The Parthenon Marbles, sometimes known as the Elgin Marbles, are some of the most highly contested pieces of art in history. These stunning sculptures were originally part of the Parthenon temple, which was built in honor of the goddess Athena on top of Athens’ Acropolis in the 5th century BC. The marble artworks adorning the temple became known as the Elgin marbles after the British Lord Elgin removed many of them during the 19th century to take back to the United Kingdom. Despite the sculptures’ fraught history of ownership, one of the main points of agreement is that they are breathtaking examples of Ancient Greek craftsmanship.
What Are the Elgin (Parthenon) Marbles?
Located atop the Acropolis of Athens, the Parthenon is a classical Greek temple built in honor of the goddess Athena. Designed in the 5th century BC by the sculptor Phidias and architects Iktinos and Callicrates, the Parthenon is both a formidable and artful example of the capabilities of the ancient Greeks. The temple was ornamented by a series of sculptures known as the Parthenon Marbles or Elgin Marbles. The Elgin Marbles name originates from the 19th century when the British Lord Elgin removed many of the sculptures from the site at the Acropolis and brought them to the United Kingdom.
The marbles have been held in the British Museum ever since, and the status of their ownership and rightful location is highly controversial. The Greek government believes the marbles should be permanently returned and housed in the Acropolis Museum, but the UK government views them as an asset to national wealth and will only consider sending the sculptures back on a loan.
Where Were the Marbles Located?
Before taking a closer look at some of the Parthenon Marbles, it is important to know where these beautiful sculptures were located in the original temple. The main locations of artwork on the Parthenon were the frieze, metopes, and pediment. The Parthenon frieze was a continuous strip of marble with carvings that ran around the top of the temple’s exterior walls. Depicted on the frieze was a long procession of gods and Athenian citizens in honor of the goddess Athena.
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The metopes were located on the outer side of the temple’s exterior, each one portraying a mythological or historical battle scene. Finally, the Parthenon’s Pediment was located toward the top of the roof and contained some of the largest, most intricate marble statues. Each of the sections of the Parthenon came together to create an intricate and artistic celebration of the goddess Athena.
1. The Parthenon Frieze
Out of all the Elgin Marbles, the Parthenon frieze is one of the most contentious pieces of artwork. The Parthenon frieze was originally a 525-feet-long strip of marble that ran around the exterior of the temple’s cella, or inner area. The carvings along the frieze depict an incredible procession of chariots, horsemen, gods, and Athenian citizens in the worship of the goddess Athena. Though the frieze is a long, continuous artwork it has now been separated because of Lord Elgin’s removal. While some pieces of the frieze remain displayed at the Acropolis Museum in Greece, there are many holes in the once-unbroken sculpture showing the missing pieces housed in the British Museum or lost to time.
The Mounted Horsemen are from the west frieze of the Parthenon and are a good example of the intricate processional depicted along this lengthy artwork. The Mounted Horsemen were originally designed by Pheidias, an ancient Greek sculptor who also created the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, which was among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Created between 438 and 432 BC, this particular section of the west frieze is among the Elgin marbles that were taken to the UK in the 19th century.
2. An Iconic Pedimental Sculpture: Reclining Dionysus
Dionysus by Pheidias (438-432 BC) is perhaps the most famous of the Elgin Marbles, considered a masterpiece of ancient Greek art and sculpture. This sculpture is a pedimental sculpture, originating from the very top section of the Parthenon near the roof. Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, and religious ecstasy, which is exemplified through his reclining pose in this work. Originally, this sculpture included a glass of wine in his hand which has been lost to time, though other details of the work like the musculature and animal pelt beneath him remain remarkably intact. This Dionysus figure is part of the east pediment of the Parthenon, which featured a scene depicting the birth of the goddess Athena.
3. The East Pediment: A Marble Statue of a Horse’s Head
Another notable sculpture from the east pediment in the Elgin Marbles collection is this carved horse’s head, designed and sculpted by Pheidias between 438-432. Horses were important figures in ancient Greece, revered and admired in times of both war and peace, and the Parthenon marbles contain numerous depictions of horses as a result. This particular horse is part of the birth of Athena scene and is thought to be one of the horses drawing the chariot of the moon goddess Selene. The details on this sculpture, including the horse’s bulging eyes and open mouth, are remarkably realistic and demonstrate the deep respect ancient Greeks had for the animal.
4. The Birth of Athena: Two Breathtaking Pedimental Female Figures
Two Female Figures (438-432 BC) is yet another example of the breathtaking craftsmanship present in the sculptures from the east pediment of the Parthenon. Another part of the Birth of Athena scene, this piece of the Elgin Marbles collection is thought to depict Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, and her mother Dione. These two feminine figures stand out among the marbles due to their dynamic poses and the incredible attention to detail in the sculpting of their robes.
Aphrodite is reclining in her mother’s lap with her shoulder exposed, and though their heads have been lost to time Dione is thought to have been looking down at her daughter with pride and affection. Though historians are fairly sure these figures are Aphrodite and Dione, there is always room for alternate interpretations given the absence of some key features. One proposition is that these two figures are Thalassa, the Greek personification of the sea, reclining in the lap of Gaia (the Earth).
5. Elgin Marbles Showing the Battle Between Centaurs and Lapiths
The Parthenon metopes depicted a series of important battles in Greek mythology. One such scene was the battle between the centaurs and the Lapiths, legendary people who lived in Thessaly. Many of the metopes showed scenes related to this mythological struggle, with each metope on the south side of the Parthenon either portraying a centaur fighting a Lapith man or a centaur seizing a Lapith woman. For the ancient Greeks, these scenes represented many themes: the triumph of good over evil, the battle between man and monster, and the war between the Greeks and the Persians in the early 5th century BCE.
Though the Lapiths ultimately won their war according to Greek legend, the metope depictions of battle are quite violent. In the Headless Centaur metope (447-438 BC), a centaur’s triumph over a Lapith is shown. The centaur has an incredibly detailed feline skin draped over his arm in a representation of his victory. The Lapith, on the other hand, is shown lying down over his chlamys (short cloak), in a position possibly meant to elicit sympathy or shock in the viewer. The gruesome scene in this metope served as a reminder to ancient Greeks of the dangers of barbarism.
A Centaur Grips the Neck of a Lapith (445-440 BC) is another metope from the south side of the Parthenon showing a battle between a centaur and a Lapith. Unlike the Headless Centaur, this metope remains in the Acropolis Museum and is not a part of the Elgin marble collection housed in the British Museum. This metope is also different from the Headless Centaur because the battle shown is a little more ambiguous in terms of outcome. Though the Lapith is put in a headlock by the centaur, he is also plunging his spear into the centaur’s belly. The question of who won the fight in this carving is open to interpretation and leaves more room for the viewer to be hopeful.