Arts: Metropolitan Museum’s Ancient Greek Art Display

Here is a modest photo essay of the permanent installation of Ancient Greek art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. I hope that it gives you a hint of the richness of the exhibit. Under each picture is the Museum’s own description of the work followed by my comments.

Fragments of a marble statue of the Diadoumenos (youth tying a fillet around his head) Copy of work attributed to Polykleitos Period: Early Imperial, Flavian Date: ca. A.D. 69–96 Culture: Roman Medium: Marble Dimensions: H. 73 in. (185.4 cm) Classification: Stone Sculpture

Polykleitos (alternate spelling is Polyclitus) worked at the height of the Classical period in Athens, around 440 BC. He is considered one of the Big Three sculptors of Classical Greek art, the others being Phidias (who made the mighty Athena Parthenos inside the Parthenon and the monumental Zeus within the temple at Olympia) and Myron, who created the legendary Discus Thrower.

I long have considered Polykleitos to be #1. There are two major sculptures attributed to him, Diadoumenos and Doryphorous, but we no longer have the bronze originals. There are many marble copies of both because of their fame. This copy was created during the Roman period which is why its culture is called ‘Roman’.

Polykleitos is said to have perfected his sculptures through mathematics. “Perfection comes about little by little through many numbers,” he is reported to have said. And so he measured many strong and ideal Greek men – their arms and chests and thighs and every other dimension – and then averaged the numbers to create his sculptures. And so therefore his sculptures must be the most perfect ever, wouldn’t you say? That is why he is tops in my book of all the artists in history.

Polykleitos’ grandson was the architect of one of the most geometrically perfect and well-preserved structures from the ancient world, the massive Theater at Epidaurus in what we know as the amphitheater style. So perfection just seems to run in the family….

You can Google ‘Diadoumenos’ or ‘Doryphorous’ or ‘Polykleitos’ for many images of the work. Or visit the website for a whole encyclopedia of Greek art, science, architecture, literature etc.

Marble column from the Temple of Artemis at Sardis Period: Hellenistic Date: ca. 300 B.C. Culture: Greek Medium: Marble Dimensions: H. 142 1/8 in. (361 cm) Classification: Stone Sculpture

Wow. An actual marble column from a Greek temple that is now inside a museum in New York City. This truncated column – the original was 58 feet tall, or about the height of a 5-storey building – is an astounding thing to behold in person. Its iconic Ionic scroll at the top makes it even more impressive.

Artemis was the earth goddess and patroness of hunters. Sardis was an ancient city in Asia Minor which was then part of the Greek world but which today is Turkey.

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, also in Asia Minor but built around 550 BC, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. That temple is reported to have been destroyed by arson (its ceiling was wood) and collapsed precisely on the day that Alexander the Great was born in 356 BC.

Was the Sardis temple built to replace Ephesus?

From the timeline that appears likely.

Of course the Sardis column’s presence in a museum in New York raises the issue of ownership. Does it not belong in Turkey or in Greece?

Well, yes. And so do many of the Metropolitan’s Greek artifacts and other Greek artifacts all over Europe and the US.

But as long as these works are being preserved and offered to the people of the world you certainly could say that it makes no difference where they are located.

Or perhaps it does make a difference in some cases. The very controversial presence in the British Museum of original Greek sculptures from the Parthenon (referred to as the Elgin Marbles) indeed is problematic. Maybe someday we will figure it all out diplomatically.

For now, however, let us just be happy that we can enjoy these artifacts wherever they may be located. I am thankful that I can see them here in the US rather than needing to travel to Greece. Meanwhile many great artifacts remain in Greece and in its museums.

And if you’ve ever wondered why so many American buildings  – civic buildings, museums, churches, homes etc. – have Greek architectural elements like columns and pediments, it is because the American leaders after the Revolutionary War did not want their new nation to have English architecture from the nation that they just had separated themselves from. So they chose Greek architecture. In fact there even was a short-lived movement to make Greek the official language of the newborn America.

Marble statue of a lion Period: Classical Date: ca. 400–390 B.C. Culture: Greek Medium: Marble, Parian ? Dimensions: H. 31 1/4 in. (79.4 cm) length 63 1/2 in. (161.3 cm) Classification: Stone Sculpture

This awesome lion is somewhat unique because generally we think of Greek sculpture as human figures. And this lion is surprising for another simple reason: There were no cameras in Ancient Greece to take pictures of a lion, and you surely cannot get a lion to pose like a human while the artist draws it or sculpts it. And lions were certainly not native to Greece. So how did the artist make such a lively description of this wild beast?

Well, the Greeks were just very special people, that’s how. Who knows how it was done. And it is remarkable to note how the ‘gesture’ of the lion seems to have a dual persona; its back end appears static yet the front end is completely dynamic. Thus this sculpture beautifully describes the concept of an animal ready to pounce, pausing while preparing to strike.

Look at the asymmetrical disposition of the four paws. That is so nicely done. Look at that rib cage. Is the lion hungry? Or just taut and ready for action?

The sculptor who made this – and it is a marble original, not a copy – is not even known by name. Today there is no sculptor alive who could do such work. It is estimated to have been made just a few decades after the High Classical period.

The lion seems to be life sized although that is hard to say because I have not studied the sizes of lions. But the Greeks often played with scale, generally avoiding extremes because they disdained extremes in anything. They often described their sculptural figures just slightly larger than life size or just slightly smaller.

Whatever the case, this lion is cool. I’d love to have it guarding my front door…

Marble statue of Eirene (the personification of peace) Roman copy of Greek original by Kephisodotos  Period: Early Imperial, Julio-Claudian Date: ca. A.D. 14–68 Culture: Roman Medium: Marble, Pentelic ? Dimensions: H. without plinth 69 3/4 in. (177.2 cm) Classification: Stone Sculpture

Note the weary museum visitor resting beside this magnificent fragment. Is that not a metaphorical commentary on man’s fleeting time on earth versus the timelessness of great art and its makers?

This Roman copy of the draped Eirene (Irene) is stone but the original was a 4th century bronze by Kephisodotos. It was said to have been created when a cult of Eirene emerged around 375 BC. Pentelic marble was the special white marble that was used to build the Parthenon.

Again this sculpture is described as ‘Roman’. And indeed while the Romans probably made it, they were artistically challenged people. But they were good copyists and engineers and so we owe them a debt of gratitude for the many copies that they produced of Greek masterpieces whose originals are lost to time.

Here is a general view of the great hall containing some of the Greek artworks in the Met collection. Note the Ionic Greek columns at the end of the hall. These are present throughout the Museum as part of the American architectural tradition.

This is typical of the top-drawer presentation that is evident throughout the exhibition spaces. There are many vases in the Met’s Greek collection. Vases are the one way that we have been able to enjoy the Greek achievement in “painting”. Because certainly canvas or wood panels did not survive.

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