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Great Altar of Zeus and Athena at Pergamon

The Hellenistic period of Greek art showcases expressive and dramatic sculptures, like the Pergamon frieze. This frieze depicts a mythic battle between giants and Olympian gods, symbolizing Greek culture's triumph over chaos. The intricate sculpting and dynamic poses of figures like Athena and Zeus highlight the artists' skill and the importance of this celestial battle. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: I love Greek sculpture. I love the Archaic. I love the Classical and all of its restraint and harmony. But I have to tell you, I really love the Hellenistic. And the reason I do is because of two fragments from a great frieze from Pergamon. One has Athena at its center, and one has Zeus. DR. BETH HARRIS: And I can see why you love these sculptures. They combine what's most wonderful about ancient Greek sculpture-- the love of the body. But also the sense of expressiveness and drama, which we associate so much with the Hellenistic. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: The Hellenistic refers to the last period of Greek art, the last phase of Greek art after the death of Alexander the Great. Now Alexander, whose father had been a king in northern Greece, in Macedonia, had been able to conquer all of Greece, and ultimately, conquer an enormous territory well beyond Greece's original borders. DR. BETH HARRIS: And in so doing, he expanded the influence of Greek culture across a much wider area. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right. He, in a sense, Hellenized this area, or made it Greek. His expanded territory reached from the ancient civilization of Egypt all the way to the border between Persia and India to the Indus Valley itself. It was an enormous territory. But after he died, his empire was divided among his four generals. And one of those generals saw a hill top near the coast of Turkey, which he believed was an important defensive position, and there founded the garrison of Pergamon that became, ultimately, the kingdom of Pergamon. DR. BETH HARRIS: And those are the people that built this fabulous altar and sculpted this fabulous frieze. So what's going on here is a battle between the giants and the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus. We're witnessing a celestial battle of enormous proportions. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This is the great mythic battle, where the giants battle the Olympian gods for supremacy of the Earth and the universe. So let's take a close look at it. Let's start with the fragment that has Athena at its center. She is graceful and beautiful, even as she battles a ferocious giant, a Titan. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's clear who's going to win. Athena looks totally in control. She's grabbed Alcyoneus by the hair, pulling him out of the Earth, disempowering him. His mother, on the other side, completely unable to help him. Although she's wild with fear over what's about to happen to her son. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Look at the way the artist, whoever it is, has actually constructed this image. My eye starts with Athena herself, where her head would have been. My eye rides down that beautiful arm until it's grasped almost tenderly by Alcyoneus. It continues around his elbow, and then across his face, and down his chest. I notice that one of Athena's snakes is biting him on his right side. My eye then sweeps down that gorgeous curve that is his body, his torso, that leads into his leg. But it's slowed down by almost the staccato of the intersections of the deeply carved drape that belongs to Athena. And of course, that all leads us right back to Alcyoneus' mother. DR. BETH HARRIS: So it's as though Athena, this powerful, in control goddess, is bracketed on either side by these passionate, wild figures who are being defeated. And at the same time, Athena is being crowned by winged Nike, who comes from behind with a the crown for her head. So there's really a sense here of figures coming from behind, of figures coming from below, of something that's completely in flux, something that's completely in motion with an incredible sense of drama. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's as if the entire surface of this marble is swirling in a kind of counterclockwise motion around Athena's shield, which is at its very center. It is full of diagonals, which activates the surface. It is full of the deepest carving that creates this brilliant contrast between the highlights of the exposed bodies and the dark shadows behind them. DR. BETH HARRIS: But what's also amazing to me is the complexity of the positions of their bodies. Athena, who moves toward the left, keeps her arm to the right. And then Alcyoneus lifts his head up, twists his shoulders. His legs spill back behind him. And we're really talking about virtuoso sculpting here of the human body. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Imagine what this would have looked like when it was painted. We think so often about Greek sculpture as being just this brilliant white marble. But we have to remember that all of this was brilliantly painted. Let's take a look at the fragment with Zeus at its center. DR. BETH HARRIS: Like Athena, he seems composed and totally in control. Even as he rushes forward, we have no doubt that he is the victor here. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So Zeus is an enormously powerful figure. We have this beautiful exposed chest and abdomen and this wildly, almost living drapery that seems to whip around his legs. And he is taking on not one, but three giants at the same moment. DR. BETH HARRIS: But luckily, he's the king of the gods. So he's got things like eagles and thunderbolts to help him out. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right. If you look at the upper right, you can see that an eagle, Zeus' emblem, is taking on the elder Titan. As the eagle is preoccupying that giant, Zeus is able to turn his attention to the giant at his feet, who is on his knees and is shortly going to be vanquished. You can see that on Zeus' other side, he has just finished putting away a giant who almost seems to be sitting on a rock. He's got stuck in his thigh what looks like a torch, but is actually the way that the Greeks represented Zeus' thunderbolts. DR. BETH HARRIS: Ouch. That has to hurt. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It does. There's a sense of heroism, a sense of balance, even as there is a sense of the momentary and a kind of excitement that really pulls us in. The story of the gods and the giants is a story that was really important to the Greeks. It was really a set of symbols that spoke of the Greeks fear, but also optimism that they could overcome chaos. DR. BETH HARRIS: So this battle is really a metaphor for the victory of Greek culture over the unknown, over the chaotic forces of nature. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right. And it also represents their military victories over cultures that they didn't understand and that they feared. So let's walk up the stairs of the Great Altar into the most sacred part of the altar, where the fire, presumably to Zeus, would have been lit and where sacrifices might have been offered. You had mentioned earlier that the figures seem to almost spill out away from the wall. And I think that's most clearly seen as we walk up the stairs. There are moments when the figures that are carved in this high relief actually rest their knee on the stairs, actually, literally enter our space. For instance, one of the sea nymphs, whose legs actually end in the tail of a great serpent, coils her tail on one of the stairs. There is this wonderful way in which they literally pour out into our world. DR. BETH HARRIS: And so this whole drama is unfolding around us, moving into our space. And it must have been an amazing thing to have seen. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: One of the questions that comes to mind is why are these sculptures here in Berlin? And the answer can be found in the political ambitions of Prussia at the time. They very much wanted to be the equal of the French and the British. And that meant, in part, to have great museums that express the civilizations of the past, so they could be, in a sense, the inheritors of the great classical tradition, which was so revered in the 19th century. Berlin, in some ways, wanted to be the new Rome. DR. BETH HARRIS: And so one of the great things about being in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin is that instead of just putting what remains of the frieze on wall, they've reconstructed the altar and as much of the frieze as possible. And so we really get a sense of what this was like in the city of Pergamon, in the third century BC. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right. And so if this was the third century, we would be on the Acropolis, this hill top, in the city of Pergamon, about 20 miles from the coast, in what is now Turkey. We would walk up this hill. And we would find the Altar of Zeus surrounded by a great library that is reported to have had 200,000 scrolls, a garrison for soldiers, a royal palace for the king. DR. BETH HARRIS: And so this whole drama is unfolding around us, moving into our space. And it must have been an amazing thing to have seen in the second century BC. [MUSIC PLAYING]