Between Sky and Earth


Iris (Parthenon’s West pediment) – Phidias (uncertain) – 447-432 BC – marble – London, British Museum

I remember quite clearly the first time I approached Iris in the Parthenon room of the British Museum. It might seem strange, as we are dealing with a notably damaged object, but I immediately found it extremely communicative: without knowing the reason, I had been caught into a deep visual engagement. I just stayed still for a while, contemplating the statue, finally discovering by its label that it represented the gods’ harbinger. This is, if not obvious, at least understandable, as I am going to explain.

In Greek mythology, Iris is a messenger: she connects the human and the divine sphere, delivering the will of the divinities when required; she may be thought to be the female counterpart of Hermes but this is, I frankly believe, wrong. Indeed, the figure of the goddess is scarcely drawn by Greek literature: while Zeus, Aphrodite, Hermes and all the others are well defined by a long tradition of archetypes and tropes, we struggle to find anything relevant about Iris. She appears, for instance, a couple of times throughout the Iliad, again so as to deliver some messages; in this context, however, she does not speak on her own, nor she is outlined as an independent character in any way. Homer, indeed, merely states that she is reporting other’s words, thus reducing to nothing her own engagement in the scene: she is a literary device, a bridge between two dimensions.

In this regard, I believe the statue’s current condition is an incredible coincidence. Lacking the head, Iris is shown for the only attribute that defines her in literature: her tension between the earth (the missing feet were supposed to set on the western pediment of the Parthenon) and the sky (Greek gods were supposed to inhabit the peak of Mount Olympus). She is indeed jumping, leaving  this world to reach Athena and Poseidon who, in the original composition, were battling in the centre. This is highlighted by several formal details: the back is bending and her breast is pushed in the air; the right leg, or the part of it which is still visible, moves up creating a notable gap with its left counterpart. Finally, drapery adapts to the figure’s skin, highlighting the breasts and flowing more freely along the flanks, as if she was actually jumping.


The drapery flows more fluently on the sides of the statue

Indeed, as Iris had quite an archetypical personality, she here seems to represent the act of movement itself: she is not expressing a personality, but rather the precise representation of her own dynamism. By a contingent act, the artist condenses an idealised concept, this being the form of a goddess, into the hard and static marble. As Galileo once wrote, the representation is more wonderful (“maravigliosa”) as it gets far from the physical limits imposed by its material; it is an interesting statement, as it evaluates the idea of art as an illusion, but idealisation as well. Indeed, Galileo is here stating that the value of art is surpassing a material limit: as the stone gets lively and starts dancing before our eyes, we realise the miracle is complete.

This is, in fact, the core of Greek culture: a tension, which here becomes visual, between an earthly register, deeply body and material, and an elevated world of universal ideas. As Nietzsche will later claim, it is the duality between Dionysus and Apollo, between the uncontrollable force of motion and the human desire for eternity: Iris is the product of both, indeed, as it fixes the fugacious nature of an instant into a resistant, almost eternal medium.


Deviantart (featured image)

Iris 1

Iris 2

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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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