To the Curators of Greek Sculpture, British Museum, London:
Let me begin by thanking you, your colleagues, and your institution, for all you have done to
preserve and display my Parthenon sculptures during these past two centuries. While I cannot
endorse their removal from Athens, I rejoice that you have made them available to the entire
world. I am in your debt.
You will not be surprised that an artist, even a deified one, maintains a lively interest in the
fate of his work. I was and remain proud of my design and proud of its execution. Naturally I
have been distressed each time the frieze suffered physical damage, and annoyed each time it
has been misinterpreted. For centuries many classicists, art historians, artists, and others have
written perceptively about the Parthenon and its frieze. Some have written less perceptively.
But in the past decade interpretations have arisen that are so tortuous, so disconnected from
my enterprise, that I can no longer remain silent. I write you now – with the help of Hermes,
translator and friend – to clarify a few matters sorely in need of clarification.
To begin with the obvious: The frieze depicts a Procession of Athenians to the Acropolis during
the Greater Panathenaia. It seems to me perverse to think it might depict anything else. Some
scholars have objected that temple decoration had never before portrayed a non-mythological
event. Have they not noticed the other innovations, apparent in every stone of the Parthenon?
Pericles’ exact words to me were: “Let us have a Panathenaic Procession – Athens honoring our
Goddess.” He did not say, “last year’s Procession” or “the first Procession” or any such thing.
He was the City's leader. I was the City’s best sculptor. Those few words were enough.
The design was entirely mine, and like all my work a product of imagination as well as memory.
I felt no need to study any particular Procession. I had seen, indeed had participated in, a great
many of them. I determined to show the essentials of the quadrennial event, without ticking off
every common detail. My challenge as an artist was to produce a frieze that would be beautiful,
true to the celebration as we knew it, and readable from below.
Without modesty, I believe that I fulfilled my commission. But time and war and transport have
defaced my work, creating ambiguities today where none existed when the frieze was new.
“Stools!” Why on earth would the kanephoroi lead the sacred Procession carrying stools? To read
my baskets as stools, one must imagine that seven of eight stool legs have disappeared, and that
the first young woman has grasped the one remaining leg – nearer to the viewer than her right
shoulder – with her left hand. Could I have been so incompetent? (That so-called “leg” is actually
the sacrificial knife in its sheath.) Meanwhile some scholars have improbably supposed that a girl
brings the folded peplos to the Archon! Leaving aside “her” partial nudity, does “she” not possess
one of the handsomest boy-profiles in the frieze?
Like all great histories in stone – or paint, or ink, for that matter – mine was an imagined event,
quite unlike your modern news photograph. Again, to be explicit: Did the Procession typically
separate, only to rejoin at the East End of the temple? It did not. Did it contain more cavalry
than foot-soldiers? It did not. Was any member of The Twelve visibly present at the celebration?
Not that I recall. And did the presentation of Athena’s peplos normally occur just as the basket-
carriers arrived? Of course not.
With apologies to classicists everywhere – whose literary interpretations I have often admired –
I must insist that reading a work of plastic art is not like reading a text. And creating a work of
art is a different enterprise altogether. In my frieze, the Procession is made to separate simply
because the rectangular wall space and our aesthetic preference for symmetry demanded it.
One sees more horses than hoplites because mounted cavalry patently offer so many more visual
opportunities than a file of marching men. The physical presence of the approving gods on the
East Frieze might better be understood as an invocation rather than an observation.
As for the sacred baskets and the peplos, no scene was more easily understood at the time
of its creation, and none has been more mischievously interpreted since. In my day the great
Procession culminated in two signal events: Athena’s Priestess received the baskets of barley
and the knife for the bull sacrifice; the City’s Archon received the garment that would adorn
Athena for the coming year. This is precisely what I have shown. I chose to place Priestess
and Archon back to back at the very center of the frieze, first because of their parallel receipt
of sacred objects and second because the two would soon exchange these very objects.
(The Priestess oversaw the dressing of Athena, whereas the Archon officiated at the sacrifice.)
I should note that none of these objects was ever brought into the Parthenon. The peplos
would clothe the ancient statue of Athena Polias, housed in a separate temple on the Acropolis;
the sacrifice, of course, took place in the open air.
Those who know my work, those who understand our age, will not search for hidden meanings,
for secret codes, for puzzles to solve. Giving honor to Athena Polias, “Athena of the City,” was
the whole point of the Procession, and thus of my frieze. Could the meaning of the two halves
of my central tableau – balanced, like the framing gods, in significance as well as in gender –
be any more transparent? “The City” on the right joins the “The Temple” on the left in a public
celebration of our beloved goddess.
Thank you for your attention. Let me again commend you for your service to humanity.