One of the most valuable things about living in Bloomsbury is having the British Museum (with free entry) on our doorstep. On Friday night we took advantage of the museum’s extended opening hours, spending time in the galleries sponsored by Lord Duveen of Millbank. On a Friday night, the museum is usually much less crowded than in the daylight hours, making it possible to get up close and personal with precious objects like the Rosetta Stone, without being jostled by elbows, backpacks or school groups.
The Duveen Galleries are home to the priceless sculptures, friezes and metopes from the Athenian Parthenon, which are best known collectively as the Elgin Marbles.
For those who can’t visit the Elgin Marbles in person, here are some photographic highlights, along with my shameless paraphrasing of the museum’s descriptive panels.
Like other Greek temples, the Parthenon was decorated with contrasting colours and patterns. Most frequently used colour pigments were copper silicate for blue, iron oxide for red, and gold in the form of gilding. It is believed that all marble surfaces (coloured and plain white) were painted with opaque organic varnish, to protect against the elements and better blend the colours.
Around 1802, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin made moulds of the Parthenon’s west frieze blocks, which were to remain in Athens. Casts of these moulds are displayed in this room, above left, and in many cases the casts are more complete than the now-eroded original sculptures. The piece of stone column (above right) comes from the ruins of the Parthenon, and was originally from the north colonnade of the temple, the tenth of seventeen columns, counting from the east.
The Parthenon temple, constructed between 447 – 438 BC, was planned in the Doric style and made of marble from nearby Mount Pentelikon. It included a colonnade of seventeen columns on the long sides, and eight on the short sides (counting corner columns twice). At the short ends, a second row of columns formed a porch in front of the great east and west doorways. The largest chamber contained the statue of Athena Parthenos, made from gold and ivory by the great Greek sculptor Phidias. The replica fragment of her shield (below) dates from the 3rd century AD.
Roughly two-thirds of the Parthenon’s 160-metre long frieze survives, of which 60 per cent is displayed in the British Museum (the rest is at the New Acropolis Museum in Athens).
The description for the eastern frieze panel below states:
“A man wearing a long tunic takes a folded cloth from a child. The man is probably the archon basileus, the person in charge of Athenian state religion. The cloth is probably the sacred robe (peplos) of Athena. The sex of the child is disputed but, comparing this figure with others in the frieze, it appears to be a boy.”
“This is an unusually long block [from the eastern frieze, below] and was placed directly over the approach to the doorway leading into the temple. In this prominent position Athena, goddess of the temple, was shown seated on the right, and her father Zeus was enthroned on the left.”
There are several wheels and chariots to be found in the frieze. Below right, chariots race ahead of a cavalcade of men on horseback:
“The Panathenaic Games at Athens featured races in which chariots were driven at high speed. At the end of the race, a soldier would leap out of the vehicle and finish the contest on foot. Here a partially preserved charioteer is seen on the extreme left of the block, while a foot soldier rides beside him, helmeted and holding a large round shield on his left arm. The carriage of the chariot and the hub of a wheel are just visible below. The scene, carved into a shallow depth of relief, is vividly expressed with no less than four horses abreast. Their fiery manes are echoed in the flying crest and cloak of the soldier.”
Note the intricate carving of the horse’s legs, below, caught in a blur of motion – the frieze panel is several horses deep, and it’s difficult to make out how many are actually there.
“Two horsemen [below, from the southern frieze] wear a cloak (chlamys) pinned on one shoulder. They ride without stirrups, which had not been invented, or saddles. Drill-holes indicate where bronze reins and bridles were once attached. The flickering manes are a distinctive feature of these and other horses in the frieze.”
The Parthenon’s east pediment sculptures, below, included the scene of the birth of goddess Athena from the head of her father Zeus, which is now lost.
“Zeus was probably shown seated, while Athena was striding away from him fully grown and armed.”
The birth was witnessed by various figures shown on either side and filling the triangular space of the gable end of the temple. In the very corners of this triangle, the time of day was set by the chariot of Helios, god of the sun, rising at dawn, and the chariot of Selene, the Moon goddess, sinking beneath the horizon. Selene’s torso is in Athens, while the head of one of her team of horses is in the British Museum.
This horse head from the east pediment, below, is from the chariot of the moon-goddess Selene:
“[It] captures the very essence of the stress felt by a beast that has spent the night drawing the chariot of the Moon across the sky. As the unseen vehicle was shown sinking low in the west, the horse pins back its ears, the jaw gapes, the nostrils flare, the eyes bulge, veins stand out and the flesh seems spare and taut over the flat plate of the cheek bone.”
The figures below are thought to be the three goddesses, Hestia, Dione and Aphrodite, who were seated to the right of centre in the east pediment. Some scholars suggest, however, that the two figures on the right are sea goddess Thalassa and earth goddess Gaia.
The western pediment of the Parthenon, below, showed the contest between the Athena and sea god Poseidon, for Athens and its surrounds. They were shown on a colossal scale at the centre, with other figures on either side, including two chariot groups.
“The naked youth’s languid form is well adapted to the raking angle of the pediment that framed him. He appears as if caught in the action of raising himself onto a rock. A piece of drapery hangs wet and clinging to his left arm.”
It is interesting to note that many of the sculptures were at least partly finished at the back, where no earthly eyes could have seen. Was this for Athena’s benefit?
Athena and Poseidon were both attended by divine messengers – Athena had Hermes, and Poseidon had Iris. Here is Iris below, posed as if just alighting on the Acropolis. Her drapery was cinched at the waist by a bronze girdle which is now lost. Her wings were socketed in to her shoulders at the back, but these too are now lost.
Metopes on the southern flank of the temple include depictions of human Lapiths fighting Centaurs. The Lapiths made the mistake of giving the Centaurs wine at their King Peirithoos‘ marriage feast. The drunken Centaurs attempted to rape the women and carry off the bride, but the Lapiths ultimately defeated them.
“A centaur draped in a panther skin rears triumphantly over a fallen Lapith [below]. In his right hand the centaur brandished a bowl, now lost. The contrasting moods of these two figures makes this one of the most effective metopes.”
“The centaur brings a water-jar down on his opponent, who has left his defence open, in spite of the shield. The heads of these figures were taken By Capt. Hartmann, a member of the Venetian army that occupied Athens in 1688. They are now in Copenhagen.”
The image below right (from a British Museum descriptive panel) shows what this particular metope might have looked like in its original colour scheme.
“This is compositionally one of the most impressive metopes [below, from the southern end of the temple]. A centaur pressing a wound in his back tries to escape, while the Lapith restrains him and prepares to deliver a final blow. The Lapith’s cloak fans out to provide a dramatic backdrop.”
“The centaur rears up to strike the Lapith, who fends him off with a hand and a foot [below]. The carving of this sculpture seems incomplete. The Lapith’s cloak is missing between arm and thigh. A drill-hole in the left upper arm indicates where a metal attachment was fixed to replace the missing cloak.”
For more information about the marbles and the continuing controversy surrounding them, click here.
Stephen Fry has written a thoughtful piece on what he thinks should become of the sculptures, which you can read here.