PATRICIA KARVELAS: This is a very special object, brought to Australia for the first time for display in this exhibition.
When Alexander the Great conquered the kingdoms of Egypt and Persia, he ushered in a new era of Greek history. The new Greek rulers of these lands were keen to spread Hellenic culture. In their new capital cities of Alexandria, Pergamum, and Antioch, they created a world that was wealthy, cosmopolitan and innovative.
This relief sculpture, by the artist Archelaos of Priene, is a masterpiece from this period of Greek history. There is simply nothing like it in Greek art. Carved, perhaps, to commemorate a poet’s victory in a literary competition, it was created in Alexandria and captures the sentiments of the age. It is a complex, sophisticated allegory carved in stone.
Look at the bottom left-hand corner. Here we see Homer. He is no longer just a poet, he’s being worshipped as a divine figure. Homer is crowned by two personifications representing Time and the Inhabited World, thereby signalling that the poet’s fame is both eternal and widespread. Kneeling on either side of his throne are figures representing his two great works, the Iliad and the Odyssey. In front of him, personifications of the various arts come to offer him sacrifice. We can identify Poetry (carrying two torches), Tragedy (wearing a mask), and Comedy.
Above this scene, we see the Muses. These goddesses were patrons of the arts and the inspiration for all cultural achievement. On the left with the lyre is Terpsichore, the muse of dance. Standing next to her, pointing to a globe is Ourania, the muse of astronomy. On the level above, on the left, is Clio, the muse of history reading a book. Next to her, with a dagger in her hand, is Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. The tall woman standing above the Muses, with her hand on her hip, is Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, and mother of the Muses.
In the centre of the cave stands Apollo. The figure to his right and standing on the plinth is possibly the figure this relief is designed to commemorate. Behind him in faint relief is the trophy he was awarded for his victory – a large ceremonial tripod. Through this relief the sculptor indicates that, with this victory, the winner has now joined the pantheon of literary gods.
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Date published: 17 December 2021