Frieze from Antiquity's Most Famous Structure Seen Anew

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 10, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Frieze from Antiquity's Most Famous Structure Seen Anew


Byline: Kim J. Hartswick

The extraordinary marble sculptural frieze that adorned the Parthenon, one of the most famous buildings of antiquity, has been evaluated and studied for centuries, so it is all the more admirable that another attempt is made by Jenifer Neils, Ruth Coutler Heede Professor of Art History at Case Western Reserve University.

As is well known much of the frieze had been removed in 1801 by Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, and this (along with other marble elements from the Athenian Acropolis) was purchased by the British Museum in 1816, where it has been on public display (beginning in 1817) ever since. The frieze at the west of the building was not removed by Elgin's crew (it was too difficult because the roofing system above it was still preserved); however this too was finally taken off the building in 1993 because of progressive air pollution damage. Several other parts made their way to Paris and even to Palermo, and other pieces have been identified among the numerous fragments of sculptures from the Acropolis.

The general idea is clear - a procession (men on horseback and in chariots, grooms, marshals, sacrificial animals, tray and jug carriers, and other officials) beginning at the southwest corner of the building and moving in two more-or-less parallel lines to the middle of the east, where the two files meet with seated gods and goddesses and an intriguing ritual scene over the front door (the so-called peplos ceremony).

A procession is a good subject with which to decorate such a long continuous Ionic frieze, allowing for multiple figures that move with the viewer to the front door of the temple; however even this choice is unusual. Furthermore, the subject matter on the frieze of the Parthenon appears to be related to the religious rituals of the Panathenaia held every four years - local history writ large where mythological events were normally found. So, not only was the decision to incorporate an Ionic frieze into essentially a Doric structure unusual, but the continuous subject matter sculptured into it was equally noteworthy.

It is not surprising, therefore, with much of the scholarship of ancient art being based on comparative analysis, that the study of the "unique" Parthenon frieze has presented so many challenges. Among these concerns is whether the narrative is unified in space and time, but these attempts have perhaps failed because such unity was likely not of concern to the artists or viewers of antiquity.

What we perceive as inconsistencies or illogical aspects of the frieze were not only perhaps unimportant, but even unimaginable to an ancient viewer. We impose our modern perspectives and views onto an antiquity that cannot possibly live up to our expectations - hence our continual frustration with attempting to interpret the past. In fact, in another context the author states that, "It is anachronistic to impose our aerial vantage point on a population that saw the terrain from a very different perspective." I could not agree more.

The participants in the middle of the east frieze have been always a bone of contention because this scene, as the author writes, is "unique." Flanked by seated gods and goddesses, who literally turn their backs to the central narrative, the relationship between these two contiguous images (ritual and divine) is difficult to understand. Even more difficult to decipher is the so-called peplos scene because scholars are unable to come to a consensus on how to describe the physical remains.

Do the two girls at the left carry stools (I believe they do), and, if so, what is on top of them (pillows? folded cloth?)? Is the figure to the right a boy or girl (the author makes good arguments for a boy), and what is s/he doing with his/her neighbor, a bearded man? The cloth held by both is ready to be either folded or unfolded, and because the bearded man and a woman turn their backs to each other, should we view them not as a single event, but as two different ones?

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