Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Optical experiment eyes Parthenon mystery

The Parthenon ruins in Athens. "For complex visual and psychological reasons, it's an extremely powerful building," Bonna Wescoat says.

By Carol Clark

The Parthenon, one of the most important buildings in world history, has been studied for centuries, but many questions remain about the 2,500-year-old centerpiece to the Acropolis. Among them is the mystery of why an ornate frieze was located in a seemingly obscure position, high on the outside wall of the Parthenon’s central chamber, and partially blocked by the surrounding colonnade.

An optical experiment, to be led by students of Emory University art historian Bonna Wescoat, will take a fresh look at the puzzle. Volunteer observers have been recruited to participate in the event, to take place on Saturday, November 10, at the Nashville Parthenon, a full-scale replica of the original building.

“We’re recreating the experience of how the ancient Athenians may have viewed the frieze as they approached the Parthenon,” Wescoat says. “This experiment could become a paradigm-shifting intervention in the studies of the frieze. We’re bringing the science of seeing into the discussion, an important and overlooked area.”

The original Parthenon, in Athens, Greece, was built to honor the goddess Athena, the patron of the city. “For complex visual and psychological reasons, it’s an extremely powerful building,” says Wescoat, whose research focuses on ancient Greece. “There’s not a straight line in the Parthenon, every single stone in it is curved and tapered slightly. And the proportions are not the usual one-to-two, which is stable, but four-to-nine. These subtle refinements produce an energy and tension that engages the eye.”

One section of the Parthenon's frieze was still in place when William Stillman took this photograph in the 1860s. (Michael C. Carlos Museum.)

The building was elaborately painted, and outfitted with beautiful statuary and adornments, including the celebrated frieze. Wrapping around the four sides of the building, the carved marble panels depict a ceremonial procession. Now dispersed between museums in London, Paris and Athens, the frieze is considered an icon of Western art.

It has long been debated why such a refined work of art was placed in what seems like an obscure, cramped location. Scholars have surmised that viewers would have to crane their necks to glimpse the frieze, and much of its detail would be lost in the shadowy, ambient light. Some have even suggested that the frieze was not part of the original plan for the Parthenon, and may have been added as an afterthought.

Wescoat is among the doubters of that theory. Her perspective has been shaped both by her work on major archeology projects in Greece and frequent visits to the Nashville Parthenon, about a four-hour drive from Atlanta.

The Nashville Parthenon, originally built for Tennessee’s 1897 Centennial Exposition, is made of concrete, not marble, and it does not include all of the original structure’s ornamentations, such as the frieze. But the replica offers a vision of the Parthenon not as a ruin, but as a complete building.

Bonna Wescoat and graduate student An Jiang compare images of the original frieze to a canvas simulation. Photo by Ann Borden.

“Each time I’ve taken students to the Nashville Parthenon, I’ve thought that the area where the frieze would be located is not as bad as it is made out to be,” Wescoat says. “It’s an intimate area. Tracking the panels with your eye, catching shifting views of them between columns, requires an effort that draws you in. You have to keep moving, just as in the procession portrayed by the frieze. The scene is both timeless and timely, an enduring visual expression of the citizens’ relationship to their divine patron, Athena.”

After officials at the Nashville Parthenon gave their blessing, Wescoat and the 11 students in her seminar called Ancient Greek Architectural Decoration set about designing an experiment to test the visibility of the frieze. They decided to create facsimiles of some of the panels and install them in situ.

Their work began with a reconnaissance trip to Nashville in September, where the students decided to concentrate on panels that would have adorned the northwest corner of the building.

The students returned to Atlanta and set up a workshop in the Michael C. Carlos Museum for their Parthenon Project. They made full-scale line drawings for each of the original marble panels. They researched what colors the ancient Greek artists might have used, and how color might have factored in with the visibility. The end result is five painted canvas panels, and a sixth panel made of insulation foam to imitate the 2-inch relief of the original frieze.

“It gives you a much better appreciation for the artists who carved this out of marble,” says Rebecca Levitan, a senior art history major, as she dabs a finishing touch of paint on a horse’s hoof.

The ancient Greek figures take on a new vibrancy with paint. “They start to come alive as we add color and shading,” says Katie Cupello, a graduate student in art history.

Click on the photo above, to enlarge the image and get a better view of the completed panels. Photo by Katie Cupello.

This weekend, the students will return to the Nashville Parthenon with the completed panels, where they will be installed in their correct positions on the building. They will recreate the processional routes of the Athenian Acropolis, using contractor’s spray to stake out the paths. On Saturday, the volunteer observers will move along the passages, starting about 35 feet away from the building, and describe how well, and how much of the frieze they can see, using a detailed questionnaire form. As they move along, the volunteers will also use green contractors’ flags to mark particularly good viewing spots.

The result will be the first experimental data on the frieze gathered from conditions similar to the ones in which it was originally viewed. The volunteer observers will be asked to take their time, and pay attention to detail, in ways that our modern eyes rarely do, Wescoat says.

“The Athenians must have felt great pride when they approached the Parthenon,” she says. “The frieze was meant to communicate something meaningful, there is no question about that. It wasn’t a message that you needed to get with absolute clarity in 30 seconds, like driving by a billboard today. It was meant to be appreciated over a lifetime, and down through generations.”

Emory University Parthenon Project
Digging into the mystery of a Greek Island
How the Greek gods measure up


  1. Where can we view the results of the Parthenon Project?

    1. Check back for the results. We will report them when they are completed.