Comparison of Severan copy of Athena Parthenos and 13th century Virgin and Mary
The Severan copy of Athena Parthenos and an early 13th century Virgin child are two pieces at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that compare and contrast in several ways. Their historical importance as symbols, their sculptural mediums, styles and dimensions, and their functions make them historically relevant.
The Reduced Replica of Athena Parthenos – at the MFA in Boston is a marble statue which depicts a graceful, robed female icon. The statue has lost both arms, and is dressed in a chiton Athena , also referred to as Minerva, the Maiden, or Parthenos was the Favorite daughter of Zeus. Legend states that she was not generated by any woman with Zeus, but instead leapt out of his head fully grown and armored. Athena is known an the goddess of wisdom, the goddess of the city , the protectress of civilized life, artisan activities , and agricultural bounty. All of these characteristics explain her sculptural likenesses in so many ancient cities in need of dietous protection. 1
This particular piece is of Severan creation. The Severans came to power in the late second century. Marcus Aurelius+ son Commodus succeeded his father in 180, only to inherit an empire that was becoming increasingly harder to uphold , and imperial order was being threatened. Eventually, he was assassinated , and the Roman world was thrown into civil discord. Septimius Severus emerged as the new emperor in 193 after proclaiming himself to be Marcus Aurelius+ son. 2
The Severan+s hometown was called Lepcis Magna, on the coast of what is now Libya. In the early third century the port city used imperial funds to ornament itself with a new forum, basilica , arch, and several monuments and statues. One of these statues may be the Athena Parthenos . 3
Like other heroic statues of second and third century Rome, Athena has a rigid , strong but graceful torso that can be seen in the later period of Soldier Emperors that would follow in coming decades. While examining Athena+s garb- her birthday suit of armor and cloth – a paralell can be drawn to the battle gear seen in the Ludovisi battle sarcophagus and the Athena+s chiton. In both of these , the garments+ cloth hangs with a powerful rigidity that doesn+t really cling to the body. This gives a feeling of protective layering and puts limited focus on the anatomy of the covered torso and limbs.
The Virgin and Child is an oak sculpture of the sacred religious icons enthroned in a frontal pose. She is crowned and robed in lavish garments as the baby Jesus sits stiffly and astutely on her left thigh. A line on the baby+s head suggests that he once wore a crown as his mother does. Also missing is the virgin+s right hand. The two are rest on an oval throne that creates a trefoil shaped base beneath her feet. This image of the Virgin and Child upon the trefoil based throne is known a the Throne of Wisdom for the Incarnate World, or Sedes Sapientiae . 4
Sedes Sapientiae was considered to be particularly venerable and were adorned with gold foil and jewelry . However, by the twelfth century wooden sculptures such as this resided in many churches altars, and most were painted . However, the Virgin in Boston has to be considered a | Golden VirginX because of her gilded robe and |jeweled | crown which symbolize medieval influence translated through a more gothic style.5 The robe she wears is a full length coat gathered at the waist by a jeweled belt. Over this she wears a mantle , the opening bordered with fur and the hem is detailed with an embroidery-like pattern.
When studying the virgin from it+s frontal view, the sculpture seems realistically three dimensional, however a profile view reveals that it is hardly more than a high relief. The flattened back, probably to rest against an altar , give the piece a shallow appearance from a profile or from a corner perspective. The Virgin+s pose is made very rigid by a tall upper body, an exact bilateral symmetry , and also the fact that her extremities are smoothly and gracefully contained in an outer shape or contour. These features make the piece characteristic of what Hanns Swarzenski – an art scholar of the early 1900+s who wrote for the Museum of Fine Arts during the time that it acquired the virgin- noted as the |1200 styleX. 6
While both Athena and the Virgin are religious and mythic icons, there importance to those who paid homage to and admired them is different. Athena most likely represented a victory, such as The Athena statue built at the Parthenon in 438 b.c.e. by Phidias did. Much larger than life, Athena is a symbol of the protection of civilized life , and in Phidias+ case was erected as a celebration of the Athenians driving back the Persians and in essence, saving their own civilization. The Virgin and Baby represent a more universal protection, as a symbol of the giving of life. As the Virgin, and many statues similar to it were made of hollow oak, the portable nature of the statue lent itself to utility in different practices which created a more personal connection to the statue from the viewer. Examples of this would be carried in processions celebrating local feasts of the church, or the Virgin would be the center of the Three Magi which would be performed at Christmas time. 7 The gigantic Athena was less accessible to the observer as she was carved out of white marble and loomed high above onlookers. Sometimes – in the case of Phidias+ statue of her- Athena was sculpted in ivory and leafed with gold, again making her inaccessible as she was too valuable to be used in any interactive plans as the Virgin was.8 Furthermore, Athena is a symbol of war- she dons armor, weapons, and a protective shield, while the Virgin and child are a divine Christian symbol of peace and caring. The two statues differ greatly in subject even though both represent women of gargantuan stature to spiritual mankind.
Athena+s pose is blurred by the fact that she has no arms. Most other references to Athena show her holding the Aegis- Zeus+ terrible shield, and his devastating weapon, the Ray. 9 In most instances her arms hold the weapons on the ground in front of her as she always stands, proud , in a warrior -like fashion. Her arms must have been extended in some way off of her body or else they wouldn+t have been dismembered. The Boston Virgin -as always- stoically sits on a throne. The only thing she seems to be poised over is her infant son. These postural variations describe the personality and role differences in these two subjects. Athena stands high in order to protect and defend at any given moment, while the virgin sits in an almost monarchal pose as the care giver to the son of god. Although the Athena Parthenos in Boston is rigid and tall, her pose is naturalistic in comparison to the virgin whose extremely long torso tower over the baby Jesus whose torso is also extremely long. The virgin and Baby also collect their extremities close to their sides to create an intact , solid form, which makes Athena seem less static . If Athena had her arms she would seem to be moving them in contrast to the virgin.
Dimensionally, Athena stands at a larger scale than any human- also minding that this is a reduced replica, while the Boston Virgin is sixty one inches from base to crown. The virgins size is roughly the size of a woman, emphasizing that she was indeed a real woman. Like her godlike stature insists, Athena towers over those she protects. The dimensions of these sculptures speak volumes about the subjects personalities and roles.
The color of each of these pieces is hardly comparable due to the different materials. Athena is carved out of white marble, creating a soft , graceful, yet solid power about her. The Virgin is also carved, but from oak instead which allowed her to be painted with rich blues and flesh tones which have weathered over the centuries. The gilding if her crown and robe lining create a royal tone. Marble was most common a medium for such statues as Athena. Because architecture which would house such a centerpiece, – or rest underneath it- had cool, marble interiors and columns, the marble Athena created unity as well as variety.
The mediums of these sculptures also led to different methods of representing the clothing which these two pieces wore. Athena+s chiton is detailed in a classical sense as the fabric which hangs off of her drapes in sections which emulate the fabrics form without vast amounts of intricate detail that tell the viewer what kind of fabrics it is, or what the texture is like. Most classical pieces sport long, draping , smooth cloths. The Virgin and Baby have cloths that also loosely hang, but are not as detailed and show much less movement and form that those of Athena. The clothes of the virgin do hang vertically,or radiate naturally however , from their points of suspension.10 Unlike earlier French sculptures, this suggests the use of models instead of copying from a painting. The grain of the wood also offers interesting texture to the material, adding possibly unintentional detail that the carving does not.
The faces of these two pieces are very different. Athena s face – typically Graeco Roman – is masklike, without pupils or expression. Again the marble lends to this as a cold, hard material that ,when smooth does not posses the warmth of skin. The Virgin and child a naturalism has softened the features of earlier Romanesque influence. These faces, although oddly proportioned by small features and a very oval shape, are -according to Gardner | transformed …into the idealized portraits of perfect Christians, and finally into the portraiture of specific individuals.X11
Athena Parthenos – a Severan copy of a Graeco Roman sculpture of a Mythic legend-, and Virgin and Child- a religious entity brought back to physical existence for worship represent difference and similarity. Both make tangible a common thread that create universal belief amongst people living together. Both also differ in that one is an icon which protects the civilized way , while the other finds importance as a symbol for the hope that those who believe are loved .
George, Roy |The Goddess AthenaX , homepage, http://www.goddess-athena.org