Enhancing the gods

Pheidias and the Siphnian Frieze

The sculptor Pheidias, responsible for the reliefs of the Parthenon in Athens, may have been inspired by the Siphnian Treasury in Delphi.

Written by Gareth Williams on

According to the first century traveller Pausanias, the Athenian sculptor Pheidias cast the bronze figures for Athens’ dedication at the important Panhellenic sanctuary in Delphi in ca. 465 BC (10.10.1).

At Delphi, Pheidias, the young sculptor, would have had opportunity to peruse the treasuries situated along the Sacred Way. We can imagine his eyes and intellect becoming beguiled by the extravagantly decorated Siphnian Treasury: its sculpted friezes and pediments were already proving to be influential among Greek artists.

The treasury of the Siphnians

In comparison to the awkward Doric style of metopes and triglyphs, the Siphnian Treasury’s Ionic frieze appeared vibrant and dynamic. Along the northern aspect of the building – running parallel with the Sacred Way – there was presented a battle between the gods and Giants in a whirlwind of activity, emancipating the sculptor’s imagination as the maelstrom of battle was depicted in the rightward movement of the gods defeating the Giants.

The Siphnian frieze, despite its leaden archaic figures, created a feeling of continuous movement through space and time, starkly contrasting the capture of a single moment of activity in a Doric metope confined by circumscribing triglyphs.

Part of the Gigantomachy, the battle between the giants and the Olympians, from the Siphnian Treasury. As usual, one should imagine this relief was originally painted in vivid colours.

An especially powerful compositional influence was the depiction of a seated assembly of gods adorning the left hand side of the eastern frieze arranged above the Siphnian Treasury entrance. Placed centrally is an enthroned Zeus, whose commanding position separates the gods supporting the Trojans (Ares, Aphrodite, Artemis, and Apollo) from those defending the Greeks (Athena, Hera, and Demeter/ Themis).

The gods are identifiable through having their names painted above them in boustrophedon style, that is, back to front. Although seated, the two parties animatedly debate a scene from the Trojan War portrayed on the right hand side of the frieze: the battle between Greeks and Trojans for the body of a powerful fallen warrior, possibly Sarpedon, a son of Zeus.

Part of the relief of the Siphnian Treasury with partially restored colour. The names of the goddesses can be easily read: from left to right, they are Athena (Athana), Hera, and Thetis.

Zeus is vacillating on whether to save his son. The Trojan endorsing gods urge Apollo to encourage Zeus to act, while those defending the Greeks, especially Hera, counsel against this. The gods appear as divided, combative, and as quarrelsome as their earthly human subjects battling below. Sadly, they emerge all too human; peace eludes even the divine sponsors of the Greeks and Trojans.

Siphnian influence

This vibrant, powerful image clearly had an effect on other artists, both vase painters and sculptors, and Pheidias proved no different. Some twenty years after his Delphic commission, Pheidias became the overseer of the Periclean building program at Athens which centred on the Acropolis (Plutarch, Pericles 13.4).

Among these buildings was the Parthenon, the great Doric temple that dominates the Acropolis rock. This impressive building incorporated a dynamic Ionic frieze running around the sekos, and – like the Siphnian Treasury – the gods were portrayed sitting together, again separated by an enthroned Zeus, and – once again – positioned over the entrance to the building.

However, Pheidias presented the gods as not overtly exhibiting human characteristics, not imitating a perpetually squabbling dysfunctional family, or having to be identified by painted names. Rather, his innuendos are more subtle as befits the High Classical style of Greek art. The gods may appear relaxed, patient, and at peace, but their affectations reveal both their identities and any underlying tensions between them. How?

Part of the frieze from the Parthenon, designed by Pheidias. From left to right, we see the deities Hermes, Dionysus, Demeter, and finally a figure who is probably to be identitief as Ares, the god of war. Photo by Gareth Williams.

Some insinuations of identity are simple enough. From left to right we have Hermes, his trademark traveller’s cap on his knee. Behind him is a male god who twists to face us as if reclining at a symposium rather than sitting. This must be Dionysius. Next is Demeter, her mournful pose as she grieves for her daughter Persephone and her torch (or sheaves of wheat) identify her.

More difficult is the next male figure, Ares. The Siphnian Treasury depicts him in full military panoply, but here he sits without armour, leaning back and crossing his legs, one knee lifted and clasped with both hands interlaced. This position can exhibit both powerlessness and sorcery, possessing the ability to prevent a transaction or to express hostility (Pausanias 10.31.5; Pliny, Natural History 28.17.59-60).

The frieze presents the gods seated before an earthly transaction of the Athenians presenting their newly woven robe (peplos) to Athena, the culmination of a festive procession, the Panathenaea. No wonder Ares comports himself disdainfully, for Athena and he have crossed swords in the past, and she is his rival both in war and for the affections of their father Zeus. Now he must sit and watch a grateful city bestow honours upon her.

Another detail of the Parthenon frieze. Part of Ares (from the previous picture) is visible at the extreme left. The two seated figures at centre are Hera (lifting the veil) and her husband, Zeus. Photo by Gareth Williams.

Near the enthroned Zeus is Hera, the perpetual bride unveiling herself to her husband. After illustrating the peplos ceremony, Athena is then depicted, her folded aegis, a gift from Zeus, rests in her lap. She seems distracted by the lame god Hephaestus (a crutch under his right arm), whose unrequited affection for Athena causes her to sit back awkwardly.

Next appears Poseidon – only identified as such because all the others are present - followed by Apollo, drill holes in his head intimate there should be a wreath (of laurel leaves) decorating his head. Before him sits his sister, Artemis – often portrayed together – and Aphrodite who is identified by Eros, her constant companion, leaning against her.

Dignity and grace

Without denying their rivalries, Pheidias has been able to present the gods with an element of dignity and grace, the pushing and shoving of the Siphnian Treasury frieze has been relegated to a bygone era.

The gods of Athens are not like that. Although they can be identified through mannerisms, clothing or partners, they still carry an air of mystery around them as observes seek to untangle the nuances of their characteristics. The gods apparent acceptance of the Athenians’ invitation to partake in this festive occasion creates an intimacy and shared experience.

It seems as if the devotion of the Athenians is pleasing to the gods, and their future support is more assured than before. It seems that divinities may care. In truth, through the medium of stone and imagination, Pheidias had succeeded in enhancing the gods.