There is a certain amount of peril in the large exhibition. With more works on show, the quality can vary; there’s no guarantee that the work that fronts the catalogue is indicative of the caliber of the rest. But not all museums have the luxury of the small exhibition. Some must serve as our artistic omnibuses—if not everything to everyone, then at least quite a bit to quite a few.
“Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a large show. I couldn’t count the number of works on offer but the catalogue contains 264 entries. The show was spread out over a number of rooms—the Tisch Galleries—but I admit to losing track of those too. Upon entering the galleries the immediate impression is that of breadth, borne out by the contents of the exhibition, which were—no surprise at nearly three hundred pieces—extensive.
And yet, for all of the various items wedged into the galleries, there is but one thing that should have been enough to entice art lovers, both amateur and professional, to make the trip up to the Met’s second floor. It would be a shame to have missed the monumental statue of Athena Parthenos that occupies the central location in the exhibition. Borrowed from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Antikensammlung (from which many of the more prominent works in the exhibition were loaned), the statue stands over ten feet tall without its base, which adds perhaps another foot. Though the exhibition’s quality was assured across its collected works, it needed only a single object to attain must-see status.
The sculpture is a riot of drapery, deep folds cascading down from Athena’s waist. Jagged and rough-hewn, the rippling folds project out from the goddess’s lower torso, creating miniature fjords of shadow. While the peplos’ main force is downward, Athena’s bodice directs the viewer’s gaze in the opposite direction, pushing upwards towards her scaly goatskin aegis, which bears an apotropaic gorgoneion. This upward motion draws us to the goddess’s face: a picture of serenity, perfectly symmetrical and placid—a mask of steel. And though we know that the statue featured here is derived from Phidias’s larger chryselephantine version housed in the Parthenon, the effect of seeing the later marble version here is hardly diminished. If we didn’t know of the famed original’s existence we would still marvel at the mastery of form achieved by the Pergamene sculptor.
The statue is worthy of its original setting, which can be surmised as the entry of the Athena Sanctuary in Pergamon’s North Stoa. It was found in 1880 in front of what is believed to have been a library—in line with Athena’s traditional guise at the goddess of wisdom. Pergamon was no Athens but the Attalids were specifically concerned with maintaining the link with the city that Volker Kästner, writing in the superb accompanying exhibition catalogue calls “the undisputed spiritual center of ancient Hellenism.” Though Pergamon’s founding dates to centuries after the Periclean age of Athens, the specter of the “glorious city” remained formidable in the later Hellenistic world. It was imperative for the Attalids, arrivistes all, to maintain a supposedly unbroken lineage to the mythic days of old Athens. No one would confuse these provincial warlords, descended from an officer in the employ of one of Alexander’s generals, with the genuine article. But if the Attalids could create art like the Pergamon Athena then perhaps the connection isn’t such a stretch.
The other items included in the Met’s Pergamon exhibition are surely worth considering. But with something like the statue of Athena Parthenos on view, visitors could be forgiven for having missed the rest. Though the exhibition closed this past Sunday, just last week the Met announced that the statue and another head of Alexander from the exhibition will remain on view at the Met for another two years—salutary news for those who dallied in seeing the exhibition proper. Of course, if two more years isn’t enough time then I am gratified to report that the Pergamon Athena Parthenos resides permanently in Berlin, at the Antikensammlung. A visit to the city, coupled with the obligatory day studying the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos at the Pergamonmuseum on the Museumsinsel, is well worth the time.