Athens’ National Archaeological Museum Part Two: Gods and Mortals

…continued from Part One

The incredible collection of statues in the National Archaeological Museum shows the continuation of the Greek efforts to create three dimensional figures, first to depict deities, then to commemorate individuals.

I know that a lot of people don’t like Archaic art – that is, the style that was in vogue before the Classical style, which is more realistic.  Archaic art is more stylised, and similar to near Eastern art, often with solid, striding figures, and pinched, smiling faces.  The distinctive kouros is from this period.  The term refers to ‘youth’ and describes the freestanding sculptures of young men that were very popular throughout the Greek speaking world from the 6th century BC.  Their purpose was probably votive, and they have often been found in or near sanctuaries dedicated to Apollo.  There are a few examples on show at the museum, which demonstrate that although they seem quite generic at first glance, they are actually very individual and unique.  There is also a statue of a female, a korai, who is clothed and just beautiful, delicately holding the bud of a lotus flower.

 

Then we have the fine examples of Classical sculpture.  Well, what can you say?  They are awesome.  The bronze statue of Neptune/Zeus is justly famous and when you’ve pushed past the other visitors to stand in front of him, you really feel his energy and power.  And, like the best statues, the mood he exudes changes at each of the different angles you view him from.

Another impressive bronze statue is of the young jockey riding a horse.  The boy’s face may not be classically beautiful, but the expression, with his wrinkled brow and extreme concentration, makes him beautiful – and surely it’s a portrait.  Either way, the whole sculpture is incredibly vivid, with the taut muscles and flowing fabric that make him seem so real that you almost feel he will shoot out the room when you blink.

After some grander marble statues from public buildings, there were a few galleries filled with funeral stele.  I wasn’t expecting to be here for too long – when I’ve previously seen Greek stele, I’ve found them beautiful but quite cold.  Well, I don’t know, maybe it was because we were in Athens – or because they are of higher quality than those I’ve seen before – but I found the monuments deeply moving.  In their restrained emotional power and natural beauty, shown through the astonishingly delicate skills of the sculptors, they brought the ancient world to life in a way that heroic sculptures seldom can.  There was a wide range of stele on show – some tender, some thoughtful, but all them rendered with a sensitivity and individuality which I’d never appreciated before.

After this brief interlude with the dead of Athens, we go back to statues which are, largely, more generic.  There are some impressive and beautiful faces to see, and there’s the fun group statue of Aphrodite giving Pan a slap with her slipper.  It’s an unusual scene, and I like the way that both Eros and Aphrodite look amused more than angry – after all, they both know Pan is a lascivious fellow, and can be controlled.

The smaller collection of later statues show heavy Roman influence, and also show the considerable decline in skill in portraiture.  I still find the art of this period charming, but after you’ve seen so many examples of classical perfection, it is hard to not notice the decline in quality.  Yet there were occasional examples of fine workmanship, like with the portrait of the mature man, with sad eyes and curling beard.

Garden

Because this is such a blessed museum, they’ve hidden some interesting statues and stele down in the little garden, by the cafe.  I was particularly taken by the statues from a shipwreck, some of which looked like body casts from Pompeii.  Odd.  But beautiful in their own ruined, distorted way.

So In Summary

If you are interested in the ancient Greek world, visiting this museum is a no-brainer.  The range and the quality of the objects on display are a marvel.  We learned so much and gained such an appreciation for the Athenian funerary monuments that we put the ancient grave-yard Kerameikos higher on our to-do list – which I’m glad we did.  But there were just many highlights it’s just incredible – the bronze statues, the Mycenaean gold, the Cycladic pots… what riches!  What a fortunate country to have such wealth!

The museum itself – bearing in mind we possibly saw only half of it – is quite old-fashioned and efficient, with plenty of space for the large crowds.  If you wait, though, they move on quickly enough.  The exquisite Aspects of Beauty exhibition demonstrated  how amazingly they can curate their displays, given the space and funds to do justice to their collections – as it is, the museum is one big set of highlights, which are so interesting you barely notice your surroundings anyway.

Further Information

The museum has a good website in English which will give you all the information you need: www.namuseum.gr

Frequent exhibitions are held in the museum: when I was there they had one on Hadrian and another (incredible one) on Aspects of Beauty.  

The museum has a very nice cafe with a classy, laid back vibe, which was a nice place to recuperate.  I also heartily recommend their spinach pie.

How To Get There

The museum is a quite a way from the other main sites of Athens, like the Acropolis, but it’s easy enough to get there by public transport or by walking. Athens’ transport is pretty good, and their information is available in English.  This website gives the various travel options, depending on which form you’re wanting to use: www.thisisathens.org

 

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