THE TRAGIC IN MARBLE: ARCHAIC PEDIMENT AND FRIEZE SCULPTURES FROM THE TREASURE HOUSE OF SIPHNOS AT DELPHI
ART IN THE TRAGIC AGE OF THE GREEKS
"The Greek Spirit is the plastic artist, forming the stone into a work of art." (Hegel, Philosophy of History)
Hera stoops to finish off a fallen giant.
[click on images to expand their size]
The Siphnian Treasury was a building dedicated to the Greek city (polis) of Delphi by the city-state of Siphnos, located in the island of that name, of which a view below. This island, now known as Sifnos, is one of the Cyclades, lying between Serifos and Paros, and north of Milos, about 80 nautical miles from the port of Athens. In ancient times, the people of Siphnos had gained enormous wealth from their silver and gold mines, as Herodotus records in his Histories, and they vaunted their wealth in the construction of their treasury in Delphi, the first religious structure in that holy site that was made entirely out of marble.
“The Samians who had fought against Polycrates, when they knew that the Lacedaemonians were about to forsake them, left Samos themselves, and sailed to Siphnos. They happened to be in want of money; and the Siphnians at that time were at the height of their greatness, no islanders having so much wealth as they. There were mines of gold and silver in their country, and of so rich a yield, that from a tithe of the ores the Siphnians furnished out a treasury at Delphi which was on a par with the grandest there. What the mines yielded was divided year by year among the citizens.”
[Herodotos, Histories, III.57]
But the Treasure House was not just the branch of a Siphnian bank in Delphi. It was a dedication to the god Apollo, and therefore it was itself a holy site, a religious building designed to house the offerings of the Siphnians, and as such a temple, with all the outward characteristics of a temple, including its artful sculptural adornments.
As a practical matter, however, the building was used to house many lavish gifts given to the priests to be offered to Apollo, among other gods and goddesses. Pausanias also confirms that the treasury was built from one-tenth of the proceeds of the gold mines of the island and its purpose was to impress the other Greeks with its splendor, as it was not meant to commemorate any victory or other important event in the history of Siphnos.
[“The Siphnians also built a Treasure House, and this is why: the island of Siphnos yielded gold-mines, and the god commanded them to bring a tithe of the produce to Delphi, so they built a treasure-house and brought the tithe. When out of insatiable greed they gave up this tribute, the sea flooded in and obliterated the mines.” Pausanias, Guide to Greece: Phokis. XI, 2]
Delphi: The Sacred Way at Delphi, downhill towards the West
In Delphi, the Treasure House of the Siphnians was located at the “crossroads of the treasuries,” where the Sacred Way turns abruptly and ascends the mountain towards the east. In the map below (click on the image to expand its size) the remaining foundations of the Siphnian treasury are marked as number 13, in the bottom left center of the image. The Sacred Way originates at the gate located in the extreme right bottom corner of the map and moves towards the west, turning abruptly, a few feet north of the Siphnian treasury, in its ascent up the hill towards the east.
In time, the Treasure House fell into disrepair and was buried. The ruined foundations of the building were uncovered sometime between 1903 and 1906, during the excavation of the Delphi site, and the friezes and pedimental sculpture of the treasury were discovered at that time. These are now housed at the Delphi Archaelogical Museum.
The treasury building is built in two parts; a pronaos, or porch, and a cella, or enclosure. The pronaos is distyle-in-antis, which means that the side walls extend to the front of the porch, and the pediment is supported by two caryatids in the form of Korai (maidens), instead of plain pilasters. Below the pediment runs a continuous frieze, which is described below.
The eastern pediment of the treasury shows the story of Hercules stealing Apollo’s tripod, an object which was strongly associated with the god’s oracular inspirations. Not much is known of the western pediment, and nothing has remained of it. The sculptural friezes ran around the building depicting various scenes from Greek Mythology. Only a few broken pieces remain. The Southern side depicts scenes that support the East side, where the gods sit watching the Greeks raid the village of Troy. As Hegel wrote, “Homer is the element in which the Greek world lives, as man does in the air.” (Philosophy of History). The West side, only a few pieces of which remain, shows the story of the ‘Judgment of Paris,’ depicting three chariots groups (each attributed to Athena, Aphrodite and Hera). The north side displays another version of the familiar Gigantomachy. The remains of the eastern pediment and the four friezes are described in detail and illustrated below.
These fascinating remains, surviving from the treasury’s pediments and friezes, are displayed at the Museum in Delphi. They date from 525 BCE. The building was erected over a period of years, from 530 to 525 BCE. The sculptural decorations, made of Parian marble and painted with bright colors, still visible in places, represent the mature archaic style of Ancient Greek art and are believed to be the work of two groups of craftsmen, each under a sculptor with his assistant, whose names have not been preserved. The western and southern friezes are made by one sculptor and his group, showing tendencies of Ionic art. It is self-contained and static, as a painting. The other artist, who made the northern and the eastern friezes seem to have been exposed to the influence of the art of Chios. It is plastic, narrative and bears the mark of the artistic activity of Attica.
Eastern Frieze: Aeneas and Hector
ART IN THE TRAGIC AGE OF THE GREEKS
What is the religious significance of the sculptures? What is their meaning? I suggest that the question of their meaning turns on the struggles that are depicted in the sculptures, similar to those depicted in the pediments of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, in the friezes of the Parthenon in Athens, and in the great Altar of Pergamon, a recurring Hellenic theme. It is, in fact, the meaning of the god Apollo himself in ancient Greek religion: the Hellenic self-imposed imperative to dominate and control its own instinctual and animalic nature, expressed in the two phrases which were carved on the Temple of Apollo in Delphi: Meden agan (Nothing in Excess) and Gnothi se auton (Know Thyself). It is sublimation depicted in the form of battle. The giants, the beasts, the centaurs, represent the insatiability and the over-reaching which is the hubris of man. Man as beast and as debased [kakoi] without rational control. And that insatiability within man, the possibility of hubris, is that which is fearful within us. To dominate it and control it is the ultimate bid for power over our selves. The insight is Nietzsche’s:
“From scenting out ‘beautiful souls,’ ‘golden means,’ and other perfections in the Greeks, from admiring in them such things as their repose in grandeur, their ideal disposition, their sublime simplicity –from this ‘sublime simplicity,’ a niaiserie allemande [a German silliness or inanity], when all is said and done, I was preserved by the psychologist in me. I saw their strongest instinct, the will to power, I saw them trembling at the intractable force of this drive –I saw all their institutions evolve out of protective measures designed for mutual security against the explosive material within them. The tremendous internal tension then discharged itself in fearful and ruthless external hostility: the city states tore one another to pieces so that the citizen of each of them might find peace within himself. One needed to be strong: danger was close at hand –it lurked everywhere. The splendid supple physique, the reckless realism and immorality which pertains to the Hellene was a necessity, not a ‘natural quality.’ It was produced, it was not there from the beginning. And one employed festivals and arts for no other purpose than to feel oneself dominant, to show oneself dominant: they are means for making oneself feared.” [Götzen-Dämmerung, oder: Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert, "The Twilight of the Idols, or: How one Philosophizes with a Hammer" (Leipzig, 1889) - “What I Owe to the Ancients” 4]
The struggle of man against himself, the struggle within, has no conclusion. It continues perennially. We never overcome ourselves, for we cannot. That is the tragic fate of man.
How do these sculptures reflect this? And what is it about our traditional perception and understanding of the ancient Greeks that they do not reflect? In other words, how is Nietzsche correct?
The traditional perception of the ancient Greeks, which Nietzsche describes as a ‘niaiserie allemande,’ but which might just as well be a British or an American ‘niaiserie,’ a scholar’s silliness, is that which Winckelmann described as the ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur,’ (‘Edle Einfachkeit und Stille Größe.’) of ancient Greek Art, in reference to the marble sculptures of the Classical and Hellenistic periods: It is the perception conveyed by the famous instances of such Classical sculpture, such as the Apollo of the Belvedere (below), the Laocoön, or the refined aristocratic youths of Praxiteles.
The Apollo of the Belvedere
This refined detachment and imperious aloofness are totally absent from the sculptures of the treasury of Siphnos. There is no quiet grandeur in these figures. Here, we are instead in face of a tragic drama unfolding, of a struggle that has no beginning and no end, as it is the struggle against the elemental components of our humanity. Hence the forcefulness, the raw power, of the figures and their movements in the Treasure House of the Siphnians: in the dynamic of the conflict as it unfolds in the narrative of the northern frieze, for example, or in the implicit tension of the figures in the ‘Judgment of Paris’ scene in the eastern frieze; in the ferocity of the lion’s head, with its jaws fastened on the giant’s leg; the horror of the Medusa head on the shield of Agamemnon, which stares outward, towards us, as if warning us that the conflict engulfs us too as we walk by, and thereby infuses us with the stoneniness of fear. The gods and goddesses that watch the battle on the field of Troy are tensed with jealousy, as Eris presides over the consequences of her deed, - Eris, the Fury, hovering above the banquet of the gods. Isn’t that the impression conveyed by those raised arms of the women, reaching for each other’s shoulders, holding each other down? Or the tense right arms of Apollo and Zeus?
Eastern Frieze: Artemisa, Aphrodite, Apollo and Zeus on his throne (fragment)
The sculptures at Delphi belie our concept of the ancient Greeks as calm philosophers and wise statesmen, the images of Plato and of Solon, and instead show us a perpetual war to the death. This is the tragic perspective of the Greeks in the Lyrical Age, the age of Archaic Art, tragic because unavoidable.
The ancient Greeks carved themselves in marble, creating thus what they took to be an ideal and imperishable image of themselves and of the tragic fate of humanity. In his Philosophy of History, Hegel interprets the Greek Spirit as “Individuality conditioned by Beauty.” He discovers the origin of this individuality in the relationship between the Greeks and Nature:
“. . . Greek Spirit was excited to wonder at the Natural in Nature. It does not maintain the position of stupid indifference to it as something existing, and there an end of it; but regards it as something in the first instance foreign, in which, however, it has a presentiment of confidence, and the belief that it bears something within it which is friendly to the human spirit.” (Philosophy of History, Dover, 1956, at 234).
Their eagerness to know the meaning of Nature and find therein that which is “friendly” to the human spirit or, in other words, to find themselves in Nature, is reflected, according to Hegel, in “the comprehensive idea of Pan.”
“To the Greeks Pan did not represent the objective Whole, but that indefinite neutral ground which involves the element of the subjective; he embodies that thrill which pervades us in the silence of the forests; . . . (a “panic terror” is the common expression for the groundless fright).” (234-35).
In their identification with Nature, which Hegel calls “the Indefinite,” the Greeks felt that they could communicate with it, and with this understanding gained, present in Art an explanation, both of Nature and of humanity’s nature.
“In what has been stated we have, on the one hand, the Indefinite, which, however, holds communication with man; on the other hand the fact, that such communication is only a subjective imagining – an explanation furnished by the percipient himself.” (235).
“Greek freedom of thought is excited by an alien existence; but it is free because it transforms and virtually reproduces the stimulus by its own operation.” (238)
Hegel argued that it was Poesy (manteia) and Art that introduced the spiritual into the Natural among the Greeks, and thus they discovered the subjective within the body as well as in all of Nature. But the development of the Greek character, of Greek “freedom” is therefore not based on a universal morality in the form of duties based on reason or authority, but rather in a willful self-fashioning of the body’s own humors:
“In Man, the side of his subjective existence which he owes to Nature, is the Heart, the Disposition, Passion, and Variety of Temperament: this side is then developed in a spiritual direction to free Individuality; so that the character is not placed in a relation to universally valid moral authorities, assuming the form of duties, but the Moral appears as a nature peculiar to the individual –an exertion of will, the result of disposition and individual constitution.”
Which is why Hegel believes that this marks the emergence of individuality in world history. But it is individuality that only expresses itself in the form of Art. The freedom which the Greeks did not yet know in their actual social and political existence, - theirs was after all a slave-owning society-, they were nonetheless able to intuit as an element in Nature, and so they carved it in stone:
Hegel lecturing in Berlin (1820's)
“This stamps the Greek character as that of Individuality conditioned by Beauty, which is produced by Spirit, transforming the merely Natural into an expression of its own being. The activity of Spirit does not yet possess in itself the material and organ of expression, but needs the excitement of Nature and the matter which Nature supplies: it is not free, self-determining Spirituality, but mere naturalness formed to Spirituality –Spiritual Individuality. The Greek Spirit is the plastic artist, forming the stone into a work of art. In this formative process the stone does not remain mere stone – the form being only super-induced from without; but it is made an expression of the Spiritual, even contrary to its nature, and thus transformed. Conversely, the artist needs for his spiritual conceptions, stone, colors, sensuous forms to express his idea. Without such an element he can no more be conscious of the idea himself, than give it an objective form for the contemplation of others; since it cannot in Thought alone become an object to him. . . . In Greek Beauty the sensuous is only a sign, an expression, an envelope, in which Spirit manifests itself.” (238-39) [Emphases are all Hegel's]
Nietzsche paints a tragic portrait of the ‘psychology’ of the Greeks, emphasizing their ‘realism’ and the cleverness of their instinct for power and self-protection. Hegel, plotting the development of the idea of freedom in world history, a very different preoccupation than Nietzsche’s, concludes that the Greek spirit expressed itself fundamentally in their art, and thereby the Greeks achieved the only freedom that was possible for them in their time. My suggestion regarding the matter at hand is based on both these observations: that the stone remnants of the Treasure House of Siphnos are a representation of the spirit of the Greeks, whose interpretation of life was tragic. The tragic perception of life, which is affirmative of life and of this world, takes on the inevitability of struggle, of war, of envy and fear, as inescapable and ever-recurring aspects of human life. This perception is reflected in Greek Archaic Art as in a mirror of their self, of the self of the artist as well as that of the perceivers and worshippers. The Archaic is the truly tragic art of the Greeks, and it is visible in the friezes of the Treasure House of Siphnos.
Illustration of the Sculptures
I describe the sculptures from the Siphnian Treasury in the following order: 1) The frontal aspect of the Treasure House and its portico; 2) the east pediment, there being no remains of the west pediment, and the friezes grouped by their style, the Attic northern and eastern friezes (3 and 4), and the Ionian western and southern friezes (5 and 6).
1. The front of the Treasury
Reconstruction of the front of the treasury shows the columns as karyatids in the form of korai (maidens). The front faced towards the West.
2. The East Pediment
The theme of the eastern pediment, the only one that has been preserved, and which was in the rear of the building, is the quarrel between Apollo and Hercules about the possession of the prophetic tripod. The tripod was where Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, sat when she delivered the oracle. When Pythia refused to provide a response to Hercules’ query, due to the latter’s having yet failed to atone for the murder of Iphitus, Hercules carried off the tripod, intending to establish an oracle of his own. In the middle of the scene, there is Artemis holding back the furious Apollo who wants to take the tripod from Hercules, the latter having shouldered it, is moving away. Standing between the two and trying to appease them is Athena (or Zeus?). The east pediment measures 19 by 2 ½ feet. There are bystanders on both sides of Apollo and Hercules, and the sculptor has not made much effort to vary their poses, so that the composition is monotonous and the figures are fitted into the field by the unhappy expedient of reducing their height away from the center. The sculptor was hampered by the existence of a back wall that reaches halfway up the pediment and required the carving of the lower parts of some of the central figures in relief, while their upper parts stand free, which is not very artful.
East Pediment: central group. Apollo holds on to the tripod as Hercules carries it off, while Athena (or Zeus?) stands between them in an effort to appease them.
East Pediment: The struggle between Hercules and Apollo over the holy tripod
How apposite here is Nietzsche’s statement about the psychological ‘theater’ of the Greeks? “. . . [O]ne employed festivals and arts for no other purpose than to feel oneself dominant, to show oneself dominant: they are the means for making oneself feared.” The story of Apollo and Hercules’ fight over the holy tripod, represented in the eastern pediment, is a story about Hercules wanting to make himself feared so as to reverse the condemnation that hovered over him because of his un-atoned murder of Iphitus. By stealing the tripod from Delphi in order to create his own oracle, Hercules intended to proclaim his truth as the only truth. The Delphic Oracle, which was the voice of Apollo, - the truth of Apollo -, had refused him because he was adjudged guilty of murder, as a criminal. So Hercules wanted to set up a rival oracle that would absolve him, and hence marched off with the tripod. He would absolve himself. Hercules was a great hero to the Greeks.
A good question is, which god or goddess is represented as standing between Apollo and Hercules and trying to appease them? The speculation is that the figure in the center of the pediment is either Zeus (Power and Law) or Athena (Knowledge and Reason). Taking this choice as the correct one in this case, should Authority or Wisdom moderate a fight? Which would the artist have chosen? And recall that the pediment is what you see above you when you approach the temple.
3. The Northern Frieze
The northern frieze depicts the war between the Olympian gods and the Giants, the Gigantomachia. At the left end, Hephaestus in his blacksmith’s shop filling his furnace bags with air, while in front of him two goddesses are fighting with two giants. Further ahead the goddess Cybele (behind her Hercules or Dionysus at grips with a giant) in a chariot drawn by two lions which are tearing a giant to pieces.
The goddess Cybele was known among the Greeks as Μήτηρ (Mētēr "Mother") or Μήτηρ Ὀρεία ("Mountain-Mother"), or, with a particular Anatolian sacred mountain in mind, Idaea, inasmuch as she was supposed to have been born on Mount Ida in Anatolia, near Troy. In most mythology her story is Phrygian. Her Ancient Greek title, Potnia Theron, alludes to her Neolithic roots as the ‘Mistress of the Animals.’She is associated with her lion throne and her chariot drawn by lions.
Northern Frieze: Cybele’s chariot was pulled by two lions: one of the lions is tearing a giant to pieces.
In front of Cybele’s chariot, to the right of the frieze, Apollo and Artemis (at their feet the giant Ephialtas is already dead and a little farther right the giant Astartas is just falling), are shooting with their arrows at three shielded giants and the giant Cantharus flees in terror from Cybele’s lions. Further on Zeus (not preserved) on his chariot is attacked by two giants. In the foreground, Hera bends to finish off a fallen giant; on her right, Athena has stricken down Verectas and is fighting with Laertas while Astartas is dying. A little further Ares is struggling with Viatas and Enatas, one of whom is picking up a stone to throw at the god. Immediately after, Hermes with raised sword is attacking two giants. On their right, part of Poseidon’s body is preserved. At the extremity of the frieze, an unidentified god is fighting with two giants.
The figure with the crest of his helmet supported by a cantharus is not Dionysus, but a giant. The peculiar shape of the support is explained by the fact that all the helmets worn by the giants are of fantastic design. This giant was one of the antagonists of Cybele and is fleeing in terror from her lions. Cybele, in the frieze, is identified by a hole for an earring, and cannot be Dionysus, as was originally thought. In addition there is the charioteer of Zeus, who cannot be identified
Northern Frieze: Apollo and Artemis (at their feet the giant Ephialtas is already dead) are shooting with their arrows at three shielded giants (not visible here) as the giant Cantharus flees in terror from Cybele’s lions.
Northern Frieze: Apollo and Artemis and Cantharos running from Cybele’s lions.
Northern Frieze: On the left, Hera bends down to finish off a fallen giant; on her right, Athena has stricken down Verectas and is fighting with Laertas while Astartas is dying. Further left, Ares is struggling with Viatas and Enatas, one of whom is picking up a stone to throw at the god.
Northern Frieze: In the foreground, Hera stoops to finish off a fallen giant; on her right, Athena.
Northern Frieze: Ares is struggling with Viatas and Enatas, one of whom is picking up a stone to throw at the god.
As the northern side of the treasury looked upon the Sacred Way, the ascending pilgrims walking by would admire the unfolding of the action from left to right as the narrative unfolds in the frieze.
Reconstruction of the northern side of the treasury, facing the Sacred Way.
4. The Eastern Frieze
The eastern frieze, whose subject is the Trojan War, is divided into two sections. The first part of the left-hand section shows a council of the gods watching from Olympus the battle taking place outside the walls of Troy and depicted in the right hand section of the frieze. The gods are divided into two groups, the protectors of the Trojans, and the protectors of the Greeks, respectively. On the left are shown the gods favoring the Trojans, turned towards their protégés. First Ares, wearing his armor as befits the god of war, sitting at one end. Next to him Aphrodite (or Leto), Artemis, Apollo, turned towards his sister, and finally Zeus on a magnificent throne. In front of Zeus there was Thetis, Achilles’ mother, as a suppliant, parts of her fingers touching the knees of Zeus in supplication are preserved. A little further and turned to the left, like the Greeks, were the gods favoring them: Poseidon, of whom nothing remains, Athena, Hera and Demeter. The scene depicts a well-known episode of the war, when Zeus, implored by Thetis, temporarily turned against the Greeks until the injustice done to her son Achilles by Agamemnon in taking from him the girl Briseis had been restored.
Eastern Frieze: Artemisa, Aphrodite, Apollo and Zeus on his throne (fragment)
Eastern Frieze: Aphrodite, Artemisa, Apollo
Eastern Frieze: From left to right: Ares, Aphrodite, Artemisa, Apollo and Zeus on his throne (fragment)
Eastern Frieze: From left to right: Athena, Hera, and Demeter (or Thetis?)
In the second section of the eastern frieze, the battle going on outside the walls of Troy is shown. On the left are the Trojans: first a Trojan four-horse chariot with the charioteer Glaucus, then Aeneas and Hector. On the right are the Greeks. Menelaus holding a shield decorated with a Gorgon head. Ajax, a Greek four-horse chariot with the charioteer Automedon, and finally, alone, at the end, Nestor the wise adviser of the Greeks, urging them by his attitude to the action that will bring them victory. On the ground is a dead warrior.
Eastern Frieze: A Trojan four-horse chariot with the charioteer Glaucus looking towards Aeneas and Hector, in the foreground.
Eastern Frieze: A Trojan four-horse chariot with the charioteer Glaucus looking away.
Eastern Frieze: Menelaus holding a shield decorated with the Gorgon head of Medusa.
5. Western Frieze
This frieze tells the story of the “Judgment of Paris.” Eris, the goddess of discord, not having been invited to the wedding of Peleus and Theits for obvious reasons, revenged the insult by throwing among the guests an apple inscribed: “For the most beautiful.” This caused a quarrel between Aphrodite, Athena and Hera, who each claimed the prize, and to end the strife, Zeus asked Paris, the young prince of Troy, to decide between them. Paris awarded the apple to Aphrodite. In the frieze, which unrolls in the way of a triptych, Hermes is shown at the left-hand end as a charioteer in the winged four-horse chariot of Athena, who winged herself, is hurriedly getting on the carriage. The male figure behind her is Hephaestus or Poseidon. Next the victorious Aphrodite is shown, getting off her chariot while trying to put a necklace around her neck. The admirable ingenuity and originality of the artist in presenting this theme and working out the details will be found again in the southern frieze. Though severely damaged, Aphrodite is still one of the loveliest figures in the whole sculptural decoration of the treasury of Siphnos. The right hand part of the frieze has not been preserved, but it can be assumed with certainty that it included a third chariot, and Hera.
Western Frieze: Aphrodite stepping off her chariot while trying to put a necklace around her neck
6. Southern Frieze
It has proved very difficult to ascertain the meaning of the southern frieze, or on the correct sequence of its preserved parts. Likely themes are the abduction of the daughters of Leucippus, king of Messenia, by the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, or Hippodamia, daughter of the king of Elis, Oenomaos, being carried off by Pelops, with Oenomaos starting to chase them. The parts preserved show first an abduction scene, and on the left a woman going away. In the middle there is an altar with a four-horse chariot (quadriga) in front of it, and finally two young horsemen followed by another four-horse chariot. The movement the postures and the shapes of the horses are admirably depicted and are unique in the archaic art of the Greeks.
Southern Frieze: The quadriga before an altar
“Zeus reaches, as soon as thought, his ends:
Zeus, who can catch the winged eagle
And overtake the dolphin in the sea.
He can bring down any whose heart is high,
And to others he will give un-aging splendor.”
Pindar, Pythian Ode II (Bowra trans., Penguin 1969)