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Artemision Zeus or Poseidon

Artemision Zeus or Poseidon, c. 460 B.C.E., bronze, 2.09 m high, Early Classical (Severe Style), recovered from a shipwreck off Cape Artemision, Greece in 1928 (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker.
Created by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris.

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Video transcript

Dr. Steven Zucker: We're in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and we're looking at a great bronze sculpture of a striding god. Dr. Beth Harris: You didn't even have to tell me it was a god. He's so powerful, he looks so in control. We look at him and we know that this is a god who controls the fates of human beings. Dr. Steven Zucker: We're pretty sure he's either Poseidon or Zeus. Dr. Beth Harris: Now, Poseidon's the god of the sea. Dr. Steven Zucker: And his brother, Zeus, is the god who rules all of the Olympian gods from Mount Olympus. The way that we would be able to determine which it was, is dependent on what he was holding. Dr. Beth Harris: If he was holding a trident, he would be Poseidon and if he was holding a thunderbolt, he would be Zeus. Now, sadly, his attribute is lost. Dr. Steven Zucker: Most art historians tend to think it's Zeus. A thunderbolt was short and it would not have obscured the face the way that a trident would have, which was much longer. In addition, if you look at the gap in his hand, it's a wide grasp, much wider than it would be if it was the narrow handle of a trident. Dr. Beth Harris: A thunderbolt was Zeus's weapon of choice, he's referred to as, "The Hurler of Thunderbolts." Now, this is bronze, it's important to talk about what this would have looked like in 460 BCE when it was created. It would have gleamed, it would have shined in the light. Dr. Steven Zucker: It's so rare that we have an original Greek bronze and the only reason we have this one, is that it was recovered from an ancient shipwreck. What happens is, the bronze doesn't rust unless there is air and water that alternate. Underwater, it gets encrusted with lots of barnacles and sea creatures, but it actually can be quite well preserved as it is the case here. Dr. Beth Harris: That gleaming, shining, radiant effect goes with the idea of this being Zeus. Dr. Steven Zucker: Especially since we think that the eye brows, perhaps the beard and certainly the thunderbolt, would have been inlaid with silver. You would have had that gleaming warm color of the bronze against those brilliant flashes of silver. Dr. Beth Harris: His eyes would have been inlaid with glass and so you have this amazing figure, not only gleaming, but also striding toward us, depending on where we stand of course. Dr. Steven Zucker: Look at the way he occupies space, we don't want to stand in front of him, we would be the victim of that thunderbolt. His focus is extraordinary, we have that incredible extension that is more than six feet of one hand to the other and he's steadying himself, but also aiming with that hand before him. Dr. Beth Harris: He's shifting as you would need to do in order to hurl something like a thunderbolt, although it's hard to imagine hurling a thunderbolt. Dr. Steven Zucker: That's right, he's pushing off with his right leg and his left leg, the toes are up as if that foot is readying itself to bear the weight of the body as he steps forward. Dr. Beth Harris: Now, if you think back just a hundred years to the Archaic Period, Greek sculptors were making sculptures out of marble and they were very contained, that is the limbs were close to the body. We see during this early classical period- Dr. Steven Zucker: Sometimes known as the Severe style. Dr. Beth Harris: An interest in figures that are more open, where you have limbs that are apart, figures that move into the space of the viewer and this is possible because of the use of bronze. Dr. Steven Zucker: We don't need the struts, we don't need the bridges that are required in a marble sculpture. Here, the tensile strength of the bronze is great enough so that those arms can be out and give that kind of extraordinary vitality to this figure and invite us to walk around it. Dr. Beth Harris: There are really three distinct views of this sculpture, the front and the back make the figure look very flat, very schematic, very silhouetted. We see the full body, we see both legs, the torso- Dr. Steven Zucker: It's almost like a drawing. Dr. Beth Harris: The arms stretched out. Dr. Steven Zucker: The arms, especially the left arm are a little longer than they would be naturally. Dr. Beth Harris: When we move to the side, that sense of flatness changes and we get a figure that seems to occupy space in all directions. Dr. Steven Zucker: We see the depth of the torso, we can see a little bit of twist in the hips and the upper body. We see this figure breaking out from that kouros tradition dramatically. Dr. Beth Harris: What seems like silhouette, actually exists in depth. Dr. Steven Zucker: Look, for instance, at the angle of the hole in the right hand. We can see that the thunderbolt or the trident was not held parallel with the hand, but would have swung around because it's at a little bit of an angle. Dr. Beth Harris: The remarkable thing to me is that he looks powerful, he looks super human, but still human in his nudity. Dr. Steven Zucker: The Greeks understanding the male human body as this receptacle for all of its ideals. Plato talked about the idea that the gods were the perfect manifestation and that we work a kind of inferior reflection of that perfection. Here we see the Greek setting up this idealized human male body and we are just a reflection of that.