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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Mourning Athena

This relief was found in 1888 on the Acropolis and has been dated to ca. 460 BC on the basis of its findspot and style.  It is quite small, some 21’’ high and about 13’’ wide.  The material is Parian marble.

Its subject is the goddess Athena, identified by helmet and spear, her usual attributes.  She does not wear the aegis, which, though her most distinctive attribute, is sometimes absent from her representations in this period.

She stands barefoot, leaning on her spear, looking down at a rectangular object about half her height.  She wears an ankle-length peplos bound at her waist.  Her head and feet are shown in profile, but the pose of her body is nearly frontal—somewhat unnaturally.  Also unnatural are the folds of the peplos: she is leaning forward, but the pleats fall in the other direction.  The viewer's eye tilts with her, follows her intense gaze: the focal point is that mysterious object.  That is the combined effect of the profile head and feet on the one hand and the gravity-defying garment on the other.

Her weight is mostly on her right foot, her left foot being raised so that only her toes touch the ground.  Similarly her right arm is raised so that her hand rests on her hip.  She leans heavily on the spear cradled in her left arm.  The right leg bears weight and is tense, while the left is relaxed; the right arm is relaxed, while the left bears weight and so is tense.  Her right shoulder is raised, her left lowered.  The fingers of her right hand are splayed, while those of her left are gripping the spear shaft—except for her index finger, which touches her forehead at the hairline.  Thus there is a chiasmus in the relation of the four limbs.  Again, all this shifting and balancing of weight (contrapposto) is motivated by her inclination toward the rectangular object.

Whatever that object is, it is the key to understanding this relief.  There is a bewildering number of suggestions, none of which is completely convincing.  Is it an inscribed stele (i.e., a vertical stone slab used as a commemorative marker)?  If so, what inscription did it bear?  A legal text?  A tribute list?  A list of Athenian casualties?  Or is it a boundary marker (horos)?  Or does it have to do with athletics?  A starting or finishing post?  How about a turning post for a horse race?

H. Jung has ruled out the notion that it is an inscribed stele.  If Athena is reading an inscription, then she is reading the front of the stele, and what we see is its side.  Not likely, says Jung, since such stelai are shown frontally in Greek art, not from the side.  So he argues that the object is a pillar marking an athletic venue, and that the whole relief is a votive offering made by a victorious athlete in the Panathenaic Games.  In offering the relief the athlete expresses his gratitude to the goddess for his success.

But what about the goddess’ face?  It used to be thought that her expression is one of sadness—hence the old suggestion that the mysterious slab is a list of Athenian war casualties; hence the traditional name “Mourning Athena.”  Martin Robertson defended that name: “The whole idea of melancholy in the figure is now generally disregarded, conceived as something read by modern eyes into an ancient work of quite another intention.  I doubt if this reaction is right.  The sadness seems to me real, whatever the precise meaning.  Since this is one of the very few dedications from the Acropolis which must be dated between the Persian Sack [480 BC] and the Peace of Callias [449 BC], I have wondered if the goddess may not be shown mourning her ruined fane [i.e., the predecessor of the Parthenon destroyed by the invading Persians].”

In the end, the relief remains a mystery.  Its interpretation is yet another case of quot homines, tot sententiae.

Jung, H., “Die sinnende Athena,” Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 110 (1995) 95-147.
Robertson, M.  A History of Greek Art.  2 vols.  (1975) 1.178.


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