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Representations in Art

Depictions of Athena. Athena is shown in the earlier stages of Greek art as woman dressed in a long robe, e.g., on the François Vase (ca. 575 B.C.), where she also is the driver of the chariot in which she is riding with another goddess (perhaps Artemis, who is named as her passenger on the vase by Sophilos.)
With the wide-reaching political changes at Athens, after about 560 B.C., Athena is portrayed as a warrior goddess, still robed, but wearing helmet and aegis and carrying shield and spear. She is so shown on the Boston vase depicting her birth and in countless other Attic vases. A red-figure vase (ca. 520, now in Berlin) by the Andocides painter shows her watching the struggle between Heracles and Apollo for the tripod, and the snakes and Gorgon’s head of her aegis are vigorously painted. She is often shown with an owl, which was regularly stamped on the reverse of Athenian coins. In about 460 B.C. she is shown on a relief (still in Athens) as a young woman, robed and with spear and helmet (but without shield or aegis) standing in an attitude of mourning before a stele (i.e., an upright stone marker) on which the names of Athenian citizens killed in the previous year's battles are inscribed, an expressive example of the intimate connection between the goddess and her citizens.
The armed Athena (Athena Promachos, "the defender") was portrayed on the vases given as prizes at the Panathenaic games from ca. 560 B.C. for four centuries, always in black-figure technique (most major museum collections have examples). A huge statue of Athena Promachos stood opposite the Propylaea at the entrance to the Acropolis.
As a virgin and warrior goddess, Athena could not be shown as a mother. Nevertheless, the myth of Erichthonius (see Chapter 23) shows that she was once a mother-goddess. In a red-figure vase (ca. 400 B.C., now in Richmond, Virginia) she is shown receiving the infant Erichthonius from Ge (Earth). Usually, however, artists focus on the finding of Erichthonius, as in Rubens’ painting of The Discovery of the Infant Erichthonius (1616, now in Vaduz), in which Athena does not appear.

The Birth of Athena. The commonest myths of Athena in art are those of her birth and her contest with Poseidon (see Chapters 7 and 8). The former is especially popular in Attic black-figure vases of the sixth century, which show her leaping fully armed from the head of Zeus while other Olympians assist at the birth (Hephaestus or Eileithyia or both) or are observers (most commonly Hermes and Ares). The most sublime representation of her birth was undoubtedly the sculptures of the east pediment of the Parthenon, of which the central figures have been destroyed. The remaining figures (part of the so-called Elgin Marbles in London) transform the archaic motif of the spectators at the birth into the groups of watching goddesses, to whom Iris brings the news. Other figures, including Dionysus (or Heracles) are present, and at each corner are the horses of the sun and moon respectively.

The Contest between Athena and Poseidon. The contest with Poseidon was again most memorably represented on the Parthenon, this time on the west pediment, of which little now remains. The olive tree and the saltwater spring (with the marks of Poseidon’s trident), as well as the mark of the thunderbolt of Zeus, were shown in the precinct of the Erechtheum, the temple dedicated jointly to Athena Polias (i.e., goddess of the city), which was rebuilt in 421–406 B.C. Neither the birth of Athena nor the contest with Poseidon inspired many significant postclassical works.

Athena Parthenos. The rebuilding of the Athenian acropolis after Persian sack of Athens in 480 B.C. centered on the Parthenon, which housed the immense chryselephantine statue of Athena, a masterpiece by Pheidias, like that of Zeus at Olympia (see Chapter 5). It is now lost, but there are accurate reconstructions in Toronto and Nashville, the latter a full-size one. Athena was standing, holding in her right hand a figure of Nike (Victory), with her left hand on her shield, while her spear rested against her left arm. She was robed and helmeted, and on her breast she wore the aegis with the Gorgon's head. On the exterior of the shield were reliefs of the battle of the Amazons, and on its interior was painted the Gigantomachy (see Chapter 4). On the rims of her sandals were reliefs of the Centauromachy, and on the statue's base were reliefs showing the creation of Pandora (see Chapter 4).

Metopes of the Parthenon. The three battle scenes (the Battle of the Amazons, the Gigantomachy, and the Centauromachy) together with the sack of Troy, were also the subjects of the 92 metopes that formed the outer frieze: of these, the only extensive remains are those of the Centauromachy originally on the south side (now part of the Elgin Marbles). The association of Athena with the myths of violent battle was, like the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, symbolic of the triumph of Greek (and, specifically, Athenian) civilization over barbarism, which at Athens was taken particularly to refer to the victory over the Persians in 480–479.

The Panathenaic Procession. The rebuilding of the Acropolis was begun in earnest after the formal ending of the Persian Wars in 449. Athena, as patron goddess of Athens, was closely involved in the economic prosperity and success of her citizens. This was shown vividly on the inner frieze of the Parthenon (also part of the Elgin Marbles), on which the procession of Athenian citizens made its way to present the robe (peplos) for the cult statue of the goddess housed in the Erechtheum. At the climax of the procession, shown on the same scale and in the same plane as the human participants, were the seated figures of the twelve Olympians.

Athena and Arachne. This contest has been popular in postclassical art, sometimes as an allegory of pride and its punishment. Exceptional examples are the oil-sketch by Rubens (1636, now in Richmond, Virginia) and the complex painting by Diego Velázquez, Las Hilanderas (“The Spinners,” 1647, now in Madrid).

Athena, Champion of Heroes. Athena is shown as the helper of many heroes in poetry and art. She is particularly close to Achilles in Book 1 of the Iliad and to Diomedes in Book 5, and she is the constant helper of Telemachus and Odysseus in the Odyssey, in which she puts an end to the fighting between Odysseus and the relatives of the dead suitors (see MLS, Chapter 20). She is hostile to Ajax, and friendly to Odysseus, in Sophocles’ tragedy Ajax (ca. 455 B.C.). She is shown in vase paintings of the sack of Troy as angry with Ajax (son of Oileus) for his rape of Cassandra. With Apollo, she protects Orestes after the murder of Clytemnestra and presides at his trial before the court of the Areopagus at Athens, pronouncing the verdict of acquittal (Aeschylus’ Eumenides, 458 BC., see Chapter 18). She assists Heracles in his labors, as in the metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (see Chapters 5 and 22): to a lesser extent she is the helper of Theseus. She is one of the three contestants in the Judgment of Paris&151;the only myth whose artistic representations show her unclothed (see Chapter 19).

Minerva. Athena was identified with Minerva at Rome, and she shared the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill with Jupiter (Zeus) and Juno (Hera). The Palladium, which was believed to have been brought by Aeneas from Troy, was housed in the Temple of Vesta beside the Forum and was one of the most sacred objects in Roman state religion. It is shown in the beautiful oil-sketch by Rubens (1617, now in Vaduz) showing Mars and Rhea Silvia. Minerva was especially worshiped by the emperor Domitian (81–96), who built a temple with an open space (Forum Transitorium) in her honor. The colonnade of the Forum Transitorium was decorated with a frieze showing Minerva as the patroness of the arts and crafts, which included a scene of the myth of Arachne.

Athena in Western Art. In postclassical art Athena symbolizes wisdom and intellectual activity, the arts and crafts, and orderly government. In these aspects she was especially significant in the seventeenth century, and appears frequently in the political and intellectual allegories of Rubens. She is the teacher of Marie in The Education of Marie, one of the cycle of the Marie de’ Medici series (see Chapters 5 and 6) and appears as the queen’s supporter or counselor in several other paintings of the cycle. She is shown as Minerva Conquering Sedition in the ceiling paintings for the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London (1634, and still in place). Her intellectual patronage is shown in several of the designs for title-pages by Rubens (e.g., the Opera Omnia of Justus Lipsius, published at Antwerp in 1637), and she appears as the symbol of the Stoic virtue of wisdom (Sapientia) on the title-pages (not designed by Rubens) of the Opera Senecae edited by Lipsius and published at Antwerp in 1605 and 1615. She is represents the figure of Virtue in the scene of the Choice of Heracles from the Pompa Introitus Ferdinandi (1641, see Chapter 22). While Rubens was but one of very many artists to represent Athena (Minerva), he is preeminent in his allegories, which in themselves form a compendium of postclassical images of Athena.

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