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The Elgin Marbles are a large impressive collection of the marble sculptures, reliefs and other architectural elements that in 1801 were moved from Greece to Britain. The legal basis of this act is quite controversial, and nowadays these two countries try to settle the disputes concerning where the Elgin Marbles should be exhibited and which country should own them. However, these political and legal aspects have no influence on the cultural value of this wonderful artifact of the ancient Greek culture. The Elgin Marbles represent one of the greatest achievements of Classical Greek architecture and sculpture that still fascinates people more than twenty-five centuries after its creation. This essay covers the main characteristic features of this artifact, its style, and meaning to the Greek society as well as compares it to Descent of the Ganges, an Indian well-known artifact.
The social, economic, political and cultural situation in ancient Greece is very important for a deeper understanding of the Elgin Marbles, their nature, and primary functions. The Elgin Marbles were created circa 447–438 BC in the period that modern historians call Classical Greece. During that time, Athens enjoyed more power than ever. This city used to have a great influence on the military and political alliances that were formed in the fifth century BC. Therefore, the temple of Parthenon was supposed to show not only the skills of Greek architects and sculptors, but also the magnitude and power of the Athenian Empire at the peak of its development (Boardman 234). Some scholars even argue that the Athenians considered themselves to be superior to all other Greek ethnicities. “The Athenians also thought of themselves as superior to all other Greeks, for they claimed that they had always inhabited Attica, and had not arrived as migrants, and so their race was the oldest” (King 56). Moreover, this period was marked by an increasing role of democracy that was gradually substituting the aristocratic authorities. It resulted in significant changes in the nature of the Greek art. Sculptors paid more attention to depicting everyday routine of the common citizens, and even the poses of the gods and heroes became much more natural and less rigid.
The relative economic and political stability of this period created all the necessary prerequisites for the development of art and facilitated the emergence of various innovative ideas in the spheres of sculpture and architecture. The Greeks wanted their temples and different public places to be decorated with statues and reliefs more than in the previous periods, so the artists had to find new forms and methods of integrating sculptures into the places that were usually not decorated earlier. Various forms of decorative friezes became very popular not only in the religious buildings, but also in the houses of well-to-do Athenians. The pediments were also decorated with specific sculptures that had to be of the specific shapes to fill in the triangular space of this architectural element. In other words, Classical Greece offered a large variety of new artistic forms and ideas that became possible due to the high level of the civilization’s development.
The Elgin Marbles can be divided into several thematic parts. The majority of the reliefs now exhibited in the British Museum belong to the Parthenon frieze that was used in the inner chambers of the temple. Most of them were located closer to the ceiling of the temple at the height that allowed the visitors to see the details of these carved scenes. The reliefs of this frieze are not separate stories, but a harmonious narrative that starts at the place where processions entered the temple. Phidias, who was responsible for the general line of the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon, organized these reliefs to highlight both the significance of Athena for the Greeks and show various aspects of the ordinary life during that period. The frieze contains the statues of different artisans, for instance, weavers or builders. It also shows many Greek warriors that are depicted in very expressive poses. For example, the cavalcade of the south frieze depicts several horsemen that were riding in the direction of Athena’s statue. Both people and animals are very realistic. The sculptor managed to preserve the atmosphere of fast movement and action; therefore, taking into account the fact that these reliefs were painted in the times of Classical Greece, they were likely to produce the impression of fast moving images.
Another important part of the Elgin Marbles is represented by the metopes of the Parthenon, “a series of square panels sculpted in high relief, surrounded the top of the Parthenon’s outer colonnade and recounted assorted historical and mythical battles” (Merriman 26). Originally, there were 92 panels but many of them were lost or crashed. A lot of the metopes were damaged as during the transportation to Britain, the conditions were absolutely unsatisfactory. Lois writes, “Many metopes and slabs were either hacked off the main structure or sawn and sliced into smaller sections causing irreparable damage to the Parthenon” (6). The same situation is with many other sculptures; thus, it is possible to say that this artifact was severely damaged not only by the time, but also by the neglecting attitude of people. The main idea of the metopes is to show the atmosphere of the battle as Athena was also considered to be a goddess of a just and sensible war. For example, the southern part of the metopes depicts the famous mythical struggle between centaurs and Lapiths. These panels exhibit the main artistic characteristics of the mature classical style that should impress the audience with the realistic and energetic depiction of such scenes.
The Earl of Elgin also brought several individual statues to Britain, but it was quite possible that they at first were parts of other Acropolis buildings. In most cases, these statues were used to decorate pediments of the temples. For example, the figure of Iris originally located at the western pediment of the Parthenon proves that the skills of the Greek sculptors were of a very high level. The dress of the goddess seems to be flowing in the air, and the movement of her body makes the audience think that she can leave the temple and fly into the sky. However, some statues are quite static. The sculpture of Dionysus from the east pediment of the temple shows a man peacefully drinking wine. This statue is a perfect illustration of the method that was used by Greek sculptors to solve the difficult task of arranging human figure in the pediments. As the form of the pediment was triangular, to preserve the realistic proportions, they had to put the figure of sitting or half-lying people into the corners of this architectural element.
The Elgin Marbles contain both separate architectural sculptures and different forms of high and low reliefs. These reliefs often draw attention of historians and other scholars who study the cultural significance of these artifacts. They are often compared with the similar reliefs created by other ancient non-Greek civilizations, for example, the Indian kingdoms. One of the most important religious reliefs of the Indian culture is called Descent of the Ganges. It is located at Mahabalipuram in the south of India. This bas-relief is also very large (around 29 m×13 m); however, of course, its size is incomparable with the Elgin Marbles. However, there are certain important similarities between these two artifacts belonging to different civilizations and historical periods. Both of them pay much attention to the religious stories. Many statues and reliefs of the Elgin Marbles show different Greek gods, goddesses, and mythical creatures like centaurs. The same semantics can be seen in Descent of the Ganges. These reliefs tell the story that is very important in Hinduism – a tale about the great magic powers of the Ganges River. The Indians believe that this river starts from the head of their major god Shiva. If the weather conditions are favorable, the clash between the two rocks carved on the reliefs can be filled with water that flows down in the middle of these ancient sculptures symbolizing the divine grace and blessing of the people who live on the earth. However, the architectural style and the methods used for creating the reliefs are quite different. Although the Indian reliefs also depict many human figures and animals, they look much more schematic and stylized than in the Elgin Marbles. The Greeks obviously paid more attention to the realistic effect of the carved bodies. In addition, the density of the figures in Descent of the Ganges is significantly higher than in the Elgin Marbles where the untouched space between the figures plays a very important role.
To conclude, the Elgin Marbles are one of the most significant artifacts of the ancient Greek culture. They represent not only the current level of art development, but also the political, religious, and social state of this civilization around the fifth century BC. The Parthenon frieze, its metopes, and individual statues from the pediments reflect the main artistic ideas and techniques that were employed in the process of decorating the temple. The cultural value of this artifact puts it into the line of the world’s greatest artworks.
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