Thursday, April 26, 2007

West Pediment, Temple of Zeus, Olympia

The West pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia shows a marked contrast to the East pediment. The East pediment shows a relatively static scene, albeit one fraught with anticipation. This scene presents a wild and woolly battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, with the god Apollo calmly exerting his authority with his extended right arm - though he is conceivably intended to be invisible to the participants - over the entire scene.

The story is told in Homer by Antinoos - failing to see himself in his tale, a classic instance of Homeric irony - when Odysseus, still in disguise, suggests they leave off their rowdy behavior.
"It was wine that inflamed the Centaur Eurytion when he was staying with Peirithoos among the Lapiths. When the wine had got into his head he went mad and did ill deeds about the house of Peirithoos; this grieved [akhos] the heroes who were there assembled, so they rushed at him and cut off his ears and nostrils; then they dragged him through the doorway out of the house, so he went away crazed, and bore the burden [atĂȘ] of his crime, bereft of understanding..."
Here's the myth: Perithoos, King of the Lapiths, has a wedding feast at his marriage to Deidamia. He invites the centaurs, which is the neighborly thing to do, but they fall prey to their own nature and get drunk. When they attempt to rape the bride and carry away both girls and boys for their own party down the road a spell, Theseus, one of the wedding guests, helps Perithoos and his Lapiths subdue by force of arms the unruly centaurs.

The Centauromachy became a favorite subject for Greek reliefs, in the company of similarly-themed battles with Giants or with Amazons, and this one at Olympia is the first time the story was expressed in architectural relief sculpture. The Greeks saw themselves, in the commanding presence of the implacable Apollo, at war with chaos. Just as they defeated the Persians, so, too, would they defeat Centaurs, Amazons, or Giants.

Kenneth Clark calls our attention to the central figure of Apollo:
One great image of Apollo from the beginning of the classic period has survived in the original: he who rises above the struggle, in the west pediment of the temple of Olympia, and, with a gesture of sovereign authority, reproves the bestial fury of the centaurs. Nowhere else, perhaps, is the early Greek ideal so perfectly embodied: calm, pitiless, and supremely confident in the power of physical beauty. Not a shade of doubt of compunction could soften the arc of cheek or brow.... His body, though not without a certain passive magnificence, is flat and inexpressive. Like all the sculptures at Olympia, it lacks the rigorous precision of Attic work. It is twenty years later than the Kritios youth, but is plastically less evolved (The Nude, 74).
The Apollo is a magnificent presence alone; in the midst of the carnage, he presents an even statelier figure, contrasting nobly with the grimaced visages around him. An especially expressive centaur pulls away from the desperate grasp of the woman he is trying to abduct while behind him Theseus raises his weaponed arm for a mortal blow. The exact layout of the original pedimental composition is speculative, but there is abundant evidence of fervent artistic engagement in both the narrative and the dramatic expression.

Much of this works by way of contrast. The East and this West pediments are themselves deliberately differentiated, and many of the individual faces of centaurs, Lapiths, and maidens are presented by way of how they contrast with each other. The artist is well aware of how bodies move when they wrestle, and how bodies get mangled, and demonstrates an especially acute interest in the sense of touch. The Apollo figure is remote from the rest of the scene, leading to speculation that he is invisible to the participants, or perhaps (one of my favorite interpretations) a statue within the group, in which case the god himself might have been intended to inhabit this very piece.

The West pediment at Olympia is a work of art worth getting to know and contemplate. It tells a dramatic and violent story in sculptures that are highly expressive of individual effort and concentration; all of the characters are desperately engaged in what they are doing. An interesting quality of thoughtfulness pervades the scene, whose formal energies are enhanced by some especially beautiful drapery effects.

Judith M. Barringer provides an excellent analysis of the entire temple, very much worth reading.