Sunday, May 06, 2007

Parthenon Sculptures - The metopes

Metope XXVII, The Parthenon, (447-431)

I first learned the term metope in the ordinary sense, I thought, of its role as what alternates with triglyphs to form the visual rhythm of the Doric frieze, the middle element of the entablature in a classical Temple, or architecture based on that model. Sometimes they were left blank, sometimes minor reliefs of, perhaps, animal skulls. The metopes of the Parthenon, however, are major relief sculptures in and of themselves, and though many of them are damaged, those that remain are essential. We learn to look at them both as abstractions - the geometry of the compositions pushes to the fore - and as myth - the Athenians are asserting themselves over mythologized foes.

The Parthenon metopes show the battle known as the Centauromachy, a favorite theme with the Athenians, found, for example, at the earlier Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Here, the age-old struggle between the forces of chaos and those of civilization play out in vivid relief. Both figures are highly expressive in their struggle. I am especially impressed by that left leg, which emerges (to my eye) as much as an abstract diagonal line as a vividly taut leg in violent action. The rest of the piece takes on a general circling motion as the Lapith pulls the Centaur back by the head with his left arm, causing the Centaur to rear expressively. I admire how the artist has managed to keep the Centaur's hoof within the frame, only just, without distortion.

Both figures are impressive and convincing. The fact that both of their heads are gone means that time has treated them with some parallel sense of justice; we know what they are thinking by their bodies rather than their faces. The Centaur has something of a midriff roll, contrasting smartly with the Lapith's leaner physique. Both are modeled so that light and shadow provide emphasis to the rippling forms.

The Lapith's cape is a formidable frame, providing another plane before the flat stone from which the figures emerge - one that holds sway over the action. Although both figures are virtually facing away from each other, they each respond to the other with every fiber of their being.

This metope makes an interesting contrast to the XXXI, which also shows a Lapith battling a Centaur. It is a fine panel, but the Lapith's right hook is awkward, and his chest is far more expressive than his face. The Centaur seems to have recognized what a weak punch that was, and is about to show the Lapith what for. I like what Pollitt has to say: "One wonders if an older sculptor, confronted with the ‘new vision’ of Pheidias’ design, found himself hard-pressed to translate that design into stone."

This metope and others are among the Elgin marbles, taken from Greece to the British Museum for display and safekeeping in the early years of the 19th Century. The Greeks would like them back. Please.