Athens at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung

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Athens at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung

In large processions the citizens of ancient Athens flock to the hill of the Acropolis. The magnificent sacred sites provide the backdrop to captivating celebrations. Gifts are laid down at the altars and bloody sacrifices take place. Life-like sculptures of heroes and gods crafted in marble and bronze surround the community of revellers.

The celebrations visualised the myths of Athens and kept them alive. Stories of vengeful gods, mighty kings, terrifying wars and tragic sacrifices accompanied the Athenians through the year. The myths unfolded around the city’s past and determined the identity of her residents.

Athena, the city’s patron and her son Erechtheus were particularly revered. The most important temples on the Acropolis, the Parthenon and the Erechtheion were dedicated to them. Still today once can sense the former magnificence of the prestigious architecture.

The imposing sacred sites were erected as part of a gigantic construction programme. The politician Pericles initiated this scheme ca. 450 BC. Persian troops had reduced the previous edifices to rubble. Together with the sculptor Phidias, Pericles developed his ambitious concept for the reconstruction: each temple, every decorative element and sculpture were to vividly illustrate to the citizens of Athens their culture and their history.

The exhibition at the Liebieghaus invites you to travel to ancient Athens to explore its visually stunning myths and sweeping festivities. Current research and theories present the sacred sites of the Acropolis in a new light.

Map of the Attica peninsula, created by: Atelier Markgraph

The Destruction of the Acropolis

Tens of thousands of Persian soldiers landed on the beach of Marathon. The Persian King Dareios I. had dispatched his army to Athens around 490 BC, to destroy the city.

The Athenians were presented with an enormous military force, exceeding their own by far. However, the battle took an unexpected turn: initially the Athenians fended off the enemy.

Ten years later the Persians returned to attack the city, also as a revenge for their humiliation at Marathon.

After the devastating Persian attack, Athens is veiled in black smoke. The city and the sacred sites of the Acropolis have been demolished. Entire families fled to the Peloponnese peninsula.

Athens had suffered greatly under the Persians repeated attacks and their fierce destructive frenzy. The Athenians defended themselves. In the Battle of Salamis they defeated their attackers. By 479 BC they had managed to expel the Persians from Attica. Subsequently Athens rose to be the leading maritime power of Greece.

Upon their return to their city, the Athenians began – hesitantly at first – the reconstruction. Many years went by before the Acropolis shone in new glory.

A Great Construction Programme

The devastated Acropolis reminded the Athenians of the time of expulsion. An entire generation was traumatised by the attack. It is likely that Pericles, the politician, also experienced the devastation in his youth.

Pericles became one of the most influential politicians of Attic democracy. With great eloquence he secured the public’s support for the reconstruction of the Acropolis. But it was not his persuasive power alone that formed the basis for his great success; Pericles could also rely on the wealth of the major power Athens.

After the Persian wars several Greek cities had formed the Delian League – an alliance against the Persians. Money that the allies paid to finance defensive purposes, backed the cultural heyday of Athens.

Left: Portrait of Phidias (?), Roman copy of the Greek original, ca. 300 BC, marble, H 28 cm. Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek / Right: Portrait herm of Pericles, Roman copy of a Greek bust, 430/420 BC, marble, H 183 cm. Vatican City, Musei Vaticani

Together with the sculptor Phidias, Pericles conceived of the most visually imposing construction project of all times. The Acropolis was to rise as a symbol of the city’s triumph.

A Myth Comes to Life

The meaning of the Acropolis’ new pictorial scheme is enigmatic. Numerous approaches have been made to decipher the representations.

What are the stories the famous Parthenon Frieze narrates? The 160 m long relief strip runs around the entire Parthenon. The most varied festivities of the Attic calendar are represented.

Horses with their owners during the sacred examination (Docimasia), Parthenon Frieze, panel West II–III (fig. 2–6), ca. 435 BC (modern replica), plaster, H ca. 100/105 cm, Basel, Skulpturhalle
Athena is born out of Zeus’ head (detail), Attic red-figured pelike, ca. 450 BC, clay, H 41,5 cm. London, The British Museum, The Trustees of the British Museum

Arisen from the Head

The goddess Athena is the focus of this picture story. Already her birth is exceptional.

Athena’s father Zeus rules Olympus. His numerous liaisons are often fateful. He seduced the nymph Metis, who falls pregnant. She is expecting a son and a daughter. The father-to-be is prophesied that his son will challenge his rule. This prompts Zeus to devour his lover together with his two unborn children. He begins to suffer from unbearable headaches. In despair he turns to the god-smith Hephaestus, who takes a heavy axe and splits Zeus’ head. The present gods watch with amazement as Athena springs from his head in full armour and ready to fight.

Athena of Myron, from Rome, Lucullus’ gardens, Augustan replica from a small classical group of bronzes from ca. 450 BC, marble, H 173,5 cm. Frankfurt am Main, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung

The Chaste Goddess Athena

When Zeus devours his lover, the foetus of his unborn daughter travels to his head, from where it is eventually born. Metis, representing wisdom, must die. However, her intelligence and her spirit are preserved in her daughter. Athena is the patron of the arts and sciences, but also goddess of strategy and battle. The eternally chaste beauty is born in full armour.

Figurine of Poseidon with trident and wreath of reet (so-called “Poseidon Loeb”), Greek, ca. 150 BC, bronze, H 29,5 cm. Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek

Battle of Gods

The ambitious Athena and her uncle, the quick-tempered god of the sea and horses Poseidon compete for the patronage of Athens.

Whoever presents the country of Attica with the better gift, was to become ruler of Athens. Poseidon strikes the ground with his trident and a source rises. Athena plants an olive tree, providing valuable olive oil and wood – a present, which requires the inhabitants of Attica’s diligent care. The gods elect Athena as victor. Foaming with rage, Poseidon floods the land.

Their sons continue the battle of Athena and her uncle: Eumolpos supports his father Poseidon’s claim to the Attic land.

Erechtheus, King of Athens and son to Athena was his adversary. But how was it possible for the virgin goddess to have a son?

Birth of Erechtheus / Erichthonios through Gaia (detail), red-figured water vessel (Hydria), ca. 450 BC, clay, H 37,5 cm. London, The British Museum

A King is Born

When the god-smith Hephaestus is asked to craft new body armour for beautiful Athena, he uses this opportunity for his advances. However, the virgin goddess refuses him. She takes a bit of wool, wipes his sperm off her thigh and throws it onto the earth.

Gaia, goddess of the earth receives Hephaestus’ seed. Nine months later she gives birth to Erechtheus. She presents her son to Athena wrapped in a cloth, the Peplos.

The story of Erechtheus forms the basis for the most important cult of the Athenians. Erechtheus has been chosen to rule Athens and the Attic land. His predecessor, the mythical first King Cecrops in the body of a snake, has been born from the earth, like Erechtheus.

Cecrops embodies the Athenians’ notion of being a native long-established people without ancestors. The allegory of the snake, dwelling in rock crevices and caves symbolises the common origin of all Athenians as earth-borne.

Fertility Celebrations
Peplos dedication, Section of the Cella frieze of the Athens Parthenon, panel East V (fig. 33–35), ca. 435 BC (modern cast), plaster, H ca. 100 cm. Basel, Skulpturhalle

The so-called “month of seed” Pyanepsion was all about fertility. It was the fourth month of the Attic year. It corresponds to the autumn months October and November of the Gregorian calendar. Pyanion was the name of the sweet seed-puree, cooked predominantly from beans, which was eaten on the occasion of this month’s celebrations – a life-affirming celebration as an expression of gratitude for the annual harvest!

The Chalkeia, too dedicated themselves to the renewal of life at this time of year. They honoured the god Hephaestus, Erechtheus’ “seed donor”. For the celebrations girls erected a giant loom in the place where Gaia had received the seed. They began to work on the great Peplos, Erechtheus’ cloth.

Fertility Celebrations

A Happy Childhood

Athena raises Erechtheus. Legend has it that she built a great house for her foster-son: the Erechtheion.

Left: Mother with Child on her lap, from the frieze of Erechtheion, ca. 410 BC (modern cast), plaster, H 40 cm. Göttingen, Göttingen Univeristy’s Institute of Archaeology, Cast Collection of Antique Sculptures / Right: Dicer and Onlooker, from the frieze of Erechtheion ca. 410 BC (modern cast), plaster, H 55 cm. Göttingen, Göttingen Univeristy’s Institute of Archaeology, Cast Collection of Antique Sculptures

Indeed there was an old cultic site on the Acropolis. It had been destroyed in the Persian wars. As part of their construction programme Pericles and Phidias envisaged the most magnificent edifice on the Acropolis of all in this spot.

A long sculptural strip embellished the Erechtheion. Remains of the once colourfully rendered figures survive still today. They relate a happy life of Athena’s offspring: a boy on his mother’s or wet-nurse’s lap. Two children are enthralled by their game of dice.

An Ecstatic Feast of Sacrifice

Erechtheus had many talents at a very young age already: he invented the horse cart. With Athena’s help he hitched animals to carts and engaged in wild races. The youthful hero is considered the legendary founder of the Panatheniac Games (Greek: Festival for all Athenians).

The Panatheniac Games were the most famous of celebrations of ancient Athens. They took place in the Hekatombaion, the first month of the Attic year, coinciding with months of July and August today. Athletic and musical competitions took place alongside the horse races. For several days the festivities interrupted the citizens’ everyday-life.

A splendid procession to the Acropolis formed the zenith of the festivities at the height of summer. On this occasion the finished Peplos – the cloth that had been woven during the preceding months – was paraded through the streets of Athens on a cart shaped like a ship. In honour of Erechtheus’ birth the Athenians sacrificed 100 oxen. Litres of blood were spilled at Athena’s altar and the revellers indulged in a feast. The Athenians enjoyed copious amounts of roast meet.

An Ecstatic Feast of Sacrifice
Riace A’s eyes, set in white and reddish stone with copper sheet lashes

Poseidon’s Revenge

Erechtheus grows to be the King of Athens. He marries Praxithea, with whom he has six daughters. However, the family’s happiness is not to last, as Poseidon is planning his great revenge.

To avenge his humiliation from losing against Athena once and for all, Poseidon dispatches his son Eumolpos against Athens. The King of the wild Thracian people together with his great army sets forth from the city of Eleusis. Poseidon’s belligerent move culminates in the Eleusinian-Attic war. In his mother’s name Erechtheus defends the Athenians and their city.

The Warriors of Riace

The two metre tall statues represent Erechtheus and Eumolpos, the adversaries of the Eleusinian war. Perhaps they once stood on the Acropolis, as reminders of the final battle.

Bronze warriors Riace A and B, ca. 440 BC, bronze, H 198 cm and 197 cm. Reggio di Calabria, Museo Archeologico Nazionale AND: Reconstruction of the warriors Riace A and B, 2015 and 2016, bronze, silver, copper, gold, coloured stones, Japan lacquer, pigment, H ca. 209 cm. Reggio di Calabria, Museo Archeologico Nazionale
From the Depths of the Sea
National Geographic, Vol. 163, No. 6, June 1983, J. Alsop, “Glorious Bronzes of Ancient Greece: Warriors from a Watery Grave”, p. 823 and 821

An incredible story: On August 16th, 1972 a hobby diver from Rome splashed in the sea off the coast of Riace in Calabria. At roughly six meters below the surface he suddenly spotted two large male statues, emerging from the sandy seabed. The discovery of the Riace-bronzes is a sensation. People gather by the coast, as the statues are recovered. Later it turns out that they must date from the 5th century BC and therefore must be several thousand years old. It is unlikely we will ever find out which vessel transported them away from Greece and why they went over board near the coast of Calabria. No matter what, the Riace-warriors in Italy are celebrities today.

From the Depths of the Sea

In the course of examining the bronze figures the curator of this exhibition, Vinzenz Brinkmann, made an astonishing discovery:

listen now
0:00 min.

„By Athena’s temple […] there are bronze statues of men, who stepped apart to fight. One they call Erechtheus, the other Eumolpos.“

Pausanias’ travelogue (ca. 115–180 AD), 1.27.4, trans. by Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann 1

A Cruel Sacrifice

The Athenians barely manage to resist the siege of Eumolpos’ troops. In despair, Erechtheus turns to Apollo, helper in need at times of war, for advice.

To emerge victorious from the Eleusinian war, Erechtheus and his wife Praxithea are forced to take a monstrous decision: they follow the godly council and sacrifice the eldest of their six daughters.

“I love my children, but I love my father’s city even more.”

Excerpt from the fragments of the tragedy “Erechtheus” by Euripides: Praxithea’s Speech 2

Together the sisters leave their parental home. Offering cups in their hands, they proceed to the ritual sacrifice of virgins.

This scene has been captured on the South side of the Erechtheion. There, six figures of girls carry the open hall’s roof. Shrouded in fine robes Erechtheus and Praxithea’s daughters appear.

When the eldest is to die at the altar, two more decide to follow her and take their lives. The eldest sacrifices her life for the salvation of the city and her inhabitants. The loss of two more children breaks the parent’s hearts.

The Erechtheion. The Porch of the Caryatids, 3D model, created by: John Goodinson and Dr. Alexandra Lesk

The sculptures of the girls might have been embellished with delicately crafted snake bangles around the arms. They refer to the virgins’ origin, their earth-borne father Erechtheus, King of the Attic people. In the belief of the Athenian’s snakes appear as a symbol of the transition from life to death.

Two coiled up snakes, bronze, 5th / 4th c BC, H 5,5 cm and 9,5 cm. Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlungen

Erechtheus’ Death

The sacrifice of the virgin turns the Athenian’s fortunes in war in their favour. In the decisive battle, Erechtheus manages to overcome and kill his adversary Eumolpos.

Poseidon’s wrath over his son’s death is infinite. In a final act of revenge he plans the annihilation of Erechtheus together with his brother Zeus. Zeus’ divine thunderbolt paralyses the King of Athens. Poseidon picks up the King’s rigid body with his mighty trident. Raging with anger he rams it into the ground by the entrance to the Erechtheion right into the rock of the Acropolis.

In memory of the mythological battle a few slabs are missing in the floor of the hall in the Northern wing of the palace. In the ceiling a whole to match has been left open. This is where according to legend, the sea god’s giant trident hit the ground!

Erechtheion: Northern Hall, cultic site
Red-figured krater from Athens depicting the celebrations of peace between Athena and Poseidon, ca. 410 BC, clay, H 57,5 cm. Eichenzell, Kulturstiftung des Hauses Hessen, Museum Schloss Fasanerie

Sacrifice and Re­con­ci­lia­tion

Hit by Poseidon’s trident, Erechtheus tumbles into the great depths of the mighty rock below the Acropolis. Magically he continues life in the shape of a giant castle snake. The earth-borne returns to the soil.

Athena in mourning finds solace and is mollified by the rebirth of her son. Violence and sacrifice form the basis of the reconciliation of the adversaries Athena, Poseidon and Erechtheus. To represent the peace the Athenians had the idea of merging the former enemies. The divine power unfolding in this union, was bestowed by the altar of the Poseidonerechtheus at the centre of the Erechtheion. The power Athens was reinforced by the war in the long-term. Adopting the god of the sea sealed Athens’ claim to maritime rule, too.

The sisters who died together with her present the immortal Erechtheus and divine Poseidon with wine and fruits: an idyllic scene in the netherworld.

Erechtheus and Praxithea’s three surviving daughters behold the peaceable scene. They are holding hands and are reminders of the story’s reconciliatory end, which had begun with the competition of Athena and Poseidon.

Red-figure krater from Athens depicting the celebrations of peace between Athena and Poseidon (detail), ca. 410 BC, clay, H 57,5 cm. Eichenzell, Kulturstiftung des Hauses Hessen, Museum Schloss Fasanerie
Portrait of the famous Athenian playwright Euripides (category “Rieti”), Roman replica of a Greek portrait statue of the dramatist from around 330/340 BC, found by Rieti (Italy), marble, H 46 cm. Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Personal Hint

The tragedy of “Erechtheus” by Euripides

When Pierre Jouguet and his team excavated several mummies in a former graveyard in Egypt in 1901, they had no idea what a great treasure they had actually discovered.

The cases of the mummies consisted of several layers of glued papyrus. Only in the 1960s researchers succeeded in separating the individual layers without harming them. At last the text with which they were inscribed became readable. The papyrologist Colin Austin recognised fragments of Euripides’ tragedy “Erechtheus”, which had been considered lost.

It can be assumed that Euripides’ play premiered ca. 422 BC at the Dionysus theatre on the Acropolis. The tragic plot shows that misfortune cannot be prevented, even by the greatest sacrifice. Praxithea consents to sacrifice her child to rescue her city. However, in the end she loses three daughters as well as her husband Erechtheus, the King of Athens.

Papyrus with fragments of the tragedy “Erechtheus” by Euripides, Fragment C, Paris, University Paris-Sorbonne – Institute of Papyrology

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WORTH KNOWING

Also look at the Digitorial for the exhibition: “Maniera. Pontormo, Bronzino and Medici Florence


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Picture credits

Reconstruction of the bronze warrior Riace A as Erechtheus, Frankfurt am Main, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung

The Parthenon-Temple on the Athens Acropolis, Frankfurt am Main, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung

The Acropolis in Athens, Photo: Hans R. Goette

The Parthenon., Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung

The Erechtheion, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung

Contemporary Athens. , Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung

Map of the Attica peninsula, created by: Atelier Markgraph

Portrait herm of Pericles, Roman copy of a Greek bust by the sculptor Cresilas for the Acropolis of Athens 430/420 BC, from Tivoli; marble, H 183 cm. Vatican City, Musei Vaticani

Portrait of Phidias (?), Roman copy of the Greek original from ca. 300 BC, marble, H 28 cm. Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Photo: Ole Haupt

The Parthenon-Temple, exterior, 3D-model, created by: John Goodinson

The Parthenon-Temple, interior, 3D-model, created by: John Goodinson

Horses with their owners during the sacred examination (Dokimasia), section of the Cella frieze of the Athens Parthenon, panel West II–III (fig. 2–6), ca. 435 BC (modern replica), plaster, H ca. 100/105 cm, Basel, Skulpturhalle

Athena is born out of Zeus’ head (detail), Attic red-figured pelike by the painter of Athena’s Birth, ca. 450 BC, clay, H 41,5 cm. London, The British Museum, The Trustees of the British Museum

Athena of Myron, from Rome, Lucullus’ gardens, Augustan replica from a small classical group of bronzes from ca. 450 BC, marble, H 173,5 cm. Frankfurt am Main, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung

Figurine of Poseidon with trident and wreath of reet (so-called “Poseidon Loeb”), Greek, ca. 150 BC, bronze, H 29,5 cm. Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek

Erechtheus’ Birth / Erichthonios through Gaia (detail), red-figured water vessel (Hydria), ca. 450 BC, clay, H 37,5 cm. London, The British Museum

Peplos dedication, Section of the Cella frieze of the Athens Parthenon, panel East V (fig. 33–35), ca. 435 BC (modern cast), plaster, H ca. 100 cm. Basel, Skulpturhalle, Photo: D. Widmer

Mother with Child on her lap from the frieze of Erechtheion of the Athens Acropolis, ca. 410 BC (modern cast, from the original in Athens, Akropolismuseum, marble), plaster, H 40 cm. Göttingen, Göttingen Univeristy’s Institute of Archaeology, Cast Collection of Antique Sculptures, Photo: Stephan Eckhardt

Dicer and Onlooker, Group of figures from the v frieze of Erechtheion of the Athens Acropolis, ca. 410 BC (modern cast, from the original in Athens, Akropolismuseum, marble), plaster, H 55 cm. Göttingen, Göttingen Univeristy’s Institute of Archaeology, Cast Collection of Antique Sculptures, Photo: Stephan Eckhardt

Riace A’s eyes, set in white and reddish stone with copper sheet lashes. Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung

Bronze warriors Riace A and B, ca. 440 BC, bronze, H 198 cm and 197 cm. Reggio di Calabria, Museo Archeologico Nazionale

Reconstruction of the warriors Riace A and B, 2015 and 2016, bronze, silver, copper, gold, coloured stones, Japan lacquer, pigment, H ca. 209 cm. Reggio di Calabria, Museo Archeologico Nazionale

National Geographic, Vol. 163, No. 6, June 1983, J. Alsop, “Glorious Bronzes of Ancient Greece: Warriors from a Watery Grave”, p. 823

National Geographic, Vol. 163, No. 6, June 1983, J. Alsop, “Glorious Bronzes of Ancient Greece: Warriors from a Watery Grave”, p. 821

The so-called Porch of the Caryatids on the Southern façade of the Erechtheion; Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung

The Erechtheion. The Porch of the Caryatids, 3D model, created by: John Goodinson and Dr. Alexandra Lesk

Two coiled up snakes, bronze, 5th / 4th c BC., H 5,5 cm and 9,5 cm. Munich, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Photos: Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek München, by Renate Kühling

Erechtheion: Northern Hall, cultic site, Photo: Hans R. Goette

Red-figured krater from Athens depicting the celebrations of peace between Athena and Poseidon, ca. 410 BC, clay, H 57,5 cm. Eichenzell, Kulturstiftung des Hauses Hessen, Museum Schloss Fasanerie

Portrait of the famous Athenian playwright Euripides (category “Rieti”), Roman replica of a Greek portrait statue of the dramatist from around 330/340 BC, found by Rieti (Italy), marble, H 46 cm. Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Papyrus with fragments of the tragedy “Erechtheus” by Euripides, Fragment C, Paris, University Paris-Sorbonne – Institute of Papyrology

Quotations

1 Pausanias, 1.27.4, trans. by Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann.

2 Euripides, Fragmente. Der Kyklop. Rhesos (Sämtliche Tragödien und Fragmente, vol. IV, ed. Gustav Adolf Seeck), trans. by Gustav Adolf Seeck et. al., Munich 1981, p. 151.