21: Akhenaten and the Amarna Style

Hello and welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast. I’m your host, Lucas Livingston. In this episode, we’ll scratch the surface of one of the most interesting periods from Ancient Egypt, the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Any enthusiast of Ancient Egyptian history will probably have heard of Akhenaten, the so-called “Heretic King,” and if not Akhenaten, then at least you’ve heard of his wife Nefertiti, arguably the most famous Ancient Egyptian woman, second only to Cleopatra. Akhenaten ruled in the 18th dynasty from about 1353 to 1336 BC. In that relatively short time of only 17 years, he radically transformed Egyptian state religion and developed an entirely new artistic iconography.

At the beginning of his reign, Akhenaten, who then went by the name Amunhotep IV, commissioned works of the traditional sort. As with many of his predecessors and successors, he built additions to the Temple of Amun at Karnak decorated in the very traditional canonic Egyptian style. But then in his second or third year he changed his name from Amunhotep to Akhenaten, which means something like the “Spirit of Aten.” So, he stripped the god Amun from his name and replaced it with Aten, the solar deity represented as a disk rather than an anthropoid god. Aten wasn’t anything new. His father King Amunhotep III already celebrated the cult of Aten, majorly elevating its status, and Aten as the life-giving power of the sun goes back at least as far as the Middle Kingdom.

The changes Akhenaten made were to more than his name alone. He outlawed many of the major cults, especially the cult of Amun, closing their temples and pissing off a lot of priests. He enforced the worship of Aten, with himself (and sometimes Nefertiti) as the sole intermediary between Heaven and Earth. He built a vast new capital city called Akhetaten, meaning the “Horizon of Aten.” Now it’s mostly rubble and sand, because it was destroyed after Akhenaten’s reign, and much of the rubble was used as filler for later additions to Karnak, but it once held huge open air temple courts where offerings were given up to Aten on a daily basis. The open air architecture was very different from the tiny, dimly lit, secretive back rooms of Karnak, Luxor, and other traditional Egyptian temples where a few special high priests would gather and perform sacred rituals enshrouded in mystery and secrecy.

This is a fragment from the Great Palace at Akhetaten, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. On it we see Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their eldest daughter Meretaten praying and making offerings to the solar disk, much like we might imagine them having routinely done those many millennia ago. Notice the subtle linear band along the top of the scene. That’s actually the hieroglyphic character pet, meaning the “sky,” further reinforcing the doctrine of open-air worship to Aten. As the giver and sustainer of life, Aten’s rays of light reach down to its supplicants and hold symbols of the ankh, the hieroglyphic character for “life,” to their noses. In effect Akhenaten and Nefertiti breath in the life-granting essence of Aten. The hands at the end of Aten’s rays remain the only vestige of anthropomorphism to an otherwise abstract divinity.

This fragment exemplifies the innovative artistic style from the reign of Akhenaten, often called the Amarna style from Tel el Amarna, the modern Egyptian name for the area around what once was Akhetaten. The Amarna revolution abandons the idealized representation of the human form, especially the Pharaoh, who, as we might remember from our discussion of the statue of Ra-Horakhty back in episode 14, was always shown as an eternally youthful, muscular exemplar of human physique. The Amarna style, however, could be described as down-right caricature, a deformation of an individual’s characteristics. Just like the cult of Aten, itself, Akhenaten’s not uniquely responsible for inventing the Amarna style. He adopts, augments, and elevates many artistic characteristics that were already making their appearance during his father’s reign.

A couple other big developments in Egyptian art that the Amarna style picks up and runs with are the representation of movement and snapshots of moments in time. More typical of Ancient Egyptian religious and royal artwork is a very static timeless quality with almost no effort to represent any kind of action among the figures. But in the Amarna style, we definitely feel a sense of movement. Expression of emotion is also a big development that Akhenaten adopts from his predecessors. Take for example this delightful royal family portrait from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Here we see two young princesses cuddling up in the lap of Nefertiti, one daughter affectionately touching her mother’s chin. Akhenaten playfully dangles an earring like a piñata before Princess Meretaten. Note also the comfortable reclining pose that the king takes. I mean, this is a family at leisure, or at least they’re acting like it for the camera. All the while, the life-giving rays of the Aten shine upon them. This is all quite different from classic representations of the royal family like Menkaure with his wife here at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. A beautiful piece and sure she’s holding him with some minuscule degree of affection, but you have to wonder if they slept in the same bed. Of course, then the summer 2009 issue of Kmt, the popular journal on Ancient Egypt, has to go and accuse this lovely relief of Akhenaten and his family of being a modern counterfeit, but at least we still have this very similar example in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin. Check out the article “Nefertiti’s Final Secret” by Rolf Krauss in volume 20, number 2 of Kmt.

We also see a big change to the actual stylistic execution of relief carving. The sunken relief carving of the Amarna period is rendered with deeply cut, bold, smoothly flowing contour lines. Particular attention is given to detail, especially in individual parts of the body, like fingers and toes. Remember back at the end of episode 9, “Walk Like an Egyptian,” we learned that you never see little toes in Egyptian painting or relief carving. Well, the Amarna period may be the only general exception to this rule.

What makes the iconography of the Amarna style most distinctive, however, is the unusual physiology of Akhenaten and others. Instead of the ideal physical specimen of masculinity, Akhenaten is represented with an elongated face and head, full, heavy lips, enviably slender waist, spindly limbs, a pendulous belly, and thick, rounded thighs. … And Pharaoh got back! … So, what gives? It’s like Akhenaten’s trying to mix together exaggerated masculine and feminine characteristics. There’s absolutely no evidence to back up the idea that Akhenaten may have been physically deformed, although you come across a lot of people espousing that misconception. In fact, for many many centuries, the ancient god of the Nile’s annual flood, Hapi, was represented with breasts and a pregnant belly, yet masculine attire, a typical god’s beard, and otherwise generally masculine physique. Akhenaten is adopting an iconography similar to Hapi, blending masculinity and femininity into a singular being of idealized androgyny as the sole provider to the Egyptian people, thereby legitimizing his divine right to rule.

You get a lot of theories for why Akhenaten made the changes that he did to Egyptian society, religion, and art. Most of the theories are variants on the idea that he was either crazy or enlightened. He’s frequently given credit for introducing the concept of monotheism when all the rest of the world was running around worshiping different gods, rocks, and shrubbery, but that’s just not true. Akhenaten wasn’t a monotheist; he was more like a henotheist. Henotheism is the worship of one god, while believing that others exist and can get a little bit of credit too. Even though Akhenaten preached that the Aten was the one and only god, his motivation was largely political, not religious or ideological. In the generations leading up to Akhenaten, the state cult of Amun had risen to such unprecedented heights that it almost came to eclipse the authority of Pharaoh. The temple was the administrative and financial center of Egypt, holding massive tracts of land and immense influence over all aspects of Egyptian society and national affairs. In an effort not to become a puppet of the temple, Amunhotep III, Akhenaten’s father, already started to take measures to return to the unquestionable authority of Pharaoh, and Akhenaten took it that much further. But it didn’t work. Almost immediately after Akhenaten’s reign, Amun was reintroduced as the state god, royal iconography began reverting, and the Amarna style was dying out, giving rise to the Post-Amarna Period. But this fragment, rich in iconography, expression, and eternal supplication to Aten, is a prime example of the unique, short-lived, and beautiful artistic revolution of the “Heretic King” Akhenaten.

Want to learn more? Check out the bibliography in the Additional Resources section at ancientartpodcast.org. One particularly great resource is the catalog and website to the exhibition Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen from 1999. You can email me at info@ancientartpodcast.org. You can also give feedback on the website and fill out a fun little survey. And why not share the love with some iTunes comments? Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.

©2009 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org


20: Ancient Olympics, Part 3

Alright, welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast. It’s time to wrap things with part 3 of the Ancient Olympics. We looked at the foundation myths for the four major crown games at Delphi, Nemea, Isthmia, and Olympia. We also, ahem, exposed the concept of nudity as a quintessentially democratic Greek dynamic to ancient athletics. This time we’re getting in to the nitty gritty where we can smell the sweat and taste the dirt. Ancient athletics never felt so real. We’ll keep looking at what makes the Greek games essentially Greek and we’ll run through a survey of the different types of athletic events at the Olympics. Then we’ll go on a nice little marathon run and polish things off with some character portraits of notable athletes.

Like nudity, explored in episode 19, another fascinating quality to the ancient Greek games, which contributed to their idealized democratic nature, was how judging took place. All subjectivity was removed from judging. There were no points awarded for grace or form. Judging was done using objective standards. Who hurled the javelin furthest, who ran the fastest, or who threw his opponent to the ground first. Judges are fairly easy to spot in Greek vase painting. Just look for the guy with the big stick. We see judges calling matches to an end when a victor is declared, or sometimes intervening in a match when a contestant breaks the rules. The beauty of competing in the nude — no, this isn’t going where you think — but it’s that the aristocrat and laborer were judged alike and judgment was swift and harsh.

Most of the events of the Ancient Olympic Games are familiar to us. The earliest type of event, the only event that would have been held at the supposed first Olympiad of 776 BC, was the stadion, from which we get the word “stadium.” The stadion was basically just the ancient equivalent to the 200 meter dash. Contestants would run down the length of the stadium, which was 600 ancient feet. Funny thing is, though, the official length of a foot varied from location to location. The length of the stadium at Olympia was different from the length at Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea. But that sort of standardization didn’t really matter to the ancient Greeks. Another footrace that was added to the Olympics in 520 BC was the hoplitodromos, where athletes would run down the stadium and back in armor, wearing helmets and greaves, and carrying shields. Again, there’s no evidence that there was any sort of standardization to the weight of the armor being carried. Similarly, in the pentathlon, one event was the long jump. Athletes would often jump with the aid of handheld weights called halteres, or halters. Halters have been excavated from different sites and periods and there’s no apparent pattern to their shape or weight. Much like a bowling ball, you’d use whatever weight works best for you. The other four events of the pentathlon, which originated in 708 BC, included the discus, the javelin, the stadion, and wrestling. You might think that’s where we get modern Greco-Roman wrestling from, but that’s just Victorian nostalgia run amok.

Similar to wrestling was another full contact event called pankration, literally “all-powerful,” the no-holds-barred ancient equivalent to mixed martial arts or the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The only illegal moves in the pankration were gouging and biting. Everything else was fair game. The idea for these rules comes from Hercules’s battle against the Nemean Lion. The lion’s hide was impenetrable to sword and spear, so Hercules was forced to grapple with it, choking the beast to death. Now, the pankration was not by definition a death match, but yes, some contestants did die. One of the most well known is Arrhichion of Phigaleia, pankration victor of the 572 and 568 Olympics. In his third attempt at an Olympic victory in 564, his opponent managed to get a good strangle hold on Arrhichion, slowly choking the life from him. But as darkness swept over him and the sleep of death crept in, Arrhichion swiftly executed one final move to wrench his opponent’s ankle from its socket. His opponent, still applying the choke hold, signaled submission to the judge. Arrhichion simultaneously became a three-time Olympic victor and slipped away into death.

We also see boxing, called “pyx,” added to the Olympics in 668 BC. And to round out the gymnikos agon, the nude games, we see the diaulos added in 724 BC. The diaulos was the second event added to the Olympics, after the stadion. Diaulos is the word for a double-flute, a common instrument from Ancient Greece. Playing on that term, the diaulos race was a double stadion, or down and back, just like the later hoplitodromos. And at the next Olympiad four years later in 720 BC, we see the addition of the dolichos, the long-distance run, somewhere around 20 to 24 laps of the stadium. It’s interesting that you can identify which race is being depicted in art based on the position of the runners’ knees and arms. If their arms are raised high up with knees high in long strides, they’re running the shorter stadion. If their knees aren’t quite as high, it’s likely the diaulos. Arms carefully tucked in to the torso like jogging, that’s certainly the long-distance dolichos. But if you’re not sure, inscriptions next to the runners sometimes provide additional evidence.

What about the marathon, you ask? The famed 26.2 mile run popular throughout the world today named after the famous ancient Greek site of the Battle of Marathon? You might be surprised to know that there was no such thing as the marathon run in the ancient world. It’s an entirely modern invention. The idea of the marathon originates from two possible stories that may have gotten mixed together in later times. The Battle of Marathon was a major Greek victory over the Persians in 490 BC. The basic story is that the Athenians sent a messenger named Pheidippides to run from Marathon to Athens after the battle to announce their victory. As soon as he arrived and shared the news, he dropped dead. But there’s no mention by Herodotus in his contemporary account of the Battle of Marathon of anyone running from Marathon to Athens to deliver the news. He does mention a messenger named Pheidippides or sometimes Philippides in some manuscripts, who ran from Athens to Sparta before the battle to seek Spartan aid. The other story that gets mixed with Herodotus’s is that the Athenian hoplite force, after defeating the Persian army at Marathon, marched at a high pace in full armor the 25 or so miles all the way from Marathon to Athens to defeat a second wave of the Persian attack. So, as I said, these two stories of two different runs eventually get mixed together to form the much more romantic account of Pheidippides, his valor, and his tragic self-sacrifice to bring news of the victory of democractic Greek heroism over the barbaric imperialism of Persia at the Battle of Marathon.

And the marathon run itself? Yeah, that was invented for the first modern Olympics in 1896 in an attempt to echo the legendary glory of Ancient Greece. As a side note, the distance was eventually standardized to 26 miles and 385 yards after the 1908 London Olympics. Today’s marathon run is not the distance from Marathon to Athens, but the distance from Windsor Castle to the royal box at the London Olympic stadium.

We’ve talked a lot about the gymnikos agon, the nude events, but what about the hippikos agon. I already mentioned that, despite all the hooplah about chariot races in art and literature nearly as far back as the Greek Dark Ages, they weren’t officially part of the Olympics until 680 BC. The first horse race to be added was the tethrippon, the four-horse chariot race, which was 12 laps around the hippodrome. But, of course, it shouldn’t surprise you any more that the length of the hippodrome wasn’t standardized from location to location. We also find the synoris, a two-horse chariot race, and the keles, a mounted horse race. As with today, it was advantageous to have as small and light a jockey as possible, but back in Ancient Greece that usually meant having a young slave boy race your prize horse. This silver coin from the Art Institute of Chicago commemorates the keles race won by Philip II of Macedon in 356 BC, father of Alexander the Great. The youthful jockey holds a palm branch, a secondary victory trophy given out at the games by this time. Philip’s name is stamped on the coin fragmented by the horse’s head. And on the other side (technically the obverse, if you want to talk numismatics) we see the god Zeus, the ultimate victor at the Olympics. Don’t forget — he’s the reason for the season.

Despite all this talk about the Olympics being the ultimate emblem of Greek democracy, there was definitely a social divide among the competitors and events. While any decent athlete could compete in the nude events, the horse races always held a certain air of snobbery and elitism. To enter in the horse races, one had to be able to afford a horse, chariot, rider, and training, which only the wealthiest of Greeks could afford. Last time in episode 19, we saw in the funeral games of Patroklos in Book 23 of the Iliad that Odysseus excelled in the footrace and wrestling match. Interestingly, though, he doesn’t compete in the chariot race, perhaps because he is one of the less affluent Greek kings at Troy and couldn’t afford to lug a team of race horses and chariot with him on a military campaign.

But this social divide didn’t prevent the masses from reveling in the spectacle of the horse races. By all accounts they were extremely popular. Popular for the masses and also as a means for political maneuvering and exploitation. The coin commemorating Philip’s keles victory ensured his fame and name would be dispersed throughout much of the Greek world. As Philip expands his outreach, he gains control of game sites, maneuvering to unify all of Greece in part through athletic competition, not as a series of disparate sacred centers and city states, but as a united nation of Hellenic people.

Hopefully this trilogy of episodes on the Ancient Olympics has whetted your appetite to delve a little deeper. If you’d like to learn more, visit the bibliography in the Additional Resources section at ancientartpodcast.org, where you’ll find a section under Greece on “the Olympics and Other Greek Games.”

©2009 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

17: Alsdorf Galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan, and Islamic Art

Hi everyone. Welcome back to the Ancient Art Podcast. I’m your host Lucas Livingston. You may have noticed … or maybe not … that the Ancient Art Podcast is now available on YouTube. Just head on over to youtube.com and search for “Ancient Art Podcast,” or go to ancientartpodcast.org and you’ll see the embedded YouTube video there. You also may have noticed the addition of an iPod-compatible format to the podcast stream. Much to my chagrin, after I finally bit the bullet and purchased a video-capable iPod (relegating my awesome first generation iPod to the drawer), I suddenly discovered, having had no test platform prior to this, that the high-definition Ancient Art Podcast doesn’t play on video iPods. What the heck! So instead of conceding quality to compatibility and downgrading the podcast, I thought it wise to offer both formats—HD and iPod—in the same stream, for your choosing. One looks great on a huge plasma screen, while the other fits nicely in your pocket. And for those listeners with the iPhone or iPod touch, the iPod version is what you’ll want to download directly to your device, not the HD version.

If you listen to MuseCast, the official audio podcast of the Art Institute of Chicago, you may have heard in the November 2008 episode about the grand opening of the Alsdorf Galleries, the new galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan, and Islamic Art. Well, the MuseCast episode gave you a brief audio introduction to the galleries and has a great interview with curator Madhu Ghose, but I’m so excited about this much anticipated installation that I want to talk about it myself … with pictures, no less.

If you’ve been to the Art Institute in the past year or so, you may have noticed that the famed corridor of medieval armor, weapons, and decorative arts has been removed, much to the dismay of rambunctious adolescents and nostalgic gamers. Don’t worry. It’ll be coming back in a different and even better display, but that space, the long corridor that spans the commuter railroad tracks, has undergone an incredible transition from the musty medieval hall to the majestic, colorful, day-lit corridor of South and Southeast Asian treasures. There’s quite a feast of artwork on display here, including some works that may be a little familiar to avid listeners, like the Gandharan Bodhisattva from episode 7 of the Ancient Art Podcast, now exhibited among a number of his Gandharan contemporaries. One remarkable architectural element is the installation of a long set of windows offering a sweeping panorama of the Art Institute’s new Modern Wing, Millennium Park, and the Chicago skyline north of the park. Bright natural light is okay in this gallery, because all the exposed works are statuary made of stone, bronze, or wood, and whatever paint they originally had on them has long since disintegrated. But so as not to be confronted by a plodding series of dull gray sculpture, broad swaths of color have been added among the casework, auspicious colors exemplary of the cultures that produced these works of art, like saffron, the color of sacrifice worn by the Buddhist monks of Tibet, yellow, the color of the Indian spring festival, and red, the color of traditional bridal dress. Color is a very important part of South and Southeast Asian life. Nearly all works surrounding us in this gallery were once originally vibrantly painted with a variety of colors and also originally draped in fine textiles. Some works even retain part of their original coloration; not so much those in the Art Institute, but some works even in-situ, like this 17th century granite sculpture of a divine marriage ceremony from the Madurai temple in Tamil Nadu in Southern India. Notice also the floral garlands draped over the figures. And in this 19th century Indian watercolor of priests worshipping the god Krishna, now in Australia. While it’s a 2-dimensional work, you can still get a sense of how the images of gods and goddesses were and still are today draped in extraordinary fabrics in Hindu and Buddhist temples.

The colored panels in the Alsdorf Galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan, and Islamic Art serve to remind us that these works of art surrounding us are now stripped out of their original sacred context. These magnificent works of sculpted stone and cast bronze, while being beautiful works of art in their own right, were not created for the purpose of being displayed in a museum behind airtight glass in a precision temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. These sacred works are consecrated icons of divine beings. As in Western traditions, an icon, or a work of art that undergoes a religious consecration, is literally thought to house the spirit of the divine form. It’s called the “eye-opening” ceremony, when the icon is unveiled and awakens with painted open eyes as the spirit of the divine enters the figure. In the original context of a temple or shrine, one would expect to encounter these sacred works, like this 12th century Indian statue of the Divine General Kartikeya, adorned with fine drapery, colorful pigment, flowering garlands, and all manners of religious offerings piled at his feet, like incense, flowers, food, and money.

This colossal figure is one of the centerpieces of the Alsdorf Galleries. He and the adjacent contemporary South Indian Buddha are hard to miss when passing through, but hopefully you’ll do more than just pass through. Hopefully you’ll even stop to enjoy these works on your way from the gift shop to the restaurant. The statue of Kartikeya exemplifies much of the rich iconography and symbolism of the Hindu tradition. The multiplicity of arms and heads reflect the celestial, superhuman quality of his divine form. (Although, to be very specific, the six heads on Kartikeya here actually refer to the story surrounding his mystical birth, six heads to nurse from his six foster mothers, but multiple heads is a common element of Hindu iconography.) Each of his hands holds some sort of ritual implement or weapon, each having a precise meaning. Like the lotus blossom (“padme” in Sanskrit) in one of his right hands, symbolic of enlightenment—the lotus flower rising from the murky depths of the marsh out of the darkness up to the heavenly light of the sun—also symbolic of the feminine energy of the human spirit. And the vajra, or thunderbolt, in his upper left hand, symbolic of the masculine energy of the human spirit. The lotus and vajra can be read together as a union, a balance, between our feminine and masculine sides. People aren’t one or the other. There’s a duality to us all. To reach nirvana, to reach an enlightened state of being, we need to strike an internal balance, a harmony of these forces within. To borrow something from the Far East, it’s like the yin and yang, a harmony in the unified circle of two swirling opposites. We also need to strike an internal balance between our compassion and wisdom. Interestingly, wisdom in the Hindu tradition is generally equated with femininity, whereas compassion is equated with masculinity … kinda opposite to the Western tradition.

Notice that two of Kartikeya’s hands aren’t holding anything. Those hands, instead, are striking very specific poses. It’s called a mudra. A mudra is a gesture that conveys a specific message. There are hundreds of different mudras, each having their own specific meaning. Mudras are employed throughout Hindu and Buddhist iconography and can be seen repeatedly among the statuary and paintings in the Art Institute’s galleries of Asian art. You’ll also come upon the widespread employment of mudras in classical Indian dance. What Kartikeya’s striking is very common. It’s actually two different mudras. His right hand with the fingers pointing up and the palm forward is the Abhaya mudra, the “gesture of reassurance.” With this mudra, Kartikeya is saying “fear not, rest assured, everything will be fine and I’ll take care of you.” Think of it like a hand stretched out to offer a reassuring pat on the shoulder. The mudra of his left hand is similar—palm facing out and fingers straight—but pointed down instead. That’s the Varada mudra, the “gesture of charity or compassion.” Think of it as a hand stretched out either asking for or receiving alms. So, these two mudras can be read together conveying a combined message of “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you and everything will be peachy … so long as … you lead a good, charitable, and righteous life according to Dharma, the rule of law.”

Notice also the smoothly polished, blackened regions along his legs, whereas the rest of the figure is somewhat rough and pocked with a dull gray color. The figures is made of granite, an incredibly hard stone. You might think of your kitchen countertop with its smoothly polished finish, but that’s thanks to modern industry. Preindustrial granite statuary is generally not so smoothly polished. What do you suppose would cause this discoloration and extremely smooth polish? Well, talking so much about hands just a few seconds ago, how about hundreds of year of people touching him on his legs? Remember, many of these works were originally consecrated icons. To touch the icon will bring you all that much closer in touch with the divine. Of course, stripped from that context and now placed in a museum, whatever spirit once resided in the work has long since left and touching won’t do you any good and will just get you yelled at. Case in point, though, for why we don’t touch the art at a museum.

Something else that beckons our attention is his animal friend. What is that that he’s sitting on there? Some kind of bird, huh? It’s a peacock. That’s his regal mount, his trusty steed. In Sanskrit it’s called the vahana, from which we get the word “vehicle.” Many of the prominent Hindu deities ride a vahana. Kartikeya’s is the peacock. The god Shiva rides a bull named Nandi. The beloved, bulbous, elephant-headed god Ganesha rides a curious little vahana. It’s kinda hard to see at the base of this exquisitely-carved statue, but you can just barely make it out. It’s a rat! You see that the association of elephants and rodents goes back well into ancient times. And Vishnu rides a half-man half-eagle type of creature named Garuda. Sound familiar to anyone? How about Garuda Indonesia Airline? You see, these myths, stories, and divine beings are very much alive and well in the contemporary world. While the artwork we enjoy in the museum may be quite ancient and completely stripped from its original religious context, it’s helpful to recognize that these works are still very much applicable to contemporary culture. The iconography, attributes, individuals, and stories are expressed very similarly in traditional artwork produced today by people of these regions and cultures. So as you wander about exploring the ancient, medieval, and antique works from South and Southeast Asia, think of them not only as works from the past, but also as contemporary emblems of the panoply of global culture.

Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to visit ancientartpodcast.org where you’ll find credits for all the images used on the podcast, an extensive bibliography, links to other great resources, and recommendations from yours truly of other interesting podcasts. So long and keep on keepin’ on.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org


16: Metropolitan Kouros

Metropolitan Kouros

Hey people. Welcome back. I’m excited to announce that we’re undergoing a little re-branding here. We’re dropping the SCARABsolutions and now it’s the Ancient Art Podcast. The website scarabsolutions.com will continue to work, but now you can also visit us at ancientartpodcast.org and you can reach me with your comments, questions, and suggestions at info@ancientartpodcast.org.

Last time in episode 15 we set the stage for the origin of free-standing, monumental sculpture in Ancient Greece. We revisited the Greek Orientalizing Period with its Near Eastern influences in vase painting technique and subject matter, and we discussed the strong Greek presence in Egypt during the Egyptian Saite Dynasty of 664 to 525 BC. In this new cultural melting pot of Egypt, archaeological evidence points to an Egyptian influence on the sacred art and ritual practice of Ancient Greece. Greeks are visiting Egyptian temples, gazing in awe at the centuries-old monumental sacred structures while giving gifts to Egyptian gods of bronze Egyptian votive statuary with inscribed with Greek prayers. And Greek votive statuary starts to bear a resemblance to common Egyptian types like this figurine of a seated woman nursing a child, which may have been influenced by the popular figure type of Isis nursing the child Horus.

Diminutive votive figurines are one thing, but the big development that we’re interested in here is the advent of monumental, free-standing Greek sculpture some time in the 7th century BC. That’s right … “some time.” We don’t know exactly when the Greeks began creating sculpture, but we do know that, after the collapse of the Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations, there was a long period of time when the most elaborate figural works produced by the Greeks were small figurines and relief carvings of stone, terracotta, and bronze. The advent of monumental sculpture in the 7th century was a huge development, and by “monumental” I mean big and made of something durable, like stone or metal. And what’s really remarkable is the style of the earliest known Greek sculptures. Here we have one of the earliest and most intact Greek statues of the kouros type. “Kouros” is simply the Greek word for “boy.” This kouros, carved from a single block of marble, is dated to about 590-580 BC. It’s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and it’s unofficial name in the scholarly arena is … wait for it … the Metropolitan Kouros. Sheer genius. He’s large as life, about 6′ 4″ or 1.946 m tall—I guess larger than life for most Ancient Greeks—but look at the pose. All early kouroi appear in a nearly identical pose. Broad straight shoulders, arms straight down at his sides, strong frontal stare, tall vertical posture, and his left leg stepping forward a bit. Remind you of anything? How about the figure of Ra-Horakhty that we looked at last time in episode 14? The Greek kouros is borrowed directly and heavily from the popular Egyptian standing male, the statue type that has a widespread prominent presence throughout Egypt, from miniature religious votives to colossal tomb and temple sentinels. The Greek mercenaries, merchants, artisans, and travelers to Egypt, which we talked about last time, had regular opportunity to be in contact with the long tradition of Egyptian statuary, which no doubt encouraged similar artistic development back home.

As I said earlier, he’s carved out of a single block of stone, and he retains a sort of blocky shape. Following the Egyptian technique for executing a stone carving, the sculptor took a large rectangular block of stone, drew the figure’s front, back, left, and right sides onto their respective sides of the block, and went to work, gradually removing stone from all four sides, working his way inward until the sides met, producing a free-standing figure in the round. It’s an efficient technique, but typical of early Greek kouroi, each side retains a sort of flattened planar effect. He’s somewhat in between being completely rounded and being a four-sided figure.

Another thing that the kouros and Egyptian statuary had in common, but it’s often overlooked on both accounts, is color. That’s right, as with so many examples of ancient art, which now appear in the crisp, pristine, unadulterated purity of a more noble and stoic age, the kouros was originally highly painted in a variety of colors meant to mimic real life—flesh tones, dark hair, brown eyes, full dark eyebrows, a cute little red necktie like the good boy scout he is. A lot of work has been done to reconstruct the original color on ancient statuary and architecture, but that’s a topic for a later episode. If you want to get a head start, though, check out a couple websites: The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present, an exhibition that was at the Getty Villa in California from March to June of 2008, and also Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity that was at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum a little earlier in the year. Just Google them or click on the links in the Additional Resources section at ancientartpodcast.org.

Putting aside the broad similarities between Egyptian statuary and Archaic Greek kouroi, one subtle similarity I like to note is the quirky Mona Lisa smile, also called the “Archaic smile.” Because why would you want to spend all this time and money on a frowning statue? But you’ll notice a few differences between the Egyptian statue type and the Greek kouros. For starters, there are some formal differences. In addition to replacing the Egyptian wig with those lovely, cascading, curly Greek locks, the kouros figure is clearly in the nude. For the most part, Egyptian statuary of this standing type were somewhat clothed. At least a kilt, please! Sure, there are some nude examples from Egypt, but those are rare and generally not plastered all over the place. So, why is the kouros represented in the nude? Here’s another prime example of the Greeks adopting a foreign concept and immediately adapting it to suit their own needs. The nudity of the kouros is directly related to its function. The Greeks didn’t have the ancient tradition of mighty Pharaoh to venerate in all of his three-story glory, but two other functions of statuary from Egypt could easily be adapted to Greece—that is, as monumental temple dedications and as grave markers … tombstones. Greece already had a long tradition of honoring the dead with elaborate ceramic memorials. Many of the colossal vessels of the Geometric Period were crafted to be set up as grave markers in the Dipylon Cemetery of the Athenian ceramics district, the Kerameikos. These monumental vessels weren’t functional on a practical level. They even had holes drilled into the bottom to prevent collecting water. Wealthy Athenian families during the 7th century BC erected lavish displays of conspicuous wealth in honor of their deceased family members, so much so that the famous Athenian statesman Solon actually passed legislation restricting the expense on private funerals. So, but with the advent of sculpture in Greece, it’s not unreasonable to understand a fashionable movement towards decorating graves with this trendy new art form.

As grave markers, the kouros type generally decorated the graves of fallen youths. Young men lost before their prime. Maybe heroic youths fallen on the battlefield, or so the symbolism suggests. The nude form of the kouros casts the fallen youth in the light of the heroic warrior. Heroic warriors like Achilles, Odysseus, and Hercules are generally depicted fighting in the nude. Yes, of course, Greek warriors of history fought heavily armored, complete with breastplate, greaves, helmet, and shield, but in myth the hero would fight in the nude. So here the individual commemorated by the kouros is elevated to heroic status. But there’s a second idea at work here. The nude form of the kouros might also remind us of a youth participating in athletics, which the Greeks did indeed do in the nude. So, here we have a fallen youth commemorated as the proud athlete participating in perhaps what his family believes he ought to have been doing back home in the safety of the Athenian gymnasium, rather than marching to far off lands only to die on the battlefield. It’s an interesting tug in two directions, a dual interpretation, which … hey, maybe I’m just making this up, but the hero and the athlete are two of the most popular subjects for the human male form throughout the history of Greek sculpture.

If you want to read a meticulous examination of the Metropolitan Kouros, check out the authoritative article by Gisela M. A. Richter and Irma A. Richter “The Archaic ‘Apollo’ in the Metropolitan Museum” published in the Metropolitan Museum Studies, volume 5, number 1 from August 1934. Like fine scotch, some articles keep well with age. Notice “Apollo” in that article title. That’s because back in the early part of the 20th century, kouroi were generally referred to as “Apollo figures,” a term which has since been dismissed.

So, with the kouros, Ancient Greece begins its spectacular journey exploring the possibilities of sculpture, opening the floodgates for a revolution that would define the artistic heritage of Western Civilization. And that, friends, is a story for another day.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

15: Origin of Greek Sculpture

Hey folks. Lucas Livingston here at the SCARABsoltuions Ancient Art Podcast. Great to have you back. In this episode, we’ll take a brief look at the historical climate that gave rise to Greek sculpture. Yeah, tall order.

“Gave rise to Greek sculpture” you say? There actually was a time before sculpture in Ancient Greece. Well, between sculpture, actually—the Greek Dark Age—between the relatively advanced Bronze Age and the much later Orientalizing and Archaic Periods. Remember back in episode 5 on the Art Institute’s Corinthian pyxis, we talked about the Orientalizing Period of approximately the 7th century BC—to quote myself, “The Orientalizing Period is a time when the Greeks renew contact and trade with the different civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East after a long period of isolation during the Greek Dark Age and Geometric Period. This is a fascinating time of rediscovery, invention, and assimilation.”

In that episode we looked at a few of the interesting Near Eastern influences in the developing arts of Greece. On Greek vase painting, we start to see fantastical creatures of the Near East, like sphinxes, griffins, and chimeras, and the adoption of long-standing, stock, Near Eastern decorative motifs like rosettes and palmettes. The Orientalizing Period was a time when the Greeks were suddenly thrust onto the world stage through mercantile exchange with Phoenicia, Syria, and other Near Eastern nations. The Greeks became familiar with Near Eastern artistic traditions through all the patterned textiles, decorated vessels, and other ornamentation that these foreign merchants brought with them to Corinth and other ports of trade. But just as the Greeks enjoyed and adopted these Near Eastern designs, they also immediately assimilated and adapted them to suit their own needs. And we discussed one example of this assimilation at length in the decoration of the Art Institute’s Corinthian pyxis.

There are a number of other profound developments in the Greek arts at this time, like the general manner in which the human form is represented on a two-dimensional painted surface. In episode 5 we explored how some areas of the Greek mainland, like Athens, continue in the traditional vase painting design of the previous century, with a stark contrast of the darkly silhouetted geometric figures against a background of meandering patterns. Corinth, however, pushes this aside for a more natural style of gentle curves and elaborate outlines of the figure’s contour with a smoother, flowing brush. We see the detail of human anatomy, facial features, and pleats and folds in the drapery. Coloration also makes its way onto the scene with the use of added red and white. The human form also becomes more dynamic, breaking away from the static paratactic pose of the Geometric Period. Shoulders and the chest might be seen in profile as opposed to the odd rendering of two shoulders and a frontal chest with a face turned in profile. So we start to see an increased attention to the naturalism, the manner in which the reality of the three-dimensional world works and how it can be expressed on a two-dimensional surface, a feat which the Greeks are only now beginning to undertake. But I don’t mean to give all the credit to Corinth. During the Archaic Period of the late 7th and 6th century BC, Athens was breaking new ground too, as we’ll soon see with the advent of sculpture.

The introduction of free standing monumental sculpture stems from another fascinating influence on the developing Greek arts, which deserves a lot of attention—but for this influence we need to look a little south to Egypt. Contemporary to the second half of the Greek Orientalizing Period and first half of the Archaic Period was the Egyptian 26th Dynasty, the Saite Dynasty of the Late Period. We call it the Saite Dynasty on account of the capital of Egypt at this time, the city of Sais in the delta region. And what time is this? We’re talking 664-525 BC. During the prior few centuries of the Third Intermediate Period, Egypt really blew it and lost all the power and influence that it acquired during the New Kingdom. Now during the Late Period, many of the nations surrounding Egypt had become major political and military powers that Egypt had to contend with. Since the Egyptian army wasn’t a whole heck of a lot to boast about, Pharaoh Psammetichus I (or in the Egyptian Psamtik) took the bold leap of hiring foreign mercenaries to fill the void. Psammetichus not only wanted to establish a strong military presence in Egypt, but he also wanted to forge military, political, and economic alliances with sympathetic foreign powers, namely the Greeks.

The Saite Dynasty is one of the coolest time periods in the history of the Mediterranean, because this is when we see for first time a strong Greek presence is Egypt. Psammetichus and other Saite rulers used Greek mercenaries to fight their battles and Greek merchants and craftsmen to support a strong economy of foreign trade in the Mediterranean. We even see the establishment in Egypt of Greek military barracks and the thriving development of a Greek civilian settlement. The port city of Naukratis exploded onto the scene as the short-lived, but preeminent port of trade in the Mediterranean. Sadly, today there’s not much more remaining than a few foundations. Naukratis was a fascinating melting pot of Egyptian and Greek culture. Greek and Egyptian temples were erected side-by-side. Greek merchants and craftsmen set up shop and traveled the Nile, seeing firsthand the splendors of the two-and-a-half thousand year-old Egyptian civilization. And just as the Greeks were inclined to adopt Near Eastern ideas to enhance their artistic repertoire, there are also some very distinct Egyptian influences on the cultural development of Greece in the aspects of domestic and religious art, temple architecture, and even religious belief and ritual. Greeks begin to visit Egyptian temples, dedicating bronze Egyptian votive statuary with Greek prayers inscribed on them. Greek votive statuary begins to take on an Egyptian form like this figurine of a seated woman nursing a child, which closely resembles the very popular figure type of Isis nursing the child Horus.

So, at the beginning of this episode I said we’ll take brief a look at the historical climate that gave rise to Greek sculpture. We did that, the stage is set, and before I start to lose you, we’re going to wrap things up here. We’ll pick up next time with a close look at one of the earliest known and most intact Greek sculptures of a particular statue type called a “kouros”—the so-called “Metropolitan Kouros” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Be sure to check out the bibliography at scarabsolutions.com for a number of references on the Greek contact with Egypt during the Saite Dynasty. On a technical note, if you were having trouble viewing some of the photo albums on the website using version 3 of Firefox, that’s because of a javascript incompatibility between iWeb and Firefox 3. After much searching of the online Apple support forum, one crash, and some colorful language, I think I’ve managed to implement a fix, so you should be able to browse the photo albums again. Thanks for listening and tune in soon for the next episode of the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

14: Ra-Horakhty

Thanks for coming back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. As always, I’m your host, Lucas Livingston. In this episode, I want to discuss some of the basic formal concepts of Egyptian statuary. To do so, we’ll look at this standing figure of the Egyptian god Ra-Horakhty from the Art Institute of Chicago, whom we briefly met in episode 1, if you may recall, on the scarab in Ancient Egypt. Ra-Horakhty was a particularly prominent Egyptian deity, attested to certainly as far back as the Old Kingdom. He’s what’s referred to as a composite deity, which is a union of two or more gods into a single cult, like Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, whom we met in episode 4 on the Statue of Osiris. Incidentally, I encourage you to check out the Art Institute of Chicago Musecast for June of 2008. Here you’ll find a short discussion of the science behind the coloration of the Statue of Osiris and a bit on its history and conservation. You can get to the Art Institute Musecast by clicking on its logo in the Additional Resources section at scarabsolutions.com. Back to the concept of the composite deity, we also call this union or merging of religious and cultural systems “syncretization.” Now, there’s a good $5 word to stick in your pocket. Ra-Horakhty is the synchretization of two well known Egyptian gods, Ra, the falcon-headed god of the sun, and Horus, the falcon-headed god of kingship, son of Osiris and the god manifest on Earth as Pharaoh. Fortunately, in the case of Ra-Horakhty, the Egyptians didn’t have to debated long over which head to use. The “akhty” part of Ra-Horakhty means “horizons,” so his name is literally “Ra, Horus of the Two Horizons,” the two horizons, of course, East and West, being central to Egyptian spiritualism as symbols of birth and death. The cult of Ra exerted such a strong influence over other Egyptian religions that many different deities found themselves getting syncretized with him. For example, maybe the most well know Egyptian composite deity is Amun-Ra, the massively influential cult of Karnak and Luxor during the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period.

This figure is made of bronze and is what’s known as a votive figurine. He’s about 25 cm or 10 inches tall and is dated to the Third Intermediate Period, some time from 1069 to 656 BC. Originally he almost certainly stood on a squat rectangular pedestal, like many of the other bronze votives on display next to him, and he also had an elaborate crown. You can tell because of the little hole on the top of his head where the crown, crafted as a separate piece, would have been inserted, but that crown is now lost. A votive figurine is a fairly common type of statuette found, well, now in a museum … but before that often buried somewhere within the precincts of a sacred structure, whether buried by time, accident, or intention. “Votive” isn’t entirely unfamiliar to us now-a-days. That little tea light — the small candle lit to keep your tea pot warm — is often called a votive candle. A votive is any sort of devotional object given as an offering to a divinity, whether a candle or a gilded bronze figurine. A votive offering is a sort of contract with the god. You give your god a gift and offer up a prayer and in return, hopefully, that prayer will be recognized with a blessing of some sort, whether it’s the cure of an ailment, a healthy birth, a fertile crop, or whatever. And a votive also has the real-life practical function of providing the temple or church with a small bit of additional revenue. I think a prayer is up to a buck these days.

So, let’s examine the formal characteristics of the Ra-Horakhty. He’s exhibiting the classic, canonic Egyptian pose for the standing male. This essential form is exhibited throughout the history of Egyptian sculpture, from its inception well into the Greco-Roman era. Notice the broad straight shoulders, arms straight down to his sides, with clenched fists, as though he were originally holding something. Perhaps a rod of some sort or a small sash—two common attributes of office or station. Trace amounts of gilding survive on his kilt, wig, and necklace. Gilding is the fancy word for a thin gold leaf coating. Notice also that despite having the head of a falcon, he definitely has human ears, albeit humorously big ones pushed outward by the wig. Also, if you look really closely, you’ll see his magnificent vanity belt buckle. The gilding here is surprisingly intact. The hieroglyphs read Ra-Horakhty pet netjeru, which mean “Ra-Horakhty, chief of the gods.”

He’s pretty fit too. We may not see the most well-defined musculature, but he definitely has a slender, athletic, idealized, youthful form akin to representations of nearly all the gods and kings. But it’s not entirely realistic and that’s something important to consider. Look at his legs. The left leg is forward. That’s an incredibly recognizable feature of this archetypical pose. But he’s not exactly stepping forward, is he? Otherwise his arms would be swinging to maintain balance and his upper body would be leaning forward too. It’s a little hard to see here, since he’s stuck behind glass and we can’t get a good profile view, but if he were stepping forward in a true stride, his back leg would also be at an angle slightly behind his center of gravity, but that’s not the case here. His right leg is perfectly vertical along his central axis. Both feet are firmly planted on the ground too, so he’s clearly not in mid stride. But realistically what he’s doing is physically impossible without bending his knees and swiveling his hips. The left leg of the figure is actually a little bit longer than the right one, just long enough so that it can reach the ground.

But what’s all this mean? A lot of ink has been spilled on speculations about why the left leg of Egyptian statuary is forward … and it’s invariably the left leg. Is there some secret meaning behind the left leg? Is this an attempt at rendering dominance, a sort of political propaganda or is something else at work? Well, unfortunately we don’t benefit from the Ancient Egyptians drafting treatises on their art, as we do with later civilizations, but one widely accepted theory has to do with Egyptian hieroglyphs. You see, hieroglyphs can be written in nearly any direction, but they’re most commonly found written right to left. Here’s a neat trick if you ever want to know which direction the hieroglyphs are written. Look at the animals or people. They’re always facing the beginning of the sentence. So, commonly the figures are facing to the right, since it’s commonly written right to left. If we recall from episode 9 “Walk Like an Egyptian,” the salient characteristics of the human form are always visible in writing and in relief, so you always see the hidden back leg peaking out from behind the front leg. In a right-facing figure, the left leg then becomes slightly extended forward to be visible out from behind the right leg in the forefront. What’s this got to do with sculpture? Well, as we saw all over the mummy case of Paankhenamun in episode 2, hieroglyphic characters and principles are regularly adapted to reliefwork and three-dimensional sculpture. When seen in profile facing to the right, the Ra-Horakhty and countless other Egyptian statues in this divine canonic pose participate in the uniquely Egyptian experience of the written word being adapted to sculptural form.

I hope that made sense. Keep this pose in mind for next time as we turn our eyes to Greece and the origin of Greek statuary. Thanks for listening to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

13: Ellsworth Kelly’s “Chicago Panels”

Hello again and welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. Please bear with me for a minute as I make a brief technical note. If Episode 11: The Parthenon Frieze, Part 2 was the last episode that automatically downloaded to your computer if you’re subscribing to the podcast, then that’s probably because I recently updated my podcast publishing software. Apple kindly decided to rename my podcast’s RSS feed, the link that you use to subscribe, and there’s not much I could do about it. But I did tell iTunes to redirect to the new feed, so for many listeners this may not be a problem any more. If you’re still having trouble with the subscription, though, just try unsubscribing and visit scarabsolutions.com, where you can resubscribe with the correct new link. And if all else fails, you can email me at scarabsolutions@mac.com and I’ll see what help I can offer. If none of this is making any sense, then it may not apply, so don’t worry and just keep listening as always.

So, with that, in the past three episodes we studied the Parthenon Frieze on the Athenian Acropolis in comparison to the Apadana reliefs at the Persian capital Persepolis. While we probably exhausted our interest in that topic for a while, I do want to take just another few minutes to look at the Parthenon Frieze in comparison to another great work of art far removed from Ancient Greece, “The Chicago Panels” by contemporary American artist Ellsworth Kelly. But before we jump in, I need to correct a little mistake I made in Episode 12. When I was talking about the replica of the Parthenon Frieze on the north side of the Art Institute, I mentioned that it’s a replica of sections from the east frieze of the Parthenon. Slip of the tongue, there. I meant to say that these figures come from the west frieze of the Parthenon, the formal beginning to the frieze. The east frieze of the Parthenon, in contrast, shows the conclusion, with the Olympian gods and presentation of the new peplos (that is, if you buy that interpretation).

Described as a master of color and form, Ellsworth Kelly is well known for his quintessential style of large, carefully controlled areas of color exuding a sense of purity in their simplicity. The Art Institute has a rich collection of works by Kelly, including paintings, collages, drawings, prints, and sculpture from throughout his prolific career. “The Chicago Panels” from 1989 to 1999 consist of six painted, monochromatic, curved aluminum panels hung on the walls around the upper level above the sculpture court of the American Art galleries at the Art Institute. Emphasizing pure color and shape, Ellsworth Kelly’s works associate with the architectural setting around them. In the American Art sculpture court, the Chicago Panels interact not only with the walls, on which the panels hang, but also the magnificent floor-to-ceiling Classical Greek style Doric columns along the balcony railing.

The Chicago Panels were commissioned specifically for this interior space. There’s no clear indication why they’re called the Chicago Panels, but the shape and color of Kelly’s artwork are often inspired by familiar objects and phenomena. When you stare at the panels long enough, you might just start to see the familiar shapes of Chicago’s skyline. At least, that’s some people’s take on it. Or maybe the many colors reflect a panel of Chicago’s ethnic diversity. By nature of its formless quality, Kelly’s artwork is very personal, engaging with the viewer and inviting you to participate in interpretation, and that’s what this episode is all about — a personal experience. We recently explored the similarities between the Parthenon Frieze and the Apadana in terms of the way one might have experienced the two works and their sites. Now I’d like to draw a comparison of personal experience between the Parthenon Frieze and the Chicago Panels. When I walk upstairs and around the gallery looking at the panels, glimpsing their partial forms sliced by the intermittent columns, I feel I come close to the same experience a late 5th century BC Athenian may have had when processing alongside the Parthenon glancing up at the frieze. I mentioned last time that the Parthenon Frieze is a sort of Athenian self-portrait mirroring the contemporary act of sacred procession at its feet. Sure, there’s no sacred procession going on in the Art Institute galleries, not regularly, at least, but if you see yourself or your city in the Chicago Panels, you might encounter a similar sense of personal patriotism.

Also, as you walk through the gallery, the Classically-inspired Doric columns break up your experience, providing only obstructed glances of the panels as you look out across the open-air space of the sculpture court below. This almost strobe-like effect of brief, fractured glimpses provides a sense of animation to the panels. Interestingly, there’s no one point in the gallery where you can stand and see all six panels in their entirety. Give it a shot. I’ve tried. There’s always at least just a little sliver of a panel hiding behind one of the columns. Just the same way on the Parthenon, the Doric colonnade breaks up your experience of the frieze, offering you only glimpses of the entire scene. As you process alongside the frieze looking up at the interrupted cavalcade of horses and parade of tribute, the fractured glimpses produce a similar sense of animation, spurring the galloping horses to life. And imagine how much more lively and life-like the frieze must have appeared in its original, vibrant, realistic coloration. Yes, as with most Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, the Parthenon Frieze and the rest of the Parthenon were highly painted.

Ellsworth Kelly may in no way have been inspired by the Parthenon Frieze when creating the Chicago Panels, and I’m not making any claim to that effect. This is just an opportunity for me to explore my own personal resonance with two moving works of art — conscious and subconscious experiences paralleled by ancient and contemporary human achievement.

I hope you didn’t mind our short departure from ancient art. Maybe you even enjoyed it. If you’d like to do more digging, I’ve added a few references on Ellsworth Kelly to the bibliography in the Additional Resources section of SCARABsolutions.com. Thanks for listening and see you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

12: The Parthenon Frieze, Part 3

Welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. I’m your host, Lucas Livingston, your guide on our journey across the Ancient Mediterranean World. Last time in Episode 11, The Parthenon Frieze, Part 2, we continued to inch toward our understanding of the Persian influence on the Parthenon Frieze. We discovered that Ionian Greek artisans played a significant role in the construction of the Persian imperial cities of Persepolis and Susa. We also looked at further evidence for the employment of Ionian artists in the Ancient Near east, in particular Asia Minor, like at Xanthos in Lycia. So, in this cultural melting pot of the Persian Empire, we see a significant exchange of artistic, iconographic, and social ideas, some of which shape Persian and Near Eastern art, while other ideas make their way over from Persia to Greece.

In this episode, we’ll begin with a brief history of the Ionic frieze before diving headlong into the Persian influences on the Parthenon Frieze of the Athenian Acropolis. It’s not absolutely necessary to trace the history of the Ionic frieze, but since the Parthenon Frieze participates in this history, it’s important to isolate what’s traditional and what’s new and innovative, so we can more easily identify the various influences.

The early Ionic frieze was basically just a continuous decorative band running around the perimeter of sacred structures, like temples, shrines, and sanctuaries. It’s called the Ionic frieze, because it develops in Ionia, which we learned last time means the Greek nations along the western coast of what’s now Turkey. You typically see animals and human figures on the Ionic frieze engaging in hunting, horse and chariot races, feasting, and ritual processions or parades, but there’s really no attempt at representing specific identifiable stories … not at this early stage. Also, there’s seldom a clear beginning, middle, or end to the scene and we see a strong sense of repetition among the figures, creating a sense of rhythm as one passes by. As we’ll see more closely later on, many of these subjects and themes are also found on the Parthenon Frieze, coming together under a grand artistic and civic vision.

While the early Ionic frieze had a largely decorative function, with little mythological or historical narrative context, there seems to have been a change towards the end of the Archaic Period as the Ionic frieze regularly began to depict mythological stories. One of the earliest examples of this transformation is seen on the treasury of the Siphnians at Delphi from about 530 to 525 BC.

The Siphnian Treasury was a small sacred structure, like a chapel or shrine, dedicated to the god Apollo. It was built by the island city-state of Siphnos in the Aegean among the Cycladic Islands. It’s called a treasury, because it was where many devotional offerings dedicated to Apollo were housed, mostly statuary given by the people of Siphnos. This was a common practice by Greek city-states, especially at the sanctuaries of Apollo at Delphi and Zeus at Olympia. Dedicating a treasury was a form of national marketing, so other city-states could gawk at its lavish splendor and be jealous of your wealth and power.

The east face of the frieze on the front of the treasury is divided into two panels of equal length. We see an assembly of the Olympian gods to the left of center and a battle scene from the Trojan War to the right. The organization of the figures is very balanced and thoroughly planned. Even though the left and right panels are architecturally one single unit, they are perceived of as being separate. For one, they represent different narratives. They also, quite literally, have their backs to one another. Also, notice how within each of the two panels, the figures change directions? This helps create a sense of momentum in the figures and draws the attention of the viewer to the centers of each panel where just beneath stood the Caryatid columns, which we see here in a beautiful reconstruction of the Siphnian Treasury at the Delphi Museum. Unfortunately, the original center of the Olympian panel is now lost, but in the Trojan War scene we see what’s thought to be the lifeless body of Sarpedon lying in a crumpled pile, over which the warriors are contesting. So, we see two interesting changes to the Ionic frieze taking place on the Siphnian Treasury. First, there’s the introduction of narrative or stories, no longer just a repetitive meander of galloping horses and flittering birds. Second, further abandoning the traditional repetitive ornamental meander that stretched the entire span of the architrave, we see that the frieze is broken up into different segments with different stories and even subplots as groups of three or four figures interact more closely with each other. These innovations—the introduction of narrative and breaking up the frieze into isolated segments—directly carry over to the Parthenon Frieze.

If you’re looking for more nitty-gritty details on the Siphnian Treasury, check the article “Notes on the Development of the Greek Frieze” and other publications by one of the modern pioneers of Greek art history, Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, Also check out Richard Neer’s article “Framing the Gift: The Politics of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi” in Classical Antiquity. You can find these references in the bibliography of the Additional Resources section at scarabsolutions.com.

We see another transformation to the Ionic frieze taking place in the Classical Period directly on the Parthenon Frieze itself. For the first time in the history of the Ionic frieze, an immediately contemporary ritual practice is alluded to or directly represented, what you might call the history of the now. As I briefly mentioned toward the beginning of this episode, the traditional Ionic frieze could represent ritual processions and cavalcades of horses. Here on the Parthenon Frieze, however, we see the Athenians representing not anonymous figures or mythic characters, but themselves. Sort of a civic self-portrait of the Athenians high above their heads as they parade alongside below in ritual procession.

A brief side note. Some of the images used here are modern replicas of the Parthenon Frieze. You’ll find these replicas of the original frieze decorating the front entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue and also on the north and south sides. You’ll also find them inside the Art Institute high above the grand staircase in the large day lit atrium officially known as gallery 200. These replicas look back to the early tradition and origin of the Art Institute as an art school rather than art museum. The galleries were once filled with plaster casts of great Classical and Renaissance sculpture to serve as models and teaching aids for the art students. But over the past century, the Art Institute has gotten rid of nearly all examples to make room for original works of art from throughout the world. One fun little thing I want to point out can be seen on the north side of the building. Here high above your head, you’ll see not only a replica of a portion of the east west [sorry … I meant to say “west” in the podcast] frieze of the Parthenon although the figures on the Art Institute aren’t actually in the same order as the current generally accepted reconstruction), but you’ll also see two of the three pivotal artists involved in the construction of the Parthenon. We have Pheidias, sculptor of the frieze and overall designer of the Classical Acropolis, and Ictinus, architect of the Classical Parthenon itself. Not present here is Callicrates, co-architect with Ictinus. Instead we have Praxiteles, famed Hellenistic sculptor of many well-known works, including the Aphrodite of Knidos, of which you’ll find a Roman period copy within the Art Institute. Perhaps we can take a closer look at this fabulous statue in a later episode of the podcast.

The traditional interpretation of Parthenon Frieze is that it represents the Grand Panathenaia, a parade held every four years in Athens that celebrates the birth of Athena and foundation of Athens with the offering of a new peplos or robe to Athena along with a hefty offering of tribute from all the different city-states within the Athenian Empire—technically still called the Delian League. The Delian League was a union of Greek city-states that came together as allies under the threat of Persian invasion and subjugation. It was formed after the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC, an early monumental victory for the Greeks over the Persians. The Delian League gets its name from the little island of Delos in the southern Aegean Sea where the treasury was kept for the money contributed by each city-state. Later on in 454 BC, Athens moved the treasury from Delos to Athens supposedly to keep it better protected, but that solidified Athens’s control of the finances and political dominance of the Delian League. With this turn of events historians often begin referring to the Delian League as the Athenian Empire, and Athens really starts to behave in a manner befitting an empire, which we start to see reflected in the arts. One of the many new purposes Athens assigned to the finances of the league was construction of the Parthenon on the Acropolis, and with that the Parthenon Frieze. It makes sense, then, that we see the Parthenon Frieze depicting the offering of tribute at the Grand Panathenaia—a portrait of the very civil practice by which the frieze was conceived. Thereby the Parthenon Frieze could also be seen as a form of propaganda—a justification or legitimization of the offering of tribute to Athens by cloaking the tribute in the context of a traditionally mythic, sacred, and even heroic context. As a side note, there are a few other interpretations of what the Parthenon Frieze might depict. If you’re interested in exploring some alternate theories, like the representation of the sacrifice of the daughter of Erechtheus, check out for starters Joan Connelly’s 1996 article “Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze,” in the American Journal of Archaeology, volume 100, pages 53-79.

So, why the big change? What caused this shift from an anonymous, almost generic representation of procession on the traditional Ionic frieze to a very specific Athenian parade on the Parthenon Frieze during this new Athenian imperial age? And I kinda just gave away the answer there. This is where we come to the Persian influence. Persepolis and the Athenian Acropolis show a pretty similar function when you look a little more closely. Both sites were ritual centers for their civic festival processions, both sites functioned as bureaucratic and administrative capitals of empires, and both sites served as treasuries to house the tribute given by subject nations of their empires.

These functional similarities could have led Athens to emulate the architectural model of Persepolis and the programmatic vision of Persia, her imperial forebearer, whose government Athens oddly enough came to parallel more and more in the wake of the Persian War. Similarly, it’s probable that Athens chose to model the Parthenon frieze in part after the Apadana reliefs at Persepolis to demonstrate a similar sort of civic pride and to pay respect to their national and now imperial godhead, Athena.

For over a century before beginning the new Classical Period Acropolis in 447 BC, Athens built little major, monumental statuary or sacred architecture. Pheidias was the artistic director of the building program on the Acropolis under the auspice of the great Athenian democrat Pericles. Pheidias gets credit for the general design and layout of the Parthenon’s frieze and sculptures and most likely for the initial models of the sculptures, but numerous artists and craftsmen from Athens and the many subject nations of the Athenian Empire were employed to execute most of the actual carving on the Parthenon.

By employing Ionian craftsmen, Athens sought to create an artistic style immediately relevant to and representative of this age of Athens as the new cosmopolitan center of the Mediterranean and leader of a panhellenic empire. Under the administration of Pericles and artistic genius of Pheidias, Athens carefully designed a new monumental architectural tradition, incorporating the local Doric order and the now more so than ever relevant Ionic order. Thus, the Ionian artists brought with themselves to Athens their traditional frieze design, and along with that their recently acquired ideas of Persian imperial propaganda.

We already mentioned some of the functional similarities between Persepolis and the Acropolis. Let’s look at some of the artistic similarities and perhaps some similarities in the way one might experience the two architectural wonders. The Audience Hall at Persepolis, called the Apadana, was the building used at the capital of the Persian Empire to received the tribute-bearing ambassadors of the subject nations. Emphasizing this function, the Apadana prominently displays extensive reliefs depicting the dignitaries with Persian and Median escorts lined up in a huge ritual procession paying honor to their ruler, patron, and protector, the Persian King. Similarly, the Parthenon frieze depicts a great assemblage of Athenians in festive, ritual procession to honor their protector and patron goddess, Athena. There’s no sense of domination or malevolent subjugation in the Apadana reliefs by some tyrannical, oppressive super-power. The ambassadors are peacefully guided by Persian and Median escorts holding hands with each other and with the lead dignitaries of each foreign party. Similarly, on the Parthenon Frieze the Athenians leading sacrificial victims and bearing gifts for their goddess are, themselves, being led by Athenian marshals. With Athenians guiding themselves in a ritual procession to the deities of the east façade, the implication here seems to be that Athens is divinely sanctioned to rule themselves, which is befitting of the placement of mortal Athenians at the culmination of the ritual procession on the east side of the frieze, the holiest external location of the Greek temple. The Olympian gods are actually pushed from the center of the Parthenon Frieze and mortal Athenians, engaging in an offering to Athena, take their place. With this, Athens effectively elevates herself to a sort of divine status, or the closest there is among Greek peoples. Similarly, at the center of the Apadana reliefs was the king—the closest human being to the divine, if not himself a living god—and around him the king’s court, where dignitaries present tribute to their patron. The event is so ritualized, so emblematic, as to become, in effect, the offering of sacrifice to their deity.

And then we come to the similarities between the Apadana reliefs and Parthenon Frieze that may function more so on a subconscious level—the common experience one might have had when participating in a ritual procession at Persepolis and on the Acropolis. What we’re looking at here on the Parthenon Frieze are different scenes of a long parade from beginning to end marching through Athens. Riders at the west end mount their horses and strap on their sandals, getting ready to take off. Horses, riders, and chariots speed along the north and south sides of the temple with the parade in full swing. Participants carry gifts and present sacrificial victims to the divine assembly at the east, with the ultimate culmination of the festival and parade being the presentation of Athena’s new peplos. Athenian and allied participants walking alongside the Parthenon in the Panathenaic procession would look up at the frieze through the intermittent breaks of the colonnade and see a familiar representation—the same thing that you’re doing right there—participating in a religious procession. And to help you engage with the frieze further, the occasional figure even looks out to the participants below. So the real life participants in a ritual procession are invited to associate themselves with the event of the Parthenon Frieze, the Parthenon itself, and the whole Acropolis.

And at Persepolis on the Apadana reliefs, the same technique is used to encourage onlookers to identify with the figures represented in the artwork, and also with Persepolis itself. The Apadana reliefs are thought to represent the annual festival of Nauroz, the Persian New Year’s celebration, when dignitaries of the subject nations were obliged to present their annual tribute, not entirely unlike the Panathenaic festival during the Athenian Empire. So, just as the figures in the Apadana reliefs are shown lined up marching to their king in a ritual parade, so too would the real-life dignitaries and soldiers be parading during the festival of Nauroz. And those aren’t just any figures in the Apadana reliefs. Their different styles of dress and the items they carry help us identify them as emissaries of the various nations subject to the Persian Empire, those very same tribute-bearing dignitaries and those very same Persian and Median soldiers, who themselves once long ago walked along these quote-unquote portraits in relief as they brought tribute to the king. The Apadana reliefs even help to channel the tribute bearers in procession as they climb the staircases to the Apadana terrace proceeding inward towards the king. And when seen in its entirety, all the hundreds of figures on the Apadana reliefs directly face the figure of the king, where he’s already receiving a Median marshal and spear-bearers, as seen here in this reconstruction drawing of the northern terrace of the Apadana from Margaret Cool Root’s 1985 article in the American Journal of Archaeology “The Parthenon Frieze and the Apadana Reliefs at Persepolis: Reassessing a Programmatic Relationship.”

So we’ve seen how the Acropolis of the new Athenian Imperial Age and the audience hall at Persepolis share a functional similarity as imperial treasuries and centers for tribute from subject nations. They were also both festival grounds for annual parades when the tribute was received. And they both served to unite a diverse group of cultures under a singular figurehead, in one case, the divine maiden and protector of democracy, Athena, and in the other, the Persian King, a living god.

We also explored a similarity in the experience of these sites by their respective festival participants in that the Apadana reliefs and the Parthenon frieze both demonstrate the same effect of connecting with the viewer, having him or her identify with the religious and imperial function of the site. We don’t see a lot of formal or stylistic similarities between the two sites, and that makes sense when you think that Athens wouldn’t directly and literally want to mimic the Persian government. Instead, by metaphorically associating themselves with their most immediate imperial forebearers, the Athenians justify their ascent to the role of emperor over the Eastern Mediterranean. By employing similar themes of tribute and the patriotic festival parade, Athens further manages to justify its claim in the eyes of the Ionian Greeks, who had long been familiar with these themes under Persian rule. And to bring it all home, Athens does all of this in the distinctly Ionian sacred artistic tradition of the Ionic frieze. How could the Ionians have possibly rebuffed their obsequious Athenian compatriots building bridges towards a new, allied, democratic Greece? Yeah, right.

Well, that concludes our long haul from Persia to Athens. I hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to visit SCARABsolutions.com where you’ll find the image library from the podcast and the ever-expanding bibliography in the Additional Resources section. And as always you can also read the transcripts for each episode plus search them, in case there’s something you know we covered previously, but don’t want to go back and listen to each episode until you find it. Plus the transcript helps to figure out how to spell all these strange ancient names I’m spouting. Also found among the transcripts is a list of links to more great Parthenon and Persepolis resources online. If you’d like to email me, you can do so at scarabsolutions@mac.com. And if you’d like to help me out, please consider offering your review of the podcast on iTunes. You’ll find a link at SCARABsolutions.com to visit the podcast in iTunes. Thanks for listening and see you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org