The Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria building is now almost complete. It bears a depiction of Myron’s iconic discobolus, whose pose is said to be unnatural to a human, and today considered a rather inefficient way to throw the discus, but which, notwithstanding, as the great Kenneth Clark once opined: “has created the enduring pattern of athletic energy… a moment of action so transitory that students of athletics still debate if it is feasible, and he has given it the completeness of a cameo.” The moment thus captured in the statue, slapped upon the face of our community edifice is an example of rhythmos, harmony and balance – lofty ideals for an organization that is the mouthpiece of us all. We marvel, Clarkian style, not only at its beauty, but at the fact it was able to be erected at all.
Now a replica of the Parthenon Frieze begins to festoon the building like a bridal crown. When all portions of the frieze are installed, the effect will be truly striking. Admittedly, the choice of frieze subject matter originally evoked feelings of unease in me. Is a 2,500 year old frieze from one of the most famous buildings of the world, really the best form of decoration for a 21st century Greek-Australian façade? Would it not have been more suitable for a frieze to be commissioned, that while stylistically evoking the aesthetics of the Parthenon, actually provides a narrative centered around our own foundation myths, settlement in and acculturation to Australian society? What does the act of adorning our flagship building with what could be considered to be the most recognized cliché of ancient Greek art suggest about our identity, our ability to develop and interpret our culture here in the Antipodes and our negotiation of the Greek-Australian cultural cringe?
Not much actually, for the replication of the Parthenon Frieze, which is broadly held to be the defining monument of the High Classical style of Attic sculpture, and all that it represents, constitutes both a powerful manifesto and a symbol which enshrines a communal ideology of Greek-Australia, in a manner that is plain to see but which lends itself, as is the case with the original, to a multitude of competing and fascinating interpretations.
Thus, the first published attempt at interpreting the original belongs to Cyriaco of Ancona in the fifteenth century, who referred to it as depicting the “victories of Athens in the time of Pericles”. In our case, the viewer can thus draw their own conclusions as to which victories are being referred to and the identity of Pericles. Cyriaco’s view has been largely superseded, with most scholars now arguing that the frieze depicts one of the most important communal ceremonies of ancient Athens, that of the Greater Panathenaic procession from the Leokoreion by the Dipylon gate, to the Acropolis. During the Great Panathenaia, a special robe, the peplos, was made by the women of Athens for the statue of Athena, which was carried to the Parthenon as part of the procession. There was also a large sacrifice made to Athena, the hekatombe, literally meaning a sacrifice of a hundred oxen, and the meat from the sacrificed animals was used in an enormous banquet on the final night of the festival, the pannychis, or all-nighter.
Considering that the replica frieze looks down upon the street upon which the most important Greek-Australian festival is enacted, one which causes the entire community to come together, to the sounds of much sizzling and the smells of a multitude of burnt offerings, perhaps the simile is an extraordinarily apt one.
Nonetheless, the contention that the original frieze depicts the festival for Athena is fraught with problems. Later sources indicate that a number of classes of individuals who performed a role in the procession are not present in the frieze, including: the hoplites, the allies in the Delian league, the skiaphoroi or umbrella bearers, the female hydraiphoroi (only male hydrai bearers are portrayed) thetes, slaves, metics, and the Panathenaic ship. If this is so, we would also have a problem with the replica, given the participation of the ancient themed Melbourne Hoplitikon and considering the vagaries of Melbourne weather, any number of umbrella wearers and women holding water bottles who also make themselves manifest in significant numbers in our own festival. Instead, scholars argue that the frieze is not a generic image of the religious festival, since no other temple sculpture depicts a contemporary event involving mortals.
Thus, John Boardman has suggested instead, that the cavalry in the frieze portray the heroisation of the Marathonomachoi, the hoplites who fell at Marathon in 490 BC, and therefore these riders were the Athenians who took part in the last pre-war Greater Panathenaia. Our frieze in turn, could diversely portray the heroisation of all those that devoted a significant portion of their life to fighting for multi-culturalism and the integration of the Greek community as a respected institution in Victorian society, or the heroisation of a number of Greek soccer players who took part in the last pre-A League finals, which destroyed ethnic soccer forever. On the other hand, several scholars have noted the Parthenon frieze’s similarity in style to the Apadana sculpture in the royal palace of Persepolis, which depicts a number of subject peoples processing to pay homage to the Persian king. The choice of style, it is argued, sends a powerful ideological message of democratic Athens counter posing itself to oriental tyranny. If we were to adopt this view, we could parallel democratic Athens with our own robust democratic culture within the GOCMV as well as its long historical tradition of being at the forefront of our community in campaigning for social justice.
Similarly, J.J. Politt contends that the original frieze embodies a Periclean manifesto, one which promotes the cultural institutions of contests/games, (as evidence by the apobatai), sacrifices, and military training as well as a number of other democratic virtues. This would position the frieze as a site of ideological tension between the elite and the demos. As a corollary, our own replica would therefore constitute a potent symbol of the importance of communal institutions and activities, discipline, volunteerism, inclusiveness and anti-elitism, all important elements of the modern GOCMV.
The latest theory, that of Joan Breton Connelly in her book “The Parthenon Enigma”, identifies the original frieze as the story of the donning of sacrificial garb by the daughter of King Erechtheus in preparation for the sacrifice of her life, one that is demanded in order to save the city from Eumolpos and the Eleusinians. Thus, the deities turn their backs to prevent pollution from the sight of her death. How that can be interpreted with the modern Antipodean context remains to be seen. A veiled reference at the sacrifices made by some at a time when the community was in peril? A cautionary tale about the virtues of proper governance? It is this multiplicity of meanings, connotations and symbols that renders the Parthenon frieze, by far the most suitable form of decoration, for the GOCMV building.
Most importantly, by choosing to adorn its edifice with the Parthenon frieze, a highly valued artwork that a) has been adopted as form an ideal basis for western art and b) has been not only appropriated stylistically by the west but also physically, given that it currently resides in the British Museum, the GOCMV is artfully making some clever points. Firstly and most significantly, that just like the easily identifiable and relatable original frieze itself, the GOCMV forms an integral part of both the Greek and Australian communities and acts as a bridge and conduit between both and secondly, its mere presence upon the building acts as an assertion of ownership and a mute protest against colonialism and a moral injustice visited upon the original. At the unveiling of the frieze, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Opposition Leader Matthew Guy both made impassioned please for the return of the Marbles that this frieze replicates.
The replica frieze is thus not derivative or cliché. It is only beautiful but also, a thoroughly thoughtful sculptural summation of the values, aspirations, historical themes and fault-lines, running through what is a venerable and nuanced community, poised on the verge of making important inroads within the context of broader multi-cultural Victoria. It acts as a clarion call for all of us, to espouse and realise those lofty ideals that have ensured our survival thus far, far into the future.