or the arguments for restitution, little mention is made of the aesthetics
of the sculptures which seem in the eyes of many to be almost irrelevant to
the argument. When we talk of aesthetics, certainly there is mention of a controversy,
possibly in the introduction, or by implication in a plan showing the current
location of the fragments being discussed. However, it is rare to find any attempt
to tackle the restitution issues, as though these arguments would in some way
detract from an artistic appreciation of the sculptures.
Despite the discrete nature in which these arguments are commonly presented,
it is naive to assume that one could possibly manage to survive without the
other. Without the influence of Elgin the marbles would remain as mere sculptures,
with little attention paid to any aspect of their history. With the application
of the historical arguments however, we are forced into a state of far greater
and deeper historical awareness. Not only do we know of the sculptures, but
in the narration of the arguments we begin to grasp something of how they originated
and why they are so revered.
The marbles like the Mona Lisa or The Scream are a piece of art that has gained
its popularity through notoriety. They have reached the point where they are
famous for being famous.
When we apply the two aforementioned arguments, there is still something missing
however. The synthesis of the two rationales that have almost taken on the role
of argument and counter argument certainly presents us with a more powerful
understanding of the sculptures, but there is still something more, a third
strand of the story that runs through like a hawser or cable, intertwined with
the other stories.
sum of parts
Already in passing
it has been implied that in some way the sum of all the parts can come together
to create a greater whole, as regards the aesthetics of the Parthenon sculptures.
The reasons for this are as numerous as they are multifarious.
First, there is an issue of completeness. Obviously, it is of more value to
have a complete piece of art work than a few fragments, but unfortunately with
the Parthenon sculptures, the complete set has been unattainable since the removal
of the first pediment statues in the fifth century during the building's conversion
to a church. As we can not have the original complete set, then the next best
thing is surely to have as close as possible, to possess every surviving piece.
Next to completeness, there follows the idea of narrative.
It would be a strange person who regularly purchased books with chapters torn
out, as it would be almost impossible to understand the story without seeing
everything in the correct order. With the Parthenon sculptures, there is also
a narrative that runs through their pieces, a story that interconnects and unifies
all the fragments, the comprehension of which assists a better understanding
of why the sculptures are like they are.
Still another argument, following on from many of the restitution /retention
principles, would be the desire to own the complete set, so that no one else
could own it, buying to deprive rather than because of any real want or need.
All of the above
arguments in favour of completeness, are still missing one key fact however.
The Parthenon sculptures are not only sculptures in their own right, but they
are also an integral part of the Parthenon.
When the government talks about the sculptures now being an integral part of
the British Museum, it comes across more as an expression of their own naivety
than as a line of argument to be pursued. If we look at the Parthenon closely,
if we dismantle the stones one by one, we will see that the sculptures were
not mere applied ornament as in so many other buildings, but that they themselves
formed actual structural elements, that without them the building could no longer
If we look at the metopes &how they slot together, we can see that not only
are they held by metal rods to the triglyphs to them from being slid out horizontally,
but also that the stone lintel that ran above them first had to be removed to
access them. Elgin's men were only able to remove them by first breaking the
beam that was holding them in place, or as Lusieri put it:
I have, My Lord, the pleasure of announcing to you the possession
of the 8th metope, that
one where there is the Centaur carrying off the Woman. This piece has
caused much trouble in all respects, and I have even been obliged to be
a little barbarous.
integrity of the metopes is now also causing great difficulty for the current
restoration programme under way on the Parthenon. Some of the best preserved
metopes are still in position on the building, but in recent years have been
subjected to rapid decay from the polluted air. There is an urgent need to remove
these statues to a more rigorously controlled environment if they are to survive
much longer, but removal of them would involve dismantling large amounts of
the pediment. The pediment above these metopes is still fully intact and perfectly
stable, so archaeologists are unwilling to risk damaging the building just to
remove the metopes. Retentionists keep using these metopes however as an example
of how much better preserved those that were removed are in comparison to those
that were left behind.
In the same way as the metopes, the frieze also served a structural purpose.
When discussing the aesthetics it was noted that some portions of the frieze
appeared to have been carved in isolation whereas others had been carved as
a continuous piece. Those that were carved in isolation, presumably at ground
level must have been begun early in the construction process, otherwise there
would not have been time to finish them before they were placed in position.
The fact that they were structural meant that although carved in low relief,
they were part of deep stone blocks and it would have been impossible to remove
the whole heavy piece just for the frieze. Again Lusieri explains how the problem
With a single saw I have got from the convent, they have sawn a precious
fragment of the cornice of the Temple of Neptune Erechtheus and with the same
saw they are now sawing a bas-relief ,a part of the frieze of the Parthenon
that was made inconveniently heavy by its thickness
Even the pediment sculptures that are carved in the round and to an extent
appear to be free-standing, in many cases serve structural functions as well.
The bases of some of these statues had to be sawn off to facilitate their removal,
as they had originally been attached to the geison that ran beneath them.
As we can see,
the sculptures were all designed as parts of the building from the outset and
as such were designed to be seen within the specific context of the building.
Not only this, but the building itself had a relationship to its context. The
context forced you to see the building in a specific way and the building forced
you to see the sculptures in a specific way.
The Acropolis rock had been the site of temples for a long time before Pericles
ordered the building of the Parthenon. The whole city state of Athens grew up
with the Acropolis rock at its centre. The original reason for building a settlement
on the Acropolis rock was one of safety and security. The Acropolis formed a
location that was almost impregnable with only one possible route through the
towering cliffs, yet at the same time was within easy reach of the sea. It was
only in later years as the political climate stabilised, that it became the
site for a temple, visible from everywhere and overlooking the whole city. Even
as a temple site, it was still used periodically for defensive purposes, although
these were ancillary to its main usage as a place of worship.
The unique topography marked the Acropolis rock as a very special location.
Any architectural intervention there could not be just thrown anywhere on the
site, but instead must be placed carefully in order to fully benefit and enhance
this home of the gods.
To understand further how the buildings on the Acropolis were arranged, one
has to have a certain understanding of the various processes that would have
happened in and around the temples the purpose of the site. Although it was
by no means the only structuring principle in the design of the Acropolis, one
of the key features was procession.
of the Athenian religious calendar was a ritual that occurred once every four
years, the Panathenaic festival. This festival was in celebration of Athena,
the city 's patron and the goddess to whom the Parthenon was dedicated. The
Panathenaic festival was in celebration of the birthday of Athena in Hekatombaion
(August). As well as the sacrifices that formed a part of every festival, there
were also athletic, musical and equestrian contests for which the prizes were
amphorae of tax-free olive oil. The central feature of the festival however
was the presentation of new embroidered robes to the wooden statue of Athena
located in the Erechtheion on the Acropolis. The build up to this ceremony was
a procession that ran across the city to the temple for the presentation of
the prizes from the games, before sacrifices were made and the robes were deposited
at the altar.
The route taken to the Acropolis became known as the Panathenaic Way, through
its involvement in the festival. The festival was the subject chosen for depiction
on the inner frieze of the Parthenon and was in many ways the reason for the
at the only entrance to the Acropolis rock, the Propylaeum that also formed
the end of the Panathenaic way, the only route forward was up the steep steps
that led through the gateway to the Acropolis. Although it was visible from
a great distance, the Parthenon had become obscured as you neared it and the
top of these steps was the first point where you could see it again, the moment
of transition from a distant unattainable goal to an immediate destination.
Although there were other lesser temples on the Acropolis and the route to reach
each one differed, we are purely focusing our attentions on the Parthenon. If
you wanted to reach the Parthenon, two walls channelled you into following a
designated route to the temple, although from the outset the route appeared
to lead to a point in space to the left of the Parthenon. The other edge of
this space was formed by a lesser smaller temple, with the route that was being
followed appearing to lead between the two buildings.
The view presented of the Parthenon at the point where vision of it was regained
at the head of the Propylaeum, was one carefully framed by the gate of the building
itself. The Parthenon at this stage was presented to the processioner at an alignment whereby both sides
appeared to be of equal length due to the oblique angle of the long side in
relation to that the shorter. You could at this stage in your journey clearly
make out the sculptures on the western pediment that was facing you and the
metopes that sat beneath the pediment. The north face metopes would have been
visible, but the forms would have been hard to discern from this shallow angle.
Vertically, the altitude angle at which you saw the sculptures was fairly shallow,
as you were still distant, so we shall assume that it was similar to looking
head on at them and level with them. The distance from the sculptures also meant
that the details were indistinct, you were merely seeing the key outlines of
figures, silhouettes against the imaginary skyline of the pediment.
As you moved
along the route the ground ramped gently upwards and as it did so, the two walls
that were on either side became progressively lower. As the walls became lower,
more of the columns of the Parthenon were slowly revealed, allowing gradual
release of the full scale and form of the building to the processioner. The
angle of the building relative to the viewer would have rotated, so that the
north face was seen almost head on if they look to their right, whilst the west
face is rotated out of view. Below the west pediment, the alignment of the columns
opens a window to the processioner, framing a view to the landscape beyond and
the distant port. In reaching this phase, if observing the pediment, the depth
and overlap of the figures would have been obvious, and their forms would have
slowly evolved, their silhouettes breaking apart and welding, as you moved past.
Just before reaching the present stage of the route, was the point where the
west pediment and metopes were closest, yet paradoxically almost obscured due
to the steep vertical viewing angle as you neared the building. Although relatively
distant the detail of both metopes and pediment would have been clearly visible
as you approached, due to the highlighting effect of the pigment, although of
course the finer features would still be impossible to see.
Continuing to move past the building, the northern metopes would now be clearly
visible, a narrative unfolding in them as you passed each one in order, in this
case stories surrounding the Trojan war. The angle of your path of movement
was such that although your distance to the metopes diminished slightly during
this phase, it was not on a level that was noticeable. The wall on either side
of your route had now sunk to waist level and for the first time the whole of
the Acropolis rock was revealed, with all the temples and other buildings clearly
visible, with views across Athens to the countryside and surrounding hills behind.
The space ahead of you had now altered to reveal a large statue of Athena on
a pedestal, sitting in front of the entrance to the Parthenon.
On reaching the
eastern edge of the building, the view in front of you would rapidly open out
into a vast panorama of the hills eventually leading to the sea and the Parthenon
itself would temporarily drop from view as you reached the end of the north
side. As the view widened, so also did the path that you followed.
The end of the path followed from the Propylaeum was formed by a larger open
space, a courtyard without enclosure, a plateau on top of the world. You began
to believe that you had truly arrived in the land of the Gods. As you entered
this courtyard, it acted as a place to slow and then turn around through almost
half a circle, to find yourself suddenly directly in front of the main entrance
to the Parthenon. The east pediment depicting the birth of Athena was clearly
visible ahead of you, as were the metopes that on this side depicted mythical
battles between the Greeks and the Amazons.
Viewed under brilliant Greek midday sunlight, the opening leading to the building
appeared as a black hole in the wall, a doorway leading to a cool protected
sanctuary, an escape from the exposure of the mountain top you currently occupied.
As you walked
towards the entrance, the sculptures on the pediment and metopes were slowly
obscured, although before they disappeared from view their angle of altitude
was so steep that the processioner would only see them if they made the specific
effort to crane their neck backwards for the purpose. One would be unlikely
to look up at this stage anyway, as by now your eyes would have started to perceive
forms within the darkness of the opening, as you approached it and it began
to envelop you. In the dark tranquil interior, the glistening statue of Athena,
clad in gold leaf and bedecked in jewellery would slowly be revealed.
Once inside the building sacrifices and other offerings would be left and after
a short period of deliberation it would be time to abandon this tranquil space
and enter the outside world once more. As you turned, the vast scale of the
door would make it appear more as a window, offering many changing vertical
slivers of views through the columns, the effect of peering out through the
edge of a forest, of maintaining a relationship to nature, in keeping with the
timber origins of the temples form.
If you were staying
longer on the Acropolis, you might choose to walk along the south side of the
building taking an alternative route to the Propylaeum and if you did this then
new metopes would be revealed as you passed along the building. Alternatively
sacrifices might be made at the altars that sat within the columns on the south
and north sides of the Parthenon. Whilst walking through the columns you might
just manage to catch a glimpse of brightly painted images high above you, the
Parthenon's inner frieze.
On the whole procession from the Propylaeum to the Parthenon, no mention was
made of the frieze, for the simple reason that it could not be seen from any
of the vantage points unless you looked directly up when entering the temple.
This would have been unlikely because all focus at that moment would be on the
vast statue emerging from the shadows ahead of you. The frieze is hidden by
its location behind the outer beam that houses the metopes. The depth of the
beam is such that if you are outside the columns of the building, a very steep
viewing angle is necessary to see the frieze. Even if you were looking up from
outside, the continuity of the frieze would be lost as isolated fragments would
only briefly be revealed as you passed each column.
To a viewer inside
the columns, the frieze would be more clearly visible if you looked up and although
the angle might be more oblique the original continuity of the panels connecting
together would be preserved. Due to the way in which the shallow relief was
carved, the lower portions were much deeper than the upper parts, in an attempt
to make them more easily readable to the viewer below.
The presentation of the frieze as you can see was very different to that of
the metopes and pediment. Rather than the harsh sunlight, it was lit in a diffuse
ethereal way by light reflected upwards from the ground and walls so that shadows
would have been almost non-existent. Not only would it have been lit differently,
but the surfaces would also have appeared much brighter and fresher, their pigments
sheltered from the fading of the sun and the corroding power of the rain.
Although the pediment and metopes were presented in a way accessible to everyone
and similarly had grand mythical subjects to depict, the frieze was all but
hidden from view. It was a secret within the envelope of the building, a part
of the temple only known to the initiated, the origins of the esoteric. In line
with its hidden nature, its depiction was also more subtle yet more relevant
to the life of the temple and the people who used it. It depicted real humans
performing real duties, rather than the mythical world concealed by the statues
of gods and legends that surrounded it. They were the myth surrounding the logos.
along with the people of most of the other city-states of mainland Greece had
their origins much further east. Displaced populations from a group known as
the Acheans poured into the country in successive waves, each time pushing their
boundary further into the country. These waves of people in turn pushed the
original inhabitants first on to the remotest peninsulas and eventually to the
refuge of the islands. The invaders entering Greece were nomadic herdsmen and
their primary concern was to appease the gods in the sky. These invaders who
became known as Dorians saw the gods in the form of the forces of nature and
personified them as male characters. The Dorians built myths around the sudden
and improbable, with stories of violent battles and encounters with mystical
creatures. Consequently, much of their lifestyle and their building forms evolved
around the idea of a male god. Doric architecture traditionally has wide solid
columns and is in general typified by its solidity and permanence, An attempt
almost to resist the gods rather than to cohabit. For the Dorians the gods were
a frightening aspect, to be treated with respect and placated. Their buildings
were a point of rationality existing in a sea of chaos.
The natives of
Greece who fled to the islands became known as Ionians. They were primarily
agriculturists and their religion was built up around the idea of expression
of gratitude to the gods for the fertility and growth they brought. Their gods
were personified as female figures, an idea derived from that of fertility.
The Ionians' religion was more mystical, the goddesses were more secret and
abstruse in comparison to the direct visible influences of the Dorian gods.
Worship occurred through devotion rather than placation and the people as a
result embraced sensuality and emotionalism to a greater extent than the Dorians.
Their stories and mythology focused more on human aspects than on violent unexplained
The temples that the Ionians built were freer and less rigorous than those of
the Dorians, as much from the assimilation of the existing island traditions
as from religious differences. The Ionians' buildings tried to express a female
form, not only were the columns more slender, but the details were finer and
more attention was paid to decoration and subtlety.
Even long after the tribes had started to mix and cohabit, the temple architecture
of mainland Greece remained primarily Doric and at first glance the Parthenon
in Athens appears to be carrying on this tradition, making only subtle refinements
rather than leaps forward.
Not only did the
sculptures of the Parthenon interact with and respond to the context, but they
also connected to the building itself in a specific way, allowing interrelated
themes to unravel as your exposure to the building increased.
To understand the Parthenon, one first has to realise that is was a turning
point in classical architecture, a synthesis of elements from the two dominant
styles that were for the first time found together in one building. The Parthenon
visible to the casual viewer is Doric, with its carved metopes and triglyphs
and a column height to diameter ratio of 5.6 :1.On the inner porch however,
although the columns are still an exceptionally slender Doric form (for the
time), the area above the columns is no longer Doric. The architrave has pegged
regulae in accordance with Doric rules, but directly above this what we find
is not Doric metopes as one acquainted with temple architecture might expect,
but instead an Ionic frieze. Unlike the discrete windows or frames created by
metopes, the frieze is a continuous element, and can as such accommodate a story
in a less fragmented way than the metopes. It also has the ability to round
corners cleanly so the story can last for longer and even end where it began
forming a circular narrative.
friezes had been found above the porch in the temple of Hephaistos, but due
to extensive rebuilding it is unknown whether this building was contemporary
to the Parthenon or not. The fact that the frieze on the Parthenon also ran
along the wall of the cella was entirely without precedent however. With other
Greek temples, there were no secrets in the exterior, the viewer could instantly
see every aspect of the temple. With the Parthenon frieze you would never see
everything that the building had to offer.
In the interior of Doric temples, it was customary to support the ceiling by
superimposition of columns on two levels. However, as well as the main cella,
the Parthenon had at the rear a smaller treasury or Parthenon, the space which
was to give the building its name. Within this small room, superimposition of
columns would have appeared cluttered and awkward, while individual Doric columns
would have taken up all the available floor space. For this reason, the decision
was made to instead use Ionic columns in this end of the building. Note should
be made that the Ionic columns were not used in the interior of the main cella,
where many people would have visited. They were instead hidden in the private
space at the rear only used by those who worked in the temple, a hidden secret
consistent with the positioning of the frieze.
The temple that Phidias had created, rather than being a refinement of one of
the streams of development had instead developed into a synthesis of the two
streams. It was a combination of the solidity and rationality of Doric, with
a secret mystical core of refinement and humanism represented by the Ionic.
The hierarchy that existed with the form of the temple itself was also carried
through the sculptures, as is to be expected when they were such an integral
part of the building. Although we have so far only talked of three sculptural
elements, the pediment, the metopes and the frieze, there were other elements
of sculpture that have long since disintegrated and that we only know about
from writing and later copies.
The most important
sculpture of all was that of Athena, a huge personification that filled the
interior of the temple. Although she was a female goddess, she had many of the
attributes of male gods and as such was represented as a massive figure in the
building. This statue of Athena was something that people could recognise but
not directly relate to, an image that would bring an awareness of their own
mortality and insignificance. As the most important statue of the building,
not only was that of Athena the largest, but also the most ornate, covered in
gold leaf and bedecked in intricate jewellery and robes. In many ways, Athena
herself was a synthesis of the Doric and the Ionic. The powerful and the fragile.
Other sculptural elements were more minor and either consisted of applied elements
such as shields attached to the exterior of the building, or like the acroterium
and antefixes were more functional continuations of the temple's organic origins,
rather than being items of particular symbolic importance. We have therefore,
four major sculptural elements in the building that can be combined to form
an order or hierarchy in a number of complementary ways. The first theme is
one of humanism against mysticism. From the Ionic frieze that represents real
people, citizens of Athens performing a procession, we progress to the metopes
that represent a world where the humans can interface with the mythical. All
the metopes depict humans, but they are in battle with enemies ranging from
centaurs to amazons to the Olympian gods. As you progress to the pediment the
stories portrayed become entirely mythical, albeit with human personifications.
The east pediment depicts the birth of Athena, whilst the west shows a battle
between Athena and Poseidon. Finally this hierarchy inverts to depict the Goddess
Athena on the centre rather than on the outside, although it could be argued
that she is merely a representation of the invisible Athena that is outside,
her city that surrounds the building.
method of hierarchical description would be a physical one of depth, detail
and realism. Starting again with the frieze, we have figures in a shallow relief
and although they are intricate, the detail is not visible from the ground.
The frieze figures if examined closely do not seem to have separate identities
or personalities, their differences are more through posture than through expression.
Moving out to the metopes, the depth of the carving is much greater, with the
figures almost detached from their background. The increased size of the figures
means that the detail is more clearly visible from below. The pediment sculptures
are carved in the round, so even though the rear side is unattainable for a
visitor to the building, they can assume it exists. The sculptures are larger
than those on the metopes and additional elements of realism have crept in,
from the detail of the fabric to the expressiveness of the individual faces.
The final stage of the hierarchy, again is the statue of Athena, carved in the
round and now it is possible to circulate on all sides. The decoration and detail
are perfect even when seen from close to, in many ways she is a hyper-realistic
representation. In the same way as with the hierarchy of myth, the detail level
could also be seen as realism increasing as you move out from the building,
ending as your eye leaves the space of the building and enters the cosmos. After
all, what can be more realistic than reality itself. The final hierarchical
schema, although already alluded to but not discussed directly is that of privacy
or concealment. From the hidden frieze, we move to the metopes, ornamentation
sitting between the triglyphs and visible yet not explicitly obvious. The pediment
is larger and therefore more visible than the metopes, but still possible to
miss if you are not looking at the temple roof. The final level is again Athena,
unmissable by virtue of being the object you are visiting the temple to see,
yet at the same time concealed within its walls.
Along with the
development of this hierarchy of overlay running from the centre of the building
outwards, there is another linear hierarchy that runs around the building, acting
as a structuring element within the sculptures themselves as well as between
them. If the sculptural stories are examined carefully, they all work their
way forward to a culmination at the front entrance of the temple, beginning
in the south-west corner. The reason for this is probably that in being the
least visible corner of the temple, it could conceal the point where two threads
of a story began and diverged before meeting together above the entrance.
Even a cursory inspection of the frieze marbles reveals that figures are facing
in different directions on different slabs. They form separate branches of the
procession, leaving the south west corner and eventually meeting again to form
a presentation to the gods on the eastern side. The themes in the metopes develop
in importance and relevance towards the east face of the building and the stories
contained within them read in this direction. Similarly the west pediment is
of lesser importance to the east one, depicting a mere battle compared to the
awakening, or birth.
and its environs act as a complex yet rigorous viewing framework for the sculptures.
Despite the static rigid form of the building, it is an architecture of process
and movement. At no one point can all the sculptures be seen, they are instead
revealed and hidden as you move around and through the building. Not only are
they hidden or revealed, but their form and your awareness of it also changes
as you pass through the space and see the same sculpture from different angles.
Many discussions on the aesthetics of the marbles tend to see them as static
forms or snapshots of time, that despite implying movement within themselves
are otherwise rigidly frozen. The reality is quite different though, it is truly
a space in four dimensions that can only be understood with the addition of
time. It was an architectural promenade long before le Corbusier popularised
Here the two lines of argument have finally begun to converge again. The purely
historical and the purely aesthetic approaches are unified by time. Not only
does time unify these elements however, but it creates a framework in which
we can understand other aspects of the sculptures.
The sculptures are undergoing a process of continual evolution and metamorphosis,
spread out over a period of time too long to easily comprehend. At the same
time however, there is their relationship to movement, the expression of time
over a short duration. There is another dimension in the supposedly frozen time
implied by the figures in the sculptures themselves, both in their posture and
in their symbolism. Here we have an overlay of time on three planes, each operating
at different rates, successive layers of fractal complexity.
In the life of the sculptures, the last two hundred years is only a minor footnote,
that in another thousand years could be forgotten, yet will still in some way
have left its mark on the marbles to be carried forward with them. The present
is in no way less a part of history than the past.
To view part 3b click here.