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The Pergamon Altar - by Jess Huang

Key terms

Hellenistic: Period of time from the death of Alexander the Great to the defeat of Cleopatra and Mark Antony by Octavian in 31 BC (Usually used to refer to the time period, and also the culture and art of the time).

Gauls: Ancient Gauls had been terrorising Asia Minor for a few years.

Gigantomachy: depiction of the struggle between the gods and the giants.

Frieze: In architecture, this is a decorative band of architecture above a series of columns.

The Great Altar of Pergamon, considered largely to be a hallmark of Hellenistic art and culture, stood as a symbol of Attalid reign and political rule. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the background of the altar, with the dates of erection remaining unsure – however, the pottery and capitals found are dated to roughly the second century BC.

The Attalids were a Hellenistic dynasty that ruled Pergamon in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The Pergamon Altar came about as a result of the political structure of the Hellenistic kingdom, the newfound wealth acquired by the Attalids, and the demand for high-quality art that would set the Attalids apart as purveyors of art and culture. On a more political level, the Attalids wanted to establish themselves as a major political power within the Hellenistic empire (in the same way as we see Athens as a major power in mainland Greece). In addition, the Attalids wanted a way to show off their prosperity, especially following their defeat of the Gauls – what better way to do this than to erect an impressive monument showcasing their authority to the rest of the world? Even in the twenty-first century, the Pergamon Altar – now in Berlin – still impresses viewers, and is considered a fine example of Hellenistic art.

The Pergamon Altar which now resides in the Pergamon museum in Berlin
The Pergamon Altar which now resides in the Pergamon museum in Berlin

Some similarities can be seen between the Pergamon Altar and the Parthenon of Athens, particularly in the impressive use of the Gigantomachy friezes; by depicting the Gigantomachy, the Attalids are attempting to establish themselves as the cultural and military centre of the Hellenistic world in a similar way to Athens within the classical Greek world. Stylistically, the art of the sculpture is very impressive. It shows the gods and the giants at war and can be seen as a visual metaphor for the Attalids’ successful battle against the Gauls (with the Attalids being represented by the gods). The gods’ power is expressed through the exaggerated gestures and intense emotions of the giants standing in stark contrast with the control of the gods. With two hundred sculptures carved in such a life-like manner that they seem to come out of the wall and spill onto the steps of the altar, the monument shows the chaos of the battle and engages with the viewer.

Close up of a half-serpent giant lying on the ground in full-frontal
Close up of a half-serpent giant lying on the ground in full-frontal

The frieze relies on themes of opposition and contrast in order to depict the frenzy of the battle. A good example of this is the image of the half-serpent giants fighting against the fully anthropomorphic gods, heavily implying the bestial nature of the giants, as opposed to the human-like gods who were needed to restore control against these monstrous creatures. The calm and composed faces of the gods juxtapose those of the giants contorted in fear. The gods here are presented as fighting on the front line as defenders of civilisation against the inferior giants and, evidently, the gods are winning – a projection of the self-image of the Attalids who are aligning themselves as keepers of peace and order. This same sentiment can be seen also in the artwork of the Parthenon.

There is a deeper implication of the Attalids aligning themselves with the gods on the Gigantomachy. Just before the height of the Athenian empire, Athens had defeated the Persians which led to their political power and a cultural renaissance. Likewise, the Attalids defeated the Gauls, and so the Gigantomachy became symbolic of Greek victory against foreign threats. As both the Parthenon in Athens and the Pergamon Altar feature such a scene, it is clear that the Attalids were trying to create a tie with themselves and the Athenians. In doing so, the Attalids also emulated Athenian ideas of themselves as protectors of culture against foreign threats.

We see many similarities in the artistic choices of the Parthenon and the Pergamon Altar. For example, we can examine the mixing of human and animal in the half-horse centaur in the battle of centaurs versus the human Lapiths on the metopes of the Parthenon, while the Pergamon Altar copies these ideas of human nature versus that of a more bestial kind. In many ways, the Attalids of Pergamon looked up to Athens, and they wanted to be a Hellenistic power that rivalled the power of Athens in classical Greece. After their defeat of Persia, Athenian literature and art flourished, and in defeating a foreign threat in a victory that mirrored this one, the Pergamon empire also wanted to stand out culturally. For example, on the altar stands the statue of Melpomene, the muse of tragedy drawing an association with the arts. We see this most prominently in the Library of Pergamon; the presence of the statue of Athena at the entrance emphasises the link they were trying to draw with Athens. There is no better example of how impressive the artistic and cultural pursuits of the Attalids were than in the Pergamon Altar, in which the remarkable skill and craftsmanship is still a thing of wonder to this day.

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