Prof. Olga Palagia, visiting Ithaca this week from the University of Athens, delivered a vibrant, and at times controversial, hour-long lecture entitled “The Sculptures of the Parthenon” late yesterday afternoon to a small but packed room G22 in Goldwin Smith Hall.
The talk, sponsored by the Classics Department and the Onassis Foundation in Greece, focused on deciphering meaning from the remains of the elaborate and ornate marble sculptures and carvings that adorn the pediments, friezes, and metopes (panels surrounding the temple on all four sides) of the world-famous Parthenon temple in Athens, Greece.
To help the audience understand the circumstances that led to the creation of the Parthenon, Palagia provided a brief history of ancient Athens, beginning with the devastation of the city and acropolis – atop which the Parthenon stands – during the Persian Wars and finishing with Athens’ Golden Age, during which the Athenian political leader, Pericles, commissioned many elaborate public building projects, including the Parthenon. Interestingly, there are many allusions and lamentations over the Persians’ destruction of the city subtly contained within the sculptures that adorn the metopes.
For the most part, Palagia explained, the sculptures represent various ancient Greek myths held sacred by the Athenians.
“The Parthenon also made political statements,” Palagia said. For example, the builders used local marble and limestone in support of Athenian quarries.
Peculiarly, there are depictions of important mortals and political figures, such as Pericles. Not only do the sculptures signify the ancient Athenians’ reverence for their gods, but the sculptures also glorify the citizens of Athens themselves. This depiction of mortals on the outside of the temple was something uncommon in Greece at the time of the Parthenon’s construction.
“The Athenians were very arrogant,” Palagia said. “They truly believed that their city was the greatest that had ever existed.”
Depictions of Athenian games, festivals, and even the military, are featured heavily throughout the temple. Palagia pointed out that this is symbolic of Athenian democracy and the Athenian idea that man is the standard by which everything ought to be measured.
In addition to expounding upon the symbolism contained within the various depictions of the building, Palagia emphasized a few amazing technological innovations built into the Parthenon. For example, atop the two pediments, which were the largest in the ancient Greek world, the weight of many massive free-standing sculptures was borne by L-shaped iron dowels. These structural supports allowed the sculptures to burst forth from the pediment and create an impressive three-dimensional effect for observers.
After the lecture, several audience members were curious about how scholars can say with certainty what the sculptures depict. Many sculptures, which have been eroded and defaced over the course of more than two thousand years, bare little resemblance to what scholars say they illustrate. Often, answered Palagia, scholars must base their conclusions on a sculpture that consists of only a torso, and often even less. They consult mythology, ancient literature, and subtle physical features to determine the story that the sculptures are trying to tell. Controversial theories compete, and scholars usually then come to a general consensus about what the sculptures mean.
“I believe that the pedimental statues were first displayed at ground level, before being raised to the pediments,” Palagia said.
This is a controversial idea that is based on the fact that the sculptures are just as well-sculpted in the back as they are in the front, but not much else. Often scholars have little evidence available to them, and they must simply work with that they have.
A reception in the Classics department lounge followed immediately after the lecture. Many students were very receptive to the visiting lecturer’s talk. “I had never considered how many important messages were contained within the sculptures of the Parthenon,” said Kate Fritton ’08. “It was fascinating to learn how these interpretations have developed.”
Palagia will be on campus for several days. “This is my third time visiting Ithaca,” Palagia said, “but it’s the first time with nice weather.” She will give two more talks this week, one entitled “New Perspectives on Macedonian Painting” and the other, “Sculptures in fifth-century Athens: Materials and Techniques.”
Archived article by Griffin Oleynick