As Europe starts opening up to travelers again, it’s more exciting than ever to think about the cultural treasures that await. For me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art — which I’ve collected in a book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Here’s one of my favorites:
For 2,000 years, the Parthenon temple in Athens remained almost perfectly intact. But in 1687, with Athens under siege, the Parthenon was used to store a huge cache of gunpowder. (See where this is going?) Pow! A massive explosion sent huge chunks of the Parthenon everywhere. Then in 1801, the British ambassador, Lord Elgin, carted the most precious surviving bits of carved stone off to London, where they wow visitors to this day — the “Elgin Marbles.”
London’s British Museum shows off the statues and relief panels that once decorated the top of the Parthenon’s now-bare exterior. The reliefs, carved in about 430 BC, are part of the 500-foot-long frieze that once ringed the temple. They show 56 snapshots from ancient Athens’ most festive occasion: a grand parade up the Acropolis hill to celebrate the city’s birthday.
The parade begins with men on horseback, struggling to rein in their spirited steeds. Next come musicians playing flutes, while ladies dance. Distinguished citizens ride in chariots, kids scamper alongside, and priests lead ceremonial oxen for sacrifice. At the heart of the procession is a group of teenage girls. Dressed in elegant pleated robes, they shuffle along carrying gifts for the gods, like incense burners and jugs of wine.
The girls were entrusted with the parade’s most important gift: a folded-up robe. As the parade culminated inside the Parthenon, the girls symbolically presented the robe to the temple’s 40-foot-tall gold-and-ivory statue of Athena.
The realism is incredible: the men’s well-defined muscles, the horses’ bulging veins. The girls’ intricately pleated robes make them look as stable as fluted columns, but they step out naturally — the human form emerging from the stone. These panels were originally painted in bold colors. Amid the bustle of details, the frieze has one unifying element — all the heads are at the same level, headed the same direction, creating a single ribbon of humanity around the Parthenon.
The Parthenon’s main entrance was decorated with a grandiose scene depicting the moment when the city of Athens was born. These statues nestled inside the triangular-shaped pediment over the door. It shows the Greek gods lounging around at an Olympian banquet. Suddenly, there’s a stir of activity. The gods turn toward a miraculous event: Zeus has just had his head split open to reveal Athena, the symbol of the city. (Unfortunately, that key scene is missing — it’s the empty space at the peak of the triangle.)
These pediment statues are realistic and three-dimensional, reclining in completely natural and relaxed poses. The women’s robes cling and rumple naturally, revealing their perfect anatomy underneath.
A final set of relief panels (the so-called metopes) depict a Greek legend that sums up the entire Parthenon. They show the primeval Greek people brawling with brutish centaurs. It’s a free-for-all of hair-pulling, throat-grabbing, kicks to the shin, and knees to the groin. Finally, the humans get the upper hand — symbolizing how the civilized Athenians triumphed over their barbarian neighbors.
In real life, the Greeks rallied from a brutal war, and capped their recovery by building the Parthenon. The treasured Elgin Marbles represent the cream of the crop of that greatest of Greek temples. And they capture that moment in human history when civilization triumphed over barbarism, rational thought over animal urges, and order over chaos.