5 September 2019

Losing our Marbles?

The dear old chestnut of 'giving back' the 'Elgin Marbles' is back in the papers. In some quarters, it is now being linked with the imminent celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the the modern Greek Nation State.

I wrote about all this in some detail a few years ago. I now wish to make two simple points.

(1) 'Classical' Greece was not a Nation State. It was a mosaic of poleis, city-states, composed of cities with their surrounding country. These could be ... and often were ... at war with each other.

Nevertheless, Greeks did have a sense of Greekness. And so there were Panhellenic sanctuaries. For example: that of Olympian Zeus; Delphi ...

Athens was not such a sanctuary. The carvings on the Parthenon related to the mythical history of Athens and of Attica. It celebrated the choice of that particular place to be the possession of Athene.

Only in 1821 was a modern-style Greek Nation State invented, with Athens being declared its "capital".

I do not see how this comparatively recent Nation State has any locus standi in the question of where the Athenian 'Marbles' should live. Perhaps the Mayor of Athens, or the local government of Attica, might do. This would at least be arguable ... which is more than one can say for the views of that silly Mrs Clooney.

(2) The demand for 'return' is, culturally, nothing whatsoever to do with Greece or an admiration for things Hellenic. It relates to the Neo-Classical period of Western European artistic fashion ... the age of Byron and Winckelman and Canova and Flaxman and Thorwaldsen and the Grand Tour and the collecting passions of the Western European aristocracy.

One indication of this fashion was the desire of those collectors for pure white marble. So intense was this quaint superstition that when ancient statues reappeared from the soil, they were badly mistreated. They often showed signs of their original colouring, so to make them fit for the eyes of wealthy collectors, every speck of colour was carefully removed. Our own dreadful Duveen exemplified this sort of cultural imperialism and the perverted taste which went with it.

The entire Acropolis Hill in Athens is itself a grand-scale example of just the same unfortunate vandalism. As it emerged from the Ottoman Empire, the hill was covered with buildings of later date than the Periclean period. The Parthenon was for centuries a Christian church; there were little streets and houses and shops and cafes. All of this was scraped away by an independant Greece which accepted uncritically the Western European cultural myths: that
(a) only Periclean Athens really matters; and
(b) 'classical' art and architecture have to be pure, gleaming white.

THE HUNWICKE SOLUTION: Restore the Parthenon to being an Orthodox Church, Our Lady of Athens. Rebuild the demolished Christian sanctuary and cover the walls of the entire building with mid-Byzantine murals. And have it intensively used for the solemn offering of the Great Sacrifice. Perhaps a monastery should be built to serve this church.

This would be a worthy celebration of the truest Hellenism.


Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Father. About the only reason one travels to Athens is to go to the Acre (edge) Polis (city) and look at the ruins but to get there one must go through Athens, a city planned by Satan, and which city is an all out assault upon dignity, decorum, and humanity and its takes only about ten minutes being there before one is tempted to join in with the other residents, standing at a crosswalk cursing, scowling and gesturing angrily.

The city itself is devoid of any beauty, charm, warmth, romance, or permanence and it is one of the ugliest cities on the planet. Almost every building is a concrete square or rectangle spiked with all manner of garish antenna, satellite dish, or cell phone tower.

Carp and graffiti is all over the city and the conversation level of that hell hole is pitched to a point where the sound of a jack hammer run through The Who's mammoth Marshal Amps would not have caused the troubled tourist to miss one syllable of the resident's angry curses.

On vacation, ABS and The Bride often just go to a store to buy the local wine, meat, bread, and cheese to eat on a balcony but every balcony in this hotel faced the devils' development in the form of a concrete house whose occupiers had hung out their laundry and dead pets to dry in the ceaseless sun.

The acropolis bore several signs detailing how the Greek government, since the 19th century, had royally screwed-up in attempting repairs to some of the structures on that marble mountain and every attempt at a repair had resulted in more damage done.

The plain and simple truth is that those ancient ruins, thousands of years old, are the sole reason anyone goes to that crummy dump and modern Athens is proving itself incompetent in keeping those ruins in existence and were it not for the money resulting from tourism their crummy economy would be even worse than it is.

And if the tourists stop coming, what will happen to the subway pick pocket gangs from Albania? Will they have to go home and find jobs?

ABS hopes this is not too churlish.

Deacon Nicholas said...

Wonderful idea, thanks, Father. But it won't happen, because, you know, Greeks.

GOR said...

I applaud the Hunwicke Solution, Father. However, given the dismal state of the Greek economy – a few Drachmas short of a Euro – I wouldn’t hold my breath on proximate implementation.

But, a similar solution for Hagia Sofia (or Ναός της Αγίας του Θεού Σοφίας to you…and no, that didn’t trip off the tongue. I had to look it up!) might stand a better chance of implementation – at least economically, if not otherwise.

Jack said...

I'm a remainer when it comes to the Elgin marbles.

Banshee said...

Hey! Found a good article about this on uCatholic! Athene's statue was taken off to Constantinople, but somewhere in the 500's:

"The newly created church was named the Church of the Parthenos Maria (Virgin Mary), or the Church of the Theotokos (Mother of God). The building was reoriented to be used properly as a church. It’s face was oriented to face east, while the main entrance was moved to the western side. An altar was constructed along with an iconostasis in the apse where a Greek temple used to be. The building was also redecorated, with Christian icons being painted or engraved into the marble of the columns, while pagan sculptures from the time it was a temple to Athena were removed and either destroyed or relocated. During the Latin occupation it became a Roman Catholic church for over 250 years, and a bell tower and tombs beneath the structure were constructed.

Throughout the thousand years it stood as a Catholic church, the converted Parthenon was one of the most visited pilgrimage sites for Christians. It contained many relics, including bones from Saint Macarius the Great, Saint Helen’s personal copies of the Bible, and a painting of the Virgin Mary by Saint Luke the Evangelist. It is also reported that there was a miraculous lamp that never ran out of oil to burn. Peter IV of Aragon is recorded as saying that the Parthenon was “the most precious jewel that exists in the world, and such that all the kings in Christendom could in vain imitate.”

There's a nice icon-style picture.

Wikipedia says it was the 4th most popular pilgrimage destination, and got the medieval name of the church of Theotokos Atheniotissa.

Banshee said...

A site called Medieval Mosaics has a post that claims the British Museum also houses 188 colored and gold tesserae from the Parthenon's church mosaics, but they're back in a storeroom somewhere.

I guess nobody told Mrs. Clooney.

Banshee said...

Anthony Kaldellis from Ohio State has a nice article online that points out Athens' medieval religious pilgrimage importance to the Eastern world. (That's where the "4th in importance" statistic came from.)

Heck, there was even an English pilgrim named Saewulf who visited. Didn't know that!

Also some cool stuff about the Akathistos hymn and some interesting speculation.

If you take Athene as a sort of foreshadowing of the Virgin, as a lot of medieval theorists did take various bits of mythology as a preparation for the Gospel, it does sort of explain the strategos thing. (Although to be fair, Jewish beliefs from about that time seem to have thought that the Messiah's mom would be warlike.)

Paul in Melbourne, Australia said...

I found your commentary about Athens hilarious, Amateur Brain Surgeon. I kept re-reading it. Very amusing but so true.