As Europe begins to open up to travelers again, it is more exciting than ever to think about the cultural treasures that lie ahead. For me, one of the great joys of traveling is meeting the great art personally – which I have collected in a book. Top 100 Masterpieces in Europe. Here’s my favorite one:
For 2,000 years, the Parthenon temple in Athens was almost completely intact. But in 1687, during the siege of Athens, the Parthenon was used to store a huge cache of ammunition. (See where this is going?) Pow! A huge explosion sent huge portions of the Parthenon everywhere. Then in 1801, the British ambassador, Lord Elgin, took the most valuable surviving bits of carved stone to London, where they still fascinate visitors today – “Elgin Marble”.
The British Museum in London displays the statues and relief panels that once housed the now-empty outer top of the Parthenon. Reliefs carved around 430 BC, part of a 500-foot-long fridge that once ringed in the temple. They show 56 snapshots of the most festive ceremonies in ancient Athens: a great parade on Mount Acropolis to celebrate the city’s birthday.
The parade begins with the men on horseback, fighting to rein in their spirits. Then came the musicians playing the flute, while the women danced. Prominent citizens rode chariots, children rode side by side, and priests led the official bulls for the sacrifice. At the heart of the procession is a group of teenagers. Dressed in elegant clothing, they carried gifts to the gods, such as burning incense and wine jugs.
The most important gift of the girls parade was given: a folded dress. As the parade ends inside the Parthenon, the girls symbolically present the Athena costume to the temple’s 40-foot-tall gold-and-ivory statue.
Realism is incredible: the well-defined muscles of men, the swollen veins of horses. The intricately decorated garments of the girls look as stable as their flute columns, but they come out naturally – human form derived from stone. These panels were originally painted in dark colors. In the busyness of the details, the fridge has a unified element – all the heads are at the same level, moving in the same direction, creating a single ribbon of humanity around the Parthenon.
The main entrance to the Parthenon was adorned with a magnificent view depicting the birth of the city of Athens. These statues are located inside the triangular shaped pediment above the door. It shows the Greek gods walking around at an Olympian banquet. Suddenly, there is a stir of activity. The gods are leaning towards a miracle: Zeus has just split his head to reveal Athena, the symbol of the city. (Unfortunately, that original view is missing – it’s empty space at the top of the triangle.)
These pediment sculptures are realistic and three-dimensional, leaning in a completely natural and relaxed manner. Women’s clothing naturally grips and dyes, revealing their perfect physique at the bottom.
A final set of relief panels (so-called metophos) depicts a Greek legend that encompasses the entire Parthenon. They show that the ancient Greeks were fighting with the brutal Centurion. It’s free to pull hair, squeeze the throat, kick the shin, and hit the knee with the groin. Ultimately, people are on the rise – a symbol of how civilized Athenians have triumphed over their barbaric neighbors.
In real life, the Greeks came out of a brutal war and limited their recovery by building Parthenon. Precious Elgin marbles represent the largest crop cream of Greek temples. And they capture the moment in human history when civilization triumphed over barbarism, over rational thought over animal will, and over discipline.