Articles About Art - Pedimental Sculpture of the Sixth Century
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Pedimental Sculpture of the Sixth Century*
The number of surviving architectural sculptures, metopes, pedimental sculpture pieces, et
cetera that can be attributed to about the middle of the sixth century is evidence of the great
building activity throughout Greece at this time.
In pedimental sculpture the problem was to decorate a low, elongated, triangular space. The
spatial limitations of this area caused considerable problems, particularly for the sculptors of the
Archaic period. In the early sixth century they began to carve low reliefs in limestone (poros) or
stone, passing first to high relief and then, in the second half of the century, to sculpture in the
round, first in poros and eventually in marble.
We will restrict our discussion to only one well-preserved archaic group which has survived
from the Athenian Acropolis, probably from the oldest Parthenon, destroyed by the Persians in
In the left-hand corner Heracles is depicted in combat with a fleeing Triton (half human
being, half fish), whose tail fills the left corner of the pediment. On the right is depicted a monster
with three-winged human bodies, ending in multicoloured entwined snake tails. These can
possibly be identified with Typhon, Nereus and Geryon. They have pointed beards and long
demoniacal hair and each holds in his hand a symbol of one of the three elements; the right figure
holds a bird, the middle one water and the left figure bears flames.
The fish-tailed monsters, whose bodies conveniently filled the awkward long angles of the gable,
were typical of these early pedimental compositions.
The lively polychrome figures of the ancient Parthenon are carved in the round, and in the prominently features and the pointed beards the sculptor has anticipated and corrected the optical distortions that would appear when the figures were seen from below. He has, however not given much attention to the spatial requirements of the sloping roof of the pediment. The heads of the monsters are depicted more or less on the same level, and then there is an abrupt fall to the twisted tail which fills the corner of the pediment. In the pediment of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi (c.530-525 BC), the sculptor has begun to adapt his figures to the shape of the sloping roof by their size towards the corners. He has, however, not yet developed convincing stances and poses to fit the corners without necessitating a reduction in the size of the figures.
The sculptures of the east and west pediment of the Doric Temple of Aphaia in Aegina have survived from the beginning of the fifth century. The sculptures of the east pediment are dated ten years later than those of the west pediment. Scenes of the epic combats of Homeric heroes before Troy are depicted in both, and the figure of Athena has been placed in both; again in the central axis of the composition. The figures which have been arranged symmetrically on either side are represented entirely in the round, and their stances, standing; kneeling, sitting, lunging, squatting and falling, have in this instance been adapted to the space dictated by the triangular pediments. The fact that each figure is so independently balanced and sculpturally self-contained has caused grave problems in the reconstruction of the compositions as such. As yet no final solution has been found.
The Dying Warrior of the east pediment is dated approximately ten years later (480 BC) than the Dying Warrior of the west pediment (490 BC). The body of the warrior from the west pediment has been satisfactorily arranged in the frontal plane and has been made visually intelligible from the ground. The figure is characterised by a flowing and continuous movement which runs uninterruptedly from the feet to the head, despite the fact that the figure is turned almost 180°. The introduction of the helmet and the circular shield in the figure from the east pediment (influenced by bronze works) is a clever device to fill the increasing width of the triangle towards the centre of the pediment.
The figures of the west pediment still appear as anatomical studies of immobile figures. The
sculptor tried to give as much visual information as possible from one angle, with the result that
the individual components appear as independent unintegrated elements in the composition. In
the east pediment, however, there is complete control over the bodily anatomy, and so it was
possible to narrate a story convincingly. Unity was thus also achieved between interrelated
* Drawn from notes compiled by R Becker & E Basson for the University of South Africa