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Work The "Plaque of the Ergastines"

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Plaque dite des Ergastines : fragment de la frise est du Parthénon

© 2006 Musée du Louvre / Daniel Lebée et Carine Deambrosis

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Author(s):
Marie-Bénédicte Astier

This sculpted plaque is a perfect example of Classical Greek art from the frieze decorating the exterior of the Parthenon temple, built between 447 and 432 BC to glorify Athens and its divine protector, Athena. It shows one of the high points of the Great Panathenaea festival held every four years in Athens. Here, six Ergastines (young women in charge of weaving the peplos overgarment offered to Athena) are greeted by two priests as they walk in procession towards the assembly of the gods.

The Panathenaic procession

This relief was found by Louis François Sébastien Fauvel at the foot of the Parthenon, and purchased by the Comte de Choiseul-Gouffier in 1784. It was confiscated for the Louvre (as the property of an aristocrat) in 1798. The fragment is part of the 160-meter long frieze decorating the Parthenon colonnade. The Parthenon, part treasure-house, part temple, was the centerpiece of a series of major works undertaken in the aftermath of the highly destructive Persian Wars that had ravaged the city-state from 490–480 BC. The Athenian sculptor Phidias was appointed to oversee its construction and decoration; the project employed a huge number of artists from Athens and elsewhere, from 447–432 BC. The frieze depicts some 360 figures taking part in the festival known as the Great Panathenaea: the scenes include racehorses, a cortège of offering-bearers, servants leading sacrificial animals, and so on. At the close of the festival, celebrated every four years in honor of the goddess Athena, young women belonging to the Athenian aristocracy (known as the Ergastines) presented the goddess with a specially-woven and embroidered peplos—an overgarment worn over the shoulders.

The offering of the peplos

The high point of the Great Panathenaic procession, the ceremony in which the sacred peplos was presented to Athena, is depicted on the eastern side of the Parthenon, in the center of the building's main façade, beneath the gaze of the assembled Olympian gods. The Louvre plaque is part of this climactic scene. It portrays the solemn procession of Ergastines as they approach the statue of Athena, welcomed by two priests. One of the young women carries a phiale (a cup without a base, of the type used for libations, or the pouring of ceremonial drinks); the last Ergastine, who appears to be turning around, shares the burden of a heavy incense burner with a young girl who is depicted on the adjoining plaque, in the British Museum in London. Originally, the background of the frieze was painted blue while the figures' hair and parts of their clothing were highlighted in gold. Additional accoutrements (objects and clothing accessories) were modeled separately in metal and applied to the finished frieze, but are now lost.

A high point of Greek art from the Classical period

The decoration of the Parthenon was a high point in Greek art of the Classical period. This plaque shows a perfect mastery of relief carving techniques. The sculptor has enlivened the scene by placing the participants in pairs and by contrasting the upright stance and straight arms of the processional figures with the more expressive gestures of the priests facing them. The figures of the Ergastines are angled to provide a series of alternating frontal, side and three-quarter views that leads the spectator's gaze along the slowly-progressing line. The grave expressions and uniform yet graceful poses of the Ergastines convey the solemnity of the ceremony.

Bibliography

Hamiaux (M.), Les sculptures grecques, I, 2e édition, Paris, 2001, p. 134, n 126
Rolley (Cl.), La sculpture grecque. 2- La période classique, Paris, 1999, p. 91-92, fig. 83
Jones-Roccos (L.), "The Kanephoros and her festival mantle", in American Journal of Archaeology, 99, 1995, p. 654-659, fig. 14-17

Technical description

  • Plaque dite des Ergastines : fragment de la frise est du Parthénon

    Entre 445 et 438 avant J.-C.

    Trouvée au pied du Parthénon, sur l'Acropole d'Athènes

  • Marbre du mont Pentélique, près d'Athènes

    H. : 0,96 m. ; l. : 2,07 m. ; Pr. : 0,12 m.

  • Plaque acquise en 1784 par Marie Gabriel Florent Auguste comte de Choiseul-Gouffier, ambassadeur à Constantinople, par l'intermédiaire de Louis François Sébastien Fauvel.Saisie révolutionnaire, 1798

    Fragment from the frieze on the east side of the Parthenon

    Inventaire MR 825 (n° usuel Ma 738)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Salle de Diane
    Room 6

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