Phidias flaunts the frieze

November 15, 2009



I wanted to kick things off with Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema (1836-1912), a Dutch artist who became quite famous across Europe and was later based in England. He enjoyed fame and wealth during his living years. During the Victorian Era, there was an extremely high demand for his work, which placed strains on him to continue to create original works. Despite this, Alma-Tadema produced a significant body of work which is both beautiful to behold, but carries a history lesson within...of sorts.

Modern scholars are less keen on Tadema, and Hollywood for that matter, for depicting antiquity in a very stylised manner. Tadema's work, whilst very pleasing to behold, is not a shockingly accurate portrayal of life in times past. It is however, less florid and somewhat more believable than other Romantic period artists who made forays into Ancient Greece and Rome.

The image above is one my favourite Tadema works - definitely my favourite of his catalogue depicting Ancient Greece. The Parthenon of Athens is easily one of the most famous landmarks of Western Civilisation. Imbued with great symbolism atop the Acropolis, it not only proclaimed the greatness of Ancient Athens, but created an archetype of architecture that is intrinsically linked with modern depictions of Antiquity in popular media.

The central figure in the darker clothing is Phidias, the most lauded of Ancient artisans. A true Jack of All Trades, he was a Painter, Sculptor and Architect. In the classical style at least - such dazzling multi talent was not seen again for 1000 years until Michelangelo Buonarroti started poking around in Renaissance Italy. Aside from the Parthenon, Phidias was also responsible for the statue of Zeus at Olympia, later proclaimed among the Seven Wonders of The Ancient World. Although the original Zeus did not survive, in 1954, Phidias workshop at Olympia was unearthed.


As was common with classical sculpture, the frieze itself was also painted. It is here depicted as Tadema imagines it would have looked. The male pair to the left are interesting, the apparent familiarity of the two indicating a reference to a famous Athenian pass time among males.

A Channel 4 UK Documentary Athens: The Truth About Democracy, hosted by Bettany Hughes was aired in 2007. It provides a detailed and visually rich exploration of Athens during its golden age - and spends some time discussing Phidias' (and cohorts) Parthenon in depth.

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