There is no greater holy grail for a natural scientist than capturing evidence of evolution happening before his very eyes, a moment that freezes the metamorphosis between one species into another, or merely a new mutation.
Art historians are also sometimes let in on such a rare, wondrous moment. I can think of no better example when historians can see one art form pupate into another before their very eyes than the sculptures of the temple of Aphaia. A Greek temple dating to the 5th century BCE located on the island of Aigina.
The temple, dedicated to the goddess Aphaia,, worshipped exclusively in this temple, is a Parthenon in miniature, just as impressive and mysterious. To think there was once a world filled with Parthenons! As much as I admire the scientific advances of our age, I do often pause and wonder if we’ve stopped worshipping beauty. I haven’t! But perhaps architects have.
As beautiful as the temple itself is, the real masterpieces here are the sculptures that belonged on the east and west pediment of the temple. Like the raped Elgin marbles, these sculptures are no longer found on the temple, they are not even found in Greece. They are now situated in a museum in Germany, after they were claimed by the Crown Prince Ludvig of Bavaria.
In fairness, the prince, later Ludvig I of Bavaria, helped restore the sculptures and helped kick-start a neo-classical boom in Munich and Germany, as the ambitious monarch dreamed of making his principality a seat of culture and refinement like Rome. Of course, in those times, as in most times that came before and after, culture and refinement referred almost exclusively to the art of the Classical world.
These sculptures, both of the west and east pediment, tell a story in marble. Although, this ghostly white marble was not the colour that would have graced the eaves of the temple. Archeologists have found evidence of several pigments on the sculptures, so in reality they would have been far more colourful, even garish.
The story the marbles tell is the story of the Trojan War. A story that obsessed the ancient Greeks and whose victory they somehow saw as the vindication of their greatness. It is almost an origin story spurring on the hero-obsessed new inhabitants of the Peloponnese. After all, the story of the Trojan War, as collected by Homer, happened, if at all, when the Greeks were still newcomers to the Mediterranean, having moved in from the steppes near Crimea and beyond.
The sculptures of the west pediment are in a better condition and we can appreciate the moving story the sculptor (sculptors?) was telling us. Dominating the pediment was Athena at the centre, the founding goddess of Athens, but also goddess of strategic war and wisdom.
What’s fascinating about Athena and the other sculptures of the western pediment is her Archaic style. In the Archaic Period (circa 800 – 479 BCE) the Greeks began coming into their own. The population of Greece was increasing and in 479 BCE the Greeks defeated and expelled the Persians from their territories.
Yet their art was still very much indebted to the oriental style they observed all around them. And we can notice this in Athena. A figure who would not look out of place in a Babylonian or Phoenician temple. She has a generic smile, linear drapes and an all round rigidity. Her face is similarly stiff and non-expressive.
Immediately around Athena are two shield-bearing soldiers, facing away from Athena, their movements contrasting Athena’s stiffness, as if they are telling her, stay there, goddess, we will fight this war for you, and Athena smiles back her blessing.
This art is not realism. This is religious art telling a mythical story. In all these postures and manipulations the sculptor was educating his viewers as well as entertaining them. On the fringes of the pediment there are archers, kneeling so they could fit in the eave of the gable. One of the archers is Paris, the archer on the left. And here, there is a greater sense of realism in his movements, his bent knee and elbow pulling back at the bow. His eyes are exquisite, delicate and once more representative of a far more oriental style than we’re used to seeing in Greek sculptures.
Seen from a certain angle, Paris seems alive, caught in the midst of loosing his arrow, and yet, once more, his face depicts the archaic smile we see on Athena, a smile that is somewhat out of place for a soldier caught in the heat of battle.
Beside Paris there are three figures all falling, dying perhaps. Perhaps these are Trojan soldiers, after all, Paris was the son of the Trojan king Priam, the man who, by eloping with Helen, essentially was responsible for starting the Trojan War.
These figures, now unfortunately horribly dismembered, though not unfittingly, are the victims of war, a war, so the Greek sculptor is telling us, Paris deserved to lose, and yet, there is no sense of cruelty here, no sense of barbarism; the sculptor makes these fallen Trojan soldiers elegant, graceful, a part of the story not outside it, and in a sense that is a gracious touch, an acknowledgment that these Trojans deserved a noble afterlife.
Now we come onto the sculptures of the eastern pediment. Here the sculptures are much more fragmentary, and yet, here is that golden moment of metamorphosis caught right before our eyes.
The standout figure here is the sculpture of the fallen soldier. Not dissimilar from the fallen soldiers in the western pediment, especially the one who is trying to remove a spear shaft from his torso as he lay dying.
But there is a very important difference in this figure. His dying posture is far more naturalistic, far more indebted to realism than any statue on the western pediment. His left arm is holding onto the strap of his shield, and you can tell he is trying to lift himself up, and you can almost hear his laboured breathing and futile efforts to get back on his feet and continue the battle.
His right arm is also trying to push him up off the ground and although his face bears semblances of the archaic smile seen on Athena and the other western figures, there is also a hint of despair in those wide, milky eyes.
His body is also more mature than the other figures, less idealised, the muscles sagging and straining, the sinews in his arm bulging, and the muscles seem to flow naturally rather than being artificially segmented.
So what is the difference between this fallen figure on the eastern pediment and the other sculptures in the western pediment? Ten years. That’s the only difference. Yet what a difference!
The figures on the eastern pediment were made ten years later than the others. In those mere ten years the sculptor (the same sculptor?) had started to move into the Classical Period. This is the most documented, most iconic of Greek historical periods, the period that gave us so many of the recognisable sculptures and literature.
Here, in this figure, and indeed other figures on the eastern pediment, we can see the Classical style emerge, independent yet not quite, from the previous archaic style. Here is the Greek sculptor reflecting, in his depiction of the Trojan War, the new confidence that was permeating all Greek culture, a confidence that would force the Greeks to reflect; listen, we can govern ourselves, using democracy and our reason we can be in charge of our own destinies, free of the gods. A sense of triumphalism that made the Greeks curious to learn the reality of nature, a curiosity that is at the root of all Western science, philosophy, politics and art.
All that is seen flowering in these sculptures on the eastern pediment. It’s remarkable and perhaps here we can cast our eyes on the roots of our own civilisation. Everything you hold dear, your freedoms, your equalities, your healthcare, reason, liberty, science, democracy, traces itself back to this small moment in time immortalised by this struggling, dying warrior at the battle of Troy.