Siphnian Treasury, Delphi

The island of Siphnos used its great wealth to earn the favor of the gods through art, architecture, and offerings.

Pediment and Frieze of the Siphnian Treasury at the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, c. 530 B.C.E., marble

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] One of the most prominent buildings in the sanctuary at Delphi, the pan-Hellenic sanctuary, was the Siphnian Treasury. This is a small building meant to house treasure that was dedicated to the god Apollo, whose sanctuary this was.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:26] The Siphnians came from a small island in the South Aegean, and they could afford to do this because they had both silver and gold mines. At least according to one ancient chronicler, they devoted a tenth of the money that they made from these mines to Delphi.

[0:43] The reason they did this is because religion in ancient Greece was transactional. That is, if you gave sacrifice to the gods, they would favor you in return.

Dr. Harris: [0:49] Sacrifice and gifts, exactly, and the Siphnian Treasury was supposedly the most beautiful, most elaborate, most highly decorated of the different treasuries from the different Greek city-states at the pan-Hellenic sanctuary at Delphi.

Dr. Zucker: [1:03] When you walk up the Sacred Way, the pathway that leads up into the sanctuary, and you come to the Siphnian Treasury, you first see its back or east side. The sculpture from the pediment and from that side of the frieze — and there was a kind of band or ribbon of carving that went around all four sides — has been preserved.

Dr. Harris: [1:28] A continuous frieze around the treasury makes sense since this was a building in the Ionic style.

Dr. Zucker: [1:32] Let’s take a look at what that sculpture depicts. In the pediment, you have something that’s very appropriate for this location. It is the hero Herakles, who’s trying to steal the tripod from the god Apollo.

Dr. Harris: [1:46] The tripod was associated with the oracle at Delphi. The oracle sat on the tripod and made pronouncements channeling Apollo.

Dr. Zucker: [1:51] You can see why that would upset Apollo and why Zeus has had to step in. Zeus would be the figure that has lost his head in the middle, who seems to be trying to negotiate between the two.

Dr. Harris: [2:02] You can see Herakles. He’s got the tripod on his back, and he’s heading away as though he’s going to be successful in this theft. The tripod is being held at the other end by both Apollo and Zeus.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] We see Artemis, the goddess, who seems to be restraining Apollo, who had quite a temper.

Dr. Harris: [2:22] These figures look like Archaic-style figures to me. Here we are at the end of the 6th century. That’s when the Siphnians built this treasury. They have a little bit of that stiffness that we associate with Archaic figures. We see them from the profile view or frontal view, and not a lot of twisting and turning in space, which we’ll see more of in the frieze below.

Dr. Zucker: [2:49] We do get a sense of energy from, for instance, Herakles’s more widely spaced legs, as if he is trying to pull away. Let’s look at the east side of the frieze. That is the area just below the pediment. It’s divided into two parts. On the right side, we see a scene from the Iliad: the great Trojan War.

[3:04] We see two great soldiers, one on the Trojan side, one on the Greek side.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Achilles is on the right. He’s the Greek. And Memnon is on the left. He’s the Trojan.

Dr. Zucker: [3:14] Achilles is holding a shield, which has a Gorgon head on it, fighting with Memnon. They’re fighting over the dead body of Antilochus. While these men feel that their fate is being decided by their battle, in fact, what the sculpture’s showing us is that their fate is being decided far away on Mount Olympus by the gods.

Dr. Harris: [3:40] On the left side, we see the gods and goddesses who are siding with the Trojans, and on the right, the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus who are siding with the Greeks.

Dr. Zucker: [3:44] The figure that’s seated in the center is probably Zeus, who’s making the final determination. We get the sense that the gods and goddesses on either side are arguing for him to listen.

Dr. Harris: [3:55] There have been different identifications of the figures here, so we have to be careful, but it does seem as though, on the far left, we have Ares, the god of war, and we may have Eos.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] She’s the mother of Memnon.

Dr. Harris: [4:09] Then we may have Artemis or Aphrodite, and then the figure of Apollo.

Dr. Zucker: [4:19] Apollo is turning back and really listening to what the women are saying. We see these beautiful, elegant figures. There is real nobility and a kind of stasis to these figures, as opposed to the figures that are in battle.

Dr. Harris: [4:27] The women seem to be pleading with Apollo. The women raise their hands, they open their palms, and they seem to look directly at Apollo, who turns around to listen to them. Remember, all of this would have been painted and therefore much more visible.

Dr. Zucker: [4:45] The three gods and goddesses that remain, that would have been arguing on the side of the Greeks, are Athena on the left; in the center, Zeus’s wife Hera; and then possibly Thetis, who would be pleading for her son, Achilles.

Dr. Harris: [5:00] While there’s a sense of emotion, there’s still primarily a sense of stability here, of figures in profile. When we move to the battle that they’re deciding, we see foreshortening. We see a real illusion into space. Look at these horses, who are turned toward us, moving almost into our space.

Dr. Zucker: [5:21] We see that sense of space even more explicitly rendered as we walk up the hill, towards the front of the treasury, and we look at the north side of the frieze.

Dr. Harris: [5:31] Here we see a common scene in Greek sculpture. This is a battle of the gods and the giants.

Dr. Zucker: [5:43] According to Greek mythology, everything starts with the most primary deities. That would be the goddess Earth, Gaea, and Uranus, the god of the sky. They give birth to the Titians, they give birth to the giants. The giants in turn give birth to the gods.

[6:01] The gods in a sense are the third generation, and they rule from Mount Olympus. But according to myth, the giants want to be able to rule from Mount Olympus. They want what the gods have.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] This is the great battle that takes place between them.

Dr. Zucker: [6:10] The giants are really stand-ins for humans. Having a great hubris, and really wanting to take from the mighty gods of Mount Olympus.

Dr. Harris: [6:18] Hubris, meaning a kind of pride, a sense that you can accomplish more than you can really accomplish as a human being.

Dr. Zucker: [6:25] In fact, so much of the sculpture at the Siphnian treasury is reestablishing the power of the gods, and the foolhardiness of trying to upset that natural order. Let’s take a look at the action.

[6:38] On the very far left side of the north frieze, we have the god Hephaestus. Now, this is the god that is associated with craftsmanship.

Dr. Harris: [6:46] He’s a blacksmith.

Dr. Zucker: [6:47] That’s right. He’s associated with the forge, and we see him actually pushing down the bellows, manufacturing a lightning bolt which Zeus can use against the giants.

Dr. Harris: [6:55] Or a weapon of some sort in any case. We see the giants advancing from the right.

Dr. Zucker: [7:01] Luckily, Hestia and Demeter are there to meet them. Without a doubt the most famous part of this frieze is the chariot of Dionysos, which is pulled by two lions.

Dr. Harris: [7:11] Those lions are attacking one of the giants. Biting and clawing the torso.

Dr. Zucker: [7:20] The other lion is rearing up and looks like it’s about to bear down; in fact, that further lion which is almost completely gone but you can just make out its mane is also wrapping its forepaw around that giant’s neck. That giant has had it.

Dr. Harris: [7:32] Now that giant who’s being devoured wraps his arm around the lion as if to pull it away from him.

Dr. Zucker: [7:39] The artist has done something really quite exceptional for the Archaic Period. He has turned the head at a three-quarter pose. Its helmeted, but that mouthpiece is a means of expressing the pain that the figure is feeling even though if you look very closely the mouth is still closed in the traditional noble expression.

Dr. Harris: [7:59] Look at how Dionysos strolls forward, and he looks so powerful.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] In front of him is the local goddess Themis, and she actually rides on the chariot.

Dr. Harris: [8:10] What we have here is a sense of the chaos of battle. As our eye moves to the right to follow the story, we see two archers, those are Apollo and Artemis. To the right of them, we see a fleeing giant who looks absolutely terrified. He looks back behind him, but runs forward with his sword. Look at his drapery flowing back behind him, we get a sense of real movement.

Dr. Zucker: [8:37] He’s so terrified, he’s abandoning his colleague to those lions.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Below him is a fallen giant.

Dr. Zucker: [8:50] The giant is so interesting because he’s in back of Apollo and Artemis, but there’s an expression of distance between them because of the distinction in the depth of relief.

[8:55] In other words, Apollo and Artemis are carved fairly deeply, while he is at a slightly smaller scale and carved in a more shallow way so that we know that he’s part of the scene in back of them.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] We have a real sense of deep space here in the battlefield.

Dr. Zucker: [9:11] Look at the way that the artist links that fleeing giant through his shield, which is concave, with the convex shields of the three giants that are confronting Apollo and Artemis.

Dr. Harris: [9:27] We have a sense of the imminent danger that he’s in because one of his colleagues is fallen below.

Dr. Zucker: [9:29] The Olympian gods are almost always overmatched, and yet they triumph.

Dr. Harris: [9:33] The other thing that happens is that the Olympian gods are represented very individualistically, very heroically, fighting together but also a sense of them fighting individually with their own strength and power. Whereas the giants are fighting as an anonymous group.

Dr. Zucker: [9:50] The next section of the north frieze is missing, but we know what would have been there. It would have been the chariot of Zeus in the middle, with horses which we can still see, and he would probably have been throwing a thunderbolt.

Dr. Harris: [10:09] Those horses are rearing up, and you can almost hear them galloping, and they’re followed by two more giants with their shields, throwing spears.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] Zeus, a single god, is taking on at least two giants.

Dr. Harris: [10:26] Below, we see Aphrodite, who’s aiming a spear so intensely at a falling giant on the ground; we can just barely make out his body, his knee has bent under his weight, his arm is holding him up. It’s as if he’s in the process of dying. Next comes Athena. Always the hero.

Dr. Zucker: [10:40] We can identify her quickly because of the aegis that she wears, which is fringed by snakes. We can see the inside of her shield, and we can actually, there, see a little bit of the very bright paint that would have covered this entire frieze.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] She’s clearly advancing on the enemy.

Dr. Zucker: [10:56] In front of Athena, we have another giant that’s falling, this time backwards, and then there’s another dead giant just behind him. In back of him is yet another giant, still standing, ready to throw a spear.

Dr. Harris: [11:09] But we know he won’t be successful against Athena, that’s apparent.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] At the head of all of the gods, we have Ares, the god of war.

Dr. Harris: [11:17] He strides forward, his shield in his left hand, actively in pursuit of the giants.

Dr. Zucker: [11:26] It’s quite a collection of giants that he’s after. We can see the one just beside him is ready to hurl an enormous rock, while another has his spear ready to throw. Finally, we can recognize Hermes under a conical helmet, and he’s taking on what looks like a small army of giants.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Looks like he’s about to pull a dagger from a sheath.

Dr. Zucker: [11:45] In back of him, there are just a few traces of what would probably be Poseidon, but that part is mostly lost. What we see here is this really interesting moment of transition from the more static and symbolic representations that we so much associate with the Archaic Period, and this increasing interest in the complexity of human interaction.

Dr. Harris: [0:00] Storytelling, absolutely.

Dr. Zucker: [12:08] As we move towards the Classical.

[0:00] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Siphnian Treasury, Delphi," in Smarthistory, February 28, 2016, accessed July 18, 2024,