AP Art History: Ancient Greece, Part Two
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I’m continuing with my AP Art History series. However, this video is a bit different from my usual review content! One of the required images from the Ancient Greece section is the Acropolis of Athens. This structure is quite complex and there are multiple elements that are discussed. Therefore, this post will only focus on the Acropolis, its art, and other associated information. So, to learn more, keep on reading!
The Acropolis is a large, flat topped, rocky hill that sits proudly above the city of Athens. It rises 150 m (490 ft) above the city! The term “acropolis” is a generic, Greek word that means the highest point of a city, so we do see the term used in other cities in and around Greece. Fascinatingly, in ancient times, the area was known as the Cecropia, after the legendary first man-snake king of Athens!
There is archaeological evidence that the Acropolis has had some form of human habitation dating back to the Middle Neolithic period (c. between 5800-5300 BCE). During the late Bronze age, there was a Mycenean palace on top of the hill, but very little evidence outside of a single column survives.
The buildings that we have come to associate the Acropolis with were built under the direction of Pericles, the famous politician and general. A contemporary historian called him “The First Citizen of Athens” because he sought to beautify the city and make it a center of learning and culture. His building programs oversaw the construction of The Parthenon, Propylaea, Temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion, and more! Without Pericles, Athens wouldn’t have been the same!
Parthenon - Main Structure
The first, and largest, part of the Acropolis section of the AP Art History required images is the Parthenon. As I just mentioned, it was built under the direction of Pericles between 447 and 438 BCE. It was built as a temple to Athena, the patron goddess of the city. Inside, there was once a large gold and ivory sculpture of her, but it has long since been lost to history. It is a long, rectangular building that stands on a raised platform. As with many other Greek temples, it is built with a post and lintel design. Although it is a quite simple design, it allowed the architects to create plenty of space for an elaborate, decorative program. It is important to note that the Parthenon more or less covered the same footprint of at least three earlier, Archaic era temples.
The general structure of the Parthenon remained relatively intact over the next several centuries. Early Christians converted it to a church, removing and defacing some of the sculptural programs. In the 15th century, Ottoman Turks captured the city and converted the church into a mosque. Unfortunately, during a battle against the Venetians in 1687, the Turks used the Parthenon as a stronghold. The gunpowder they stored there was hit with a Venetian bombardment. It exploded violently, destroying many parts of the building and its beautiful art.
This conflict is what allowed a British man named Lord Elgin to step in and remove many of the surviving sculptures from the exterior of the Parthenon. I’ll discuss it later in the post, but it has been the center of controversy for many years.
Greece gained its independence in 1832. By that time, the Parthenon was just a sad, nearly destroyed set of marble blocks. Since 1975, Greece has worked on an extensive renovation program and the building of a museum to protect the art that has survived.
Parthenon - sculptures (pediments, metopes and frieze)
One of the most important elements of the Parthenon is its elaborate sculpture program. Artists filled nearly every possible space with works of art that told the stories of Athena’s triumphs and Greece’s history.
First, let’s discuss the pediment program. A pediment is the triangular part of the front of a building formed by the lintel and the room. Because of its location, it is a prime place for art because viewers can’t help but to see it when they approach the building.
On the Parthenon, the east pediment showed the story of Athena’s birth. Instead of the traditional way, the goddess actually sprung from Zeus’ forehead, fully formed and ready for battle. Sadly, we only know this from records of the design because the sculpture has been lost to history. Some of the pediment sculptures have survived though!
They are a collection of goddesses, lounging casually. Their relaxed angles would have fit perfectly into the triangular space of the pediment. These sculptures are incredibly lifelike! Their bodies are relaxing, truly as if they are just hanging out on Mt Olympus! The folds of their dresses are elaborate and leave the viewer wondering how it is stone! Unfortunately, the goddesses are missing their heads or any iconography. Art historians speculate that they are Hestia, the goddess of the hearth and home, Dione, a titaness, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sexuality.
Next up are the metope sculptures. The metope is the square space along the frieze which rests atop the lintel. The Parthenon has ninety-two metopes and they show scenes of mythical battles. The most famous are the ones that show the epic battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths. In the story, the Laptihs, a group of Greeks that lived near Athens, made the mistake of inviting the centaurs to the wedding feast of their king, Peirithoos. The wine was flowing at the event and the Centaurs became inebriated and decided to carry off the Lapith women to have their way with them. The Lapiths enter into battle to try and save them. The hero Thesus came to the Lapiths’ aid and they won the battle. This story was included in the Parthenon because Thesus was the mythical king and founder-hero of Athens
In the sculpture, we can truly feel the action. The Laptih aggressively grabs the centaur by what we can assume to be his hair, even though the creature’s face has since disappeared. The naturalistic details with the muscles of the two figures and the folds of cloth are absolutely remarkable. The viewer can feel their struggle for victory. By adding this story to the Parthenon, it was seen as a tribute to the great man that founded their city.
The final sculpture program covered in the AP Art History test is located on the frieze. The frieze rests on top of the lintel and is broken up by the metopes. As I mentioned earlier, the architects and artists took every opportunity to decorate this great temple to Athena.
On the frieze, we see a pair of men riding into battle. The horses and their riders are in motion and we can see the muscles flexing and there is a strong horizontal line that runs through the piece. Once again, the folds of the humans’ clothing give the work a realistic feel and also help to give the piece a sense of direction. The rider in the front seems to be giving a hand gesture to his companion. This gesture was repeated throughout the Parthenon, though its meaning is unknown.
Plaque of the Ergastines
Upon first glance, this plaque is a bit “boring” compared to the other ones that we covered in this post. But, it is remarkable in its own right! The name Eragistines refers to the group of aristocratic women shown. They are walking in part of a procession for the festival that Athens throws every 4 years to celebrate its patron goddesses birthday. The women are approaching a male attendant who presents them with the peplos, or the garment that would dress the statue of Athena for her birthday.
Besides the remarkable naturalism that we are used to seeing in these sculptural programs, this piece is fascinating for another reason! You see, this is the first time in Ancient Greek art, and perhaps the entire history of art, that we see ordinary people in art amongst mythological and religious figures. It shows society as a combination of all the groups and people feeling included in the great stories of Athens.
Nike Adjusting Her Sandal
This final element of the AP Art History images for the Acropolis is this piece. It is called Nike Adjusting Her Sandal and it was once a part of the Temple of Athena Nike. Although the goddess’ head has disappeared, the rest of her body is remarkably detailed! The elaborate folds of her cloth both cover her body, but also seem translucent. We can see the muscles of her body as she bends down to fix her sandals. It is a balancing act, but she maintains perfect control. This work is a testament to the magnificence of Greek art!
Who do they belong to?!
Before wrapping this post, I believe that it is important to touch on the location of the majority of the sculptures today. You see, most of them are not in Greece. Due to the tumultuous colonization by foreign powers, Greece didn’t have a stable, local government. A man named Lord Elgin of Great Britain saw it as his opportunity to claim great art for his country. In a shady deal with the Ottoman Turks, he was able to procure the “rights” to the pieces and take them back to his home country. They ended up in the collection of the British Museum where they have remained ever since.
For the last several decades, the Greek government, with the assistance of UNESCO, has asked the United Kingdom to return the collection to them. In fact, as a part of the Acropolis restoration project, they built a beautiful, state of the art museum to house them and bring their beauty to the public.
This fight, along with other objects like the Rosetta Stone, have brought up the issue of repatriation. The British argued that they protected the marbles from further destruction and received the rights in a legitimate, business transaction. On the other hand, the Greeks have acknowledged that the works were protected, but they are now in the position to care for and house the marbles in their homeland. As of the writing of this post in 2023, there seems to be a possibility of a move happening, but nothing is set in stone (pun intended) yet.
The Acropolis is certainly a beast when it comes to the AP Art History Test! But, it is a complex building that represents the great classical civilization of Ancient Greece. The next post in this series will be the wrap up of this section, so keep an eye out for it!
Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 12th edition by Fred Kleiner