The AP Art History curriculum is commonly nicknamed “the 250” because there are 250 “images” that students must intimately know before their exam. However, “the 250” is a misnomer because if you were to count every individual image it would be closer to 400. The Acropolis is one of those lovely “images.” The Acropolis, yes the WHOLE thing, is listed as one image but of course it isn’t just one image. It’s more like 6:
- The Acropolis plan
- Plaque of the Ergastines, from the Parthenon
- Helos, horses, and Dionysus (Heracles?), from the Parthenon
- Temple of Athena Nike
- Victory Adjusting her Sandal, Temple of Athena Nike
So obviously for sanity’s sake I am splitting these up into their own blog posts, and even then I am going to leave out a lot of the more high-brow academic information for clarity. Buckle up!
*Note: my photos in this post are the reconstructed images housed in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece. If you want to see the original Plaque of the Ergastines you have to travel to the Louvre (most of the other sculptures are in the British Museum). Annoying? Yes.
Art Historical Background
The Parthenon combines elements of two different types of Greek temple construction: Doric & Ionic. I am not going to go into it all here but know that the frieze, which the Plaque of the Ergastines is a part of, is an Ionic element. A frieze is a a sculpted or painted band that goes all the way around a building. Art historians believe the Parthenon’s frieze to depict the Panthanetic Festival, a procession that took place every 4 years to celebrate the birthday of Athena and culminated in the clothing of an ancient wooden sculpture of Athena in a new peplos. This sculpture is *not* the same one in the Parthenon, but one housed in a nearby temple instead. This procession passed through another image in the 250: #26. Athenian agora.
Although not noticeably groundbreaking at first, the subject (content) of the frieze is actually the most impressive thing about it. It shows “everyday” citizens of Athens! Give that a moment to sink in: on the most important temple to their patron goddess, alongside sculptures of their myths, gods and goddesses, Athenians put THEMSELVES.
The part of the frieze in “the 250” is the one above, which shows a group of aristocratic women (known as “ergastines”) walking up to male officials awaiting their arrival. Two women recieve a garment, identified as the peplos used to dress the statue inside. Other women hold ceremonial objects like incense and a bottomless base for pouring sacrificial libations. Surrounding this procession are the Olympian gods, literally intermingled with the citizens of Athens. In the other scenes in the continuous frieze are a mixture of horsemen and chariots, elders standing and talking, musicians, along with sheeps and cows for sacrifice. Possibly depicting other parts of the Panthanetic Festival.
The friezes would have been very high up, not at eye level as they are displayed today. They would have been 12 meters from the ground and only about 3 feet high, shrouded in shadow. The friezes are carved in what is known as low relief, the greatest depth of the carvings do not exceed 6 centimeters. Even highly colored, they would have been quite difficult to see in their original location.
*Note: one year on the AP exam was an obscure question connecting this frieze to a mythological story of the an early Athenian king, Erechtheus. I was extremely puzzled by a) that interpretation and b) it’s inclusion in the exam. However, in researching for this blog post I found a reference to it in Greek Art and Archaeology by John Griffiths Pedley on page 261-262. So blame him.
- Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 15th edition pg. 130-139
- Greek Art and Archaeology, pg. 256-265
- Khan Academy: Phidias, Parthenon sculptures (pediments, metopes and frieze)
- Khan Academy: “Plaque of the Ergastines” fragment from the frieze on the east side of the Parthenon
- Louvre: The “Plaque of the Ergastines”
- AP Art History: 35. Acropolis – Plaque of the Ergastines, East Side Frieze, Parthenon
- AP Art History Go: 035. Acropolis – Plaque of the Ergastines