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The marbles of Aegina.


I HAVE DWELT the more emphatically upon the purely sensuous aspects of early Greek art, on the beauty and charm of its mere material and workmanship, the grace of hand in it, its chryselephantine character, because the direction of all the more general criticism since Lessing has been, somewhat one-sidedly, towards the ideal or abstract element in Greek art, towards what we may call its philosophical aspect. And, indeed, this philosophical element, a tendency to the realisation of a certain inward, abstract, intellectual ideal, is also at work in Greek art—a tendency which, if that chryselephantine influence is called Ionian, may rightly be called the Dorian, or, in reference to its broader scope, the European influence; and this European influence or tendency is really towards the impression of an order, a sanity, a proportion in all work, which shall reflect the inward order of human reason, now fully conscious of itself,—towards a sort of art in which the record and delineation of humanity, as active in the wide, inward world of its passion and thought, has become more or less definitely the aim of all artistic handicraft.

In undergoing the action of these two opposing influences, and by harmonising in itself their antagonism, Greek sculpture does but reflect the larger movements of more general Greek history. All through Greek history we may trace, in every sphere of the activity of the Greek mind, the action of these two opposing tendencies,—the centrifugal and centripetal tendencies, as we may perhaps not too fancifully call them. There is the centrifugal, the Ionian, the Asiatic tendency, flying from the centre, working with little forethought straight before it, in the development of every thought and fancy; throwing itself forth in endless play of undirected imagination; delighting in brightness and colour, in beautiful material, in changeful form everywhere, in poetry, in philosophy, even in architecture and its subordinate crafts. In the social and political order it rejoices in the freest action of local and personal influences; its restless versatility drives it towards the assertion of the principles of separatism, of individualism—the separation of state from state, the maintenance of local religions, the development of the individual in that which is most peculiar and individual in him. Its claim is in its grace, its freedom and happiness, its lively interest, the variety of its gifts to civilisation; its weakness is self-evident, and was what made the unity of Greece impossible. It is this centrifugal tendency which Plato is desirous to cure, by maintaining, over against it, the Dorian influence of a severe simplification everywhere, in society, in culture, in the very physical nature of man. An enemy everywhere to variegation, to what is cunning or “myriad-minded,” he sets himself, in mythology, in music, in poetry, in every kind of art, to enforce the ideal of a sort of Parmenidean abstractness and calm.

This exaggerated ideal of Plato’s is, however, only the exaggeration of that salutary European tendency, which, finding human mind the most absolutely real and precious thing in the world, enforces everywhere the impress of its sanity, its profound reflexions upon things as they really are, its sense of proportion. It is the centripetal tendency, which links individuals to each other, states to states, one period of organic growth to another, under the reign of a composed, rational, self-conscious order, in the universal light of the understanding.

Whether or not this temper, so clearly traceable as a distinct influence in the course of Greek development, was indeed the peculiar gift of the Dorian race, certainly that race is the best illustration of it, in its love of order, of that severe composition everywhere, of which the Dorian style of architecture is, as it were, a material symbol—in its constant aspiration after what is earnest and dignified, as exemplified most evidently in the religion of its predilection, the religion of Apollo. For as that Ionian influence, the chryselephantine influence, had its patron in Hephaestus, belonged to the religion of Hephaestus, husband of Aphrodite, the representation of exquisite workmanship, of fine art in metal, coming from the East in close connexion with the artificial furtherance, through dress and personal ornament, of the beauty of the body; so that Dorian or European influence embodied itself in the religion of Apollo. For the development of this or that mythological conception, from its root in fact or law of the physical world, is very various in its course. Thus, Demeter, the spirit of life in grass,—and Dionysus, the “spiritual form” of life in the green sap, remain, to the end of men’s thoughts and fancies about them, almost wholly physical. But Apollo, the “spiritual form” of sunbeams, early becomes (the merely physical element in his constitution being almost wholly suppressed) exclusively ethical,—the “spiritual form” of inward or intellectual light, in all its manifestations. He represents all those specially European ideas, of a reasonable, personal freedom, as understood in Greece; of a reasonable polity; of the sanity of soul and body, through the cure of disease and of the sense of sin; of the perfecting of both by reasonable exercise or ascêsis; his religion is a sort of embodied equity, its aim the realisation of fair reason and just consideration of the truth of things everywhere.

I CANNOT DWELL on the general aspects of this subject further, but I would remark that in art also the religion of Apollo was a sanction of, and an encouragement towards the true valuation of humanity, in its sanity, its proportion, its knowledge of itself. Following after this, Greek art attained, in its reproductions of human form, not merely to the profound expression of the highest indwelling spirit of human intelligence, but to the expression also of the great human passions, of the powerful movements as well as of the calm and peaceful order of the soul, as finding in the affections of the body a language, the elements of which the artist might analyse, and then combine, order, and recompose. In relation to music, to art, to all those matters over which the Muses preside, Apollo, as distinct from Hermes, seems to be the representative and patron of what I may call reasonable music, of a great intelligence at work in art, of beauty attained through the conscious realisation of ideas. They were the cities of the Dorian affinity which early brought to perfection that most characteristic of Greek institutions, the sacred dance, with the whole gymnastic system which was its natural accompaniment. And it was the familiar spectacle of that living sculpture which developed, perhaps, beyond everything else in the Greek mind, at its best, a sense of the beauty and significance of the human form.

Into that bewildered, dazzling world of minute and dainty handicraft—the chamber of Paris, the house of Alcinous—in which the form of man alone had no adequate place, and as yet, properly, was not, this Dorian, European, Apolline influence introduced the intelligent and spiritual human presence, and gave it its true value, a value consistently maintained to the end of Greek art, by a steady hold upon and preoccupation with the inward harmony and system of human personality.

In the works of the Asiatic tradition—the marbles of Nineveh, for instance—and, so far as we can see, in the early Greek art, which derives from it, as, for example, in the archaic remains from Cyprus, the form of man is inadequate, and below the measure of perfection attained there in the representation of the lower forms of life; just as in the little reflective art of Japan, so lovely in its reproduction of flower or bird, the human form alone comes almost as a caricature, or is at least untouched by any higher ideal. To that Asiatic tradition, then, with its perfect craftsmanship, its consummate skill in design, its power of hand, the Dorian, the European, the true Hellenic influence brought a revelation of the soul and body of man.

And we come at last in the marbles of Aegina to a monument, which bears upon it the full expression of this humanism,—to a work, in which the presence of man, realised with complete mastery of hand, and with clear apprehension of how he actually is and moves and looks, is touched with the freshest sense of that new-found, inward value; the energy of worthy passions purifying, the light of his reason shining through, bodily forms and motions, solemnised, attractive, pathetic. We have reached an extant work, real and visible, of an importance out of all proportion to anything actually remaining of earlier art, and justifying, by its direct interest and charm, our long prelude on the beginnings of Greek sculpture, while there was still almost nothing actually to see.

These fifteen figures of Parian marble, of about two-thirds the size of life, forming, with some deficiencies, the east and west gables of a temple of Athene, the ruins of which still stand on a hill-side by the sea-shore, in a remote part of the island of Aegina, were discovered in the year 1811, and having been purchased by the Crown Prince, afterwards King Louis I., of Bavaria, are now the great ornament of the Glyptothek, or Museum of Sculpture, at Munich. The group in each gable consisted of eleven figures; and of the fifteen larger figures discovered, five belong to the eastern, ten to the western gable, so that the western gable is complete with the exception of one figure, which should stand in the place to which, as the groups are arranged at Munich, the beautiful figure, bending down towards the fallen leader, has been actually transferred from the eastern gable; certain fragments showing that the lost figure corresponded essentially to this, which has therefore been removed hither from its place in the less complete group to which it properly belongs. For there are two legitimate views or motives in the restoration of ancient sculpture, the antiquarian and the aesthetic, as they may be termed respectively; the former limiting itself to the bare presentation of what actually remains of the ancient work, braving all shock to living eyes from the mutilated nose or chin; while the latter, the aesthetic method, requires that, with the least possible addition or interference, by the most skilful living hand procurable, the object shall be made to please, or at least content the living eye seeking enjoyment and not a bare fact of science, in the spectacle of ancient art. This latter way of restoration,—the aesthetic way,—followed by the famous connoisseurs of the Renaissance, has been followed here; and the visitor to Munich actually sees the marbles of Aegina, as restored after a model by the tasteful hand of Thorwaldsen.

DIFFERENT VIEWS HAVE, however, been maintained as to the right grouping of the figures; but the composition of the two groups was apparently similar, not only in general character but in a certain degree of correspondence of all the figures, each to each. And in both the subject is a combat,—a combat between Greeks and Asiatics concerning the body of a Greek hero, fallen among the foemen,—an incident so characteristic of the poetry of the heroic wars. In both cases, Athene, whose temple this sculpture was designed to decorate, intervenes, her image being complete in the western gable, the head and some other fragments remaining of that in the eastern. The incidents represented were probably chosen with reference to the traditions of Aegina in connexion with the Trojan war. Greek legend is ever deeply coloured by local interest and sentiment, and this monument probably celebrates Telamon, and Ajax his son, the heroes who established the fame of Aegina, and whom the united Greeks, on the morning of the battle of Salamis, in which the Aeginetans were distinguished above all other Greeks in bravery, invited as their peculiar, spiritual allies from that island.

Accordingly, antiquarians are, for the most part, of opinion that the eastern gable represents the combat of Hercules (Hercules being the only figure among the warriors certainly to be identified), and of his comrade Telamon, against Laomedon of Troy, in which, properly, Hercules was leader, but here, as squire and archer, is made to give the first place to Telamon, as the titular hero of the place. Opinion is not so definite regarding the subject of the western gable, which, however, probably represents the combat between the Greeks and Trojans over the body of Patroclus. In both cases an Aeginetan hero, in the eastern gable Telamon, in the western his son Ajax, is represented in the extreme crisis of battle, such a crisis as, according to the deep religiousness of the Greeks of that age, was a motive for the visible intervention of the goddess in favour of her chosen people.

Opinion as to the date of the work, based mainly on the characteristics of the work itself, has varied within a period ranging from the middle of the sixtieth to the middle of the seventieth Olympiad, inclining on the whole to the later date, in the period of the Ionian revolt against Persia, and a few years earlier than the battle of Marathon.

In this monument, then, we have a revelation in the sphere of art, of the temper which made the victories of Marathon and Salamis possible, of the true spirit of Greek chivalry as displayed in the Persian war, and in the highly ideal conception of its events, expressed in Herodotus and approving itself minutely to the minds of the Greeks, as a series of affairs in which the gods and heroes of old time personally intervened, and that not as mere shadows. It was natural that the high-pitched temper, the stress of thought and feeling, which ended in the final conflict of Greek liberty with Asiatic barbarism, should stimulate quite a new interest in the poetic legends of the earlier conflict between them in the heroic age. As the events of the Crusades and the chivalrous spirit of that period, leading men’s minds back to ponder over the deeds of Charlemagne and his paladins, gave birth to the composition of the Song of Roland, just so this Aeginetan sculpture displays the Greeks of a later age feeding their enthusiasm on the legend of a distant past, and is a link between Herodotus and Homer. In those ideal figures, pensive a little from the first, we may suppose, with the shadowiness of a past age, we may yet see how Greeks of the time of Themistocles really conceived of Homeric knight and squire.

Some other fragments of art, also discovered in Aegina, and supposed to be contemporary with the temple of Athene, tend, by their roughness and immaturity, to show that this small building, so united in its effect, so complete in its simplicity, in the symmetry of its two main groups of sculpture, was the perfect artistic flower of its time and place. Yet within the limits of this simple unity, so important an element in the charm and impressiveness of the place, a certain inequality of design and execution may be detected; the hand of a slightly earlier master, probably, having worked in the western gable, while the master of the eastern gable has gone some steps farther than he in fineness and power of expression; the stooping figure of the supposed Ajax,—belonging to the western group in the present arrangement, but really borrowed, as I said, from the eastern,—which has in it something above the type of the figures grouped round it, being this later sculptor’s work. Yet Overbeck, who has elaborated the points of this distinction of styles, commends without reserve the technical excellence of the whole work, executed, as he says, “with an application of all known instruments of sculpture; the delicate calculation of weight in the composition of the several parts, allowing the artist to dispense with all artificial supports, and to set his figures, with all their complex motions, and yet with plinths only three inches thick, into the basis of the gable; the bold use of the chisel, which wrought the shield, on the freely-held arm, down to a thickness of scarcely three inches; the fineness of the execution even in parts of the work invisible to an ordinary spectator, in the diligent finishing of which the only motive of the artist was to satisfy his own conviction as to the nature of good sculpture.”

IT WAS THE Dorian cities, Plato tells us, which first shook off the false Asiatic shame, and stripped off their clothing for purposes of exercise and training in the gymnasium; and it was part of the Dorian or European influence to assert the value in art of the unveiled and healthy human form. And here the artists of Aegina, notwithstanding Homer’s description of Greek armour, glowing like the sun itself, have displayed the Greek warriors—Greek and Trojan alike—not in the equipments they would really have worn, but naked,—flesh fairer than that golden armour, though more subdued and tranquil in effect on the spectator, the undraped form of man coming like an embodiment of the Hellenic spirit, and as an element of temperance, into the somewhat gaudy spectacle of Asiatic, or archaic art. Paris alone bears his dainty trappings, characteristically,—a coat of golden scale-work, the scales set on a lining of canvas or leather, shifting deftly over the delicate body beneath, and represented on the gable by the gilding, or perhaps by real gilt metal.

It was characteristic also of that more truly Hellenic art—another element of its temperance—to adopt the use of marble in its works; and the material of these figures is the white marble of Paros. Traces of colour have, however, been found on certain parts of them. The outer surfaces of the shields and helmets have been blue; their inner parts and the crests of the helmets, red; the hem of the drapery of Athene, the edges of her sandals, the plinths on which the figures stand, also red; one quiver red, another blue; the eyes and lips, too, coloured; perhaps, the hair. There was just a limited and conventionalised use of colour, in effect, upon the marble.

And although the actual material of these figures is marble, its coolness and massiveness suiting the growing severity of Greek thought, yet they have their reminiscences of work in bronze, in a certain slimness and tenuity, a certain dainty lightness of poise in their grouping, which remains in the memory as a peculiar note of their style; the possibility of such easy and graceful balancing being one of the privileges or opportunities of statuary in cast metal, of that hollow casting in which the whole weight of the work is so much less than that of a work of equal size in marble, and which permits so much wider and freer a disposition of the parts about its centre of gravity. In Aegina the tradition of metal-work seems to have been strong, and Onatas, whose name is closely connected with Aegina, and who is contemporary with the presumably later portion of this monument, was above all a worker in bronze. Here again, in this lurking spirit of metal-work, we have a new element of complexity in the character of these precious remains. And then, to compass the whole work in our imagination, we must conceive yet another element in the conjoint effect; metal being actually mingled with the marble, brought thus to its daintiest point of refinement, as the little holes indicate, bored into the marble figures for the attachment of certain accessories in bronze,—lances, swords, bows, the Medusa’s head on the aegis of Athene, and its fringe of little snakes.

And as there was no adequate consciousness and recognition of the essentials of man’s nature in the older, oriental art, so there is no pathos, no humanity in the more special sense, but a kind of hardness and cruelty rather, in those oft-repeated, long, matter-of-fact processions, on the marbles of Nineveh, of slave-like soldiers on their way to battle mechanically, or of captives on their way to slavery or death, for the satisfaction of the Great King. These Greek marbles, on the contrary, with that figure yearning forward so graciously to the fallen leader, are deeply impressed with a natural pathetic effect—the true reflexion again of the temper of Homer in speaking of war. Ares, the god of war himself, we must remember, is, according to his original import, the god of storms, of winter raging among the forests of the Thracian mountains, a brother of the north wind. It is only afterwards that, surviving many minor gods of war, he becomes a leader of hosts, a sort of divine knight and patron of knighthood; and, through the old intricate connexion of love and war, and that amorousness which is the universally conceded privilege of the soldier’s life, he comes to be very near Aphrodite,—the paramour of the goddess of physical beauty. So that the idea of a sort of soft dalliance mingles, in his character, so unlike that of the Christian leader, Saint George, with the idea of savage, warlike impulses; the fair, soft creature suddenly raging like a storm, to which, in its various wild incidents, war is constantly likened in Homer; the effects of delicate youth and of tempest blending, in Ares, into one expression, not without that cruelty which mingles also, like the influence of some malign fate upon him, with the finer characteristics of Achilles, who is a kind of merely human double of Ares. And in Homer’s impressions of war the same elements are blent,—the delicacy, the beauty of youth, especially, which makes it so fit for purposes of love, spoiled and wasted by the random flood and fire of a violent tempest; the glittering beauty of the Greek “war-men,” expressed in so many brilliant figures, and the splendour of their equipments, in collision with the miserable accidents of battle, and the grotesque indignities of death in it, brought home to our fancy by a hundred pathetic incidents,—the sword hot with slaughter, the stifling blood in the throat, the spoiling of the body in every member severally. He thinks of, and records, at his early ending, the distant home from which the boy came, who goes stumbling now, just stricken so wretchedly, his bowels in his hands. He pushes the expression of this contrast to the macabre even, suggesting the approach of those lower forms of life which await to- morrow the fair bodies of the heroes, who strive and fall to-day like these in the Aeginetan gables. For it is just that two-fold sentiment which this sculpture has embodied. The seemingly stronger hand which wrought the eastern gable has shown itself strongest in the rigid expression of the truth of pain, in the mouth of the famous recumbent figure on the extreme left, the lips just open at the corner, and in the hard-shut lips of Hercules. Otherwise, these figures all smile faintly, almost like the monumental effigies of the Middle Age, with a smile which, even if it be but a result of the mere conventionality of an art still somewhat immature, has just the pathetic effect of Homer’s conventional epithet “tender,” when he speaks of the flesh of his heroes.

And together with this touching power there is also in this work the effect of an early simplicity, the charm of its limitations. For as art which has passed its prime has sometimes the charm of an absolute refinement in taste and workmanship, so immature art also, as we now see, has its own attractiveness in the naïveté, the freshness of spirit, which finds power and interest in simple motives of feeling, and in the freshness of hand, which has a sense of enjoyment in mechanical processes still performed unmechanically, in the spending of care and intelligence on every touch. As regards Italian art, the sculpture and paintings of the earlier Renaissance, the aesthetic value of this naïveté is now well understood; but it has its value in Greek sculpture also. There, too, is a succession of phases through which the artistic power and purpose grew to maturity, with the enduring charm of an unconventional, unsophisticated freshness, in that very early stage of it illustrated by these marbles of Aegina, not less than in the work of Verrocchio and Mino of Fiesole. Effects of this we may note in that sculpture of Aegina, not merely in the simplicity, or monotony even, of the whole composition, and in the exact and formal correspondence of one gable to the other, but in the simple readiness with which the designer makes the two second spearmen kneel, against the probability of the thing, so as just to fill the space he has to compose in. The profiles are still not yet of the fully developed Greek type, but have a somewhat sharp prominence of nose and chin, as in Etrurian design, in the early sculpture of Cyprus, and in the earlier Greek vases; and the general proportions of the body in relation to the shoulders are still somewhat archaically slim. But then the workman is at work in dry earnestness, with a sort of hard strength in detail, a scrupulousness verging on stiffness, like that of an early Flemish painter; he communicates to us his still youthful sense of pleasure in the experience of the first rudimentary difficulties of his art overcome. And withal, these figures have in them a true expression of life, of animation. In this monument of Greek chivalry, pensive and visionary as it may seem, those old Greek knights live with a truth like that of Homer or Chaucer. In a sort of stiff grace, combined with a sense of things bright or sorrowful directly felt, the Aeginetan workman is as it were the Chaucer of Greek sculpture.


In this series, from the Fortnightly Review archive:

I.The Heroic Age of Greek Art
II.The Age of Graven Images

The Marbles of Ægina

An essayist, critic and novelist, Walter Horatio Pater was a frequent contributor to the Fortnightly Review. His three essays on Greek sculpture – “The Beginnings of Greek Sculpture” parts one and two and “The Marbles of Aegina” – appeared in the Fortnightly Review in February, March and April 1880 and were collected by his friend Charles Shadwell and published under the title Greek Studies in 1895, the year after his death at age 54.

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