Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 26, 2009
Ian Jenkins Greek Architecture and Its Sculpture Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press in association with British Museum Press, 2007. 272 pp.; 100 color ills.; 150 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780674023888)

No other museum in the world can match the British Museum for its incomparable collection of ancient Greek architectural sculpture. While the Elgin Marbles are its best known acquisition, it also showcases sculpture from two of the “wonders” of the ancient world, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos and the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos, as well as that of the Temple of Apollo at Bassae and the Nereid Monument from Lycia. And who better to assemble and analyze these famous and influential monuments in a single volume than Ian Jenkins, who has been on the curatorial staff of the British Museum for decades and has written extensively on the Parthenon? His collation in Greek Architecture and Its Sculpture of marble temples and tombs not only provides insights into the roles that sculptural embellishment played but also delves into the history of the archaeological discoveries that took place in the nineteenth century when European museums were vying with each other to collect the remnants of the classical past. His readable text contextualizes both the figural sculptures (metopes, pediments, friezes, ceiling coffers, even lion-headed water spouts) and the non-figurative (fluted columns and their capitals, decorated wall blocks, simas [gutters], antefixes, and moldings). Because of the rich holdings of the British Museum, his book can serve as a fairly complete survey of this important subject—important because it represents a corpus of Greek originals, unlike free-standing sculpture which is largely known through later Roman adaptations and imitations. The one major area of the ancient Greek world that is missing is Magna Graecia because early British travelers did not collect from southern Italy or Sicily where marble sculpture is scarce.

The first two chapters provide useful background information. Chapter 1 chronicles the political history of mainland Greece and western Turkey from the sixth century B.C.E., when the Greeks first came into contact with the monumental stone architecture of Egypt, to the Ionian “Renaissance” of the fourth century, when temple building resumed here after a long interlude of Athenian and Persian domination. The second chapter examines some of the mechanics of Greek architecture, including plans, systems of proportion, the role of the architect, and evidence for polychromy. Each of the remaining chapters deals with a single site, and provides the history, political and archaeological, of the area before examining specific building(s) and sculpture. Thus, each chapter can be read on its own as a thorough introduction to these famous monuments.

The third and last chapters discuss two vastly different Ionic temples on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey: the gigantic Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, deeply submerged in a flooded valley, and the Temple of Athena at Priene, dramatically perched on a cliff above the plain of the Maeander. The former had columnae caelatae, or columns carved with figures in relief, while the latter had sculpted reliefs discretely placed within the ceiling coffers of the peristyle. There were two phases to the Artemision, an archaic one funded by the rich King Kroisos of Lydia and famously burned to the ground by Herostratos in 356 B.C.E., and a Hellenistic one that Alexander the Great offered to fund. The Ephesians refused, but the citizens of Priene were more amenable, as evidenced by the inscribed block, now in the British Museum, that records Alexander’s dedication in 334 B.C.E. Jenkins surveys the evidence for the placement of the sculpted column drums and pedestals of the second Artemision and presents the case for their placement at the bottom of the columns, which makes the most sense for purposes of viewing since the columns were nearly fifty-eight feet tall.

Sculpture on columns and coffers is not the norm in Greek temple architecture. Thus, the core of the book focuses on the Greek mainland and more canonical forms, although not completely. The Parthenon, subject of chapter 4, has more architectural sculpture than any extant Greek temple: 92 carved metopes, 2 pediments filled with 50 over-life-size figures, and a 524-foot low relief Ionic frieze encircling the cella and porches, which is an anomaly on a Doric temple. The British Museum owns the best preserved metopes showing Greeks fighting centaurs (15), most of the extant pedimental figures (except the two left by Lord Elgin because he believed, erroneously, that they were Roman replacements), and lengthy portions of the frieze. Jenkins rightly does not rehash some of the more unlikely identifications of the frieze’s subject (such as J.B. Connelly’s theory of human sacrifice [“Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze," American Journal of Archaeology 100 (1996): 53–80], which has been adopted in the latest edition of Janson’s History of Art), but sticks to the most plausible—the procession of the Panathenaic festival. He argues, however, that the procession is generic, although the presence of a winning apobates (chariot) racer on the north side might indicate a specific festival. It should also be noted that Theseus (102) is not one of the eponymous heroes, who appear on the east side between the gods and mortals.

The next chapter deals with the other buildings on the Acropolis from which Elgin’s agents extracted elements, such as one of the caryatids from the unique Porch of the Maidens on the other, smaller temple of Athena known as the Erechtheum. Less well known is the fact that the British Museum also houses the Erechtheum’s northernmost Ionic column with its architrave block above, four beautifully carved floral wall crown blocks, a ceiling coffer from the north porch, as well as an important inscription drawn up by the building’s commissioners detailing their assessment of the work to date in 409/08 B.C.E. Despite the late date, Jenkins follows the old-fashioned tendency to credit Pericles, who died of the plague in 429 B.C.E., with this and all the other late fifth-century buildings on the Acropolis, while in fact in democratic Athens it was the Boulé (senate) and demos (people) who had to enact the legislation to build sacred structures.

After the Parthenon the most complete assemblage of architectural sculpture in the British Museum is that from the remote Tempe of Apollo at Bassai, supposedly designed by the architect of the Parthenon, Iktinos. Fragments of its twelve beautifully carved exterior metopes are divided between London, Copenhagen, and Athens; but not enough remains to determine the subjects. The subjects (Amazonomachy and Centauromachy) of its unusual interior frieze are known, but the arrangement of the twenty-three blocks is still debated. Jenkins frankly admits that the style of the frieze “can seem over-dramatized and almost cartoon-like” (145) with its violently wind-swept drapery and stocky figures. Jenkins’s recent discovery of a join between a colossal marble finger and hand fragment (fig. 144) demonstrates how new research continues to refine an understanding of the sculpture found at Bassai.

Marble tombs of Lycian and Karian dynasts ruling in western Turkey from ca. 520 B.C.E. to the conquest of Alexander the Great are the subject of the next three chapters. Compared to the classical monuments considered earlier, the Lycian tomb reliefs have a definite non-Greek aura. The mis-titled “Harpy Tomb,” which actually depicts Sirens, shows enthroned royalty, male and female, receiving homage from their subjects, not unlike the Persian king of kings. Although Jenkins states that the sex of some figures is difficult to determine, surely the above-the-ankle length of their garments indicates that the figures attending the enthroned men must be male. The most spectacular tomb from this region is the Nereid Monument (ca. 390–80 B.C.E.) which resembles an Ionic temple complete with pedimental sculpture and four separate friezes. Its reconstruction in the British Museum is debated, but its fusion of native Lycian and Greek motifs and styles well demonstrates how classical forms could be adapted to new contexts in the service of foreign potentates. The largest and most eclectic monument comes from farther north in Karia and is the well-known Mausoleum of Halikarnassos with its tall podium, Ionic colonnade, and pyramidal roof, as described by Pliny. Without opting for any one of them, Jenkins painstakingly explains the three competing reconstructions which have to reconcile Pliny’s description with the scattered remains, both architectural and sculptural.

While each chapter of Greek Architecture and Its Sculpture can be read independently, to do so would mean missing the thread of Parthenonian references woven through the text. The first echoes are not surprisingly at Bassai: Herakles fighting the Amazon Hippolyte on the frieze reminds one of Poseidon and Athena in the Parthenon’s west pediment, while one of the centauromachy duels echoes south metope 2. The enthroned dynast in the pediment of the Nereid Monument recalls Zeus on the Parthenon’s east frieze. A replica of the Athena Parthenos stood in the temple of the same goddess at Priene, where the gigantomachy in the ceiling coffers echoes the eastern metopes of the Parthenon. Pentelic marble from Athens was used in the Mausoleum. The fact that one can make these interesting art-historical connections within one institution is a justification for the so-called “universal museum.” Therefore Jenkins’s special pleading for the museum’s stance on its acquisitions is perhaps unnecessary: e.g., “Elgin no doubt took the best preserved Caryatid and so saved her from the fate that befell others. They deteriorated on the building” (126). Speaking of the Nike Temple frieze blocks, he states, “Vulnerable to abuse in 1802, they were removed by Lord Elgin’s men, who had them sent to England along with a few architectural elements from the same building, and they are now in the British Museum” (112). Most of these marbles were not abused during the long four-hundred years of Ottoman domination, and the British Museum is not guiltless in its treatment of some of these sculptures. That said, this handsomely illustrated book, with its up-to-date and readable text, is a major contribution to the study of Greek architectural sculpture in its original contexts.

Jenifer Neils
Director, American School of Classical Studies at Athens