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East Pediment sculptures, Parthenon, including Helios, Horses and Dionysus (Heracles?)

Video transcript
[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: We're in the British Museum, and we're looking at some of the most famous sculptures from all of history. In fact, perhaps the most famous sculptures. This is the pediment sculptures from the east end of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens. SPEAKER 2: Created in the fifth century BC, which was the classical period of Ancient Greece. The period when Athens is a democracy, the golden age, and the Parthenon was its most important monument. SPEAKER 1: It was a treasury, in fact, for the new confederations in Greece itself. And so it was a symbol of wealth, of power, of wisdom. SPEAKER 2: And dedicated to the Goddess Athena, who was the goddess of the city-state of Athens. SPEAKER 1: And a goddess of both wisdom and also war, interestingly enough. SPEAKER 2: A warrior goddess. The sculptures that we're looking at from the east pediment. And pediment is that triangular shape on either end of an Ancient Greek temple. SPEAKER 1: Right, really a gable. SPEAKER 2: The figures had to be arranged-- must have been a difficult composition to fill an elongated triangle. SPEAKER 1: In fact, the figures rise, and you can still see the triangle. The fact is, though, that the middle figures are completely missing. Let's give a quick overview of the narrative. Athena would be born from the head of her father, Zeus, in the middle. And we have a series of gods and goddesses reacting to that. The three figures that survive on the right side of the east pediment we think might be Hestia, who would be closest to the middle; Aphrodite, who is reclining on the lap of her mother; and then to the right of Aphrodite, we think that that would've been the goddess of the moon, leading a chariot to the moon's setting. On the left side of the pediment, we have the opposite of that. We have the sun actually rising and the god of the sun actually bringing the sun on his chariot into the new day. Representing, of course, the birth of Athena. SPEAKER 2: The thing that is most remarkable to me is how lifelike these are. And how filled with movement. SPEAKER 1: Even though we don't have any heads except for the one male reclining nude, which is severely damaged, and is thought to probably be Dionysus. Even without the heads, even without the hands, which are often the most expressive part of a body, and despite the fact that the bodies themselves are largely clothed, the bodies are still incredibly expressive in terms of their energy, in terms of their responsiveness, and in terms of the relationship to each other. SPEAKER 2: There is a kind of integration of the figures that's very complicated compositionally. So that the figure to the left of center moves away, but turns back, and is interrelated to the figure next to her who's seated, who's also reacting to her into the event in the center but then is kind of more stabilized by that frontal seated figure just to the left. And then the reclining nude who looks over to the left. So there's real integration of a whole here that's very complex. SPEAKER 1: The thing that I find so interesting is the psychological understanding, as well as this anatomical understanding, and simultaneously this respect for and love of the beauty of the body. Now, the women are clothed. But the way that the artist is handling the drapery in some ways actually defines the turn of the muscles of the body, in a sense revealing more about the body-- SPEAKER 2: Than the body would itself. SPEAKER 1: If it was nude. SPEAKER 2: It's important to remember, I think, something that we often forget because we think about sculptures as white, which is these all would have been painted in very bright colors. Which seems very strange and almost garish to us today. SPEAKER 1: And probably really important because, of course, these would have been much higher and much further away from the viewer than they are now. SPEAKER 2: But that paint would have helped viewers far below to see details in the sculpture. SPEAKER 1: But there's a kind of nobility that is very much emblematic of this high classical moment in Ancient Greece. And if you look, for instance, at the figure that we think is Dionysus. I mean, here's the god lying, right? Completely relaxed, and yet there's still this kind of nobility. There's still this kind of balance. SPEAKER 2: He's a god. SPEAKER 1: Absolutely. SPEAKER 2: And we know it. There's no doubt about it. When we look at him, he's divine. We're on Mount Olympus. SPEAKER 1: It's so easy to see why later cultures, later ages, would look back to this kind of sculpture and see this as a kind of apex, as a kind of high point, of human achievement. SPEAKER 2: You imagine an entire culture that's somehow about perfection and transcendence and beauty and the heroic and the noble. It's like the art so much embodies those values that one imagines them in the ancient Athenians themselves. [MUSIC PLAYING]