Sunday, May 06, 2007

Parthenon Sculptures - The Frieze

Horses and horsemen, west frieze, Parthenon,

The Parthenon frieze is, for me, the hardest part of the Parthenon sculptures to grasp. Though I have been able to see them up close - thanks, BM! - I have no personal impression to impart, except - again, I am grateful to Pollitt for insights here - that they do seem to be as abstract as Greek sculpture gets. He says, "No two figures are alike; each relates significantly to the others and yet is interesting in itself; the scene has narrative coherence and yet arrests our attention as purely abstract design." The images are not, of course, abstract at all, but their abstract qualities are among their most intriguing.

No one knows for sure what is being represented, though the consensus is the Panathenaic festival, which makes perfect sense. Everybody in Athens participated in this celebration of their patroness goddess - including women - a rare outing for them - but not including slaves. As I gather, the festival would have wound its way around the city, ending up at the Parthenon, where the paraders would find these most satisfying pictures of themselves looking all brave and swirly.

Among the many festivities at this holiday would have been performances of epic tales, including the Homeric material. I think Homer influenced Greek art in ways that can only be imagined, but are so profoundly felt as to feel certain, even if nothing really is. I have little doubt that artists of the Parthenon sculptures were engaged in the Homeric material, its sensory and realistic qualities, its rhetorical sweeps, its memorability, its clarity, and would have felt a kinship to exist between the flurry of excitement they created with light and shadow on stone and that which the rhapsodes created with the sounds of the Homeric line. It all seems a jumble at first, but when you spend time before it, you feel an exuberant sense of pattern and coherence which must have been especially satisfying to the festival participants - and to the artists themselves.

Another something that becomes clear is how much the Greeks love their horses.