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Dr. J's Illustrated
Parthenon Marbles

East Pediment Theme: The Birth of Athena

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It is only because of Pausanias' description (1.24.25) that we know the details of the central subject of the East Pediment, for much of this sculpture was removed in the process of making the Parthenon into a Christian church. But we can see the sun god leading his horse-drawn chariot out of Oceanos (the band of water that encloses the earth) into the sky across and over the group of gods witnessing Athena's birth: the dawning of a new day.

IMG0083XMID.jpg (6289 bytes)IMG0023MID.jpg (6722 bytes)A reclining god (the only pedimental figure to have kept his head) looks on. He sits on an animal skin (look for the paw hanging down), causing scholars to suggest either Dionysus or Heracles as probable identifications. The exact identities of the other figures in the sculpture group are debatable.
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The horse that adorns the right side of the pediment belongs either to Selene (the Moon) or Nyx (Night) and he has run his course. Compare the exhausted expression, flaring nostrils, drooping head of this horse (the sole survivor of a pair) to the rambunctiousness of the sun god's energetic steeds on the left.
West Pediment Theme:
Contest Between Athena and Poseidon

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The pedimental sculpture of the Parthenon is unique in that both ends feature the same divine figure and no human figures at all: both tableaus concern Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. Compare, for example, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, where the east pedimental sculpture features the patron god Zeus but the west shows Apollo watching the Battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths.

The West Pediment of the Parthenon tells the tale of the contest for patronage of Athens between Athena and Poseidon while the other gods look on. Just the torsos of most of the west pediment figures survive. Athena's olive tree - the winning gambit - stood between the two godly contestants, each of whom was attended by a four-horse-drawn chariot and charioteer, little of either of which survives. It is known that the Venetian Morosini destroyed Athena's team of chariot horses in a failedIMG0021MID.jpg (5396 bytes) attempt to remove the sculpture group in the 1680's. But much can be reconstructed thanks to Jacques Carrey's detailed 1674 drawings. Athena was attended by Hermes and Poseidon by the divine Iris (right). Other west pediment figures are thought to have been legendary Athenian kings; the torso of Cecrops, the snake-footed first king of Athens, can today be found in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. 

IMG0020MID.jpg (3673 bytes)Filling the pedimental space - the great triangle that graces each end of a Doric-style temple - can be very challenging. A tableau must be created by the artist that fills the peculiar space or emptiness will overpower the figures that are present; balance is more important than busyness. While the east pediment corners sport the horse-heralds of the rising and setting sun, the Parthenon's west pediment fills the diminishing space with flowing water gods. This reclining figure who seems to blend into the rock in the left corner is probably the river god Illisos (much like the personifications of the rivers Alpheios and Kladeios found on the Temple of Zeus in Olympia).

IMG0082MID.jpg (5598 bytes)I have taken photographs of the backs of some of these sculptures to show their artists' great skill and pride in their work. Although the sculptors knew that these marble figures were intended to be seen only from afar and from a great height - and never as sculpture in the round as they are now displayed, but only from the front - they neverthelessIMG0019MID.jpg (4075 bytes) partially finished areas of the statue that were designed never to be seen. We are privileged to see the actual chisel marks of the sculptors who created these magnificent monuments.


The Parthenon FriezeIMG0090MID.jpg (13686 bytes)

The traditional interpretation of the Parthenon frieze is that it is a re-enactment in stone of the Panathenaic Procession, the conclusion of which is the draping of a new peplos (garment) over the cult statue of Athena kept in the Erechtheum on the Acropolis. The procession begins in Eleusis, eleven miles from Athens, and follows the Sacred Way into Athens and up the Acropolis. The Parthenon frieze plays out its tale across all four of its sides: preparations (west) and then a double-pronged procession (north and south) towards the all-important east side of the building (the entrance to the temple is here) where is carved the family of Olympian gods.  In the center of the east frieze is a group of five mortals who appear to be delivering the peplos.

But I like the interpretation that argues that the frieze is more than just a glorification of the goddess; it is also a monument to memory of the men who died atfrieze1.jpg (6634 bytes) Marathon. Just as each of the ten tribes is honored in the memorial on site at Marathon,  there are ten groups of horses and men on the frieze. 192 Athenian soldiers died at Marathon and were buried in the soros; 192 is the number of soldiers carved into the frieze, in the procession that will deliver them to their final glory - union with the Olympian gods. And the sculpture on the frieze is not the only artwork on the Parthenon that can be interpreted as a monument to the triumphs of man...


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Every one of the 92 metopes of the Parthenon was sculpted in high relief, one of the many details that makes the Parthenon unique. On each side of the building is depicted a different conflict, each of which is thought to allegorize the recent Greek (mostly Athenian) defeat of the Persians: Gigantomachy, or "Battle of the Giants" (east), Amazonomachy, or "Battle of the Amazons" (west), Centauromachy, of "Battle of the Centaurs" (South) and the Trojan War (north). The south metopes (above) best survived both the 1687 explosion in the Parthenon and the zealousness of earlier Christians in removing all trace of paganism from their adopted temple.

The British Museum Exhibit

These fabulous marbles are presently housed in the British Museum in London because they were purchased in 1816 from the Earl of Elgin (aka Lord Elgin, and thus the common reference to these sculptures as the Elgin Marbles). Elgin served as the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Court and systematically removed sculpture, architectural fragments and inscriptions from the Athenian acropolis while Athens was under Turkish rule.

The Parthenon Marbles website showcases the complete set of Parthenon Marbles and provides background concerning the disagreement about ownership of the marbles between Greece and Britain.

Note: Interpretation of art is a tricky thing. I have included herein those interpretations particularly persuasive to me. B.F. Cook's The Elgin Marbles (published by the British Museum, 1984) has served as one source among many for writing this page, but recently Joan B. Connelly put forth the intriguing interpretation that the frieze tells the story of a traditional ceremony of child-sacrifice, a not uncommon method in antiquity of ensuring continued prosperity for a city and perhaps the origin of the cult of Athena in Athens. Read a summary of Professor Connelly's provocative argument for yourself, graciously made available by Reed College.