Wednesday, 16 May 2018


Here's some pictures I took at the British Museum one lunch time in 2015. They're all reconstructions of ancient Athenian statues of their patron deity, the great Athena. The golden statue is based on the work of Phidias for the Parthenon and is called Athena Lemnia, which is now lost but known from copies of varying ages and certainty. The purpose of this (and the other statue below) was to give some idea of how these works would have looked when new. Marble was painted and bronze gilded or polished to a high shine, with glass for the eyes. In fact, the eyes were the most striking aspect of the first statue and the second photo only hints at the life-like quality of the statue's gaze.

Both statues show the goddess wearing her aegis, a sort of shawl with snake heads attached (and the head of Medusa embedded on it too, on the first statue. In the second example it's on her shield). The Phidias version has the snakes almost as broaches around the edge and they're easy to miss, especially when distracted by what is certainly a great evocation of what I suppose is the supernal origin of the goddess. If it wasn't so golden it would be a superbly realistic creation in bronze and it's easy to see why later generations would assume that the Greek masters "cheated" and used casting of living people.

Naturally enough, the Christians despised it in much the same way that they hated anything bright or positive and it was destroyed, probably in the orgy of book-burning and murder which led us into the Dark Ages in the name of the Prince of Peace.

But I digress. The second statue is based on a marble original and is a good deal less sophisticated, suggesting that the arrival 40 years later of Phidias must have been something of a revolution on the Acropolis. However, the very primitiveness of the pose makes the aegis much more prominent and its purpose as something to be thrust into the face of attackers, human or giant, more obvious. And of course the colour is striking. The museum notice said that the white areas were thought to be unpainted but it's hard to believe that there wasn't some skin tone applied. Phidias is mentioned by Himerios as having applied blush to Athena's cheek and the stark contrast between the coloured aegis and the white skin really cries out for it, IMO.

The so-called "Golden Age" of Athens was no such thing, in basic human terms. Inequality was worse than anything Donald Trump could wish for, with slavery a routine part of life while the elites of the city had no need to physically exert themselves except for that other stain on their world: constant and never-ending war and it's peaceful equivalent of politics. Alternative facts were the coin of the political classes and Athen's democracy was repeatedly undermined and subverted by lies and plain old misconceptions - to accuse was all to often to condemn, and Phidias - possibly the greatest artist we know of before the renaissance - was ultimately accused of a highly unlikely crime and exiled. During his exile, towards the end of his 60 years he created his masterpiece and one of the Wonders of the World: the statue of Zeus at Olympia. This the Christians destroyed too but for once art defeated pig-ignorance and Phidias's evocation of the ultimate deity was too strong to resist and the face of the master-sculptor's Zeus became the model for the equally mythical Jesus, and his flowing locks, beard and moustache can be seen in billions of images around the world to this day. So, that's some consolation, I guess.

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