The Legacy of Ancient Greece

Greek Art


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460 B.C. A slight exploration carried on by the French in 1829 and the thorough excavation of the site by the Germans in 1875-81 brought to light extensive remains of its sculptured decoration. This consisted of two pediment groups and twelve sculptured metopes, besides the acroteria. In the eastern pediment the subject is the preparation for the chariot-race of Pelops and Oenomaus. The legend ran that Oenomaus, king of Pisa in Elis, refused the hand of his daughter save to one who should beat him in a chariot-race. Suitor after suitor tried and failed, till at last Pelops, a young prince from over sea, succeeded In the pediment group Zeus, as arbiter of the impending contest, occupies the center. On one side of him stand Pelops and his destined bride, on the other Oenomaus and his wife, Sterope (Fig. 108). The chariots, with attendants and other more or less interested persons follow (Fig. 109). The moment chosen by the sculptor is one of expectancy rather than action, and the various figures are in consequence simply juxtaposed, not interlocked. Far different is the scene presented by the western pediment. The subject here is the combat between Lapiths and Centaurs, one of the favorite themes of Greek sculpture, as of Greek painting. The Centaurs, brutal creatures, partly human, partly equine, were fabled to have lived in Thessaly. There too was the home of the Lapiths, who were Greeks. At the wedding of Pirithous, king of the Lapiths, the Centaurs, who had been bidden as guests, became inflamed with wine and began to lay hands on the women. Hence a general metee, in which the Greeks were victorious. The sculptor has placed the god Apollo in the center (Fig. 110), undisturbed amid the wild tumult; his presence alone assures us what the issue is to he. The struggling groups (Figs. 111, 112) extend nearly to the corners, which are occupied each by two reclining female figures, spectators of the scene. In each pediment the composition is symmetrical, every figure having its corresponding figure on the opposite side. Yet the law of symmetry is interpreted much more freely than in the Aegina pediments of a generation earlier; the corresponding figures often differ from one another a good deal in attitude, and in one instance even in sex.

Our illustrations, which give a few representative specimens of these sculptures, suggest some comments. To begin with, the workmanship here displayed is rapid and far from faultless. Unlike the Aeginetan pediment-figures and those of the Parthenon, these figures are left rough at the back. Moreover, even in the visible portions there are surprising evidences of carelessness, as in the portentously long left thigh of the Lapith in Fig. 112. It is, again, evidence of rapid, though not exactly of faulty, execution, that the hair is in a good many cases only blocked out, the form of the mass being given, but its texture not indicated (e.g., Fig. 111). In the pose of the standing figures (e.g., Fig. 108), with the weight borne about equally by both legs, we see a modified survival of the usual archaic attitude. A lingering archaism may be seen in other features too; very plainly, for example, in the arrangement of Apollo's hair (Fig 110). The garments represent a thick woolen stuff, whose folds show very little pliancy. The drapery of Sterope (Fig. 108) should be especially noted, as it is a characteristic example for this period of a type which has a long history She wears the Doric chiton, a sleeveless woolen garment girded and pulled over the girdle and doubled over from the top. The formal, starched-looking folds of the archaic period have disappeared. The cloth lies pretty flat over the chest and waist; there is a rather arbitrary little fold at the neck. Below the girdle the drapery is divided vertically into two parts; on the one side it falls in straight folds to the ankle, on the other it is drawn smooth over the bent knee.

Another interesting fact about these sculptures is a certain tendency toward realism. The figures and faces and attitudes of the Greeks, not to speak of the Centaurs, are not all entirely beautiful and noble. This is illustrated by Fig. 109, a bald- headed man, rather fat. Here is realism of a very mild type, to be sure, in comparison with what we are accustomed to nowadays; but the old men of the Parthenon frieze bear no disfiguring marks of age. Again, in the face of the young Lapith whose arm is being bitten by a Centaur (Fig. 112), there is a marked attempt to express physical pain; the features are more distorted than in any other fifth century sculpture, except representations of Centaurs or other inferior creatures. In the other heads of imperiled men and women in this pediment, e.g., in that of the bride (Fig. 111), the ideal calm of the features is overspread with only a faint shadow of distress.

Lest what has been said should suggest that the sculptors of the Olympia pediment-figures were indifferent to beauty, attention may be drawn again to the superb head of the Lapith bride. Apollo, too (Fig. 110), though not that radiant god whom a later age conceived and bodied forth, has an austere beauty which only a dull eye can fail to appreciate.

The twelve sculptured metopes of the temple do not belong to the exterior frieze, whose metopes were plain, but to a second frieze, placed above the columns and antae of pronaos and opisthodomos. Their subjects are the twelve labors of Heracles, beginning with the slaying of the Nemean lion and ending with the cleansing of the Augean stables. The one selected for illustration is one of the two or three best preserved members of the series (Fig. 113). Its subject is the winning of the golden apples which grew in the garden of the Hesperides, near the spot where Atlas stood, evermore supporting on his shoulders the weight of the heavens. Heracles prevailed upon Atlas to go and fetch the coveted treasure, himself meanwhile assuming the burden. The moment chosen by the sculptor is that of the return of Atlas with the apples. In the middle stands Heracles, with a cushion, folded double, upon his shoulders, the sphere of the heavens being barely suggested at the top of the relief. Behind him is his companion and protectress, Athena, once recognizable by a lance in her right hand. [Footnote: Such at least seems to be the view adopted in the latest official publication on the subject "Olympia; Die Bildwerke in Stein und Thon," Pl. LXV.] With her left hand she seeks to ease a little the hero's heavy load. Before him stands Atlas, holding out the apples in both hands. The main lines of the composition are somewhat monotonous, but this is a consequence of the subject, not of any incapacity of the artist, as the other metopes testify. The figure of Athena should be compared with that of Sterope in the eastern pediment. There is a substantial resemblance in the drapery, even to the arbitrary little fold in the neck; but the garment here is entirely open on the right side, after the fashion followed by Spartan maidens, whereas there it is sewed together from the waist down; there is here no girdle; and the broad, flat expanse of cloth in front observable there is here narrowed by two folds falling from the breasts.

Fig. 114 is added as a last example of the severe beauty to be found in these sculptures. It will be observed that the hair of this head is not worked out in detail, except at the front. This summary treatment of the hair is, in fact, more general in the metopes than in the pediment-figures. The upper eyelid does not yet overlap the under eyelid at the outer corner (cf. Fig. 110).

The two pediment-groups and the metopes of this temple show such close resemblances of style among themselves that they must all be regarded as products of a single school of sculpture, if not as designed by a single man. Pausanias says nothing of the authorship of the metopes; but he tells us that the sculptures of the eastern pediment were the work of Paeonius of Mende, an indisputable statue by whom is known (cf. page 213), and those of the western by Alcamenes, who appears elsewhere in literary tradition as a pupil of Phidias. On various grounds it seems almost certain that Pausanias was misinformed on this point. Thus we are left without trustworthy testimony as to the affiliations of the artist or artists to whom the sculptured decoration of this temple was intrusted.

The so-called Hestia (Vesta) which formerly belonged to the Giustiniani family (Fig. 115), has of late years been inaccessible even to professional students. It must be one of the very best preserved of ancient statues in marble, as it is not reported to have anything modern about it except the index finger of the left hand. This hand originally held a scepter. The statue represents some goddess, it is uncertain what one. In view of the likeness in the drapery to some of the Olympia figures, no one can doubt that this is a product of the same period.

In regard to the bronze statue shown in Fig. 116 there is more room for doubt, but the weight of opinion is in favor of placing it here. It is confidently claimed by a high authority that this is an original Greek bronze. There exist also fragmentary copies of the same in marble and free imitations in marble and in bronze. The statue represents a boy of perhaps twelve, absorbed in pulling a thorn from his foot. We do not know the original purpose of the work; perhaps it commemorated a victory won in a foot-race of boys The left leg of the figure is held in a position which gives a somewhat ungraceful outline; Praxiteles would not have placed it so. But how delightful is the picture of childish innocence and self-forgetfulness! This statue might be regarded as an epitome of the artistic spirit and capacity of the age--its simplicity and purity and freshness of feeling, its not quite complete emancipation from the formalism of an earlier day.

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