East and West Pediments from the Temple of Aphaia, Aegina

Explore the evolution of ancient Greek sculpture with two groups from the same temple, but that seem ages apart.

Note: Recent scholarship suggests that both pediments of the Temple of Aphaia at Aegina were made at the same time in the Early Classical period, likely by two different workshops working in two different styles.


East and West Pediments from the Temple of Aphaia, Aegina, Archaic/Early Classical Periods, c. 490-480 B.C.E. (Glyptothek, Munich)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Glyptothek, in Munich. This is an extraordinary museum devoted to ancient Greek and Roman antiquities.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:11] That’s all thanks to Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, who in the early 19th century said he wanted to found a collection of antique works of sculpture. As he said, “We must also have in Munich what in Rome is known as a museum.”

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] I love that. Museum wasn’t even a commonly used word. The idea of a public collection was just coming into being in Britain, in France, and here in Germany.

Dr. Harris: [0:35] Ludwig was ambitious for Munich. He wrote, “I will turn Munich into a city of the art, so that no one can claim to know Germany, who has not also seen Munich.”

Dr. Zucker: [0:45] Art was a way of really putting a city on the map. It spoke to its cultural superiority. Ludwig put together an incredible collection.

Dr. Harris: [0:52] We’re looking now at one of the great treasures of the museum, the sculptures from the pediment of the temple of Aphaia, on the island of Aegina, just off the coast of Greece.

Dr. Zucker: [1:02] This is an island that’s visible from Athens, so it’s very close to the Greek mainland. We really shouldn’t say “pediment,” we should say “pediments.” Let’s unpack that just a little bit. On a Greek temple, imagine the Parthenon.

[1:15] This is a long structure, with a gable at either end that is above the colonnade at either short end of the temple. There is a low triangle, and historically, those were areas that were filled with sculpture.

Dr. Harris: [1:27] On the temple of Aphaia, there was a pediment on the east side and on the west side, on the two short ends of the temple. The sculptures that fill these pediments were discovered in the early 19th century, when some German architects were surveying the ruins of the temple. They were soon put on auction, and Ludwig was very pleased to acquire them for his new museum.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] The pediment sculptures were not made at the same moment, and that makes them even more interesting. It helps us see the evolution of Greek sculpture. The west pediment was earlier, and we think that those sculptures were carved when the temple was actually built, about 490 B.C.E.

[2:07] The east side were later. What’s really interesting is those older west sculptures are in the archaic tradition, but the east pediment sculptures are just taking on the characteristics of the style that we’ll come to know as the classical.

Dr. Harris: [2:21] We can say it’s an early moment of the classical for the sculptures on the east pediment.

Dr. Zucker: [2:26] Is this moment of transition, as the style is really just being invented?

Dr. Harris: [2:31] The subject for both pediments was the Trojan War, the war between the Trojans and the Greeks.

Dr. Zucker: [2:37] This war is really a mythic war. We know about it because it is the subject of Homer’s great epic poem, “The Iliad.”

Dr. Harris: [2:45] Some of the heroes of the Trojan War were from the island of Aegina, so it makes sense that they would make an appearance on the pediment.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] Let’s start off by looking at the sculptures on the western pediment. In terms of being a space that gets filled with sculpture, a pediment is kind of an awkward environment.

Dr. Harris: [3:02] It’s incredibly awkward. [laughs] You have these two narrow areas of the triangle that are very hard to fill. One of the ways that you can do that is to have reclining figures.

Dr. Zucker: [3:13] That’s right. It’s almost as if the sculptures have to play limbo, they get lower and lower [laughs] as you move to the edges.

[3:18] [laughs] That’s right.

Dr. Zucker: [3:19] In this case, the sculptor has really been inventive and has found a marvelous solution. In the very center of the pediment, on both the east and the west sides, we have a standing figure, noble, looking outward, the goddess Athena.

Dr. Harris: [3:32] Athena was known as the goddess of war, in addition to being the goddess of wisdom.

Dr. Zucker: [3:37] On the west pediment, we see Athena, now holding a modern shaft that is meant to represent a spear that would have originally been there, perhaps in wood, more likely in bronze or some other metal.

Dr. Harris: [3:49] When we look at Athena, we see a figure who looks typically archaic in style. She is frontal, she’s rather rigid, fairly symmetrical. There’s a linear quality to her drapery. She has a typical archaic smile that removes her from emotion, removes her from the everyday world. She seems like a transcendent goddess.

Dr. Zucker: [4:10] On either side of the standing Athena are two warriors, and they move outward. They’re actually lunging with spears. One has their shield facing us, one is turned in the other direction, the shield is facing away from us. They move our eye in either direction outward with real energy, real velocity.

[4:28] Of course, they are both slightly lower since their knees are bent, so that they fit under the eave of the gable.

Dr. Harris: [4:34] On either side of those figures, we see kneeling archers who are shooting bows.

Dr. Zucker: [4:39] The archer on the left we can actually identify as Paris. We can see his cap is tied in the back, his weight is on one knee and on one heel. The bow is missing, but we can certainly see an arm movement that suggests that he was in the middle of loosing his arrow.

Dr. Harris: [4:55] Behind him, a striding figure with a weapon who’s attacking a figure who’s falling to the ground.

Dr. Zucker: [5:02] Look at the complexity of that group of three in the way in which they overlap. There’s a real sense of energy, there’s a real sense of dynamism, which is pretty extraordinary for the archaic moment.

Dr. Harris: [5:10] On the far left corner, another wounded figure just fits into that corner space.

Dr. Zucker: [5:15] Let’s focus for a moment on the wounded warrior that is on the right side of the west pediment. You can see that he’s fallen back. He’s on his left hip, and he’s on his left elbow, and his right hand seems to be clutching, or perhaps trying to remove, a spear that has wounded him.

Dr. Harris: [5:31] Let me stop you for a moment, because he doesn’t really look like he’s in a position of a wounded warrior. His knee is bent, it comes over his left leg. He’s propped up on his left arm, and his right elbow comes up in a rather awkward way. This figure really doesn’t seem believable in terms of what he’s supposed to be doing, pulling the spear from his body.

Dr. Zucker: [5:54] That’s right, this must be tremendously painful and probably will kill him. Yet, look at his face. He still retains the archaic smile. For all of this, it’s important to remember that this is not naturalism, this is not an attempt to render the feelings of the human body. This is a highly stylized, very schematic structure.

Dr. Harris: [6:12] In a way, the figure is a symbol, more than a real figure. A symbol of a fallen warrior in the Trojan War.

Dr. Zucker: [6:19] One art historian has likened this figure to vase painting, where there was an attempt to often raise torsos up so that you could see the full musculature in the entire front. This is not about naturalism, it’s about revealing the body in a way.

Dr. Harris: [6:34] The same art historian likened this figure to a reclining chorus. That’s exactly how he looks. It’s as though a standing chorus figure had been tipped over. This is so different than what we see on the east pediment, which dates from only about a decade or two later, where we see the beginnings of the classical style.

Dr. Zucker: [6:52] Let’s go take a look. The east pediment is much more fragmentary on the left side. The one figure of the fallen soldier is in great condition, and it’s so different from what we saw of the early archaic west facade.

Dr. Harris: [7:07] While this figure still has a bit of that archaic smile, everything else about the position of his body tells us that this is a wounded figure, taking his last breath.

Dr. Zucker: [7:19] You can see that he is holding a sword with his right hand, but he’s also trying to push himself back up, but he doesn’t seem to be able to do it. His left arm is still in the shield, and he seems to be balancing himself, often you know it’s just a moment before that shield falls over with a bang.

Dr. Harris: [7:36] There’s a sense that he is propping himself up, but also falling at the same time. Lowering his body as he dies.

Dr. Zucker: [7:44] He’s looking down at the ground, and his body is more mature than the other figure. It’s also much more naturalistically rendered. We’re seeing the origin of the classical tradition.

Dr. Harris: [7:54] In the archaic period, we see hard divisions between the muscles and the parts of the body, outlines almost to parts of the body. Here, one muscle flows into another. There’s a real sense of skin lying over a skeletal structure.

Dr. Zucker: [8:11] That’s right. A moment ago, you had said that the archaic sculpture was nothing but really a set of symbols. Here, it’s as if the artist has actually observed a human body and thought about what it must be like for a figure to fall.

Dr. Harris: [8:24] Instead of having that back leg coming over the front leg in a very unnatural way, and instead of having that elbow lifted up, the right arm of the figure comes over his torso fully. There’s no attempt to reveal the whole body tipped forward to us, the way we had in the archaic figure.

Dr. Zucker: [8:43] Now, look at the torso. Look at the muscles of the leg. This is a far more complex rendering of the human body in a complex pose.

Dr. Harris: [8:51] Just like on the west pediment, as we look at the east pediment, we’ve got a central figure. Again, Athena.

Dr. Zucker: [8:57] To the right of Athena, we have figures that are much more intact. We have a lunging figure — we saw that on the west pediment as well — who is in the process of impaling a man who has lost his helmet, his shield is falling off his arm. He is tottering, he has lost his balance.

Dr. Harris: [9:15] He looks as though he’s about to collapse.

Dr. Zucker: [9:18] We know he’s lost his helmet because the young man, who’s in back of him, who seems to be trying to aid him and running towards him, is holding a fragment that we know would have originally been his helmet.

Dr. Harris: [9:28] His body forms a diagonal in that lunge, and so it fits nicely into that triangular space of the pediment. Behind him is another archer, just like we saw on the west pediment.

Dr. Zucker: [9:37] Archeologists think that that archer is actually the one who has hit the wounded warrior from the opposite side.

Dr. Harris: [9:45] The one who we were discussing before.

Dr. Zucker: [9:46] That’s right.

Dr. Harris: [9:47] We have this wonderful unification of action among all of these figures on the east pediment.

Dr. Zucker: [9:52] We have this more complex narrative, even though the same story is being told. We have a much more complex musculature, much more careful attention to the human experience. This makes us ask, “What has changed?” There’s just been a few years between these pediments, and yet they are so different.

Dr. Harris: [10:10] This is always the question that art historians ask as we look at works of art that are separated not by a very long period of time, in this case. What has happened in the values of ancient Greek culture that has led them to represent the human figure so differently?

Dr. Zucker: [10:25] If you go back in Greek history, the Greeks were deeply influenced by monumental Egyptian sculpture. You can still get a sense of a trace of that in the archaic tradition. Now, there’s a sense of self-awareness.

[10:38] These are mobile figures out in the world that are almost enacting human emotion, human expression, and human experience. That is so different from the idea of representation as symbolic, which it so informed earlier Greek art.

Dr. Harris: [10:52] In the classical period, we have figures who we can believe are part of a story. It’s a story that we can begin to feel for them, we can sympathize with them as we watch them. This is a moment in ancient Greek history when the Greeks have just defeated the Persians in battle. This is an epic victory for Greek culture when many of the Greek city-states united to fight their enemy, the Persians.

Dr. Zucker: [11:18] That’s right. This common enemy — that really should have been victorious — the Persians should have won. It was a much larger army, and the Greeks knew it. The fact that they were victorious suggested to them that there was a kind of order in the universe.

Dr. Harris: [11:32] There is a sense now that the world is into place, that just operates arbitrarily according to the laws of the gods. It’s a place that the human mind, with its sense of the rational, can understand.

Dr. Zucker: [11:44] There is a much greater burden placed on the Greeks with this realization. They are now responsible for their own society. They’re not part of a kind of random order, they’re part of an order that they actually devise.

Dr. Harris: [11:57] Art historians see the origins of the classical style in this historical moment. We have an obligation, even here in the 21st century, to try to put ourselves — even though it’s an impossible task — in the minds of the ancient Greeks, and to truly understand these works of art from their point of view.

[12:17] It’s really important to remember that these sculptures were painted, just like all ancient Greek sculptures, and with very bright colors.

Dr. Zucker: [12:24] This completely destroys our image of Greek art. When we think about Greek art, we think about these pristine, brilliant, white marble surfaces. They were garish, they were yellow, they were blue, they were green.

Dr. Harris: [12:37] Art historians and archeologists have done scientific analysis of these sculptures and found traces and residues of pigments, and have been able to determine it pretty accurately, at least the red and blues that we find here in some of the geometric patterns.

Dr. Zucker: [12:49] It’s so jarring for me to try to imagine these colors back. It’s not just that the figures themselves were painted, but the architectural spaces in which these figures were placed was painted as well.

Dr. Harris: [13:01] There are so many ways that we’re not looking at these the way that the ancient Greeks did. First of all, these were outside, in the open air. They were high up on the pediment, on this island.

Dr. Zucker: [13:12] Certainly the color would have made it much easier to see these figures, which might have been on the shade of the architecture. There’s another element that we can reimagine. These figures were not only holding things that have since disappeared, they were holding spears, and bows, and arrows. They also had other pieces of metalwork that have since been lost.

[13:33] There was hair, sometimes actually hanging like a kind of bangs over the forehead, and also long locks that came down and framed the faces. In this case, they were made out of lead. We can actually see little pieces of the remaining lead, that are still there. We know precisely where they came out of, stone.

[13:51] That would have helped, I think, create not these figures as single stone objects the way that we see them, but as these much more complex figures that interact with their architectural environments.

Dr. Harris: [14:04] Let’s not forget too that these are temples, these are places of religious worship. They were homes to the gods. The central figure on both the east and west pediment is the goddess Athena. The Greek idea of gods and goddesses is entirely different from our own Judeo-Christian tradition. These are all important things to keep in mind as we look at Greek sculptures in museums.

[14:28] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "East and West Pediments from the Temple of Aphaia, Aegina," in Smarthistory, December 9, 2015, accessed May 27, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/east-and-west-pediments-from-the-temple-of-aphaia-aegina/.