Figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon

Figure of Iris - west pediment

Height: 135.000 cm

Elgin Collection

GR West Pediment, N

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This marble figure of Iris, goddess of the rainbow, was carved around 438-432 BC. It is from the west pediment, or gable, of the Parthenon, a temple on the flat-topped rock known as the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. The Parthenon was built between the years 447 and 432 BC to house a forty-foot high gold and ivory statue of the goddess Athena. The building was richly decorated with marble statues and friezes showing scenes from Athenian mythology. Each end of the building had a pediment - a triangular gable above the columns, just below the pitched roof, where a group of statues was placed. The west pediment told the story of the contest between Athena and the sea god Poseidon for supremacy over the city of Athens. Poseidon was accompanied by a divine messenger, Iris.

Only the torso and part of the legs remain of this creamy-white marble statue of Iris. From knees to shoulders it measures 135 centimetres - just over life-size. Iris would originally have been winged, but these wings have been lost. Her head and arms are also missing, leaving just the ragged broken stump of her bare right shoulder. Her legs are broken off just below the knees, but what remains is a dynamic striding pose, as if the goddess has been caught speeding through the air. Her torso is clothed in a knee-length tunic, gathered at the waist. Originally her waist would have been circled by a bronze girdle, but this, too, has disappeared.

The sculptor has carved the drapery of the tunic from the marble with consummate skill. Ripples of filmy fabric are pressed close to Iris's body by the force of the air as she flies, outlining the curves of her breasts, belly and thighs. The fabric streams from left to right as if the wind is rushing through it, fluttering at the hem of her garment. Between her thighs, a triangular section of the tunic has broken away and has been repaired by smooth, pale beige plaster, a striking contrast to the illusion of movement of the material around it.

When the sculpture was originally set in place on the pediment, the back would never have been seen. Despite this, it has been carved with almost as much care as the front. The meticulously carved drapery flows from right to left, and the bodice of the tunic is caught by a binding between her shoulder blades. A wedge-shaped hole in her left shoulder, some 12 centimetres long, is the socket where her left wing, made of bronze, would have been set. Below her buttocks the painstaking carving stops and a rough chunk of marble perhaps shows where the statue would have been attached to the pediment.

You may be interested to know that a model of the Parthenon is available to touch in the Parthenon Galleries. The model explains the location of all the architectural sculpture, including the pediment where the sculpture of Iris was originally displayed.

On display: Room 18: Greece: Parthenon