Thursday, April 26, 2007

Seer, Kladeos, East Pediment, Temple of Zeus at Olympia

Seer (left) and Kladeos (right) from the East Pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, (462-457 BCE)

The temple itself has crumbled, but its fine sculptures, or at least some of them, in various states of ruin, remain. These two heads are especially interesting, in particular because of what they suggest by way of comparison.

The first head -the seer - shows us part of a story, one of the many sorry episodes in the house of Atreus, which culminate in the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The daughter of King Oenomaus, Hippodamia, is unable to marry. Her father has set a marriage test [a motif of the impossible task as found in Rumpelstiltskin, or the Odyssey] of a chariot race with himself as the other contestant; the winner gets to marry her, but the loser will forfeit his life. Why? Maybe a prophecy of some sort, or perhaps, as in Shakespeare's play, he loves her for himself. Pelops, who would seem to have already had enough adventure for one lifetime, decides to play the game; he cheats, however. He enlists Myrtilus, the king's charioteer, in a scheme to replace the chariot's bronze linchpin with one of beeswax. Again, you can find different reasons for this betrayal; perhaps Pelops offers him gold, or power, or access to Hippodamia.

The seer in this pedimental sculpture watches the linchpin get replaced. He catches his breath, hardly believing what he has seen, or what he sees will happen. (He is a seer, remember.) This portrait of dawning consciousness helps to convey the story both as immediate event and as something anticipated to happen.

By the way, the ruse works, the king is killed when the chariot falls apart during the race, and afterwards Pelops throws Myrtilus from a cliff rather than pay up. As he falls to his death the doomed charioteer curses, again, that sorry family. Pelops and Hippodamia count among their children Atreus and Thyestes, a disagreeable pair.

The stark realism of the seer's face, and its implications for character, event, thought, and narrative, contrast vividly with the recumbent Kladeos figure. Here is the blankest of blank stares, the emptiest of empty faces. Who is he? Maybe a river god. We'll never know, but it seems as if the artist(s) might have conceived of these pieces as deliberately contrastive, to highlight differences, so that the pieces resonate more not only with the story, but with the minds of the viewers.