By Julia Waldow
Two lines of 10 groups of soldiers mount their horses, four-horse chariots gallop along the road and tray-bearers lure sacrificial animals to the altar. These descriptions of the figures on the Parthenon frieze sound at first like those from a period-piece crossed with an action movie. Yet this backstory is far from fictional and remains a subject of debate among art history students, scholars and experts worldwide.
The Parthenon frieze, of which 80 percent survives, was sculpted between 443 and 438 B.C., most likely under the direction of the great sculptor Pheidias.
“This was the first time that the Greeks put real mortals [on a piece of art] and sort of immortalized themselves,” Jenifer Neils, who serves as the Ruth Coulter Heede professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University and the Chair of the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, said. “It shows not only their high opinion of themselves but also that they viewed themselves as the saviors of grace who fended off the Persians and that [they considered] their form of government ﾅ the greatest political institution.”
In her book The Parthenon Frieze, Neils focuses on the architectural monument’s visual elements and impact on later art, and will speak at the Community Foundation Theater in the Gund Gallery today at 4:15 p.m.
“I have some new ideas about how the subject matter of the sculpture of the Parthenon has to do with political policies in Athens in the late fifth century under Pericles,” Neils said. “I don’t think that these are just mythological images of gods and heroes. They have real resonance with Athenian politics.” Niels first became interested in studying the frieze after curating a ’90s art exhibition on an ancient Athenian festival.
During her lecture, Neils plans to discuss the controversy surrounding the Elgin Marbles, a collection of classical Greek marble sculptures from the Parthenon. In the early 19th century, half of the surviving Parthenon sculptures were relocated to the British Museum. Neils believes the marbles should be returned to Athens.
“What if we took the Sistine [Chapel] ceiling and chopped it up and then distributed it around?” Neils said. “We would never understand the genius of Michelangelo. I feel the same way about the frieze. We can’t really understand the genius of the sculptors unless we try to get it back as much as possible to its original integrity.”
To supplement Neils’s lecture, Kenyon students and faculty curated an exhibit titled “The Parthenon Frieze at a Glance.” The exhibition, which received support from the Visual Resources Collection, visually reproduces the frieze in the curatorial classroom, Gund Gallery 103, and is open from Tuesday through Sunday with varied hours.
Professor of Art History Eugene Dwyer came up with an idea for the exhibition after viewing University Prints’s images of the frieze. During the summer, he approached Greg Culley ’14 for help in scanning images and setting up the show. Culley spent approximately three to four weeks screenshotting and enhancing detailed blocks of the frieze from the Acropolis Museum’s website and conducting room calculations to decide the images’ sizes.
“It’s very cool to be able to see [the frieze] as close as possible to how it was supposed to be seen, rather than [by] just looking at a set of individual blocks through a series of slides,” Culley, an art history major, said. “I’ve seen [the frieze] a bunch of times, but once I saw the whole thing [in detail], I thought, ﾑWow, this actually is really beautiful and an incredible work of art.'”
Dwyer, who plans to use the exhibition in conjunction with his Greek art class, is excited to expose the Kenyon community to the frieze. “[People] gain the ability to know the frieze more than [they would] just by looking at isolated images of it,” Dwyer said. “[This way] they have a sense of the entire work, rather than just snippets.”
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