Plaque of the Ergastines

Bits of the Parthenon have been spirited all over the world—in Paris, a fragment shows religious life in Athens.

Phidias (?), Plaque of the Ergastines, 445–438 B.C.E., Pentelic marble (Attica), 0.96 x 2.07 m, fragment from the frieze on the east side of the Parthenon (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

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This object at the Louvre Museum

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Louvre in Paris and we’re looking at a fragment of the frieze from the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] Some of this frieze is in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, some of it is here in Paris, and most of it is in the British Museum in London. In fact, the scene just to the right is in the British Museum in London.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] In this case, the word “frieze” refers to a band of sculpture that’s about three feet tall that wrapped around the entire Parthenon, just inside the first colonnade, and it would have been really hard to see because it would have been in shadow.

[0:39] Here we see no traces of paint, but originally this would have been brightly colored. We think that the background was blue. We think that there were highlights of gold on the figures. They would have been rather garishly painted, to our eyes.

[0:51] Now, it’s important to remember that we would have been looking up at this. It would have been quite high, and so we’re seeing it much closer than originally intended.

Dr. Harris: [0:58] Historians generally agree that this represents the Pan-Athenaic Procession. All the citizens of Athens gathered in a procession, made their way up the Sacred Way to the Acropolis, this high point in the city where the great temple to Athena, the Parthenon, stood.

Dr. Zucker: [1:14] Young women would have woven a woolen peplos to clothe the statue of Athena. These were specially regarded young women that came from leading families in Athens.

Dr. Harris: [1:24] Now, the peplos, this garment, was not for the colossal sculpture of Athena that was inside the Parthenon. This was an ancient sculpture that was very sacred that stood in a temple right next to the Parthenon.

Dr. Zucker: [1:37] That’s the Erechtheion.

Dr. Harris: [1:38] A new garment was woven and given to this ancient olive-wood sculpture of Athena.

Dr. Zucker: [1:43] The Pan-Athenaic Procession, as represented in the frieze on the Parthenon, shows not only the procession of these young women bringing the peplos, but also animals being brought for sacrifice, libations — all the things you need for an important ancient ceremony.

Dr. Harris: [1:57] The interesting thing about the frieze is that it seems to show a contemporary event. That is, it’s not a mythological event, which was normal decoration for a temple, but something from the civic life of Athens.

[2:09] Remember, Athens is a democracy at this moment in the 5th century. The citizens of Athens look beautiful, noble, heroic.

Dr. Zucker: [2:18] Well, the nobility is so clear in this fragment. We see these young women solemnly processing. They’re interrupted by two male figures. Look at the clarity of the carving. There’s such solemnity. There’s such a sense of reverence.

Dr. Harris: [2:31] Of dignity. One immediately gets a sense that this is a religious procession in honor of Athena, the goddess, the patron of the city of Athens.

Dr. Zucker: [2:39] This is the High Classical moment and it’s beautifully represented here. There is a sense of balance, of idealism. In fact, this kind of art was considered so perfect that through much of the rest of Western history we see more modern cultures looking back to Classical Greece and trying to achieve again what had been achieved in the 5th century B.C.E.

Dr. Harris: [2:59] Phidias, who we generally think of as in charge of the sculptural program on the Parthenon, developed the style that we see here. Very intricate folds following the forms of the body.

[3:11] We see it in flatter areas move around the breasts of the women, but also very curvilinear folds at the edges of the peplos where it’s folded over and belted, and still other areas where it falls in very straight lines that might remind us of the fluting of a column.

Dr. Zucker: [3:28] The figures are standing in contrapposto, that is, for the young women in general, their left leg is the weight-bearing leg. Their right leg is moving forward and we can see the knee breaking the fall of the drapery. There is this alternation between movement and the static.

Dr. Harris: [3:44] Look at the gracefulness of the figure on the far right. Look at how she’s walking to her right, but turns her body to the left and seems to address a companion behind her.

[3:54] These figures may have carried ceremonial objects that they’re offering to the male figures, or the male figures may be giving something to them. The precise narrative is unclear.

Dr. Zucker: [4:05] Some art historians even question whether or not this is the Pan-Athenaic Procession. It’s important before we end to acknowledge the fact that the Greek government has asked that both the British Museum and the Louvre return these marbles to Greece.

[4:18] Just at the foot of the Parthenon, the city of Athens has built a magnificent new museum to house these sculptures should they ever be returned.

[4:25] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Plaque of the Ergastines," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024,