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Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1868, 72 x 110.5 cm
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

We are looking at a scene in the 5th century BCE, when the famous ancient Greek sculptor Phidias, the man in the dark robe at the centre, shows off the creation he has made for the Parthenon. The frieze, depicting a ceremonial procession of the Athenians, is one of the great works of art of classical Greece

Here Phidias is in a scaffolding high up in the Parthenon. He is standing with his back against the frieze and facing toward his friends. Portrayed as a mature man with a long grey beard, he is holding the design plans in his hands. His friends are admiring his work in appreciation. The colours here are warm and rich. The figures appear in vivid 3D reality: one has the illusion of looking at a photograph

Alma-Tadema’s painting does not show the external frieze, where the gods are represented; it features instead the inner frieze with the theme of the Great Panathenaia, a festival in honour of Athena

The majority of the frieze was removed from the Parthenon around 1800 and now resides in the British Museum in London. Today we can only see the white of the frieze marble, the original colours having been lost. When Alma-Tadema revealed this painting to the Victorian society, it caused a long discussion among the intellectuals of that period; modern research affirms that Greek buildings and their reliefs and sculptures were painted