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Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - Phidias showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends

by Sara Baur

Phidias showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends from 1868 shows - as probably most of his works - Alma-Tadema's interest in ancient Greece and also his eye for detail. Depicted here is a scene from the 5th century BC, which the artist took from Plutarch's descriptions of the life of Pericles. The sculptor Phidias, from whom came, among others, the Athena Parthenos and the statue of Zeus of Olympia, presents his latest creation - the sculptural decoration at the Parthenon - to some friends, including the statesman Pericles, on whose initiative the Parthenon was built, and the philosopher Socrates, all of whom are dressed in elegant contemporary togas. The frieze, which along with the metopes and tympanum is one of three main elements of the temple's sculptural ornament, depicts a unique illustration of the Athenian community at ceremonial festivities. More specifically, at what was probably the largest and most important festival the Great Panathenaea, which were celebrated every four years on the 28th of the month Hekatombaion on the occasion of the birthday of the patron goddess of the city Athena. They differed from the simple Panathenae in that they also included sports competitions. On the frieze around the temple, which is almost 160 meters long and about one meter high, you can see the procession of gods, women with wine jugs, men with sacrificial animals, athletes, horsemen and musicians.

In Phidias showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends, the northwest corner of the frieze is seen. The north side shows horsemen and the west side shows men and boys preparing for the procession. For the most part, this side of the frieze is still preserved on the Parthenon itself. Most of the rest of the remains were given to the British Museum in 1816 by Lord Elgin, where Alma-Tadema was able to study them safely. Elgin removed only two panels from the northern side and had plaster casts made of the rest.

The painting has two main peculiarities. First, the frieze is not viewed here from the ground, as it normally would have been, but the friends of Phidias, together with the viewer of the painting, are at a similar height with the frieze, which was high up on the wall of the cella of the temple, due to a scaffolding construction. At the same time, the staging on the scaffolding at height, illustrates the difficult working conditions that applied to the execution of the frieze. Today, the frieze can be seen by visitors at eye level in the British Museum, where Alma-Tadema will also have seen it during his first stay in London in 1861.

Secondly, and probably most remarkably, Alma-Tadema colored the frieze. After finds of color remains in Pompeii and Herculaneum in the 19th century, it led to some discussions about the polychromy of ancient monuments and sculptures. The fact that Alma-Tadema chooses this color illustration for his painting shows that he was concerned with the polychromy debate and is once again a testament to his research interest and drive for historically accurate representation.


BARROW, Rosemary J.: Lawrence Alma-Tadema, London, 2003.

COOK, B. F.: The Elgin Marbles, London, 1984

PARKE, Herbert W.: Festivals of the Athenians, London, 1977

PRETTEJOHN, Elizabeth; TRIPPI, Peter (eds.): Lawrence Alma-Tadema. At Home in Antiquity, London, 2016

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - Phidias showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends.

1868, oil on canvas, 72 x 110.5 cm, Birmingham Museums Trust

Parthenon Frieze

taken under the terms of CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


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