Saturday, November 16, 2013

Holy Wisdom: The other Parthenon marbles scandal

It has for years been something of a custom for visitors to the Acropolis and its accompanying museums to take the occasion to comment on the enduring dispute over what were once called the ‘Elgin marbles’, named after the British ambassador to Constantinople who in the early 19th century took a saw to the Parthenon – the crowning glory of 5th-century-B.C. Athens – and shipped the best part of its sculptures back to Britain, where they remain in the national museum to this day. I won’t go into this old and tired debate except to say that, as someone who was already convinced of the case for returning the Parthenon marbles (as they are properly called) to Athens on principle alone, to see the consequences of Elgin’s surgery first-hand at the new Acropolis Museum at the base of the temple last month was to appreciate also the irrefutable aesthetic argument for restitution.

It dawns on you the moment you realize, when examining the panels of the frieze (which once ran along the outside of the naos, or inner temple) and the metopes (the high-relief sculptures carved into the outermost rim), that only the sand-coloured marbles are real, while the white ones – which are the majority – are merely replicas of the originals kept in Bloomsbury. It’s as if the Louvre were to exhibit only a torn-off half of the Mona Lisa, the remainder having been painted on in different colours a couple of years ago. One sees instantly that, even more than the duplicity and injustice and avarice of Elgin’s crime, it’s the absolute vulgarity of it all that is so singularly embarrassing. As the 19th-century travel writer Edward Daniel Clarke put it, “Could any one believe that this was actually done? and that it was done, too, in the name of a nation vain of its distinction in the fine art?”

And yet, for all the opprobrium rightly directed at Elgin, his was not the only deliberate disfiguration of the Parthenon in its two and a half millennia of existence. As I learnt with fascination from the information panels accompanying the marbles – or, more accurately, the gaps in them – the Parthenon lost 6 of its original 115 frieze slabs, as well as several metopes and a major chunk of its eastern pediment (the largest and perhaps most dramatic group of sculptures, comprising a 30-metre-wide triangle atop the 10-metre-tall columns) when in the 6th century A.D. it was converted into a Church of the Holy Wisdom. This involved destroying three frieze panels on each side to create windows; cutting three doorways through the walls of the naos; and demolishing the centre of the eastern pediment along with the adjacent metopes to construct the signature Byzantine Christian apse, or half-dome; all of which amounted to “irreversible damage”, according to Prof. Charalambos Bouras, now director of the Acropolis’ restoration committee.

Having amended the structure of the pagan temple to their satisfaction, the Christians proceeded to redecorate the interior, painting the walls and installing the necessary altar, benches, etc. According to the late Prof. Robert Browning, who contributed an electrifying introduction to Christopher Hitchens’ The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification (which I happily picked up at the Acropolis Museum’s gift shop), there was even “occasional, apparently deliberate, defacement of sculptured figures [by] over-zealous Christians at this time”, although this wasn’t “systematic”. Up until its conversion into a Catholic church in 1204, “notices of the deaths of the bishops and archbishops of Athens were carved high up on some of the peristyle columns”.

Thereafter, the damage inflicted tended to be basically secular in nature. Even when the Ottomans made the Parthenon a mosque after capturing Athens in 1458, and erected a minaret on the Acropolis, actual alterations were limited to whitewashing or plastering over the Christian mosaics and frescoes, which were of course anyway disfigurements to begin with.

Yet the parties of God were to play one final, and central, role in the ruin of the Parthenon, this time in direct collaboration with its most famous vandal. At every moment of Elgin’s looting campaign, his chaplain at Constantinople, one Reverend Philip Hunt, was to be his inexhaustible fixer and accomplice: delivering saws to his workmen; procuring the necessary paperwork from the Ottoman occupiers, by bribery when necessary; impelling him to take ever more precious sculptures, such as the priceless caryatid porch of the Erechtheion; and even indulging in some not insignificant plunder all of his own. As Hitchens puts it, “Reverend Hunt seems to have been a most worldly chaplain”.

Perhaps it will be said that it’s unfair to blame today’s Christians for the sins of their fathers (though I can’t help thinking the whole sorry history rather undermines the argument that a world without faith would be poorer in art and beauty. Among the first acts of restoration carried out on the Parthenon after Greece attained independence in 1832 was the removal of the Byzantine apse, in recognition that the alien appendage had no business spoiling the finest monument of antiquity). But the Church’s hands are by no means clean even now. Though it loaned one of them to the Acropolis Museum in 2008, the Vatican still claims ownership of three Parthenon marble fragments it acquired in the 19th century – one from the western pediment, one from the northern frieze, and one from the southern metopes – two of which it continues to display in its Gregoriano Profano museum.

Is this, too, not shameful? Does it not warrant at least some fraction of the international outrage reserved for Elgin and his present-day apologists at the British Museum? Those who think Downing Street’s covetousness is the only obstacle to the sight of a reunited set of Parthenon marbles might recall that the Greek Culture Minister Georgios Voulgarakis asked in 2006 that “all foreign museums that possess sculptural elements of the Parthenon” return them, and that in the same year the late Athenian Archbishop Christodoulos explicitly requested the return of the Vatican’s holdings in a private meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. The Parthenon, as is often pointed out, is no ordinary temple, built simply to glorify the tyrant of the day. It is instead the greatest remnant (much more than a mere “symbol”) of the most extraordinary intellectual and cultural awakening of all time – the age of Socrates, Sophocles and Herodotus, which gave us philosophy, ethics, logic, physics, history and of course democracy (all of them Greek words). “It was to be”, in Browning’s words, “an everlasting monument to a unique and dazzling society”. If the new Pope Francis is indeed the generous and compassionate maverick we’re so often told he is, he might reflect on what his co-religionists have done over the centuries to impair this monument, and make the necessary gesture of atonement.

No comments:

Post a Comment