ElAnt v7n1 - Reviews - The Parthenon Frieze

February 2003 Volume 7, Number 1

The Parthenon Frieze , Jenifer Neils. CD-ROM by Rachel Rosenzweig. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-521-64161-6 (hardback). Pp. xix + 294, with 174 black-and-white illustrations.

Reviewed by Tom Stevenson,
Dept. of Classics and Ancient History,
University of Auckland, New Zealand

This seems a fine book indeed. It will surely be seen as the standard work of interpretation on its subject for some time to come. Jenifer Neils (N.) has reasserted orthodoxy by emphasizing connections between the Parthenon frieze and the festival of the Great Panathenaia. Yet her analysis makes a couple of major claims to originality: the first relates to her focus upon 'visual language' (by which she seems to mean comparisons for the poses and figures depicted on the frieze), and the second rests on the outstanding visual aids which accompany the book (a fold-out drawing of the entire frieze based upon the Jenkins system of numbering and a CD presentation which reconstructs the frieze, both the work of Dr. Rachel Rosenzweig). There are many neat solutions to old problems and some innovative suggestions which at times fail to convince, but the fundamental impression of this lavishly illustrated study is decidedly positive, for N. manages to be both comprehensive and stimulating.

N. outlines her approach in the 'Introduction', asserting that a new book on the frieze is justified because theories about it have failed to account for the visual language used by the artist / designer(s). She plans something more broad, comparing individual figures and groups with similar representations, especially in Attic vase-painting, and reconsidering the frieze from various points of view, including (in novel vein) that of an ethicist.

In Chapter 1 ('Polis: the Framework of Ritual') N. places Greek architectural sculpture in the context of religious ritual, and associates the frieze with the Panathenaic festival. A discussion of the role of Perikles in rebuilding the Acropolis complex concludes that his input has been overstated: 'The entire process seems to be committee and team work rather than the policy of a single individual' (26). As to why the Temple of Athena Polias was not rebuilt first, N. reminds us that the pre-Parthenon temple seems to have been a thank-offering for Marathon and that the Congress Decree expresses concern about vows made before battles but not yet fulfilled. A more practical reason for starting with the Parthenon is that the enormous platform laid for the pre-Parthenon was available to be used (26). A further wise suggestion is that Iktinos, Kallikrates and Pheidias probably worked in concert on the design of the Parthenon from the beginning (29).

Chapter 2 ('Paradeigma: Designing the Frieze') looks at practical aspects affecting the design. N. assumes that Pheidias was 'a sort of master designer who may or may not have executed any part of the actual frieze' (35). The decision to add an Ionic frieze to the temple was a momentous one, for it resulted in a quite unique monument and meant a raft of quarrying, carving and viewing problems. N. doesn't really treat the issue of visibility in sufficient depth, especially as John Boardman has recently stressed Korres' finding that the frieze blocks were not tilted forward ('The Parthenon Frieze, A Closer Look', Rev. Arch. 2 [1999] 305-30 at 306-7). This rather tends to support Boardman's view that the designers took no special measures to ensure visibility and that the frieze was not normally viewed in any detail; the important thing for Athenians was to know that it was there. How does this affect comparisons which have been made with (e.g.) votive reliefs? In turn, N. might have considered at greater length another of Korres' findings - that there are regulae and guttae below the frieze in the positions they would have occupied below triglyphs on a Doric frieze (38). When exactly was the decision taken to replace the Doric frieze with an Ionic one? Was it really before the temple was dedicated in 438 BC? How do we know? N. talks about the sculptural programme evolving (e.g. 39), but it seems possible that we might in fact have more than one programme. It is not easy (for the reviewer at least) to be sure.

N. examines sculptural precedents, including marble fragments from the Acropolis that have sometimes been assigned to the Old Athena Temple. Was this temple adorned with a processional frieze, a forerunner of the Parthenon frieze? N. finds their subject matter 'suggestive' and thinks that they provide a prototype for the religious procession, but she believes it is impossible to assign them to a temple, as opposed to an altar, statue base or parapet (41-2). The central fact which makes one baulk at the entirely reasonable conclusion is that we only have three fragments to go on, and only one of these might possibly connote a procession (a fragment showing a charioteer mounting a quadriga). More convincing is N.'s demonstration of the prevalence of religious processions in Attic vase-painting and her argument that we should contemplate a strong relationship between monumental painting and the frieze as monumental relief. Pheidias began his career as a painter and the Marathon painting in the Stoa Poikile is attributed to Pheidias' brother (or nephew) Panainos (46-8). N. neatly uses what we know of the Marathon painting to support her view that 'the frieze's narrative consists of an unusual (but not unprecedented) time-space continuum highlighting specific, select aspects of an event that took place over an expanse of distance and time' (50). The west frieze shows preliminaries to the procession; as the viewer moves, time elapses as it does on the frieze, and he in effect recreates the movement on the frieze, 'thereby enacting anew, and in a sense reliving, the religious procession' (53).

When discussing the ranks of horsemen on the north frieze, N. is unconvinced by Jenkins' argument that there are ten ranks of very unequal numbers. Instead, she sees eight ranks commanded by rank leaders who can be distinguished by one or all of the following: a pose of looking back, greater relative nudity, and the act of sharply reining in their mounts (54-6). A detailed reply is not possible here, but the theory seems questionable. In particular, N. sees not three ranks of riders between N99 and N113 (of five, six and four riders, according to the Jenkins plan), but two ranks that have collided and coalesced. In her view, 'the division between the fourth and fifth groups falls at the embedded figure N105' (56). That the figure is 'embedded' rather upsets the idea that he should be seen as a rider of particular importance, and in addition it is hard to see why N105 should be a leader according to N.'s criteria but N102 not. N. goes on to argue that the horsemen on the west side may be divided into two groups, so that the total number of groups on the west and north sides is ten - a match for the ten groups which appear on the south. This is an intriguing suggestion, and there are parallels between the north and south sides that might be used in support, especially in the order of the groups of figures. Yet the result of N.'s theorizing is ten ranks with 77 riders on the west and north, and ten ranks with 60 riders (six to each rank) on the south. One could emphasize similarity or difference or both. In my view, the north clearly gives a different impression to the south. The riders on the north are not arranged or attired in as orderly a way, the chariot groups are more active, there is greater nudity and frontality, and there are sheep on the north but not on the south. These differences help to avoid monotony and maintain interest all round the building; they may have been designed with this goal uppermost in mind. It is difficult, therefore, to say whether it is more or less attractive to find ten groups of riders on the west and north to match against the ten on the south. At a later point in this chapter, N. wonders about the possibility of two designers, collaborating and competing with one another (70-1). It may have been so, but again I am not sure whether the similarities and differences evident between the north and south sides assist this theory.

A couple of final theories from this chapter, on the other hand, have considerable appeal. N. is not convinced that the gods have turned their backs on the central ('peplos') scene of the east frieze, as is commonly thought. Instead, she believes they are sitting in a semicircle, which has been deprived of depth by being flattened onto the low relief band. Such an arrangement would permit them to acknowledge the approaching processions and also witness the peplos ceremony, which would have taken place in front of them. The idea is supported by comparisons with symposium-scenes on vases, which are designed in three dimensions to suggest the arrangement of couches in a semi-circle. The gesture of the marshal E47, then, who famously beckons to the southern procession, is not directed through the gods but in front of them, creating the cord of the semicircle (61-6). Finally, E34 and E35 are folding not unfolding the peplos. It would have been unlucky to depict the animal sacrifice or the critical moment of handing over the peplos, so the peplos scene as we have it really is the final moment fit for depiction: 'By choosing the moment after the presentation of the peplos, the well-being of the polis is assured' (68).

In Chapter 3 ('Techne: Carving of the Frieze') N. examines problems experienced by those involved in quarrying and carving the long blocks that were needed after the decision was taken to commission an Ionic frieze. She finds that the frieze was indeed carved after the blocks were set in position (77), and posits that carving began on the east and west sides, noting that the design there tends to respect the limits of the blocks (80). Working from the amount of time taken to carve the frieze and from the number of sculptors listed in the Erechtheion building accounts, N. believes there were probably about nine sculptors for the frieze (the same sculptors who did the metopes), and that they carved around 3.5 m. per year (87). She is very good on the finishing touches added to the frieze: metal accessories, such as bronze bridles and reins, and golden sandal straps for a figure like W15; painted details, such as a blue background, red garments, brownish male bodies, white-skinned women, and horses that could range from black to chestnut to white (88-93). N. knows where all the drill holes are located. It is plain that she has studied the frieze closely and at length.

Next, N. looks at the frieze within the context of the evolving Classical style (Chapter 4. 'Mimesis: The High Classical Style'). Comparisons are made with works from a variety of media, and it is emphasized that the Classical style uses pose and body language to reveal the character of the subject (106). Stylistic features of the frieze are isolated, such as the perfectly proportioned anatomy of male figures, male and female Venus rings, prominent veins, neutrality of expression, the pronounced emphasis upon youth, and a preference for the pie-crust edge to drapery (108-12). On the function of rocks on the frieze, N. sees some as props for figures like the horse-tamer W15 but feels that others might indeed indicate specific terrain (115). She ends the chapter with the interesting (though ultimately unprovable) suggestion that the famous block W VIII, which shows W15 handling a rearing horse, might be by Pheidias, a paradeigma or model for the other sculptors to imitate: 'it may well have been the one (and perhaps only) block carved by Pheidias' (121).

Chapters 5 and 6 complement one another. In tandem they argue that the frieze arises from the context of the Great Panathenaic festival and represents a celebration of Athenian victories over the Persians. In Chapter 5 ('Iconographia: Identifying the Players') N. aims to understand the visual language of the constituent parts in order to appreciate the true meaning of the whole (125). Much comparative data from other media is deployed for the purpose of identifying the various actors in the narrative. There are many significant conclusions. W22 is probably rejecting the horse in front of him as unfit for the procession, but W23 is not raising his arm in protest; he is in fact standing in the pose of a herald, and drill holes indicate that the herald's salpinx or trumpet probably nestled into the crook of his left arm (126-32). W15 and W8, both bearded, are likely to be the hipparchs or cavalry commanders; their Thracian dress is seen as chic military attire for the day (134-6). Eleven quadrigas appear on the north but only ten on the south (138). N. might have commented on this difference, or at least taken the opportunity to point out that difference is as apparent as similarity. The dismounting of the apobatai is looked upon as a demonstration of their skill rather than an actual race (141). The elders (N28-43, S89-106) are indeed thallophoroi , whose clenched fists probably carried painted olive twigs (142). S107 seems to be holding a plectrum and is best interpreted as a kitharist (143). It is likely that metic girls were given the privilege of carrying hydriai in the Panathenaic procession after the Periklean period. The relevant literary sources that mention women in this role are fragmentary and of late date, and they should not override the evidence for male hydriaphoroi on contemporary vases (146-50). The ten cows on the south represent the hecatomb for Athena Polias, and the four ewes and four cows on the north relate to the old law that Pandrosos should receive a ewe whenever Athena receives a cow. Those animals that appear restive are not in fact unruly but eager to get to their destination (150-4). Drill holes above the hands of the marshals E49 and E52 indicate that they have probably just received the sacred kana or offering-baskets (157, cf. 93). N. is not certain but thinks that E18-23 and E43-46 are probably best identified as the Eponymous Heroes (158-61). Among the seated gods, the standing winged female E28 is Hebe rather than Nike (164-6). Finally, in relation to the much-disputed central scene on the east side, the 'footstool' is indeed a footstool intended for the priestess (167), the two girls (in spite of their height) are arrephoroi (168), and the 'girl/boy' is a boy wearing a himation with no undergarment (women's ankles are always covered) (169-71). Certainly, the final word has not been written about these figures. However, N. has done more than anyone else to marshall comparative material, and she deserves real credit for demonstrating the festival background against which the figures are best interpreted.

In Chapter 6 ('Iconologia: Interpreting the Frieze') N. puts the pieces together and seeks the overall meaning. She surveys the most important interpretations that have been offered by scholars of the last couple of generations. Her suggestion is that we should look back to Cyriacus of Ancona, the fifteenth-century traveler whose precocious idea was that the frieze commemorates 'the victories of Athens in the time of Perikles' (173, cf. 186-9). N. would push this idea to the fore, noting that the pre-Parthenon was a thank-offering for the victory at Marathon and arguing (after Erika Simon) that the gods and goddesses are arranged on the frieze so that those to the right of the assembly have primary connections with the sea whereas those to the left have primary connections with the land. N. sees the Panathenaic procession as the Athenians' best chance to advertise their victories on sea and land over the Persians and their gratitude to the gods responsible. This theme is confirmed by the prominence given to both Athena and Poseidon throughout the temple (189-91). N. is firm that it is the Panathenaic procession which is depicted: the peplos makes this inevitable (193) and the apobatai signpost it too (196). The mingling of gods and humans was becoming quite common in Classical art (200). Moreover, it is the real Panathenaia not some idealized construct. It incorporates specific features of a contemporary celebration of the Panathenaia (197).

Chapter 7 ('Kleos: The Impact of the Frieze') seeks to show that the frieze has had a great impact on subsequent art. In general terms there can be little doubt about this, especially if one considers the interest aroused by the Elgin Marbles in Britain. However, it occurs to me that the frieze has much in common with other works in the evolving Classical style. N. demonstrates as much in Chapter 5. In this sense the frieze stands not in front but in line, and if it was not particularly visible, then many of the ancient 'echoes' uncovered in this chapter are based on a variety of different (often lost) sources of inspiration. The frieze should not be seen as the single or even the main fount of inspiration. The points made by Mary Beard and John Henderson about the ancient world being dominated by copying and a copying mentality ought to be borne in mind here ( Classical Art: From Greece to Rome , Oxford History of Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 1-9 and passim ). We should not contemplate a single base for later 'copies' and it is not particularly helpful to shift attention away from the copies, and their contexts and uses, back to a long-lost and often-conjectured 'original' that is itself more process than product.

Chapter 8 ('Thauma: Whose Heritage?') investigates competing rights over display and ownership of the frieze. N. examines legal issues, cultural heritage issues and ethical considerations. She is in favour of repatriation of the marbles to Athens.

Three final questions remain in my mind. The first is about the character of the monument and its relationship to votive reliefs (cf. 42-5, 193). Certainly, such reliefs are usually dedicated to a single deity or pair of deities, and the gods are depicted as being much taller than the humans. But votives are designed to ensure a continuing relationship, continuing worship and continuing benefits. This surely applies to the Parthenon frieze too. The second question is about what N. means precisely when she says that the frieze shows specific features but not specific individuals, and that 'we can only imagine a real procession before the designer's eyes' (197). If it is a real one, this might be taken to imply a specific one with specific people, and the question might be asked: which one and who? But the main point of this question is to say that we don't really understand the mix of real and unreal or specific and ideal any better than we understand the mix of similarity and difference. The frieze remains enigmatic. Thirdly, I continue to wonder about the legitimacy of comparing (say) vase representations directly with temple sculpture. The contexts and associations are obviously very different. This is not to say that N. has not been careful, it is just to point to another area where we could do with more information.

The Parthenon frieze, therefore, is unique (31), but N. is very convincing in arguing that it depicts a contemporary Panathenaic procession and is not a monument beset by 'omissions' and 'problems' of interpretation. Misconceptions derived from our fragmentary and late literary sources have been primarily responsible for producing this feeling among many scholars. We should all be grateful to N. for her focus upon visual language, especially for the comparative material she has collected. These are the features which strike me most about this interesting and impressive book.