Some Plaster Casts at the University of Manchester

The Samuel Alexander building is a home to the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures (SALC), it has a wonderful collection of plaster casts of Ancient Greek Art. In this short post I am going to discuss three of the casts and talk about the history and symbolism of the originals and why plaster casts were made of them.

Perseus, Medusa and Athena | Temple C in Selinute | c.550 BCE

Gorgon - Temple of Selinute

Temple C at Selinute is in the Doric style, which is why this sculpture is a metope, which only appear on Doric Buildings. The scene shows the hero Perseus killing the gorgon Medusa with the assistance of Athena. The style is typically Archaic, with exaggerated features such as the buttocks and the Archaic smile that all the figures possess.

The figure Medusa is interesting since she possesses the extremely ugly features and may have acted as a ‘terror symbol’; something to strike awe into the viewer. She is crouched in a swastika shape, and this is often meant to demonstrate flight, since there wasn’t enough room to include her wings. Another interesting feature of Medusa is the presence of her son Pegasus, since he was born after she was beheaded by Perseus. This is common motif in Archaic art, and is meant to show the entire narrative of the story in one frame, since the other metopes of the temple tell stories from different myths rather than forming complete narrative, which is what happens later in Greek art.

The Harpy Tomb | Xanthos, Lycia | c.490-480 BCE

Frieze - Harpy Tomb
From left to right: fragment of the North Side, fragment of the West side and another fragment of the North side.

This relief originally came from the Lycian City of Xanthos in southwest Anatolia. These casts are actually organised differently to how the monument is laid out in real life. It could be to do with ideas of symmetry, since the original figure in the middle was a seated figure receiving gifts.

The tomb was of a type called a pillar tomb, which is a square tower where the body and decoration are on the top (Click here to see other examples of Lycian Tombs). The style of reliefs are Archaic, this is shown in the lack of variety of postures and the braided hair, the date of this monument is right on the edge of the start of the Classical Period of Greek Art, and the Archaic style could be a deliberate choice to show prestige, or a demonstration that Greek culture was slow to spread to Southwestern Anatolia.

Poseidon, Apollo, Artemis | The Parthenon, Athens | 447-432 BCE

Gods frieze - Parthenon

This is a part of the continuous frieze from the cella of the Parthenon, and the depicts the gods in council. This piece shows the high amount of detail that goes into Great Art in this period. These three figures are scaled: becoming more clothed, becoming more feminine and having the arm progressively lowered.

The combination of a variety of drapery techniques that help to emphasise the shape of the bodies of the gods and the so-called severe look, make this a very clear example of High Classical art, often converted as the zenith of Greek artistic talent.

The scene which is depicted is a procession scene, where the garments of the Athena statue are changed. The gods are seated to make them larger than the humans involved in the procession, heightening their importance and drawing the eye.

Plaster casts: A Discussion

It was a surprise to find these plaster casts when I was wondering around the university, but it was very common in the Victorian period to make plaster casts of famous works of Greek and Roman art, since it meant that each institution would have their own copy to work with, whilst the originals were often placed in the care of the nation; both the Harpy Tomb and the Parthenon marbles are in the British Museum.

A painted Replica of the Augustus of Prima Porta |by Marionaaragay| CC BY-SA 3.0

They are also representative of Western ideas of art, since they were unpainted. The whiteness was romanticised, and the plaster continued to assert this narrative that the ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t paint their statues, and links to a Euro-centric narrative of art history. Additionally, the accusation of these pieces is as a direct result of imperialism, and questions of legitimacy are rife. There have been attempts to rectify this, two notable examples are the plethora of painted Prima Porta statues and the work of scholars like Sarah Bond, who are trying to remove this narrative.

Although I have spoken negatively about plaster casts, I believe they have an incredibly important future in the study of classics. As debates about repatriation of museum items rages on, plaster casts offer an opportunity to please everyone and allow access to this part of world history to everyone. This goes back to the very beginning of plaster casts, because, in addition to being created for scholars, they were created to be displayed in local museums, bringing parts of the Classical world to everyone. I think that this should be continued, and done so with the knowledge we have now of the painting of Greek and Roman art.

Further reading:

Bond, S. 2017. Whitewashing Ancient Statues: Whiteness, Racism And Color In The Ancient World


Figures 1-3: Author’s own images.

Figure 4: A painted Replica of the Augustus of Prima Porta |by Marionaaragay| CC BY-SA 3.0

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