Friday, April 27, 2007

The Herakles Metopes, Temple of Zeus at Olympia

The Herakles metopes at the Temple of Zeus in Olympia (470 - 456 BCE) are justly renowned. They depict the hero performing each of his labors over the course of his career, so that, biography-like, the images take us from the young hero to the tired old man.

Tired, however, probably best describes even the young man as he looks down quizzically at the Nemean lion he has just slain - his first labor, of twelve. Instead of acting the hero and posing heroically, the artists have caught him in a pensive, thoughtful stance, as if responding to what he has just done. This is the kind of thing that engaged the artists of the early Classical period so fully. They seem to be trying to find some way of expressing, not so much how a hero would respond to these events, but how a human would. Even through the blank spaces torn away by time, what remains of the Nemean metope is a profound exploration of human consciousness.

I like to think of the Herakles figure in these metopes as in some way standing in for the artist himself, (or perhaps I should say the artists themselves). It is as if the artist finds a mode of expression by asking, "How would I react if I had just done this?" The Atlas metope, in much better condition, and widely reproduced, gives us another thoughtful image of the hero (or, should I say, man?). To me, he just looks like the artist. And there's Athena helping out by stretching her hand to help support the weight of the world.

The composition of the metope combines three big verticals with a most satisfying horizontal in Atlas's hands, which hold the golden apples of the Hesperides, assuring Herakles of immortality. For me, again (and I have no particular warrant for this interpretation), the scene demonstrates the artist who supports the weight of the earth with the help of the gods and receives a timely reward by tricking the titan. Adding to the compositional flair is the studied exposition of three sorts of perspectives in depicting the body. Athena is shown as fully frontal, Herakles in profile, and Atlas in 3/4 view.

Perhaps because she is the only figure not fragmented, Athena's form stands out. The drapery effects here, and the modeling of the body beneath, are especially well achieved.

Athena, who stands quietly by choice, turns toward Herakles and raises one hand, effortlessly, to ease his burden. She is again wearing a heavy peplos which falls in deep sparse folds. The formula for indicating the stance of the figure beneath the drapery is becoming conventional: straight folds, uninterrupted, fall over the supporting leg; over the projecting knee of the weightless leg, they are smoothed out. The simplicity of the plain, undecorated areas is contrasted with the sharply cut details, and the severity is enlivened by the calligraphic elegance of the line at the bottom of the overfold, which falls to just below Athena’s waist. (Susan Woodford, An Introduction to Greek Art, Cornell University Press, 1986 , 102)

The metopes considered as a whole (not a task I feel up to) demonstrate a variety of poses and interests, generally arranged around verticals, horizontals, and diagonals.