God-like figures that grace Athens’ ancient Greek Parthenon will come to life Friday, April 22, at 1 p.m. as students in Jenifer Neils’ art history seminar reenact roles of 12 Olympian gods depicted on the east side of the Parthenon and visually solve a design puzzle that has challenged art historians for centuries.
Dressed in ethereal white and carrying golden symbols of the gods, students will be videotaped as part of the educational project that involved researching and writing about their individual gods and then acting out their character roles. The reenactment will take place on the south portico of the Cleveland Museum of Art before its Greco-Roman façade.
“This reenactment will prove once and for all how effective the artist’s design was,” Neils said.
Ten students from the seminar and two volunteers with an interest in classics are the acting corps and production crew. They had assistance from professors in theater (Catherine Albers) and music (Ross Duffin), as well as the Freedman Center at the campus’ Kelvin Smith Library (Jared Bendis, also an art history graduate student).
“We are going to act this out in two ways,” Neils said. In the first take, the students will depict the image on the flat surface of the temple honoring Athena. The second take is as the artist would have imagined the scene live, with the gods sitting in a semicircle, without turning their backs on the procession, Neils said.
The Parthenon has stood for 2,500 years on the Acropolis, or high hill, overlooking the city of Athens; it suffered damage during a 1687 explosion. The frieze, which runs 524 feet long and 3 feet tall, is a world monument that has ignited the international “Elgin Marble” debate over ownership of art, as pieces of the frieze are now scattered throughout Europe.
The Parthenon continues to be a tourist destination and fascinates visitors with its portrayal of the Panathenaia festival to honor the city’s namesake Athena. The festival is depicted in dynamic figures of 378 people and 245 horses, cattle and sheep in a procession that starts on the west side and continues along the north and south sides toward the centerpiece of the seated Olympian gods.
Neils, the Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History and Classics, reunited the pieces pictorially in her 2001 book, The Parthenon Frieze, and solved the puzzle that other art historians had said was a design flaw in the Parthenon’s construction.
The flaw, others have said, is that the gods face the procession arriving from both sides of the Parthenon but have their backs turned to the ongoing peplos ceremony in the center honoring Zeus and his daughter Athena.
The students plan to prove their professor’s hypothesis that the Parthenon artist’s original intent was to have the gods seated in a semi-circle before the five figures who are presenting the festival robe (peplos) to Athena.
Circular seating correlates with ancient Greece theater and political settings, Neils said.
Prior to publishing her book, Neils scanned Homer to see if there was a reference to this semi-circular seating plan of the gods but did not find any. Shortly after publication, she found support in a statement made by the ancient Greek poet Pindar who wrote about “the fine seats in a circle where the kings of the Sky and of Earth took their place.”
Neils will give a talk about the reenactment experience during a Friends of Art History event on Sunday, May 1, at 4 p.m. in 206 Clark Hall.
The Reenactment Cast: