Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.05.18

Margaretha Rossholm Lagerlof, The Sculptures of the Parthenon: Aesthetics and Interpretation.   New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2000.  Pp. viii, 204.  ISBN 0-300-07391-7.  

Reviewed by Jenifer Neils, Case Western Reserve University (
Word count: 856 words

It is an intrepid scholar who follows in the footsteps of two of the giants of Greek art history in writing a book devoted to the sculptural program of the Parthenon. Frank Brommer's The Sculptures of the Parthenon (1979), a synthesis of his three comprehensive two-volume catalogues dealing separately with the metopes, frieze, and pediments, and John Boardman's The Parthenon and Its Sculptures (1985) both represent the culmination of decades of scholarship on the decoration of this building which for many represents the epitome of classical art. The author who has taken on this daunting task is not well known in the world of classical scholarship; her previous book Ideal Landscapes also published by Yale, dealt with the paintings of Poussin, Claude and Carracci. From an 'outsider', so to speak, we might anticipate a refreshingly new approach to the aesthetics and interpretation of the Parthenon sculptures which, because of their incomplete and damaged condition, present special challenges to the art historian. The dust jacket of this latest book promises "a complete overview of current knowledge about the sculptures of the Parthenon and suggests new interpretations of the ancient temple's sculptural creations.... Lagerlof offers a new decoding of the aesthetic structure of the Parthenon's entire sculptural ensemble."

Alas this is not the case. First, the title is misleading since L. treats only the frieze and the east pediment in any depth; the metopes, west pediment, and cult statue are only briefly mentioned. The survey of current scholarship consists of passing references to a few not-so-current interpretations (e.g. Boardman and Marathon) and a seeming acceptance of Joan Connelly's hypothesis that the central scene on the east side represents the sacrifice of the daughters of Erechtheus. I say seeming because the author never really commits herself to the theory, and in fact contradicts it later in the book. If there are any "new" interpretations in this book, they have escaped the notice of this reviewer. What will not escape the notice of classicists are such erroneous citations as "Liddle-Scott" (p. 173, n. 12), problematic translations from the Swedish which make Erichthonios part worm (p. 95), and infelicitous phrases such as "horse-hair helmets" (p. 111). A careful reading by a scholar in the field might have avoided some of these errors.

The substance of L.'s argument involves the different modes of representation inherent in the metopes, frieze and pediments. She sees not only a technical (degree of relief) but also an expressive difference among the three types of sculptural decoration. Thus, the low-relief frieze which is essentially two-dimensional represents reality or "things seen". By contrast the east pediment is three-dimensional and so represents unreality or "things imagined". The high-relief metopes lie somewhere in between. The sculptures' interrelationships are hierarchical: the east pediment provides a privileged view of a non-temporal instant in the life of the gods, the frieze depicts a sequential narrative of a contemporary human event, and the metopes lie in the realm of the heroic past. This tidy structure is belied by the fact that gods, heroes, and mortals mingle at all levels: in the west pediment (which is avoided for this very reason) the ancestral family of Kekrops witnesses the contest of Athena and Poseidon, in the east metopes Herakles fights with the gods, and on the frieze contemporary Athenians approach the presence of the gods with probable eponymous heroes intervening. If the frieze represents contemporary reality (as I believe it does) one wonders how the family of Erechtheus fits into the scheme.

While L. professes to be interested in visual narrative, more often than not she seems befuddled by some of the obvious visual clues. In noting that one of the young herdsmen on the north frieze has his mantle up over his mouth, she states (p. 63) "Once again, this seems to be a sign calling for interpretation, but its meaning evades me." One prosaic explanation is that moving cattle raise a great deal of dust. She takes the riders who look back on the north frieze as indicating "friction or hesitations in the general forward flow, or opposing wills within the common effort" (p. 63). In fact just the opposite is the case: a careful look at these figures shows that they are all rank leaders who are facilitating the ordered flow of the procession. Unfortunately one could site numerous instances of such entirely too subjective interpretations which are not grounded in the visual language of the frieze. In addition the rambling unstructured discourse on the frieze (primarily) includes long digressions on disparate subjects such as slavery (pp. 104-8) and the aesthetic of the fragment (pp. 117-20), which are, at best, tangential to the supposed subject of the book.

In conclusion the author calls her reflections on the Parthenon sculptures "an existential journey," a task that "has aroused aggressions in me and feelings of compulsion.... But against the distress of this compulsion I have experienced a sense of release in confronting a quality of expression which evokes not repose and harmony, but continuing reflection ...." (p. 163). Perhaps less angst and more objective analysis would have resulted in a more substantial contribution to Parthenon studies.

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