November 7, 2002

Beyond the Icon – The Parthenon and Its Sculptured Frieze

Posted at 12:53 pm in Elgin Marbles

A lot of what we hear about the Parthenon frieze, is in relation to it being split between two countries – so much so, that we often forget about the actual significance of the sculpture itself. It is something that is famous for being famous, its aesthetic dimension overshadowed by its political context. But in many ways, the significance of the sculptures politically – is down to the fact that they are so significant as a historical work of art – the arguments about them rise to the forefront, because they are a unique piece of cultural property.

The Phoenix

November 7, 2002
Lecturer dissects meanings behind Parthenon’s frieze

“It is understandable why, in the absence of a myth recognizable to us, we have chosen to interpret the [Parthenon] frieze in terms of what we know best,” Joan Breton Connelly said to 100 students, faculty and staff on Monday afternoon.

An associate professor of fine arts at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University (NYU), Connelly gave her lecture “Beyond the Icon: The Parthenon and Its Sculptured Frieze” in the LPAC cinema.

Connelly shared her interpretation of the Parthenon frieze, a 525-foot, sculptured horizontal band located on the outside of the central chamber of the temple.

No historian has been able to match all of the characters shown in the frieze to a particular myth, leading to controversy over what the frieze represents. Many experts have claimed it depicts a victory during the time of Pericles or that it is a recreation of a scene from the Panatheneic procession (in which Athena received a new peplos, a kind of tunic worn by Athenian women).

Connelly agreed with the latter interpretation but added that the frieze represents a human sacrifice during the Panathaneic procession, particularly Erechtheus’ sacrifice of his youngest daughter. Erechtheus, an Athenian king, followed the advice of an oracle to perform this sacrifice to win a battle and save Athens. Connelly supported her claim that the frieze depicts this act by referring to historical, cultural and gender studies.

Members of the audience had diverse opinions concerning Connelly’s lecture. “I felt very persuaded,” Janine Mileaf, an art history professor, said. “She used a lot of visual and textual supporting evidence for such a radical interpretation.”

“I thought the lecture was scholarly, ground-breaking and witty,” art history Professor Patricia Reilly said. “She is reconsidering a fundamental icon of democracy, as well as modeling true scholarly research and analysis.”

Joanie Lipson ’05 also expressed some positive aspects of Connelly’s lecture. “I thought it was neat the way she drew on the cultural context of the art to understand its meaning and then used that meaning to reevaluate other aspects of that cultural context,” she said. “I was definitely struck by and intrigued by the role of gender and culture as frameworks for re-evaluating a piece of art for which so much scholarship has been done.”

Other members of the audience, however, responded to Connelly’s talk less positively. Lipson also expressed disappointment by saying that “it was interesting material, but not a very engaging talk to listen to.” Concerning the appropriateness of the lecture for the general college community, she said, “I feel like it served that purpose to some degree, but that it could have served that purpose better.”

Other students also found the information in the talk difficult to comprehend. “It didn’t really gear toward undergraduate, ‘non-art history’ students,” Pari Deshpande ’04 said. She then added, “There was almost nothing from the opposite side.”

Connelly’s talk was this year’s Benjamin West Memorial Lecture in Art History, an annual lecture funded by gifts from the Class of 1905 and other donors. Students enrolled in Critical Study in the Visual Arts (Art History 1), Greece and the Barbarians (Classics 31), and The Art and Architecture of Ancient Greece and Rome (Art History 13) were required to attend.

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