BMCR 2011.03.48

Structure, Image, Ornament: Architectural Sculpture in the Greek World. Proceedings of an International Conference Held at the American School of Classical Studies, 27-28 November 2004

, , Structure, Image, Ornament: Architectural Sculpture in the Greek World. Proceedings of an International Conference Held at the American School of Classical Studies, 27-28 November 2004. Oxford/Oakville, CT: Oxbow Books, 2009. vi, 238. ISBN 9781842173442 $80.00.

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of his review.]

Imagine visiting the shiny new Akropolis Museum, and winding your way to the top, where the sculptures from the Parthenon— or rather, for the time being, mostly the casts of these sculptures— are exposed in a special gallery, facing the ancient Akropolis and the temple. The gallery allows you to see, at one go (better than in the Cast Museum in Basel) all of the architectural sculpture that the Parthenon once bore: the great mythological scenes in the pediments, the Ionic frieze, the metopes. You might be surprised to see the diversity of scenes on the metopes: in addition to the familiar Centauromachy, an Amazonomachy, a Gigantomachy. Or perhaps these are not surprising, since such scenes belong to the repertoire of architectural sculpture on Classical temples. But you might wonder why these “-machies” on temples, perhaps as you try to formulate an explanation or an interpretation why (or if) these vividly violent images of conflict on a sacred building mattered to those who created and viewed them in their ancient context. You might even stop to gaze up at East Metope 14 and notice, distractedly, that the composition, centred around horses, chariot, charioteer emerging dynamically also includes leaping fish around the wheel hub, and some kind of duck, afloat under the prancing hooves.

Architectural sculpture in the ancient Greek world is the theme of the volume edited by P. Schultz and R. von den Hoff, gathering 16 essays, 9 of them papers given at a 2004 conference in Athens (following on the highly successful conference on early Hellenistic portraiture of 20021), completed by seven specially commissioned pieces (authors and titles are listed at the end of the review). They stretch from archaic and Classical Greece to Roman Ephesos. The volume retains the excitement of a good conference,2 and the strong point of the collection is the insistence on empirical presentation of material, the summary of scholarly debate on this material, and the developing of original interpretive hypotheses— hence a useful book for scholars, graduates and undergraduates. The volume also raises important questions (without quite managing to answer them) about production, meaning and interpretation; it is a shame that there is no introduction to the questions in relation to the specific nature of sculpture on buildings (as opposed to dedications or paintings).

I note the original contributions. P. Higgs reexamines the sculptured coffers from the temple of Athena at Priene,3 championing a second-century date on stylistic grounds. D. Scahill presents a fourth-century forerunner to the Corinthian capital, from Corinth: the ornaments (palmettes, acanthus leaves, spirals) were attached in metal to stuccoed limestone.4 K. Schwab presents East Metope 14 of the Parthenon: it showed Helios emerging from the sea, close to shore (hence the fish and waterfowl [?]), driving a four-horse chariot (not a biga as assumed), and enhanced by bronze additions: wings for the horses, harness, and, perhaps, a suspended solar disk in the upper right quadrant, above the god’s head.5

R. von den Hoff posits a post-Kleisthenic date for the Athenian Treasury at Delphi, as the gesture of a state bent on asserting its prestige on the international scene (98); J. Barringer proposes that the East Frieze of the Hephaisteion (showing armed and shielded men defeating exomis -wearing, stone-wielding foes) represents the defeat of the inhabitants of Atlantis by the Athenians. Barringer is aware that this myth is generally considered a “pseudo-historical” invention by Plato,6 and must buttress more strongly her case for resurrecting the old view that the Atlantis myth somehow constitutes a “real” Athenian tradition— real enough for it to have been represented on a temple frieze. I. Leventi identifies the subject of part of the frieze of the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion as a Gigantomachy rather than the widely accepted Kalydonian boar hunt; H. Westervelt identifies the Centauromachy on the West Pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia as an Eleian (rather than a Thesssalian) Centauromachy (Pausanias got the identification wrong).

Finally, L.Winkler-Horaček examines the battle scene from the “Partherdenkmal” at Ephesos, and notices how the Barbarian foes are being subdued by civilized fighters which seem to be divided into Roman soldiers and ethnically marked “Greek” fighters, dressed in the exomis. No doubt the image has symbolic meanings; it should be put in relation to the evidence for Greeks taking part in wars against Barbarians: the citizens of Thespiai sent out volunteers to fight in M. Aurelius and Lucius Verus’ Danubian campaign (perhaps the same event commemorated at Ephesos), and one M. Aurelius Alexys fought in a “Persian” (sc. Parthian) war.7

The real challenge of the book is what sculpture on ancient buildings means. This is, of course, firstly a question of what the ancient viewer saw: A. Patay-Hórvath shows that many sculpted figures not only were completed with bronze attachments (weapons, wreaths), but that they also sported added-on hairlocks; other features that might have been considered are polychromy and sight-lines (with the problem of the obscuring of architectural sculpture by the architecture itself).8 Secondly, the question is what sense the ancient viewer made of what he saw.

Two opposed strategies are proposed in this volume: maximizing meaning to the level of ideology or message, minimizing meaning to the level of the decorative or the generally agreed-on, the agreeable. The first view is that proposed in R. Osborne’s essay, which looks for religious, or even theological, content in sculpture on temples— notably in the epiphanic frontality of chariot groups showing gods, the moral problem posed by images of conflict, and the exclusion of the satyr as a suitable motif. In this view, images on buildings convey strong implicit messages, decoded within the viewer’s culture. The second view is proposed in T. Hölscher’s subtle paper: architectural sculpture was difficult to view, and dimly perceived; any capacity to communicate iconic messages was physically restricted, and images (for instance on the metopes of the Sikyonian treasury at Delphi) may have been culturally very significant (for instance by conveying images of community and shared values) but communicatively very weak. As a way out of this conundrum, Hölscher offers a paradigm of the decorative; “art” grants value in itself, by aesthetics; the context of images fit parameters of beauty, and also generic social parameters of “appropriateness”. This view resembles a more radical thesis, put forward by P. Veyne (nowhere quoted in the volume under review, but which I think one of the most exciting and liberating things written on the subject): art, though occasionally laden with social meaning, works at low intensity; aesthetic added-value reassures the viewer as to the artwork’s seriousness and coherence (or expensiveness…), but the actual content of images is not there to be “decoded” within the ceremonial function of public art (Veyne studies Trajan’s Column, but also mentions the experience of eating daily soup out of plates painted with Napoleonic scenes).9

The problems with the postulate of strong meaning are the risk of over-interpretation, the difficulty of finding the right context to decode any “message”, and indeed the assumption that there is a single “message” to start with. The problems with the postulate of the decorative are the risk of under-interpretation, excessive concentration on form, the tendency to over-literalism when considering supposed difficulties of viewing. These problems are illustrated by the chapters which are grouped with the two programmatic papers by Osborne and Hölscher. P. Butz considers inscriptions as ornamental artefacts, a fruitful move (with thoughtful observations on the diversity of textures on written walls); but excessive, anachronistic aestheticism leads to questionable notions, for instance that Alexander himself was involved in designing the layout or the look of the inscription of the dedication of the Temple of Athena at Priene, or that that dedication can be considered as one would a masterpiece, exercising influence on other inscription-artworks. P. Higgs’ dating of the sculpted coffers of the same temple raises the questions of viewing, meaning and function— in a precise context, second-century Priene: ornament ? Raising the profile of the city during the long “Indian summer” of the Hellenistic cities of Western Asia Minor ? Stronger cultural meanings of Hellenism, order and piety ? Scahill on the early experiments on the Corinthian capital assumes that the form developed for a reason, that it enjoyed symbolic importance— but cannot quite point out what that meaning might have been (the funerary antecedents do not help, and the use of metal needs unpacking: “culturally” or “decoratively” significant ?).

In fact, the same dilemma underlies almost every paper in this collection Everywhere, we see a tendency to strong interpretation (for instance, J. Barringer’s reading of the Hephaisteion of Athens as a metaphor for “making” citizens, Hephaistos the artisan-god being completed by the metopes showing the young hero Theseus; however, the assumption of coherence is seriously endangered by the observation that the east frieze shows young hoplite-like figures defeating figures clothed in the artisan’s exomis); but it is reined back by uncertainty of how to find the right contexts and the right meanings (in the case of the highly idiosyncratic western Greek tradition, E. Østby believes that they expressed local traditions and ideologies, but that they cannot be recovered). Conversely, the careful description of formal and aesthetic features often leads to considerations about meaning and ideology (J. Walsh’s study of borrowings from Achaimenid palace art and Attic funerary art in the gate reliefs at Thasos leads him to ponder the significance of these borrowings as signifying cultural hybridity, liminality— but how exactly ?); M. Bentz’s study of mausoleum-like features on an early Hellenistic stele from Chios is punctuated by taken-for-granted observations about how these features “elevated” the deceased and his virtues). Looking at production (“agency”) raises the same problem: P. Schultz shows that not all architectural sculpture is equal (on the Temple of Asklepios near Epidauros, the virtuoso statues set up on the roof cost four times as much as the figures in the pediment): was the difference “aesthetic” or “significant” ?

Every paper could be dialed “up” (towards strong cultural interpretation) or “down” (towards Veyne-style decorativeness). Every paper could serve as a test-case for the validity of the interpretive models, and the possibility (or not) of combining them, especially across time (ways of looking at individual monuments, and monuments in general, must change). Even in its seminar-like shagginess (and I mean this in a good way), the volume, with a framing introduction, might have tackled head-on the well-known problem it now tiptoes round: the need for joined-up thinking about agency, meaning and function in ancient art— in the specific case of sculpture set up on buildings in ancient Greece.

Table of contents

I. Structure and Ornament

1. R. Osborne, “The narratology and theology of architectural sculpture or What you can do with a chariot but can’t do with a satyr on a Greek temple”.

2. P. Higgs, “Back to the second century B. C.: new thoughts on the date of the sculpture coffers from the temple of Athena Polias, Priene”.

3. P. A. Butz, “Inscription as ornament in Greek architecture”.

4. D. Scahill, “The origins of the Corinthian capital”.

4. T. Hölscher, “Architectural sculpture: messages ? programs ? Towards rehabilitating the notion of ‘decoration'”.

II. Technique and Agency

6. P. Schultz, “Accounting for agency at Epidauros: A note on IG IV 2 102 AI-BI and the economies of style”.

7. K. Schwab, “New evidence for Parthenon east metope 14”.

8. A. Patay-Horváth, “Hair or wreath ? Metal attachments on marble heads in architectural sculpture”.

III. Myth and Narrative

9. R. von den Hoff, “Herakles, Theseus and the Athenian treasury at Delphi”.

10. J. M Barringer, “A new approach to the Hephaisteion: Heroic models in the Athenian Agora”.

11. I. Leventi, “Interpretations of the Ionic frieze of the temple of Poseidon at Sounion”.

12. H. Westervelt, “Herakles: The sculptural program of the temple of Zeus at Olympia”.

IV. Diffusion and Influence

13. E. Østby, “The relief metopes from Selinus: programs and messages”.

14. J. St. P. Walsh, “Exchange and influence: hybridity and the gate reliefs of Thasos”.

15. M. Bentz, “The reception of architectural sculpture in two-dimensional art”.

16. L. Winkler-Horaček, “Roman victory and Greek identity: the battle frieze on the “Parthian” monument at Ephesus”.


1. The conference volume is the excellent Early Hellenistic Portraiture: Image, Style, Content (Cambridge 2007), edited by P. Schultz and R. von den Hoff (not reviewed in BMCR.) My thanks to Jas Elsner for improving this review.

2. The production is slightly below-par: 23, “patter” for “pattern”; the figures in D. Scahill’s paper are out of synch with references in his text; 52 n. 31, correct the reference to IG; 70, the Greek quoted for lines 88-90 needs correction; 96 “Aiphaia”; 165 “sofisticated”.

3. Complete 27 n. 12, an allusion to C. V. Crowther’s downdating of Prienian documents crucial for the chronology of the temple of Athena, with reference to its publication as “I. Priene 8 and the History of Priene in the Early Hellenistic Period”, Chiron 26 (1996), 195-250 ( SEG 46 .1479).

4. The capital was first worked on a lathe, as indicated by striations on the limestone, under the stucco.

5. No such disk in LIMC for Helios; rather a star (Phosphoros) ?

6. P. Vidal-Naquet, L’Atlantide: petite histoire d’un mythe platonicien (Paris 2005): Plato’s account is a historiographical pastiche; absent from earlier sources, it also was clearly not taken seriously after Plato.

7. IThesp 37 (corpus available on line) with C. P. Jones, “The Levy at Thespiae under Marcus Aurelius”, GRBS 12 (1971), 45-8; IG 5.1 817 with N. Kaltsas, Ethniko Archaiologiko Mouseio: Ta glypta (Athens 2001) no. 764.

8. R. Osborne, “Viewing and Obscuring the Parthenon Frieze”, JHS 107 (1987), 98-105.

9. P. Veyne, “Propagande expression roi, image idole oracle “, L’Homme 30 (1990), 7-26, republished e.g. in La société romaine (Paris 2001), 311-42.