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Parthenon Marbles (Assessment 1)

September 3, 2009

The ‘Elgin Marbles’ is a popular term that refers to the collection of sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features – acquired by Lord Elgin during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman court of the Sultan in Istanbul. More specifically, and more usually, it is used to refer to those sculptures, inscriptions and architectural features that he acquired in Athens between 1801 and 1805. These objects were purchased by the British Parliament from Lord Elgin in 1816 and were presented to the British Museum.

The collection includes sculptures from the Parthenon, roughly half of what now survives: 247 feet of the original 524 feet of frieze; 15 of 92 metopes; 17 figures from the pediments, and various other pieces of architecture. It also includes objects from other buildings on the Acropolis: the Erechtheion, the Propylaia, and the Temple of Athena Nike.

Material from the Parthenon was dispersed both before and after Elgin’s time. The remainders of the surviving sculptures that are not in Athens are in museums in various locations across Europe. The British Museum also has other fragments from the Parthenon acquired from collections that have no connection with Lord Elgin.

The Parthenon was built as a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena after the great victory of the Greeks against the Persian empire in the 5th century B.C. Since the Athenians had contributed the most to this victory and were the leaders of the Confederacy of the Greek States, it was not inappropriate to use part of the money of the Alliance to rebuild the temples of the gods and to offer thanks to their protectress goddess Athena. The Parthenon was the main temple on the Acropolis of Athens made of white Pentelikon marble, 70 meters long, 31 meters wide and 15 meters tall. It consisted of 16.500 marble pieces and it was designed by Iktinos and Kallikrates whereas the sculptured decoration was made by Phidias. The temple’s great size and lavish use of white marble was intended to show off the city’s power and wealth at the height of its empire.

The sculpted decoration of the Parthenon included the exterior Doric frieze made of 92 metopes (rectangular pieces of marble with sculptured decoration on) showing scenes of the battles of the gods against the giants, the struggle of the hero Theseus, the battle of the Athenians against the Amazons and the capture of Troy. Those on the south flank of the temple showed the Lapiths in mortal combat with the Centaurs (beings with human torso and head and the rest the body of a horse). On the ionic frieze which ran around the upper part of the wall of the main room, Phidias and his pupils had immortalized the procession of the Great Panathenaea. This was the greatest festival of the Athenians, and its aim was to carry the peplos (outer dress of the goddess) woven bythe maidens of Athens, and dress the wooden statue of the goddess Athena Polias (guardian of the city). All the Athenians followed the procession, riders, charioteers, musicians and young men and women who carried objects useful for the sacrifices as well as animals that would be sacrificed to the goddess.

The east pediment of the Parthenon showed the birth of the goddess Athena from the head of her father Zeus. The myth was not often depicted in classical times, although it had been popular in the Archaic period, especially on vases, All the gods and goddesses were present seated whereas at each end were chariots; the chariot of Helios ( the rising sun) on the left, the chariot of Selene (the moon going down) on the right. The sculptures that represented the actual scene are lost. Zeus was probably shown seated, while Athena was striding away from him fully grown and armed. The west pediment showed the conflict between Athena and Poseidon on naming the city. Poseidon god of the sea hit the rock with his trident and salt water came out. Athena on the other hand hit the rock with her spear and an olive tree came out. The people preferred Athena´s gift as it was more practical and named the city Athens. At the two ends of this pediment were the lying figures of the two rivers at the confluence of which Athens is located.

Here are the pieces in the British Museum collection:

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Marble metope from the Parthenon : A fight between a human and Lapith and a Centaur

Figure of Dionysos from the East Pediment of the Parthenon

Figure of Dionysos from the East Pediment of the Parthenon

Horsemen from the west frieze of the Parthenon 3

Horsemen from the west frieze of the Parthenon

88) Figures of three goddesses from the east pediment of the Parthenon

Figures of three goddesses from the east pediment of the Parthenon

7) Figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon

Figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon

9) Fragment of a marble shield

Fragment of a marble shield

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