The head of one of the horses of Selene has become one of the most widely-recognised and popular of the Parthenon sculptures.
Built as a monument to the goddess Athena, much of the Parthenon’s sculptural decoration depicts various stages in the life of the city’s patron goddess, as well as representations of other events fundamental to the city of Athens, including the Panathenaic procession and scenes of the mythical battles between the Gods and Giants, Lapiths and Centaurs.
The East Pediment of the building is especially concerned with the birth of Athena, fully grown and armed, from the head of her father, Zeus, underneath the central gable of the pediment. Other gods and goddesses are present, bearing witness to this important event and filling in the triangular space either side of the main scene. At either corner of the pediment, the artist has alluded to the time of day by depicting, on the left side, Helios the sun-god and his chariot rising from the East, and on the right, Selene, goddess of the moon sets with her own horses.
The Selene horse head we are familiar with today is all that remains of the quadriga drawn by Selene. Though both the east and west pediments are severely damaged, fortunately the traveller Pausanias recorded descriptions of the sculptural decoration when he visited the Acropolis at the end of the second century AD, which can help us to build up a picture of what the original composition may have looked like.
The horse of Selene itself was carved from Pentelic marble, and has been attributed to Phidias, one of the great sculptors of the Classical Age, who was also responsible for the colossal chryselephantine cult statue of Athena Parthenos, which stood in pride of place inside the temple. The construction of the Parthenon was begun in 447 BC, however the main pedimental decoration took place later, between 438 and 432 BC, and has been described as constituting some of the finest sculpture of the High Classical Period. The torso of Selene, which still now resides in Athens, and the other deities depicted in the scene clearly betray the artist’s skill in rendering detail and naturalism; the figures are not static but sculpted in movement, their bodies twisting and turning in various positions, their limbs are rounded and fleshy and their garments are fluid and fitted to the contours of the body, almost giving the impression of a see-through-like fabric. This style is in high contrast to sculpture of the Archaic period and even to earlier Classical sculpture, including some of the reliefs on the east and west Parthenon friezes, in which the figures appear more angular, flatter, expressionless and less in proportion.
Similarly, the horse head, which can now be found in the British Museum, is remarkable because of the expression carved into the animal by the sculptor. As the horse comes to the end of its journey, we can see its eyes bulging, its nostrils flared and its mouth gaping and panting, with the muscles and veins in its face expertly rendered, encapsulating the animal’s exhaustion in its effort to pull the moon across the sky.
[Text credit; Alexandra Hamburger, itsallgreeklondon]