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Siphnian Treasury, Delphi

Pediment and Frieze of the Siphnian Treasury at the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, c. 530 B.C.E. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Voiceover] One of the most prominent buildings in the sanctuary at Delphi, the Panhellenic Sanctuary, was the, in treasury. This is a small building meant to house treasure that was dedicated to the god, Apollo, who's sanctuary this was. - [Voiceover] Now, the Siphnians came from a small island in the south Aegean, and they could afford to do this because they had both silver and gold mines, and at least according to one ancient chronicler, they devoted a 10th of the money they made from these mines to Delphi. Now, the reason they did this is because religion in ancient Greece was transactional. That is, if you gave sacrifice to the gods, they would favor you in return. - [Voiceover] Sacrifice in gifts, exactly. And the Siphnian treasury was supposedly the most beautiful, most elaborate, most highly decorated of the different treasuries from the different Greek city states at the Panhellenic sanctuary at Delphi. - [Voiceover] When you walk up the sacred way, the pathway that leads up into the sanctuary, and you come to the Siphnian treasury, you first see its back, or east side. And the sculpture from the pediment, earned from that side of the frieze, and there was a kind of band or ribbon of carving that went around all four sides has been preserved. - [Voiceover] Well, a continuous frieze around the treasury makes sense because this is a building in the ionic style. - [Voiceover] So, let's take a look at what that sculpture depicts. In the pediment, you have something that's very appropriate for this location. It is the hero, Herakles, who's trying to steal the tripod from the god, Apollo. - [Voiceover] Now, the tripod was associated with the oracle at Delphi. The oracle sat on the tripod and made pronouncements channeling Apollo. - [Voiceover] You can see why that would upset Apollo, and why Zeus has had to step in, Zeus would be the figure that has lost his head in the middle, who seems to be trying to negotiate between the two. - [Voiceover] You can see Herakles, he's got the tripod on his back, and he's heading away as though he's gonna be successful in this theft. But the tripod is being held at the other end by both Apollo and Zeus. - [Voiceover] And we see Artemis, the goddess who seems to be restraining Apollo, who had quite a temper. - [Voiceover] These figures look like archaic style figures to me, here we are at the end of the sixth century, that's when the Siphnians built this treasury. They have a little bit of that stiffness that we associate with archaic figures. We see them from the profile view, or frontal view, and not a lot of twisting, and turning in space which we'll see more of, actually, in the frieze below. - [Voiceover] But we do get a sense of energy from, for instance, Herakles' more widely spaced legs as if he is trying to really pull away. So, let's look at the east side of the frieze. That is the area just below the pediment. It's divided into two parts. On the right side, we see a scene from the Iliad, the great Trojan war. We see two great soldiers, one on the Trojan side, one on the Greek side. - [Voiceover] So, Achilles is on the right, he's the Greek, and Memnon is on the left, he's the Trojan. - [Voiceover] Achilles is holding a shield which has a Gorgon head on it, fighting with Memnon, and they're fighting over the dead body of Antilochus. But while these men feel that their fate is being decided by their battle, in fact, what the sculptor is showing us is that their fate is being decided far away on Mount Olympus by the gods. - [Voiceover] So, on the left side, we see the gods and goddesses who are siding with the Trojans, and on the right, the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus are siding with the Greeks. - [Voiceover] The figure that's seated in the center is probably Zeus, who's actually making the final determination, and we get the sense that the gods and goddesses on either side are arguing for him to listen. - [Voiceover] There have been different identifications of the figures here, so we have to be careful, but it does seem as though on the far left, we have Ares, god of war, and we may have Eos. - [Voiceover] And she's the mother of Memnon. - [Voiceover] Then we may have Artemis or Aphrodite, and then the figure of Apollo. - [Voiceover] Now, Apollo is turning back and really listening to what the women are saying. And we see these beautiful, elegant figures, that he has a real nobility, and a kind of stasis to these figures as opposed to the figures that are actually in battle. - [Voiceover] The women seem to be pleading with Apollo, and the women raise their hands, they open their palms, and they seem to look directly at Apollo, who turns around to listen to them. Now, remember all of this would have been painted, and therefore, much more visible. - [Voiceover] The three gods and goddesses that remain, that would have been arguing on the side of the Greeks are Athena on the left, in the center, Zeus' wife, Hera, and then possible Thetis, who would be pleading for her son, Achilles. - [Voiceover] While there's a sense of emotion, there's still primarily a sense of stability here, of figures and profile. But when we move to the battle that they're deciding, we see for shortening, we see a real illusion into space. Look at these horses who are turned toward us, moving almost into our space. - [Voiceover] We see that sense of space even more explicitly rendered as we walk up the hill towards the front of the treasury, and we look at the north side of the frieze. - [Voiceover] Here, we see a common scene in Greek sculpture, this is a battle of the gods and the giants. - [Voiceover] So, according to Greek mythology, everything starts with the most primary deities, and that would be the goddess, Earth, Gaea, and Uranus, and the god of the sky. And they give birth to the titans, they give birth to the giants. The giants, in turn, give birth to the gods. And so, the gods are, in a sense, the third generation, and they rule from Mount Olympus. But according to myth, the giants want to be able to rule from Mount Olympus, they want what the gods have. - [Voiceover] So, this is the great battle that takes place between them. - [Voiceover] The giants are really stand-ins for humans. Having a great hubris, and really wanting to take from the mighty gods of Mount Olympus. - [Voiceover] Hubris, meaning a kind of pride, a sense that you can accomplish more than you can really accomplish as a human being. - [Voiceover] In fact, so much of the sculpture at the Siphnian treasury is in reestablishing the power of the gods, and the fool hardiness of trying to upset that natural order. So, let's take a look at the action. On the very far left side of the north frieze, we have the god, Hephaestus. Now, this is the god that is associated with craftsmanship. - [Voiceover] He's a blacksmith. - [Voiceover] That's right, so, he's associated with the fortune. We see him, actually, pushing down the bellows, manufacturing of lightning bolt, which Zeus can use against the giants. - [Voiceover] Or a weapon of some sort in any case. And we see the giants advancing from the right. - [Voiceover] Luckily, Hestia and Demeter are there to meet them. Without a doubt, the most famous part of this frieze is the chariot of Dionysos, which is pulled by two lions. - [Voiceover] Those lions are attacking one of the giants, biting and clawing the torso. - [Voiceover] And the other lion is rearing up, and it looks like it's about to bear down, in fact, that further lion, which is almost completely gone, but you can just make out its mane, is also wrapping its forepaw around that giant's neck. That giant has had it. - [Voiceover] Now, that giant who's being devoured wraps his arm around the lion as if to pull it away from him. - [Voiceover] The artist has done something really quite exceptional for the archaic period. He's turned the head at a kind of three quarter pose. It's helmeted, but that mouth piece is a means of expressing the pain that this figure is feeling, even though if you look very closely, the mouth is still closed in the traditional noble expression. - [Voiceover] Look at how Dionysos strides forward, and he looks so powerful. - [Voiceover] And just in front of him is the local goddess, Themis, and she actually rides on the chariot. - [Voiceover] What we have here is a sense of the chaos of battle. As our eye moves to the right to follow this story, we see two archers, those are Apollo and Artemis, but just to the right of them, we see a fleeing giant who looks absolutely terrified. He looks back behind him, but runs forward with this sword. Looks at his drapery flowing back behind him, you get a sense of real movement. - [Voiceover] He's so terrified, he's abandoning his colleague to those lions. - [Voiceover] And below him is a fallen giant. - [Voiceover] So, the giant is so interesting because he's in back of Apollo and Artemis, but there's an expression of distance between them because of the distinction in the depth of relief. In other words, Apollo and Artemis are carved fairly deeply while he is at a slightly smaller scale, and carved in a more shallow way, so that we know he's part of the scene in back of them. - [Voiceover] So, we have a real sense of deep space here in the battle field. - [Voiceover] Look at the way the artist links that fleeing giant through his shield, which is concave, with a concave shield of the three giants that are confronting Apollo and Artemis. - [Voiceover] And we have a sense of the imminent danger that he's in because one of his colleagues is fallen below. - [Voiceover] The Olympian gods are always overmatched, and yet, they triumph. - [Voiceover] The other thing that happens is that the Olympian gods are represented very individualistically, very heroically, fighting together, but also a sense of them fighting individually with their own strength and power, whereas, the giants are fighting as an anonymous group. - [Voiceover] The next section of the north frieze is missing, but we know what would have been there. It would have been the chariot of Zeus in the middle with horses which we can still see, and he would probably have been throwing a thunder bolt. - [Voiceover] And those horses are rearing up, and you can almost hear them galloping, and they're followed by two more giants with their shields, throwing spears. - [Voiceover] And so, Zeus, a single god, is taking on at least two giants. - [Voiceover] And below, we see Aphrodite, who's aiming a spear so intensely at a falling giant on the ground, we can just barely make out his body, his knee has bent under his weight, his arm is holding him up. It's as if he's in the process of dying, and next comes Athena. Always the hero. - [Voiceover] We can identify her quickly because of the aegis that she wears, which is fringed by snakes. We can see the inside of her shield, and we can actually, there, see a little bit of the very bright paint that would have covered this entire frieze. - [Voiceover] And she's clearly advancing on the enemy. - [Voiceover] In front of Athena, we have another giant that's fallen, this time backwards. And then there's another dead giant just behind him. In back of him is yet another giant, still standing, ready to throw a spear. - [Voiceover] But we know he won't be successful against Athena, that's apparent. - [Voiceover] And at the head of all of the gods, we have Ares, the god of war. - [Voiceover] He strides forward, his shield in his left hand, actively in pursuit of the giants. - [Voiceover] And it's quite a collection of giants that he's after. We can see the one just beside him is actually ready to hurl an enormous rock while another has his spear ready to throw. And finally, we can recognize Hermes under a conical helmet, and he's taking on what looks like a small army of giants. - [Voiceover] Looks like he's about to pull a dagger from his sheath. - [Voiceover] In back of him, there are just a few traces of what would probably be Poseidon, but that part is mostly lost. So, what we see here is this really interesting moment of transition from the more static and symbolic representations that we so much associate with the archaic period, and this increasing interest in the complexity of human interaction. - [Voiceover] And storytelling, absolutely. - [Voiceover] As we move towards the classical. (piano music)