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Video transcript

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 freeze from Pergamon one has Athena at its center and one has Zeus and I can see why you love these sculptures they combine what's most wonderful about ancient Greek sculpture in the love of the body but also the sense of expressiveness and drama which we associate so much with the Hellenistic 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 and in so doing he expanded the influence of Greek culture across a much wider area that's right 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 hilltop near the coast of Turkey for which he believed was an important defensive position and there founded the garrison of Pergamon that became ultimately the kingdom of Pergamon 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 this is the great mythic battle where the Giants battle the Olympian gods for supremacy of the earth and the 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 it's clear who's gonna win Athena looks totally in control she's grabbed I'll see honest 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 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 l-c Anna's it continues around his elbow and then across his face and down his chest I noticed that one of Athena 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 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 a l'cie once's mother 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 crown for her head so there's really a sense here of figures coming from behind a figures coming from below of something that's completely in flux something that's completely in motion with an incredible sense of drama 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 that creates this brilliant contrast between the highlights of the exposed bodies and the dark shadows behind them 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 I'll see honest lifts his head up twists his shoulders his legs still back behind him and we're really talking about virtuoso sculpting here of the human body imagine what this would have looked like when it was painted you know we think so often about Greek sculpture as being just this brilliant white marble but have to remember that all of this was brilliantly painted let's take a look at the fragment with Zeus at its center like Athena he seems composed and totally in control even as he rushes forward we have no doubt that he's the victor here so Zeus is an enormous leap powerful figure we have this beautiful exposed chest and abdomen and this wildly almost living drapery it seems to whip around his legs and he is taking on not the three giants at the same moment but luckily he's the king of the gods so he's got things like eagles and Thunderbolts to help him out that's right if you look at the upper right you can see that an eagle Zeus's 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 was on his knees and is shortly going to be vanquished you can see that on Zeus's other side he's 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's Thunderbolts ouch that has tear does there is a sense of heroism a sense of balance even as there is the sense of the momentary and a kind of excitement that really pulls us in you know the story of the gods and the Giants he 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 so this battle is really a metaphor for the victory of Greek culture over the unknown over the chaotic forces of nature right and 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 figure seemed 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 cnips 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 and so this whole drama is unfolding around us moving into our space I mean it must have been an amazing thing to have seen 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 were 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 you know Berlin in some ways wanted to be the new Rome 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 the 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 Pergamum in the 3rd century BC right and so if this was the 3rd century we would be on the Acropolis this hilltop 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 royal palace for the king and so this whole drama is unfolding around us moving into our space and then it must have been an amazing thing to have seen in the second century BC you
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