Athens’ Acropolis Museum is, naturally, best known for its display of sculptures from the Parthenon (in a mixture of originals and casts, many of the originals being, controversially, in the British Museum). Stunning though this top-floor display is, with views straight across to the Parthenon from the galley (see photo, unfortunately taken on a rather cloudy day), it’s not actually my favourite part of the museum – that prize goes to the first-floor display of the older archaic sculptures, dating from the 7th century to the early 5th century BCE (the Parthenon was built in the mid-5th century). Some of these sculptures are from the pediments of earlier temples on the Acropolis, destroyed during the Persian invasion of 480/479 BCE; others are freestanding statues set up on the Acropolis as dedications to the goddess Athena. (I can’t post photos here as you’re not allowed to take photos of the collections, but there is a nice selection of pictures available on the museum’s website).Many of these statues take the form of young women, dressed in elaborate clothing and holding out an offering to the goddess in one hand; these are known as ‘Korai’ (singular ‘Kore’ – ancient Greek for a young woman). What’s particularly fascinating about these statues is not just the skill with which they were carved – especially in showing the delicate folds of the women’s clothing – but also the traces of the original painted decoration that are still preserved on many of them. As I wrote about recently, our idea of ancient statues as being pure white marble is actually based on the fact that the original paint has rarely survived – but on many of the Acropolis statues you can still see enough of it to get an idea of how much more elaborate their clothing must have appeared when it was brightly coloured and patterned with complex decorative motifs. It’s not just the women’s statues which had this kind of decoration – statues of men riding horses show traces of equally elaborate painted patterns on their trousers, and colouring on the horses’ manes. Of course, reconstructing exactly what the original colours would have been before the paint faded and wore off is not always easy – below are three different reconstructions of the painted decoration along with an unpainted version of one statue (the ‘Peplos Kore’), from the travelling ‘Gods in Colour’ exhibition (left) and the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge (right). To see how the Acropolis Museum reconstructs the colour of this statue – and to have a go at creating your own version! – check out this application on their website.
The Acropolis Museum also puts on temporary exhibitions, and the main reason I went apart from revisiting the archaic statues was to see the current exhibition on the site of Eleusis/Elevsina (ancient/modern Greek), home of a famous mystery cult centred around the myth of the goddess Persephone’s descent to and return from the Underworld and ideas of fertility, renewal, and life after death.
It’s not a large exhibition, but I think it does a good job of presenting a range of objects from Eleusis and other places showing the various different types of material evidence for the cult – from objects dedicated at Eleusis as part of the rituals, to depictions of processions to the site on Athenian vases. Many of its aspects are still obscure, though – after all, the whole point of a mystery cult is that the uninitiated are not supposed to be told its secrets. I also liked the way the exhibition was structured around the experience of participants in the ritual, who would process from Athens to Eleusis: the first small room shows finds from a sanctuary of Aphrodite en route, at which members of the procession might stop and make offerings, while the main room is arranged like the Telesterion of Eleusis – the great hall in which the rituals took place. In the centre of the Telesterion was the Anaktoron, a small enclosed room which only the priests could enter; in the exhibition this houses a short film with footage of the various sites along the procession route. It’s also only an extra €3 on top of the very reasonable €5 entry fee for the permanent exhibitions (with free or reduced entries for children, students, senior citizens, etc), so worth checking out for any readers who may be in Athens – and hopefully already inspired to visit the archaic statues – before the end of May!