To find out what the Greek gods looked like, it would seem reasonable to start in Room 18 of the British Museum. That's the gallery devoted to the Elgin Marbles, grand trophies removed from the Parthenon in Athens between 1801 and 1805 by Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin, the British envoy to Constantinople from 1799 to 1803, when Greece was under Turkish domination. Even at the time, Elgin's action struck some as the rape of a great heritage. Lord Byron's largely autobiographical poem "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" contains this stinging rebuke:
From This Story
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behov'd
To guard those relics ne'er to be restored.
To this day, Greece continues to press claims for restitution.
The genius behind the Parthenon's sculptures was the architect and artist Phidias, of whom it was said that he alone among mortals had seen the gods as they truly are. At the Parthenon, he set out to render them in action. Fragments from the eastern gable of the temple depict the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus; those from the western gable show the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the patronage of the city. (As the city's name indicates, she won.) The heroically scaled statues were meant to be seen from a distance with ease.
But that was thousands of years ago. By now, so much of the sculpture is battered beyond recognition, or simply missing, that it takes an advanced degree in archaeology to tease out what many of the figures were up to. Yes, the occasional element—a horse's head, a reclining youth—registers sharp and clear. But for the most part, the sculpture is frozen Beethoven: drapery, volume, mass, sheer energy exploding in stone. Though we seldom think about it, such fragments are overwhelmingly abstract, thus, quintessentially "modern." And for most of us, that's not a problem. We're modern too. We like our antiquities that way.
But we can guess that Phidias would be brokenhearted to see his sacred relics dragged so far from home, in such a fractured state. More to the point, the bare stone would look ravaged to him, even cadaverous. Listen to Helen of Troy, in the Euripides play that bears her name:
My life and fortunes are a monstrosity,
Partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty.
If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect
The way you would wipe color off a statue.
That last point is so unexpected, one might almost miss it: to strip a statue of its color is actually to disfigure it.