Reconfiguring the Gods on the Parthenon Frieze

By Neils, Jenifer | The Art Bulletin, March 1999 | Go to article overview
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Reconfiguring the Gods on the Parthenon Frieze


Neils, Jenifer, The Art Bulletin


Foreign text omitted per UMI.

One of the greatest enigmas of classical art is the low-relief frieze executed for the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis sometime between 447 and 432 B.C.E. In spite of over two hundred years of scholarship extending as far back as the second volume of James Stuart and Nicholas Revett's famous Antiquities of Athens published in 1787,1 many of the issues pertaining to the Parthenon frieze are as yet unresolved. New interpretations of the overall program and diverse identifications of individual figures or groups appear regularly in the scholarly literature dealing with the frieze.2 Applications of newer methodologies from semiotics to queer theory have led to alternative readings of the relief and its iconography.3 And yet today art historians are still confounded by what has been called the best-known but least understood monument of Greek art.

The reasons for the frieze's obscurity and the attendant proliferation of interpretations are not hard to find. First, no ancient literary or epigraphic source specifically cites the frieze. Although in his second-century C.E. Guide to Greece the periegete Pausanias mentioned the subject matter of the Parthenon pediments, he ignored both the metopes and the frieze.4 Plutarch's Life of Pericles (13.4-9 and 31.2-5) informs us that Pheidias supervised the sculptural program of the Parthenon and its team of artists, but the only work of art actually attributed to his hand is the colossal gold and ivory Athena Parthenos, which dominated the cella.? Secondly, sections of the frieze are missing, and those that have survived are not in good condition.s The heads in particular were badly damaged, reputedly at the end of the Ottoman occupation of Greece. The drawings of the frieze made in 1674 (thirteen years before the explosion of the temple) and attributed to the Flemish artist Jacques Carrey, although not entirely accurate, help somewhat in filling in the gaps, but many obscure areas remain.7 Thirdly, all of the original paint as well as the additions made in metal (indicated by drill holes), which might aid in identifying individual figures, are missing. Unlike the earlier frieze of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi or the much later one on the Pergamon Altar, this one has no inscriptions, painted or carved, labeling the participants. Finally, there is no precedent in Greek art for an Ionic frieze of this length and complexity on a Doric temple.8 Comparanda for the metopes and pediments are readily available, as, for example, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (ca. 470-456 B.C.E.), but the Parthenon frieze is unique in the history of Greek architectural sculpture.

One particularly important but problematic section of the frieze is the group of seated figures above the pronaos at the east end of the Parthenon, now unanimously identified as twelve Olympian deities with two attendants (Figs. 1, 2). These, the only seated figures on the frieze, are configured into two groups of six and represent the earliest extant depiction of what later became the canonical Twelve Gods of Greek and Roman art.9 Throughout the years these figures have been variously identified and then interpreted in relation to the overall subject of the frieze, to the deity worshiped in the temple (Athena), and to religion as practiced in the cults of ancient Attica.lo Problems that seem to trouble scholars are the presence of twelve gods on a temple of Athena alone, the intended location of this conclave (Mt. Olympos, Acropolis, or Agora?), the positioning of the gods vis-a-vis each other (why, for instance, are such antithetical goddesses as Artemis and Aphrodite linked arm in arm?), and the fact that they are seated with their backs to the central, and presumably most important, scene. There is the even more basic issue of whether any viewer could have seen them, positioned as they are directly behind the two central columns of the east facade (Fig. 18). This paper will address the gods' identification, the possible meanings that can be attributed to their positions on the frieze, their peculiar spatial arrangement, the temporal setting, and their influence on later art.

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