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Viewing the Parthenon Frieze in ancient times wasn’t as easy as it is now

The Parthenon frieze today, whether you look at it in the New Acropolis Museum or the British Museum, is on full display, easily observed by any visitors who stand in front of it. When it was on the Parthenon though, it was a much harder entity to observe – hidden high up, inside the outer columns & thus blocked by the outer beam containing the metopes.

Because it is hard to get access close to the Parthenon because of the restoration works, it is not so easy to see today, just how obscured the sculptures actually were in ancient times. I first looked at this as part of my university thesis, twelve years ago, when I noticed this issue from looking at sectional drawings through the building & then later on a 3D CAD model that I constructed.

It was not a completely unplanned problem though, as the depth of the relief of the carving of the frieze is carefully graded from top to bottom, to enable them to be ore clearly seen from below.

At the time that I was researching the issue, I came up with possible theories on why they might have created such a large amount of sculpture that was almost hidden in this way – but was unable to prove any of them & reached no firm conclusions on the subject. I’m very interested to see what other ideas come up as a result of this new research project into this aspect of the Parthenon’s sculptures.

You can find out more about Emory University’s Parthenon Project here [1]. As with the Caryatid Hairstyles Project [2], that I mentioned a few days ago, its great to see that so much research is being made into the art & architecture of ancient Greece – and that even with sites as intensively studied as the Parthenon, it is still possible to rediscover many more new things from its ruins.

The Tenessean [3]

Parthenon puzzle is doozy
Art students try to solve mystery behind frieze
3:06 AM, Nov 11, 2012

It’s one of the mysteries of the ancient world, an architectural enigma that has puzzled art historians for centuries.

And one that a group of students were trying to solve on Saturday in Centennial Park.

The original Parthenon in Athens, Greece, was an architectural triumph devoted to the goddess Athena. And in spite of being held up as a masterpiece of the Classical Era, art historians for centuries have wondered why its designers hoisted an immaculately sculpted frieze to a spot partially obscured by the Parthenon’s iconic columns.

“Why did they put so much time and energy into something that would have been so hard to see?” asked Catherine Barth, a 22-year-old student at Emory University in Atlanta.

Barth and her classmates took to Nashville’s Parthenon Saturday to try to answer that question. They painted mock sculptures on canvas to simulate the frieze and, with the help of a small crane, hung them just underneath the Parthenon’s main overhang.

From afar, it’s evident why some would be confused by their placement.

“It is unparalleled in the Greek world. It’s such a superb work of art,” said Bonna Wescoat, professor of art history at Emory University in Atlanta who led Saturday’s exercise. “Yet, we think a work of art should be at eye level, like it is in a museum.”

But Wescoat and the students enlisted the help of park visitors to help figure out how those in the ancient world would have viewed the frieze, which has been dismantled and mostly sits at the British Museum in London.

Students had people walk the prescribed path that ancient worshipers would have walked to pay tribute to Athena outside the temple and note where they could begin to see the colorful frieze behind the columns.

The early results, from about 50 people who participated, showed a similar grouping that followed that processional path perfectly.

Emory student Hannah Smagh, 19, was surprised at how well one could see the details of the frieze as one walked that path, down to the details of the men’s sandals and robes.

“We weren’t sure it was going to work,” she said. “It’s good to see that you can see so many details.”

Wescoat said that many scholars have dismissed the frieze as an afterthought, because of its odd placement behind the columns. But she’s hoping their research will prove that the sculptures were deliberately placed.

“It was visible in a much more particular way,” she said.

Student Rebecca Levitan is using their work for her honors thesis, arguing that the colors used in the frieze — vibrant blues and reds — were similarly deliberate and designed to be more than merely decorative.

And she’s hoping that their work will persuade those in Middle Tennessee to commission an artist to re-create the original frieze for Nashville’s Parthenon.

“This could be that spark,” she said. “This could be the catalyst for a really exciting addition.”