7 December 2014

Marbles (2)

The Acropolis Marbles, or, if you prefer, my Lord Elgin's Marbles, are in the most natural place for them to be.

The arguments for this do not rest simply upon the legality of their removal by Elgin*. They rest upon broader cultural and historical considerations.

The sole reason why Elgin wanted the Marbles was that he shared the cultural assumptions of the so-called 'Enlightenment'. What was 'Classical' was fashionable; so much so that it was seen as normative. The marbles migrated ... I will say: 'Naturally! ... to a significant cultural centre where that they could be studied and imitated ... and they were studied and imitated. I doubt if there is town in Britain, or in Western Europe or America, where there is not a building with its design or detailing influenced by the Parthenon. The moment the Marbles took their place in London is that pivotal, symbolic, cultural moment when in Thamesim defluxit Ilissus**.

It was not until later that my Lord Byron (who was just leaving Harrow for Cambridge when Elgin secured the Marbles) taught the Greeks that their glory, and the marker and symbol of their identity, ought to be found in pre-Christian Antiquity, or rather in the idiosyncratic reconstruction of Classical Greece favoured by the 'Enlightenment'. From the Advent of Christianity down to the Ottoman invasion, Hellenic identity had, on the contrary, been identical with Byzantine Christianity (that admirable civilisation which renamed Aphrodisias Stauroupolis and converted hundreds of temples into churches). Until the Turks turned the Parthenon into a mosque and then an arsenal, it had for many centuries (more centuries than it served the pagan cults of glaukopis Athene and Mahomet) been a Church dedicated to the true Queen of Heaven, the Virgin Theotokos. Much of the statuary was defaced by the Christian Greeks themselves because of its pagan nature, especially at the East end, where a liturgical apse needed to be constructed. I would willingly contribute to a fund to restore the Parthenon so that it could again be used for the Divine Liturgy of S John Chrysostom.

But that would probably be pointless. There would be no congregation to worship there. The Acropolis Hill, until it was deliberately stripped bare, was a Levantine maze of little streets and alleys; of buildings Frankish and Ottoman and Greek; of homes and bazaars and churches. The 'iconic' scene so often now thrust before us, of a lonely arid rock, scraped nearly bare, with some damaged stonework atop, is a ghastly symbol of a culture which clutches at a colourless 'Antiquity' of ruins, and despises the human, not to mention the true Divine which was the glory of Hellenism when it was faithful to Christ and His Mother. The present scene is 'iconic' only of the 'Enlightenment' preference for nostalgic memories of a long-lost pagan religious culture and a matching contempt for Christendom. This is the same preference, indeed, as was demonstrated in that infamous draft European Constitution which did a very Olympic long-jump from Ancient Greece and Rome to the 'Enlightenment', consigning the intervening centuries of Christendom to contemptuous oblivion. In the 1890s, the Greek Director of Antiquities showed himself to have been brainwashed by exactly this anti-Christian spirit: he proudly proclaimed that the Acropolis had finally been 'cleansed' of all 'barbaric' encroachments. Two millennia of Greek History and culture written off as 'barbarism'! What a Greek! Who needs Turks when you've got Greeks like that!

Just for one pointless but magical moment, imagine what it would have been like to pant uphill and then to turn a corner in some narrow and grubby little street and, suddenly, to see the Parthenon, majestical, rearing up in front of you; and to hear, from inside, the sound of a great-chested deacon intoning the ektene.
To be continued.

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* Sometimes Greek apologists deploy legal arguments about the legal processes by which Lord Elgin secured the Marbles from Ottoman officials. It is, in my view, a waste of time to engage in a detailed debate about such matters, simply because it would not solve the 'problem' even to win such a debate. The Greek Government apparently holds the view that there is some transcendent Law of the Universe prescribing the 'return'. Recently, a Mr Fotopoulos, Cultural Attache at the Greek Embassy in Copenhagen, referring to the two Marbles held by the National Museum in Copenhagen, said "Regardless of when or how Denmark got them, the two heads belong in Greece".
** Brilliant, yes? You just can't deny it! It might even scan!! (Does it?)
The River God Ilissos flows through Athens ... Socrates and Phaedrus wandered down his bed barefooted, in Plato's interestingly Theocritean narrative ... but you can't go and have a good look at him now because, in modern Athens, he has been covered over by roads, and his course has even been diverted (that's how much modern Athenians really care about their 'Classical Heritage'). You wanna see Ilissos at this very moment, you gotta go to ... ... the BM loan exhibition in the Hermitage!! Yes! That's what we've sent to the Ruskies! I hope Vladimir Vladimirovich appreciates it.

1 comment:

Pax--Tecum said...

"Just for one pointless but magical moment, imagine what it would have been like to pant uphill and then to turn a corner in some narrow and grubby little street and, suddenly, to see the Parthenon, majestical, rearing up in front of you; and to hear, from inside, the sound of a great-chested deacon intoning the ektene."

Wouldn't the same have applied to the Vatican basilica before the 20th century? The Via della Conciliazione was only built during the reign of Mussolini; before that, there was a mediaeval quarter. You would have walked through this maze of streets and alleys, and then, suddenly, around a corner, have set eye upon the majestic beauty of St. Peter's square and the Basilica of the Prince of Apostles. That element of surprise, or that moment of expectation before you reach your destination, is perhaps very similar to the time of Advent before Christmas, when we await the coming of Christ in a very sober manner, before we come to the great Festival itself.

This also reminds me, that in many European cathedrals, there is a maze in the tilework of the floor, symbolizing how we, during our earthly life, always have to look for the way that leads to Heaven.