Parthenon sculpture: Centaur
The Acropolis, Athens, Greece, around 447-438 BC
This sculpture from the famous temple on the Acropolis in Athens shows a mythological battle between a human Lapith and a barbaric centaur.
The Parthenon featured 92 sculptures known as metopes. They were located on all four sides of the temple. Those from the south side of the building include this one, which is part of a series featuring Lapiths in combat with centaurs.
Lapiths were humans from northern Greece, while centaurs were part-man and part-horse, to represent the dual aspect of their nature. They were capable of being both civilised and savage.
Here the centaurs are shown as guests at the marriage feast of Peirithoos, king of the Lapiths. At the feast, the hosts gave the centaurs wine, which inflamed the savage side of their nature. They attempted to rape the women and their leader Eurytion tried to kidnap the bride.
Although the ensuing battle was won by the Lapiths, there were casualties on both sides. In this scene the defeated Lapith’s body slumps onto the ground as the centaur explodes in triumph over him, punching the air with his left arm, from which hangs the skin of a panther.
Scenes of mythical battle shown in the Parthenon metopes may have been chosen as appropriate decoration for a temple dedicated to the warrior goddess Athena. But it is possible to read a political message into the sculpture.
In 480 BC, a generation or more before the Parthenon was built, the Persians under King Xerxes attacked the sacred Acropolis of Athens and demolished an unfinished temple. It was being built on the very spot where the Parthenon itself would later stand. The earlier temple had been intended to commemorate Athens’ victory over Persia at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC.
Bearing in mind that the Parthenon was built out of the ruins of the earlier temple, it seems likely that this sculpture with its mythical scene of battle between Greek and Centaur makes symbolic reference to the life and death struggle of Athens against the Persian, barbarian, invader.
The Parthenon and its sculptures
The temple known as the Parthenon was built on the Acropolis of Athens between 447 and 438 BC. It was part of a vast building programme masterminded by the Athenian statesman Perikles. The building itself was decorated with marble sculptures representing scenes from Athenian cult and mythology.
Playwright, author and British Museum trustee, Bonnie Greer celebrates the enduring beauty and humanity of the Parthenon Sculptures.