Research Drawings of Parthenon Metopes in the New Acropolis Museum
Grayscale images scanned from twenty-six of my original research drawings are displayed on the lower edge of the frames supporting the Parthenon east and north metopes in the new Acropolis Museum. It is a great honor and privilege to have these images, requested by the Acropolis Museum, as part of the permanent installation in the Parthenon Gallery. The drawings are part of an iconographical study of the Parthenon east and north metopes, which has been possible through the auspices of the American School in obtaining permission from the Ministry of Culture. This permission gave me the opportunity to conduct my work in the Acropolis Museum apotheke, by arrangement with the First Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Archaeology.
Drawing and painting were a regular part of my coursework through high school, but I could not have anticipated how important this skill and ability would be needed in my professional research. How to make up for lost time? I began making sketches of the metope compositions while consulting with my studio art colleagues at Fairfield for advice, and I audited a figure drawing class. This strategy was immensely helpful. My skill level was stretched in a different way during travels in the western Himalayas in 2004 with my husband, Dr. Ronald Davidson, a scholar of Buddhist Studies, who arranged for me to take lessons with a Tibetan thangka painting master in McLeod Ganj or Upper Dharamsala, India. Coincidentally, a descendant of Lord Elgin who became Viceroy of India is buried nearby. Daily drawing lessons, with hours of homework, helped me to develop a Tibetan Buddhist visual vocabulary that required exacting precision with a fine mechanical pencil. The visual vocabulary could not have been more different from that of ancient Greece, and yet the resulting use of a high quality mechanical pencil, the shaping of line and shading, became instrumental as I proceeded with my own research to make these Parthenon metope drawings.
The dynamic process of drawing from the original Parthenon sculpture requires an intensively focused examination of the marble’s surface and a means of conveying the surface condition through drawing. This process might be described as an interrogation of the preserved surface. By following the logic of the line, it has been possible to elicit new information about the poses as well as to make corrections to some of the reconstruction drawings published by C. Praschniker in the 1920s. My high-resolution detailed photographs have also yielded clues and sometimes other features not readily discernible to the human eye.
It became increasingly necessary to move away from traditional line drawings toward a different technique that would emphasize the background through shading to set off the preserved carved areas within each composition. This method or technique has helped to suggest the depth of preserved carving. Artist materials for these drawings contribute to the overall effect as well. In this case, a high quality drawing paper, a 0.5 fine art mechanical pencil, and a medium brown pastel pencil were selected after much experimentation. Special effects are achieved with a soft white plastic eraser and an ample supply of blending stumps.
The drawings on view in the Parthenon Gallery show two different states in the drawing process. Those of the east metopes belong to the second stage where I have used a medium brown pastel pencil instead of the gray lead of the mechanical pencil. With the conversion to grayscale, the depth of carving around the figures is readily apparent (East 4 on left: Giant-Athena-Nike). All of the north metope drawings in the Parthenon Gallery were completed more recently, and they show the first stage with the mechanical pencil in which I enhanced the contrast between light and shadow (North 25 on right: Eros-Aphrodite-Helen-statue of Athena).
The fourteen east metopes, with their theme of the Gigantomachy, remained on the building until the 1990s when they were removed to the Acropolis apotheke during a complete study of the east façade by M. Korres. Thirteen of the original thirty-two north metopes, with the Sacking of Troy, survived the 1687 explosion. Of these thirteen panels, two were found already detached from the building. As of June 2009, North 31 and 32 are the only remaining original north metopes in situ. Visitors to the Acropolis see cement casts replacing East 1-14 and North 1-3, all of which were removed in the last two decades. Eventually, North 31 and 32 will be removed from the Parthenon and installed in the new Acropolis Museum (see related story).
A characteristic of the metopes in the east and north series is a badly chopped surface, with much of the carved figures lost. The damage occurred in or around the 6th century when the temple was converted to a church and pagan imagery was destroyed. The initial reaction to these relief panels, especially when seen in published photographs, is to abandon any further discussion and move on to the south series where nearly half of the metopes preserve the entire carved figure, and the drawings attributed to J. Carrey provide a clearer sense of the south series as a whole. An overview of the Parthenon metope program is in my chapter, “Celebrations of Victory: The Parthenon Metopes,” The Parthenon: From Antiquity to the Present, ed. J. Neils (Cambridge University Press, 2005) 159-197.
As work proceeded with installation plans for the Acropolis Museum this past spring, scans of my drawings were requested for didactic purposes to accompany the metope title along the lower edge of the frame for each east and north metope (a drawing for North 32, which is well preserved, was not necessary for the installation). The hope is that these images are helpful to the museum’s visitors who may feel encouraged to linger and look more closely at the metopes thanks to the superb lighting conditions (natural and artificial) within the Parthenon Gallery, which brings out more of the sculptural surface of each relief.
In a corollary development, an exhibition of my original drawings, “An Archaeologist’s Eye: Photographs and Parthenon Drawings of Katherine Schwab,” will be on view at the Lukacs Gallery, Loyola Hall, Fairfield University, October 20 – November 6, 2009 (for hours and information, please call 203-254-4000 ext 2459).
Katherine Schwab is Associate Professor of Art History, in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Fairfield University. Her research in Athens has been generously supported by travel funds and grants from Fairfield University, and her investigation of the Parthenon east and north metopes has been greatly facilitated by the exceptional staff and resources of the American School. She is grateful to Dr. C. Vlassopoulou, Dr. I. Trianti, Dr. A. Spetsieri-Choremi, Dr. A. Mantis, and Prof. D. Pandermalis, for their support and encouragement. Her specialized study on East metope 14 is in “New Evidence in Parthenon East Metope 14,” Structure, Image, Ornament: Architectural Sculpture of the Greek World, eds. R. von den Hoff and P. Schultz (David Brown Books/Oxbow Books, 2009) 79-86. During 2009-2010, Dr. Schwab looks forward to her sabbatical to continue her work on the Parthenon metopes, both in Athens as a Visiting Senior Associate Member, and in Fairfield.