Parthenon sculpture: Centaur and Lapith

Contributed by British Museum

A sculpture from the Parthenon showing a mythical battle between a centaur and a human. © Trustees of the British Museum

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This sculpture from the Parthenon shows a Centaur rearing triumphantly over a dying human Lapith. This focus on human suffering epitomises the intense humanism of Greek art. The sculpture also represents Greece's struggle to resist being absorbed into the Persian Empire. The Greeks had a strong notion of their own identity and regarded the Persians as barbarians like the Centaurs. The Parthenon was completed in 432 BC on the site of an earlier unfinished temple destroyed by the Persians.

What was the legacy of Classical Greece?

Victory over the Persians in 479 BC inspired a period of great creativity in Athens. This was the time of the philosopher Socrates, the playwright Sophocles and the statesmen Pericles. The wealth from Athens' Mediterranean empire funded the building of the Parthenon - an architectural testament to Athenian supremacy. Although Athens' golden age lasted for less than a century it was hugely influential. Greek ideas in drama, philosophy, literature, art, science and maths would dominate European thought for the next two millennia.

The word barbarian comes from the Greek word for non-Greeks

Living with the Parthenon Sculptures

I visit the Parthenon galleries on most working days and never grow tired of their timeless beauty and breathing vitality.

During public hours, the galleries are always crowded, as people gather from all over the world to see one of the great highlights of the Museum’s permanent collection. I say permanent, but that does not mean that the display remains always the same. The Museum is constantly researching the sculptures and looking for new ways of promoting understanding of them.

In this ‘laboratory of Parthenon studies’ there has been much excitement lately about the detection of ancient blue pigment on some of the sculptures.

Such discoveries are always shared first with Parthenon enthusiasts around the world and not least with colleagues in Greece. The Museum enjoys good relations with the Greek Archaeological Service, and both sides are determined not to let the politics of the campaign for the restitution of the sculptures get in the way of our friendship which is based upon mutual respect.

Since the late 1970s, I have followed with interest the great programme of restoration of the Acropolis monuments. This excellent project is correcting the mistakes of previous restoration and has been removing the sculptures that had remained on the building. Lord Elgin’s earlier act of rescue saved the sculptures in the British Museum from damage and loss through weathering. A comparison of plaster casts of the West frieze made in 1802 shows just how much the sculpture has deteriorated. The original sculpture was removed from the building in 1993.

Lord Elgin did more than physically save the sculptures. Once removed from the building they took on a life of their own. No longer seen as architectural ornament or antiquarian curiosity, they also became icons of western art.

In the British Museum they are both admired for their intrinsic beauty and they play a vital role in the Museum’s great story of human civilisation throughout the world, past and present.

Ian Jenkins, Curator, British Museum

New technology, ancient colour

We know that the architectural parts of the Parthenon were once painted because obvious traces of the colours still remain on some of them. However, archaeologists and art historians have always assumed that the sculptures themselves were also once painted.

Until 2008 no one had ever been able to prove this, despite many attempts over almost 200 years. Many people (including the famous nineteenth century scientist Michael Faraday, a pioneer in electricity and magnetism) examined the pieces for colour, but nobody found anything convincing.

Now, thanks to a new imaging technique developed by scientists at the British Museum, we have clear evidence of the presence of ancient blue paint on these sculptures.

The blue found (known as Egyptian blue) is perhaps the earliest pigment made by man rather than being produced by grinding naturally occurring rocks. It is a quite difficult pigment to form; it is made by mixing sand, chalk, copper and a material like Natron—the salt used for mummification—and by heating this mixture to about 900?C for several hours. When out of the kiln, the resulting cake of a deep blue material is ground up and used as a pigment.

Egyptian blue was a very important colour in the ancient world. It was first developed in Egypt and Mesopotamia in around 2500 BC. With time it spread throughout the Mediterranean world and the Assyrians, Greeks and Romans used it in great quantities. The secret of how to make it was lost after the decline of the Roman Empire, and it was replaced by natural pigments such as lapis lazuli, azurite and indigo.

The paint on the Parthenon has been very difficult to find because only microscopic and discoloured specks survive. However even these can now be easily identified by using the new imaging technique.

To do this, it is necessary to shine red light on the surface of the object in a darkened room. If Egyptian blue is present, the particles will absorb the red light and emit infrared light that can be recorded using an infrared-sensitive camera, producing pictures where any blue areas seem to glow white. Since all that is required is the use of a red light, the sculptures are not harmed or even touched.

The exceptionally strong infrared emission from Egyptian blue that causes it to ‘glow in the dark’ is related to its molecular structure and allows it to be differentiated from other ancient pigments. The discovery of Egyptian blue on the Parthenon suggests that traces of less easily detected remnants of other colours may also still remain on the sculptures. Hopefully, one day similar techniques to look for other ‘hidden’ pigments will be discovered and the Parthenon sculptures will ‘glow with many colours’.

Giovanni Verri, Scientist, British Museum

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Comments

  • 3 comments
  • 1. At 16:09 on 17 May 2010, estre68132 wrote:

    In the case of the Parthenon Marbles it would be more accurate to state that they were "taken from Greece" rather than "found." And, dependent upon the perspective, one could even say "stolen from Greece by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin."

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  • 2. At 11:33 on 17 June 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    I am grateful to and wish to thank the BBC and The British Museum for the video clip of The Parthenon?s ?Elgin? marbles made available through the BBC website.
    Strangely, far from being a detraction, the video has awakened in me the glorious mood of the ancients. It has reminded me that life is at best a cosmic joke (youth) and were we to strive less arduously for our individual freedoms we would, as has so often been the sorry case of peoples, become but playthings in the hands of tyrants (the self righteous Centaurs).
    Sadly, as with the marbles themselves, the west seams to have forgotten the joined up wisdom of the ancients and I fear for her in her middle age as, with the Centaurs, she appears to be consumed by a self righteous rage of her own making. What I ask will be the outcome? Look at the marbles boys.
    I live now in the countryside and wouldn't swop the flowers outside my front door for the journey across a maddening London to see an incomplete collection of ravaged yet beautiful sculptures in a stuffy temperature regulated gallery without a view. But oddly enough I would travel around the world to see the occasional restored splendour in its original setting in whoever?s country and I would buy, most assuredly, the even more convenient video/CD/3D-DVD or time machine slot from the BBC/British Museum collection which told the story in the spirit of impartiality and gave credit where credit is due. Thank again for reminding me I?m a hero.

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  • 3. At 09:06 on 18 June 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    Addendum
    P.s. And a further afternoon?s research reveals you only tell half a story. For which I am less than grateful.
    For a start I find that there are conflicting versions of the Lapith/Centaur wedding fight myth. One you didn?t mention tells of the grievance caused by the Lapiths when they failed to honour custom by inviting the Centaurs. Doesn?t that put a different slant on matters! Don?t forget that after those more ancient Gods, the Titans, were usurped by their upstart children, The Olympian gods, the Centaurs came in very handy for the ?New kids on the block?. I.e. Man. As an allegory for man?s taming of the wilderness, with the horse in particular being the greatest achievement of all, the Centaur represents an enormous and God like step forward for civilization. Surely it was their right to be invited to all civic occasions. At your family?s weddings would you chance scorn from your fellows to exclude a war hero in the family simply because he had gained a reputation for enjoying himself?
    Furthermore Wikipedia records on the subject ? ?Contrary to the eventual outcome of the battle and to the moral of the myth (the wedding myth) which emphasizes on the superiority of the civilized world over the primeval disorder, the winning party in this fearless fight are the Centaurs and not the Lapiths.?
    Knock me down with a feather.. Doesn?t that put a different slant on matters from the one you give! It must therefore be logical to ask whether the sculptures take their reference from any such wedding myth in the first place. Perhaps in so favouring the Centaurs with a win carved for all time in stone the moral in the story was to be taken from a lost myth of some kind. Such as would result in one's favouring respect and honour in abeyance of one?s elders (if not always betters). As timeless a moral as any, and one found in just about every religious tome ever recorded on paper or otherwise. A much more likely sculptural theme in my experience to be found adorning a civic monument of such gigantic proportions don?t you think so?
    Of course if you have the original specifications from Pericles and his chums you can clear everything up nicely. But if all you have is invective and hearsay to go on kindly save me the time of having to check on everything you say and henceforth play the white man by telling the whole truth, and keep for yourself a clear conscience whilst building anew a worthwhile reputation. Yours most effusively,

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About this object

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Location

Athens, Greece

Culture
Period

About 447-432 BC

Theme
Size
H:
134.5cm
W:
134.5cm
D:
41.5cm
Colour
Material

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