The Legacy of Ancient Greece

Greek Art


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The Age of Pericles, which, if we reckon from the first entrance of Pericles, into politics, extended from about 466 to 429, has become proverbial as a period of extraordinary artistic and literary splendor. The real ascendancy of Pericles began in 447, and the achievements most properly associated with his name belong to the succeeding fifteen years. Athens at this time possessed ample material resources, derived in great measure from the tribute of subject allies, and wealth was freely spent upon noble monuments of art. The city was fled with artists of high and low degree. Above them all in genius towered Phidias, and to him, if we may believe the testimony of Plutarch, [Footnote: Life of Pericles Section 13] a general superintendence of all the artistic undertakings of the state was intrusted by Pericles.

Great as was the fame of Phidias in after ages, we are left in almost complete ignorance as to the circumstances of his life. If he was really the author of certain works ascribed to him, he must have been born about 500 B.C. This would make him as old, perhaps, as Myron. Another view would put his birth between 490 and 485, still another, as late as 480. The one undisputed date in his life is the year 438, when the gold and ivory statue of Athena in the Parthenon was completed. Touching the time and circumstances of his death we have two inconsistent traditions. According to the one, he was brought to trial in Athens immediately after the completion of the Athena on the charge of misappropriating some of the ivory with which he had been intrusted but made his escape to Elis, where, after executing the gold and ivory Zeus for the temple of that god at Olympia he was put to death for some unspecified reason by the Eleans in 432-1. According to the other tradition he was accused in Athens, apparently not before 432, of stealing some of the gold destined for the Athena and, when this charge broke down, of having sacrilegiously introduced his own and Pericles's portraits into the relief on Athena's shield, being cast into prison he died there of disease, or, as some said, of poison.

The most famous works of Phidias were the two chryselephantine statues to which reference has just been made, and two or three other statues of the same materials were ascribed to him. He worked also in bronze and in marble. From a reference in Aristotle's "Ethics" it might seem as if he were best known as a sculptor in marble, but only three statues by him are expressly recorded to have been of marble, against a larger number of bronze His subjects were chiefly divinities, we hear of only one or two figures of human beings from his hands.

Of the colossal Zeus at Olympia, the most august creation of Greek artistic imagination, we can form only an indistinct idea. The god was seated upon a throne, holding a figure of Victory upon one hand and a scepter in the other. The figure is represented on three Elean coins of the time of Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) but on too small a scale to help us much. Another coin of the same period gives a fine head of Zeus in profile (Fig. 117),[Footnote: A more truthful representation of this coin may be found in Gardner's "Types of Greek Coins," PI XV 19] which is plausibly supposed to preserve some likeness to the head of Phidias's statue.

In regard to the Athena of the Parthenon we are considerably better off, for we possess a number of marble statues which, with the aid of Pausanias's description and by comparison with one another, can be proved to be copies of that work. But a warning is necessary here. The Athena, like the Zeus, was of colossal size. Its height, with the pedestal, was about thirty-eight feet. Now it is not likely that a really exact copy on a small scale could possibly have been made from such a statue, nor, if one had been made, would it have given the effect of the original. With this warning laid well to heart the reader may venture to examine that one among our copies which makes the greatest attempt at exactitude (Fig. 118). It is a statuette, not quite 3 1/2 feet high with the basis, found in Athens in 1880. The goddess stands with her left leg bent a little and pushed to one side. She is dressed in a heavy Doric chiton, open at the side. The girdle, whose ends take the form of snakes' heads, is worn outside the doubled-over portion of the garment. Above it the folds are carefully adjusted, drawn in symmetrically from both sides toward the middle; in the lower part of the figure there is the common vertical division into two parts, owing to the bending of one leg. Over the chiton is the aegis, much less long behind than in earlier art (cf. Fig. 98), fringed with snakes' heads and having a Gorgon's mask in front. The helmet is an elaborate affair with three crests, the central one supported by a sphinx, the others by winged horses; the hinged cheek-pieces are turned up. At the left of the goddess is her shield, within which coils a serpent. On her extended right hand stands a Victory. The face of Athena is the most disappointing part of it all, but it is just there that the copyist must have failed most completely. Only the eye of faith, or better, the eye trained by much study of allied works, can divine in this poor little figure the majesty which awed the beholder of Phidias's work.

Speculation has been busy in attempting to connect other statues that have been preserved to us with the name of Phidias. The most probable case that has yet been made out concerns two closely similar marble figures in Dresden, one of which is shown in Fig. 119. The head of this statue is missing, but its place has been supplied by a cast of a head in Bologna (Fig. 120), which has been proved to be another copy from the same original. This proof, about which there seems to be no room for question, is due to Professor Furtwangler, [Footnote: "Masterpieces of Greek Sculpture" pages 4 ff.] who argues further that the statue as thus restored is a faithful copy of the Lemnian Athena of Phidias, a bronze work which stood on the Athenian Acropolis. The proof of this depends upon (1) the resemblance in the standing position and in the drapery of this figure to the Athena of the Parthenon, and

  1. the fact that Phidias is known to have made a statue of Athena (thought to be the Lemnian Athena) without a helmet on the head-- an exceptional, though not wholly unique, representation in sculpture in the round.

If this demonstration be thought insufficient, there cannot, at all events, be much doubt that we have here the copy of an original of about the middle of the fifth century. The style is severely simple, as we ought to expect of a religious work of that period. The virginal face, conceived and wrought with ineffable refinement, is as far removed from sensual charm as from the ecstasy of a Madonna. The goddess does not reveal herself as one who can be "touched with a feeling of our infirmities"; but by the power of her pure, passionless beauty she sways our minds and hearts.

The supreme architectural achievement of the Periclean age was the Parthenon, which crowned the Athenian Acropolis. It appears to have been begun in 447, and was roofed over and perhaps substantially finished by 438. Its sculptures were more extensive than those of any other Greek temple, comprising two pediment- groups, the whole set of metopes of the exterior frieze, ninety- two in number, and a continuous frieze of bas-relief, 522 feet 10 inches in total length, surrounding the cella and its vestibules (cf. Fig. 56). After serving its original purpose for nearly a thousand years, the building was converted into a Christian church and then, in the fifteenth century, into a Mohammedan mosque. In 1687 Athens was besieged by the forces of Venice. The Parthenon was used by the Turks as a powder-magazine, and was consequently made the target for the enemy's shells. The result was an explosion, which converted the building into a ruin. Of the sculptures which escaped from this catastrophe, many small pieces were carried off at the time or subsequently, while other pieces were used as building stone or thrown into the lime-kiln. Most of those which remained down to the beginning of this century were acquired by Lord Elgin, acting under a permission from the Turkish government (1801-3), and in 1816 were bought for the British Museum. The rest are in Athens, either in their original positions on the building, or in the Acropolis Museum.

The best preserved metopes of the Parthenon belong to the south side and represent scenes from the contest between Lapiths and Centaurs (cf. page 174). These metopes differ markedly in style from one another, and must have been not only executed, but designed, by different hands. One or two of them are spiritless and uninteresting. Others, while fine in their way, show little vehemence of action. Fig. 121 gives one of this class. Fig. 122 is very different. In this "the Lapith presses forward, advancing his left hand to seize the rearing Centaur by the throat, and forcing him on his haunches; the right arm of the Lapith is drawn back, as if to strike; his right hand, now wanting, probably held a sword. .... The Centaur, rearing up, against his antagonist, tries in vain to pull away the left hand of the Lapith, which, in Carrey's drawing [made in 1674] he grasps." [Footnote: A. H. Smith, "Catalogue of Sculpture in the British Museum," page 136.] Observe how skilfully the design is adapted to the square field, so as to leave no unpleasant blank spaces, how flowing and free from monotony are the lines of the composition, how effective (in contrast with Fig. 121) is the management of the drapery, and, above all, what vigor is displayed in the attitudes. Fig. 123 is of kindred character. These two metopes and two others, one representing a victorious Centaur prancing in savage glee over the body of his prostrate foe, the other showing a Lapith about to strike a Centaur already wounded in the back, are among the very best works of Greek sculpture preserved to us.

The Parthenon frieze presents an idealized picture of the procession which wound its way upward from the market-place to the Acropolis on the occasion of Athena's chief festival. Fully to illustrate this extensive and varied composition is out of the question here. All that is possible is to give three or four representative pieces and a few comments. Fig. 124 shows the best preserved piece of the entire frieze. It belongs to a company of divinities, seated to right and left of the central group of the east front, and conceived as spectators of the scene. The figure at the left of the illustration is almost certainly Posidon, and the others are perhaps Apollo and Artemis. In Fig. 125 three youths advance with measured step, carrying jars filled with wine, while a fourth youth stoops to lift his jar; at the extreme right may be seen part of a flute-player, whose figure was completed on the next slab. The attitudes and draperies of the three advancing youths, though similar, are subtly varied. So everywhere monotony is absent from the frieze. Fig. 126 is taken from the most animated and crowded part of the design. Here Athenian youths, in a great variety of dress and undress, dash forward on small, mettlesome horses. Owing to the principle of isocephaly (cf. page 145), the mounted men are of smaller dimensions than those on foot, but the difference does not offend the eye. In Fig. 127 we have, on a somewhat larger scale, the heads of four chariot-horses instinct with fiery life. Fig. 132 may also be consulted. An endless variety in attitude and spirit, from the calm of the ever- blessed gods to the most impetuous movement; grace and harmony of line; an almost faultless execution--such are some of the qualities which make the Parthenon frieze the source of inexhaustible delight.

The composition of the group in the western pediment is fairly well known, thanks to a French artist, Jacques Carrey, who made a drawing of it in 1674, when it was still in tolerable preservation. The subject was, in the words of Pausanias, "the strife of Posidon with Athena for the land" of Attica. In the eastern pediment the subject was the birth of Athena. The central figures, eleven in number, had disappeared long before Carrey's time, having probably been removed when the temple was converted into a church. On the other hand, the figures near the angles have been better preserved than any of those from the western pediment, with one exception. The names of these eastern figures have been the subject of endless guess-work. All that is really certain is that at the southern corner Helios (the Sun-god) was emerging from the sea in a chariot drawn by four horses, and at the northern corner Selene (the Moon-goddess) or perhaps Nyx (Night) was descending in a similar chariot. Fig. 128 is the figure that was placed next to the horses of Helios. The young god or hero reclines in an easy attitude on a rock; under him are spread his mantle and the skin of a panther or some such animal. In Fig. 129 we have, beginning on the right, the head of one of Selene's horses and the torso of the goddess herself, then a group of three closely connected female figures, known as the "Three Fates," seated or reclining on uneven, rocky ground, and last the body and thighs of a winged goddess, Victory or Iris, perhaps belonging in the western pediment. Fig. 130, from the northern corner of the western pediment, is commonly taken for a river-god.

We possess but the broken remnants of these two pediment-groups, and the key to the interpretation of much that we do possess is lost. We cannot then fully appreciate the intention of the great artist who conceived these works. Yet even in their ruin and their isolation the pediment-figures of the Parthenon are the sublimest creations of Greek art that have escaped annihilation.

We have no ancient testimony as to the authorship of the Parthenon sculptures, beyond the statement of Plutarch, quoted above, that Phidias was the general superintendent of all artistic works undertaken during Pericles's administration. If this statement be true, it still leaves open a wide range of conjecture as to the nature and extent of his responsibility in this particular case. Appealing to the sculptures themselves for information, we find among the metopes such differences of style as exclude the notion of single authorship. With the frieze and the pediment-groups, however, the case is different. Each of these three compositions must, of course, have been designed by one master-artist and executed by or with the help of subordinate artists or workmen. Now the pediment-groups, so far as preserved, strongly suggest a single presiding genius for both, and there is no difficulty in ascribing the design of the frieze to the same artist. Was it Phidias? The question has been much agitated of late years, but the evidence at our disposal does not admit of a decisive answer. The great argument for Phidias lies in the incomparable merit of these works; and with the probability that his genius is here in some degree revealed to us we must needs be content. After all, it is of much less consequence to be assured of the master's name than to know and enjoy the masterpieces themselves.

The great statesman under whose administration these immortal sculptures were produced was commemorated by a portrait statue or head, set up during his lifetime on the Athenian Acropolis; it was from the hand of Cresilas, of Cydonia in Crete. It is perhaps this portrait of which copies have come down to us. The best of these is given in Fig 131. The features are, we may believe, the authentic features of Pericles, somewhat idealized, according to the custom of portraiture in this age. The helmet characterizes the wearer as general.

The artistic activity in Athens did not cease with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431. The city was full of sculptors, many of whom had come directly under the influence of Phidias, and they were not left idle. The demand from private individuals for votive sculptures and funeral reliefs must indeed have been abated, but was not extinguished; and in the intervals of the protracted war the state undertook important enterprises with an undaunted spirit. It is to this period that the Erechtheum probably belongs (420?-408), though all that we certainly know is that the building was nearly finished some time before 409 and that the work was resumed in that year. The temple had a sculptured frieze of which fragments are extant, but these are far surpassed in interest by the Caryatides of the southern porch (Fig. 67). The name Caryatides, by the way, meets us first in the pages of Vitruvius, a Roman architect of the time of Augustus; a contemporary Athenian inscription, to which we are indebted for many details concerning the building, calls them simply "maidens." As you face the front of the porch, the three maidens on your right support themselves chiefly on the left leg, the three on your left on the right leg (Fig. 132), so that the leg in action is the one nearer to the end of the porch. The arms hung straight at the sides, one of them grasping a corner of the small mantle. The pose and drapery show what Attic sculpture had made of the old Peloponnesian type of standing female figure in the Doric chiton (cf. page 177). The fall of the garment preserves the same general features, but the stuff has become much more pliable. It is interesting to note that, in spite of a close general similarity, no two maidens are exactly alike, as they would have been if they had been reproduced mechanically from a finished model. These subtle variations are among the secrets of the beauty of this porch, as they are of the Parthenon frieze. One may be permitted to object altogether to the use of human figures as architectural supports, but if the thing was to be done at all, it could not have been better done. The weight that the maidens bear is comparatively small, and their figures are as strong as they are graceful.

To the period of the Peloponnesian War may also be assigned a sculptured balustrade which inclosed and protected the precinct of the little Temple of Wingless Victory on the Acropolis (Fig. 70). One slab of this balustrade is shown in Fig. 133. It represents a winged Victory stooping to tie (or, as some will have it, to untie) her sandal. The soft Ionic chiton, clinging to the form, reminds one of the drapery of the reclining goddess from the eastern pediment of the Parthenon (Fig. 129), but it finds its closest analogy, among datable sculptures, in a fragment of relief recently found at Rhamnus in Attica. This belonged to the pedestal of a statue by Agoracritus, one of the most famous pupils of Phidias.

The Attic grave-relief given in Fig. 134 seems to belong somewhere near the end of the fifth century. The subject is a common one on this class of monuments, but is nowhere else so exquisitely treated. There is no allusion to the fact of death. Hegeso, the deceased lady, is seated and is holding up a necklace or some such object (originally, it may be supposed, indicated by color), which she has just taken from the jewel-box held out by the standing slave-woman. Another fine grave-relief (Fig. 135) may be introduced here, though it perhaps belongs to the beginning of the fourth century rather than to the end of the fifth. It must commemorate some young Athenian cavalryman. It is characteristic that the relief ignores his death and represents him in a moment of victory. Observe that on both these monuments there is no attempt at realistic portraiture and that on both we may trace the influence of the style of the Parthenon frieze.

Among the other bas-reliefs which show that influence there is no difficulty in choosing one of exceptional beauty, the so-called Orpheus relief (Fig. 136). This is known to us in three copies, unless indeed the Naples example be the original. The story here set forth is one of the most touching in Greek mythology. Orpheus, the Thracian singer, has descended into Hades in quest of his dead wife, Eurydice, and has so charmed by his music the stern Persephone that she has suffered him to lead back his wife to the upper air, provided only he will not look upon her on the way. But love has overcome him. He has turned and looked, and the doom of an irrevocable parting is sealed. In no unseemly paroxysm of grief, but tenderly, sadly, they look their last at one another, while Hermes, guide of departed spirits, makes gentle signal for the wife's return. In the chastened pathos of this scene we have the quintessence of the temper of Greek art in dealing with the fact of death.

Turning now from Athens to Argos, which, though politically weak, was artistically the rival of Athens in importance, we find Polyclitus the dominant master there, as Phidias was in the other city. Polyclitus survived Phidias and may have been the younger of the two. The only certain thing is that he was in the plenitude of his powers as late as 420, for his gold and ivory statue of Hera was made for a temple built to replace an earlier temple destroyed by fire in 423. His principal material was bronze. As regards subjects, his great specialty was the representation of youthful athletes. His reputation in his own day and afterwards was of the highest; there were those who ranked him above Phidias. Thus Xenophon represents [Footnote: Memorabilia I., 4, 3 (written about

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