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The Marbles Of Aegina
by [?]

Different views have, however, been maintained as to the right grouping of the figures; but the composition of the two groups was apparently similar, not only in general character but in a certain degree of correspondence of all the figures, each to each. And in both the subject is a combat,–a combat between Greeks and Asiatics concerning the body of a Greek hero, fallen among the foemen,–an incident so characteristic of the poetry of the heroic wars. In both cases, Athene, whose temple this sculpture was designed to decorate, intervenes, her image being complete in the western gable, the head and some other fragments remaining of that in the eastern. The incidents represented were probably chosen with reference to the traditions of Aegina in connexion with the Trojan war. Greek legend is ever deeply coloured by local interest and sentiment, and this monument probably celebrates Telamon, and Ajax his son, the heroes who established the fame of Aegina, and whom the united Greeks, on the morning of the battle of Salamis, in which the Aeginetans were distinguished above all other Greeks in bravery, invited as their peculiar, spiritual allies from that island.

Accordingly, antiquarians are, for the most part, of opinion that the eastern gable represents the combat of Hercules (Hercules being the only figure among the warriors certainly to be identified), and of his comrade Telamon, against Laomedon of Troy, in which, properly, Hercules was leader, but here, as squire and archer, is made to give the first place to Telamon, as the titular hero of the place. Opinion is not so definite regarding the subject of the western gable, which, however, probably represents the combat between the Greeks and Trojans over the body of Patroclus. In both cases an Aeginetan hero, in the eastern gable Telamon, in the western his son Ajax, is represented in the extreme crisis of battle, such a crisis as, according to the deep religiousness of the Greeks of that age, was a motive for the visible intervention of the goddess in favour of her chosen people.

Opinion as to the date of the work, based mainly on the characteristics of the work itself, has varied within a period ranging from the middle of the sixtieth to the middle of the seventieth Olympiad, inclining on the whole to the later date, in the period of the Ionian revolt against Persia, and a few years earlier than the battle of Marathon.

In this monument, then, we have a revelation in the sphere of art, of the temper which made the victories of Marathon and Salamis possible, of the true spirit of Greek chivalry as displayed in the Persian war, and in the highly ideal conception of its events, expressed in Herodotus and approving itself minutely to the minds of the Greeks, as a series of affairs in which the gods and heroes of old time personally intervened, and that not as mere shadows. It was natural that the high-pitched temper, the stress of thought and feeling, which ended in the final conflict of Greek liberty with Asiatic barbarism, should stimulate quite a new interest in the poetic legends of the earlier conflict between them in the heroic age. As the events of the Crusades and the chivalrous spirit of that period, leading men’s minds back to ponder over the deeds of Charlemagne and his paladins, gave birth to the composition of the Song of Roland, just so this Aeginetan sculpture displays the Greeks of a later age feeding their enthusiasm on the legend of a distant past, and is a link between Herodotus and Homer. In those ideal figures, pensive a little from the first, we may suppose, with the shadowiness of a past age, we may yet see how Greeks of the time of Themistocles really conceived of Homeric knight and squire.

Some other fragments of art, also discovered in Aegina, and supposed to be contemporary with the temple of Athene, tend, by their roughness and immaturity, to show that this small building, so united in its effect, so complete in its simplicity, in the symmetry of its two main groups of sculpture, was the perfect artistic flower of its time and place. Yet within the limits of this simple unity, so important an element in the charm and impressiveness of the place, a certain inequality of design and execution may be detected; the hand of a slightly earlier master, probably, having worked in the western gable, while the master of the eastern gable has gone some steps farther than he in fineness and power of expression; the stooping figure of the supposed Ajax,–belonging to the western group in the present arrangement, but really borrowed, as I said, from the eastern,–which has in it something above the type of the figures grouped round it, being this later sculptor’s work. Yet Overbeck, who has elaborated the points of this distinction of styles, commends without reserve the technical excellence of the whole work, executed, as he says, “with an application of all known instruments of sculpture; the delicate calculation of weight in the composition of the several parts, allowing the artist to dispense with all artificial supports, and to set his figures, with all their complex motions, and yet with plinths only three inches thick, into the basis of the gable; the bold use of the chisel, which wrought the shield, on the freely-held arm, down to a thickness of scarcely three inches; the fineness of the execution even in parts of the work invisible to an ordinary spectator, in the diligent finishing of which the only motive of the artist was to satisfy his own conviction as to the nature of good sculpture.”