View from the Acropolis. Photo credit: Katerina Grypma
Archaeological dream destination, gunpowder magazine, centre of worship, war, a symbol of new beginnings – and a majestic display of a rich culture, the influence of which resonates in innumerable ways to this day. The evolution of the Acropolis of Athens has mirrored the victories and demises of the country, and indeed world, it has gazed down upon for over two and a half thousand years. And until the end of May, Adelaide will host an exhibition which may very well signify the beginning of this extraordinary monument’s next big adventure.
The Australian Foundation for Hellenic Studies’ 100 day exhibition, The Sculptures of the Acropolis – A Retrospective, is an Adelaide first, displaying fifteen replica sculptures from the ancient citadel put into context by fascinating accounts of the site’s significance and history.
Recently installed billboard in London by the Adelaide-based Foundation for Hellenic Studies, located a few hundred metres from the British Museum. Photo credit: ABC News
The life-size plaster casts, which include Poseidon’s bust, excerpts of the friezes and metopes of the Parthenon, and a two-metre-tall Caryatid, are being exhibited as an extended Festival of Arts event in the foyer of the Adelaide Festival Centre until the end of May. The exhibition itself, in its hosting of a debate on May 6, and with opening night special guests including well-respected barrister Geoffrey Ronald Robertson QC, is a thought-provoking branch of the ongoing #ReturnThe Marbles campaign, which was initiated by the Foundation in 2013 and has since attained global recognition.
Supporters of #ReturnTheMarbles, who include independent politician Nick Xenophon and human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, advocate the return of the Elgin marbles and other Acropolis Sculptures scattered throughout the world’s museums to be reunited in their country of origin, most likely for display in the state-of-the-art new Acropolis Museum (the Parthenon display of which is ingeniously designed to be parallel to, and have dimensions coinciding with, those of the original Temple, located less than 500 metres away). More than half of the site’s best preserved sculptures were systematically pillaged in 1801-2 by the Ambassador of England to Constantinople and then sold to the British Museum.
Left to right: The Caryatid replica in the exhibition, Poseidon’s bust. Photo credit: Katerina Grypma
Putting aside this subversive political undertone, The Sculptures of the Acropolis – A Retrospective, gives Adelaide a succinct glimpse of the astounding full-scale and striking atmosphere of the architectural and artistic landmark, focusing on how the artworks themselves convey their own history. Elegantly gracing the Festival Centre foyer, the sculptures appear both vulnerable and bold in the natural lighting of the full length windows of the centre’s entrance. A visitor is first drawn to the towering Caryatid, one of six Maidens of Karyai who supported the South porch roof of the Erechtheion, a smaller Acropolis Temple. Acting as columns, these maidens more than likely held sacrificial vessels in their long lost arms. The original of this particular Caryatid resides in the British Museum, the rest in the Acropolis Museum.
The bust of Poseidon is perhaps the most imposing in this collection, despite being the most incomplete. The god of the sea’s strength and power is still poignant in his immaculately toned torso. He formed part of the dramatic scene on the west pediment of the Parthenon, depicting the founding of the city of Athens itself, as Poseidon and Athena, goddess of wisdom, contested for supremacy over the land of Attica. Each was to present a gift to the town, and whichever was considered the best by the twelve Gods of the Hellenes was to gain its patronage. Poseidon offered a spring of water on the Acropolis rock, Athena- the first olive tree. Athena’s gift was agreed upon as far more precious and thus, the city was given her name.
Helios’ chariot. Photo credit: Katerina Grypma
Characteristic of the pagan religions and mythologies of Greek antiquity is the personification of key natural occurrences, such as rivers and springs, planets and stars. Horses from the chariot of Helios (the sun) is the third large-scale cast exhibited at Sculptures of the Acropolis, which was seen rising from the left corner of the Parthenon’s east pediment, as Selene (the moon) set on the right, placing the miraculous birth of Athena (the central event portrayed on this pediment) within the rules of cosmic harmony.
The following metopes, freizes and display boards exhibited delve further into the sculptures’ progression through the ages, as they were either destroyed or taken directly to with picks and hammers, during the bombardment by Morosini, by Christians, Persians (and countless other invaders – Romans, Franks, Venetians) who each employed the site for their own private agendas. It becomes increasingly apparent through all this turmoil and upheaval just how astounding it is that the building upon this rocky outcrop in the Athenian basin still exists as the most complete ancient Greek monumental complex today.
Various freizes and metopes. Photo credit: Katerina Grypma
On another and quite different level, the importance of Sculptures of the Acropolis to the local community is perhaps its most meaningful. As Adelaide is home to a large population of first, second and third generation migrants, the exhibition has provided an opportunity for engagement of the Greek community, enabled Greeks to share their culture and sparked discussion and interest between themselves and non-Greeks alike.
Although architectural and cultural artifacts of the Acropolis lie in museums worldwide distant from its original home in Greece, they exist as a reminder of the nation’s mighty past as disseminators of civilisation, democracy and justice. Regardless of when the marbles are returned home and where this debate is going, it seems that the marbles and their past will never cease to remind us of where we came from.