October 9, 2014

Parthenon Galleries, British Museum: A selection of friezes and sculptures from the Temple to Athena

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin,
 ARCA Blog Editor

London, October 8 - I had a transcendental experience with art yesterday. I spent more than 2 1/2 hours looking at friezes and sculptures from the Temple of Athena -- those pieces that remain after more than 2,400 years, that once adorned the Parthenon (447 and 432 BC) in Greece. It was my first visit to the British Museum, the first time I'd seen the "Elgin Marbles" and the experience was powerful. I visited the three Greek temples of Paestum in 2009 and felt awed by their grandeur so my first reaction was that I would have liked to have seen these pieces as they were installed in Athens until severely damaged (by a Venetian commander) in the 17th century.  My second reaction was as a feminist -- for the profound loss for two sculptures crucial to worshipping the goddess of war and wisdom (as described in the British Museum's excellent audio guide) -- the sculpture of Athena's birth from the head of Zeus and the "colossal statue" of Athena Parthenos constructed in gold and ivory by Phidias, the most famous sculptor of all antiquity. I would have liked my 14-year-old daughter and her best friend to have seen this now lost statue of Athena by Phidias -- for them to witness the power and beauty of a woman as portrayed even in ancient times.

The British Museum provides information about the controversy about the Parthenon sculptures or the "Elgin Marbles" on its website here. I'll just share with you photos of some of the pieces in the exhibit which humbled me with their beauty and perseverance.

Even the back side of these attached sculptures were finished.

These sculptures were reacting to the birth of Athena
from the head of Zeus which would have been to the right.

Each reaction is carefully shown in the position of body.

My favorite -- Aphrodite's reaction to the birth of Athena.

British Museum, South Metope XXVII: "This is composition-
ally one of the most impressive metopes. 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."

British Museum, South Metope IV: "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." 

British Museum, South Metope V: "The centaur's head is in

At the end of my visit I noticed two signs of gratitude to Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman for their financial support in 1998 for the Parthenon Galleries. Mr. Fleischman, an art dealer, also donated a large portion of his antiquities collection (collected over 40 years) to the J. Paul Getty Villa in Malibu (see his obituary in The New York Times). The plaques read:
The trustees record their thanks to Lawrence A. Fleischman for a generous grant to renew this gallery in 1998. 
The trustees record their thanks to Barbara G. Fleischman for a generous grant to this gallery in 1998.

Sign thanking L. Fleischman above door.

Sign thanking B. Fleischman above another door.