29 April 2019
Parthenon Marbles and
Star of Vergina express
Greek pride in identity
Ask most people about the Book of Revelation, and they will instantly respond with images of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ and Armageddon. But – and I kid you not – on one recent visit to Athens I heard someone referring to the ‘four horsemen of the Acropolis.’
While I am in Crete this week, enjoying in the Greek Orthodox celebrations of Easter, I have also been putting the final touches to a posting of liturgical and preaching resources for Sunday week [12 May 2019] that also a discussion of the reading that Sunday in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 7: 9-17).
In my posting, I plan to refer also to the previous chapter, where Saint John the Divine has a vision in the cave on the island of Patmos that includes the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’:
● a white horse symbolising conquest (6: 2)
● a red horse representing internecine violence (6: 4)
● a black horse for famine and inflation (6: 6)
● a pale green horse prefiguring fear and death (6: 8)
I may joke about the Four Horseman of the Acropolis, but in this part of Rethymnon, in the eastern suburban village and resort of Plantanias, there is a bar on the way to the beach here that is known as the Acropolis Bar.
Although the temperatures are now in the mid-20s each day, the Acropolis Bar in Platanias has not yet opened for the summer season, like many similar places in Platanias and the neighbouring hillside village of Tsesmes, east of Rethymnon in Crete.
But the decorative features outside the bar include many reproductions of the Parthenon frieze from the Acropolis in Athens, interspersed between classical columns.
Last week [25 April 2019], the Cambridge Union hosted a debate, ‘This House would return looted art back to its country of origin.’ Speaking for the motion were Alice Procter, tour guide and art historian, best known for running the often sold-out Uncomfortable Art Tours, telling the ‘ugly truth’ about the artefacts in Britain’s museums; Dame Janet Suzman, actor and director of both stage and screen and an Academy Award nominee, who currently co-chairs the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles; and the archaeologist Professor Lord Renfrew, a former Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, and a former President of the Union.
Speaking against were Dr Tiffany Jenkins, author of Keeping Their Marbles; Dr Kevin Childs, writer and lecturer on art history; and Dr Neil Curtis, Head of Museums and Special Collections at the University of Aberdeen.
Of course, there is difference between looted art and legitimately acquired treasures of the past.
But at the same time, the British Culture Secretary, Jeremy Wright, was ruling out returning objects held in national museums to their countries of origin. In an interview last week, he told The Times that if you ‘followed the logic of restitution to its logical conclusion,’ there would be no ‘single points where people can see multiple things.’
It is an absurd argument. Basically, it is only English museum visitors who matter – Greeks, and anyone else who comes to Athens to see the Acropolis, do not need to see ‘things’ and do not need a single point where they can see the Parthenon Marbles, in the very place they are supposed to be.
Nor does his argument deal with the way the marbles were barbarously hacked from the Parthenon frieze by Lord Elgin.
Greeks take pride in their cultural and classical legacies, but at the same time can wear this pride very lightly.
Two of us have had lunch a few times this past week in Vergina, a restaurant in Platanias whose very name celebrates Alexander the Great and his father Philip II of Macedon.
Around the place are copies of classical statues, reproductions of Minoan images from Knossos, elements of Byzantine brickwork, and countless images of the 16-point Star of Vergina, from which the restaurant takes its name.
The Vergina Sun (Ήλιος της Βεργίνας) or Star of Vergina, a symbol in ancient Greek art in the 6th to 2nd centuries BC, became a popular symbol of Greek identity after archaeological excavations in Vergina in the late 1970s uncovered the tomb of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.
It is seen as the historical symbol of ancient Macedonia and became part of the controversy in the 1990s over the name and symbols adopted by the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (now North Macedonia).
An agreement signed with Greece last year [17 June 2018] includes both sides accepting the name North Macedonia and removing the Star of Vergina from public use in North Macedonia.
Symbols of the past are important for present-day Greek identity. Brexit is not going to put an end to demands for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.