Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Second Statuette of the Athenian Athene

It would be nigh impossible to draw up a definitive list of the ten top must-see sights of the Ancient World that one would have to see if time-travel were a reality but surely amongst them would have to be Periclean Athens and the Acropolis, in particular, in its full glory. We have little left, as the work of the centuries and the hands of men have done their worst, and what remains is impressive enough to flabbergast even to this day, so what it must have been like when it was complete and newly built can only be the stuff of dreams. 

L Alma-Tadema - Phidias Showing the Parthenon Frieze to his Friends

Many people, transported back, would find it something of a shock, as we tend to imagine Greek statuary to be polished, white marble when in fact they were highly, and perhaps to our eyes garishly, painted. We have known this for a long time but we still picture them in their modern state, white as marmoreal snow, as we can see them in museums and galleries today, (we also imagine English churches to be bare stone, when they were brightly painted too). 

The Ruins of the Acropolis

Many Greek cities have an Acropolis but the Acropolis is that at Athens and on it was built the Parthenon, the temple built by the Athenians to their patron goddess, Athene. Inside it was a statue of Athene Parthenos - Αθηνα ΠαρθένοςAthene the Virgin, a massive forty-foot-tall sculpture made of wood, ivory and gold, (known technically as chryselephantine), by Phidias. 

Athene Parthenos statuette

The second of my charity shop statuettes bought in Clitheroe is a copy of the Athene Parthenos, as it has been reconstructed from Classical accounts of the original, which has long been lost. 

The Helmet and the Aegis

She wears her crested helmet, with a sphinx in the centre flanked by a pair of pegasos; her hair is long and divided into two curled tresses. 

Reverse of the Statuette

Her sleeveless talaric chiton is cinched at the waist, her weight is carried on her right leg with her left leg bent slightly at the knee and she wears a breastplate – the Ægis -decorated with snakes and the face of Medusa. 

Close up of the Shield

Her left hand, with a serpent coiled around her wrist, rests on her shield decorated with the head of the gorgon, the gorgoneion, and features the battle of the Greeks and the Amazons, similar to the Amazonamachian Strangford shield in the British Museum. 

The Strangford Shield

Between the shield and Athene is the serpent Erichthonius, coiled and rearing its head. 

Close up of Erichthonius

The right hand rests on a pillar with a Doric capital and supports a winged figure of Nike, ‘Victory’, who carries a palm frond (the original figure of Victory stood six feet tall and was made of ivory). 

Close up of Nike

It is a possibility that the column was not part of the original statue as envisioned by Phidias but was added as a necessary support at a later stage. The original statue was built around a wooden central core, with bronze plates shaped and covered by gold sheets weighing more than two thousand pounds, with the face, arms and hands covered by carved ivory. She once held a lance, often now omitted in representations, but we cannot be sure of its true position. Pausanius, in a passage of unusual detail for him, gave a description and we have smaller votive statues, engraved gems and coins based on Phidias’s major work that remain, so we can say that we have a good idea of how the Athene Parthenos would have looked. 

The Varvakeion Statuette

A Roman replica, now in the Athens National Museum, known as the Varvakeion statuette is the perhaps the nearest representation of the original that remains; it is carved from Pentelic marble and stands about three feet six inches tall (about one twelfth of the original). This piece was discovered in 1881 by workmen carrying out routine maintenance works in a small street north of the ancient northern boundary wall of the city (the Varvakeion, hence the name given to the statuette); it was face down in the brick apse of a private Roman house, and dates from the second, or possibly even third, century CE, placing it some five hundred years older than Phidias’s original. 

It seems likely that the figure was a votive figure, maybe incorporated into the fabric of the house as a protective offering, rather than a tourist souvenir, which would more likely have taken to form of decorated, painted plates. There are traces of gilding and red and yellow paint on the statuette, indicating that the painting of statues continued in Greece into the Roman period. The Varvakeion Athene caused quite a stir when it was first uncovered and was over-praised in the ensuing enthusiasm that followed but it does give us some idea of what Phidias’s masterpiece might have looked like. 

Speculative recreation made prior to finding the Varvakeion statuette

Interestingly, it is made from marble, which was considered an inferior material in ancient Greece, suitable for architectural statuary when the superior works were made from gold, silver, ivory and bronze. The Phidean work was a cult statue, which was worshipped within the Parthenon, in turn the temple to the goddess Athene Polias, the Goddess of the State, of whom Athene Parthenos was an aspect, and whose name in common parlance was applied to the temple itself. As Parthenos, she had no special cult of her own; she was worshipped as Polias, as Nike or as Hygieia, with rituals, temples and priestesses dedicated to these special aspects, but none of these applied to Parthenos. Likewise, we use the term ‘the Parthenon’ whereas to the Greeks it was ό ύεως της Αθηνας της Πολιάδος – the Temple of Athene Polias – or simply ό ύεώςthe Temple.

Incidentally, I paid £2.50 for the statuette I wrote about yesterday and £3 for the Athene Parthenos shown today. If you like them, you can find them for sale on-line. Expect to pay just over £40 each.

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