- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2002

By Jenifer Neils
Cambridge University Press, $65, 294 pages, illus.

The extraordinary marble sculptural frieze that adorned the Parthenon, one of the most famous buildings of antiquity, has been evaluated and studied for centuries, so it is all the more admirable that another attempt is made by Jenifer Neils, Ruth Coutler Heede Professor of Art History at Case Western Reserve University.
As is well known much of the frieze had been removed in 1801 by Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin, and this (along with other marble elements from the Athenian Acropolis) was purchased by the British Museum in 1816, where it has been on public display (beginning in 1817) ever since. The frieze at the west of the building was not removed by Elgin's crew (it was too difficult because the roofing system above it was still preserved); however this too was finally taken off the building in 1993 because of progressive air pollution damage. Several other parts made their way to Paris and even to Palermo, and other pieces have been identified among the numerous fragments of sculptures from the Acropolis.
The general idea is clear a procession (men on horseback and in chariots, grooms, marshals, sacrificial animals, tray and jug carriers, and other officials) beginning at the southwest corner of the building and moving in two more-or-less parallel lines to the middle of the east, where the two files meet with seated gods and goddesses and an intriguing ritual scene over the front door (the so-called peplos ceremony).
A procession is a good subject with which to decorate such a long continuous Ionic frieze, allowing for multiple figures that move with the viewer to the front door of the temple; however even this choice is unusual. Furthermore, the subject matter on the frieze of the Parthenon appears to be related to the religious rituals of the Panathenaia held every four years local history writ large where mythological events were normally found. So, not only was the decision to incorporate an Ionic frieze into essentially a Doric structure unusual, but the continuous subject matter sculptured into it was equally noteworthy.
It is not surprising, therefore, with much of the scholarship of ancient art being based on comparative analysis, that the study of the "unique" Parthenon frieze has presented so many challenges. Among these concerns is whether the narrative is unified in space and time, but these attempts have perhaps failed because such unity was likely not of concern to the artists or viewers of antiquity.
What we perceive as inconsistencies or illogical aspects of the frieze were not only perhaps unimportant, but even unimaginable to an ancient viewer. We impose our modern perspectives and views onto an antiquity that cannot possibly live up to our expectations hence our continual frustration with attempting to interpret the past. In fact, in another context the author states that, "It is anachronistic to impose our aerial vantage point on a population that saw the terrain from a very different perspective." I could not agree more.
The participants in the middle of the east frieze have been always a bone of contention because this scene, as the author writes, is "unique." Flanked by seated gods and goddesses, who literally turn their backs to the central narrative, the relationship between these two contiguous images (ritual and divine) is difficult to understand. Even more difficult to decipher is the so-called peplos scene because scholars are unable to come to a consensus on how to describe the physical remains.
Do the two girls at the left carry stools (I believe they do), and, if so, what is on top of them (pillows? folded cloth?)? Is the figure to the right a boy or girl (the author makes good arguments for a boy), and what is s/he doing with his/her neighbor, a bearded man? The cloth held by both is ready to be either folded or unfolded, and because the bearded man and a woman turn their backs to each other, should we view them not as a single event, but as two different ones?
Finally, and even more difficult, is the question of interpreting these figures among themselves and within the larger context of the frieze. It is clear that these five figures are the lynch pins both sides of the procession lead towards them and they are flanked by deities so their correct decipherment is essential to an understanding of the entire frieze. It is no wonder, therefore, that the interpretation of these figures is hotly contested, the debate resting not only on the identification of the figures, but whether they portray a "real" event or a mythological one.
The depiction of contemporary events is considered by some as inappropriate on a sacred building meant to stand beyond time, yet it must be acknowledged that the Parthenon is not a typical temple because it had no altar nor, as far as we are aware, any ritual associated with it.
The prominence of the cloth in the central scene and the depiction of the apobates, depicted on the south and north friezes (a local ceremonial chariot race) speak for an Athenian event, the most logical that of the Greater Panathenaia, a religious ceremony in honor of Athena held every four years that ended on the Acropolis with the clothing of the sacred statue of the goddess.
As the author points out there are other subtle instances of dressing or undressing on the frieze as well as a more direct one on the base of the statue of Athena inside the building depicting the clothing of Pandora. Yet, even with all this "evidence" it must be acknowledged that the frieze is not a strict depiction of the actual procession, as we know it, because prominent elements of the real event are not shown. Furthermore, an important part of this discussion is mentioned by the author, but not fully exploited.
Manolis Korres, who has studied extensively the architecture of the Parthenon, discovered that another Ionic frieze likely extended over the front door. This no-longer preserved frieze must be taken into account, particularly in determining the meaning of the preserved frieze. In other words, presumed "missing" parts could have been sculptured over the door, a position more in keeping with perhaps the most significant visual part of the narrative. What we don't know and what is no longer extant are perhaps just as important as what is preserved. Regardless of these possible missing parts it can be said with some assurance that if the frieze represents the Panathenaic procession, it does so not as a one-to-one snapshot, but as a pseudo-mythological event images meant to stand the test of time.
That they have done so is apparent, because in the 19th century after Elgin's marbles were put on public display, and particularly when plaster casts were disseminated, the fame of the frieze as one of the highlights of the classical age was solidified a status it continues to hold. It is no wonder that the ownership of the Elgin marbles is hotly debated, and the author admirably, does not shy away from taking on the issue of the cultural heritage of the frieze. Succinctly and cogently reviewing both sides of the debate, she makes a strong case for its return to Athens and to a new home on the Akropolis near its original location.
It is difficult to deal with any famous monument, and Jenifer Neils should be commended for taking on such a task for an English-speaking audience. She presents all the relevant aspects of the frieze in a concise and thoughtful manner, and is not fearful to come down on the sides of scholarly issues. As a result, it may be all too easy to take issue with various aspects of this book and ignore its accomplishments as a serious study for scholars and for all who are interested in the ancient Greek world. This alone is enough to recommend "The Parthenon Frieze" as a substantial contribution to the never-ending debate on this enigmatic and, therefore, all the more fascinating artistic creation of the Classical period.

Kim J. Hartswick is an associate professor in the department of Fine Arts and Art History at George Washington University.

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