02. Ancient Mediterranean, Art & Humanities

#35. Helios, horses, and Dionysus (Heracles?), Parthenon. Acropolis. Athens, Greece. Iktinos and Kallikrates. c. 447-410 BCE. Marble.

#35. Helios, horses, and Dionysus (Heracles?), Parthenon. Acropolis. Athens, Greece. Iktinos and Kallikrates. c. 447-410 BCE. Marble.

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
  • Parthenon
  • 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!


Art Historical Background

This sculpture set is placed within the east pediment. A pediment is the triangular section above the front or back of an ancient temple. It is a challenging space to fill with about 50 figures, 28.55 metres long with a maximum center height of 3.45 metres and the sloping down to the smallest cavity at the end of the triangle. The east pediment was heavily damaged when the Parthenon was transformed into a Christian church because the altar’s apse was constructed in the east (to align with the rising sun). Although the east pediment is the only one part of the 250, I like to mention the narrative on the west pediment. It shows the contest between Athena and Poseidon for patronage of Athens (spoiler alert, Athena wins).

Read more: UNESCO: Acropolis, Athens

On the other side, the east pediment contains the narrative of the birth of Athena. This event relates to the Panathenaic Festival that went through the Athenian Agora and is depicted in the interior Parthenon frieze Plaque of the Ergastines. Unfortunately the central figures have been lost to time (aka the stupidity of people who came before modern archeology), so the image above is a reconstruction. The specific part to focus on for AP Art History is tucked away in the corner of the pediment: Helios, horses, and Dionysus (Heracles?). Helios is the personification of the sun (only his arms and shoulder survive) is seen arising from the left suggesting the rising sun. To the right are the horses that pull his chariot in Greek mythology.

The reclining male figure has been identified as either Dionysus (the wine god) or the hero Heracles (Hercules). Art historians debate if the figure is reclining with a glass of wine on a panther skin, which would mean he is Dionysus; or if he is reclining on a lion skin, which means he is Hercules. However the figure of Hercules would make no sense at the birth of an Olympian god. Instead on focusing on the attribution, the most important part of this figure, like much of Greek art, is the perfection of the male nude. And this piece is a phenomenal example of the idealization of the male body.

Read more: Student Series! Male Beauty in Ancient Greece

Although not part of the image in “the 250” I like to show some other figures on the other side of the east pediment. I just love these reclining goddesses; the drapery is just exquisite & it makes me want to swoosh my skirts around. 🙂 And at the other far corner of the east pediment is the moon goddess Selene descending – a nice visual balance suggesting of the passage of a day. Also, don’t forget all of these sculptures would have been brightly colored, so none of the austere white we are used to seeing.

These sets of sculptures are known as part of the controversial Elgin Marbles and are now housed in the British Museum, although the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece has fought to have them back. The controversy centers around the fact that the British Lord Elgin legally bought these sculptures off the occupying Ottoman Empire in 1801; however Greece (convincingly) argues that they never authorized the sale, an invading empire did. Great Britain’s (convincing) argument was that Greece’s finances were in shambles & they weren’t “able” to take care of them. However, today, Athens has a beautiful (& expensive) Acropolis Museum specifically to house the sculptures back andddd, no shock, the British Museum is still saying no. Is it theft? Should they be returned?

P.S. There is a super hilarious comedic bit by James Acaster on this topic. HERE is the link to the YouTube.

Resources

Next time: #35. Plaque of the Ergastines, Parthenon. Acropolis. Athens, Greece. Iktinos and Kallikrates. c. 447-410 BCE. Marble.

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