EUROPE

Elgin Marbles – Parthenon Sculptures – Rick Steves Travel Blog


As Europe begins to open up to travelers once again, the contemplation of cultural treasures awaits is more exciting than ever. For me, one of the greatest pleasures of traveling is personal encounters with great works of art – which I have collected in a book called Europe’s 100 best masterpieces. This is one of my favourites:

For 2,000 years, the Parthenon in Athens remained almost completely intact. But in 1687, with the siege of Athens, the Parthenon was used to store a large amount of gunpowder. (Look where this is going?) Captive! A massive explosion sent huge pieces of the Parthenon everywhere. Then in 1801, the British ambassador, Lord Elgin, transported the most valuable piece of carved stone to London, where it fascinates visitors to this day – the “Elgin Marble”.

The British Museum in London displays the notable statues and paintings that once adorned the top of the exterior of the now exposed Parthenon. Carved in about 430 BC, reliefs are part of a 500-foot-long frieze that once surrounded the temple. They show 56 snapshots of one of the most festive occasions in ancient Athens: a grand procession up the Acropolis hill to celebrate the city’s birthday.

The show begins with men on horseback who struggle to rein in their rambunctious horses. Next come the musicians who play the flute, while the ladies dance. Distinguished citizens ride chariots, children trot side by side, and priests drive ceremonial bulls for sacrifice. At the heart of the procession is a group of teenage girls. Clad in elegant pleated robes, they wander along carrying gifts to the gods, such as incense burners and wine jugs.

The girls were entrusted with the most important gift of the show: a pleated robe. When the show climaxed inside the Parthenon, the girls symbolically presented the robe to the 40-foot-high gold and ivory statue of Athena.

The realism is incredible: the men’s muscles are well-defined, the horses’ veins bulging. The girls’ robes with intricate pleats make them look firm like fluted shafts, but they come out naturally – the human figure emerging from the stone. These paintings were originally painted in bold colors. Amid the bustle of detail, the frieze has one unifying element – all vertices are in the same plane, oriented in the same direction, creating a single human strip around the Parthenon.

The main entrance to the Parthenon is decorated with a grandiose scene depicting the moment when the city of Athens was born. These statues were nestled inside the triangular base above the door. The picture shows the Greek gods relaxing at an Olympic banquet. Suddenly, there is a buzz of activity. The gods are heading for a miraculous event: Zeus’ head has just been opened to reveal Athena, the symbol of the city. (Unfortunately, this key scene is missing – it’s the empty space at the vertex of the triangle.)

These curvy statues are realistic and 3D, lying in completely natural and relaxed poses. Women’s robes naturally cling and recline, revealing their perfect anatomy underneath.

A final group of relief panels (the so-called footnotes) depict a Greek myth that summarizes the entire Parthenon. It shows the primitive Greek people quarreling with the feral centaur. It’s free for all hair pulls, throat grabs, leg kicks, and knees on thigh. Finally, humans have the upper hand – symbolizing how civilized Athenians triumphed over their barbarian neighbors.

In real life, the Greeks emerged from a brutal war, and their recovery culminated in the construction of the Parthenon. The precious Elgin marble represents the cream of the crop of the greatest Greek temples. And they capture that moment in human history when civilization triumphed over barbarism, rational thinking over animal impulses, and order over chaos.





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