Marble metope from the Parthenon (South metope VII). The South metopes in The British Museum show the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths at the marriage-feast of Peirithoos.
With his left hand a Lapith, on the left, grasps a Centaur. His right arm is drawn back and he probably once held a metal sword, now lost, in his hand, about to strike the Centaur. A chlamys fastened on his right shoulder falls over his left arm and flies out behind his back. The Centaur, rearing up, tries to pull away the Lapith’s left hand. From the shoulders of the Centaur hangs a small chlamys. The head of the Centaur is in the Acropolis Museum, Athens, and the Lapith’s head is in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. The Lapith’s hands, left foot and the right leg below the knee are missing. As are the Centaur’s left arm below the shoulder and part of his left hind leg and parts of the frame.
The Metopes of the Parthenon are a series of marble panels, originally 92 in number, on the outside walls of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, forming part of the Doric frieze. The metopes of each side of the building (14 each on the eastern and western walls, 32 each on the northern and southern walls) had a different subject, and together with the pediments, Ionic frieze, and the statue of Athena Parthenos contained within the Parthenon, formed an elaborate program of sculptural decoration. Fifteen of the metopes from the south wall were removed and are now part of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum, and others have been destroyed. They are famous examples of the Classical Greek high-relief.
The metopes of the southern wall (Plaques No. 1–12 and 21–32) present the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, also known as the Centauromachy, in which the mythological Athenian king Theseus took part. The battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths broke out during the wedding feast of the king of the Lapiths and personal friend of Theseus, Pirithous. According to one version of the myth, the Centaurs, insulted from being excluded from the celebrations, attacked the Lapiths while according to another, during the feast drunken Centaurs reacted violently under the influence of wine. The result was a fight between the Centaurs and the Lapiths and an attempt of the former to abduct the Lapith women.
The Centaurs have faces with animal features whose linear drawings strongly recall theatrical masks. They are shown wearing animal skins and they are armed with tree-branches. On the other hand, the Lapiths fight nude or wearing a chlamys, several of them hold a sword or a spear which, as they were formerly metallic attachments, are now lost, while in some cases, the Lapiths use shields to protect themselves.
There is a tendency to recognize the bridegroom Pirithous on metope 11 and the bride Deidamia on metope 25 but there is no conclusive evidence for these identifications. On metope 29, features of the mature Classical style can be traced on the face and the dress of the Lapith woman.
The presence of household utensils such as hydrias (ceramic pots with three handles used for mainly for storing water), which are also used as provisional weapons by the combatants, indicates a battle fought indoors. Certain compositions are repeated whereas the overall execution of the scenes is less ambitious than the initial plans. Contrary to the eventual outcome of the battle and to the moral of the myth which emphasizes on the superiority of the civilized world over the primeval disorder, the winning party in this fearless fight are the Centaurs and not the Lapiths. However, it is possible that the battle is still in its initial stages.
In 1687, a cannonball struck the Parthenon during an attack on Athens by the Venetians. This event destroyed many metopes on the south wall, especially the central ones. The existence of these metopes is now known only from Carrey's drawings executed in 1674 and from their remaining fragments. Their subject matter is not altogether clear as the metopes present uncommon iconographical details. Some experts recognize on them the representation of Attic dynastic myths (the stories of the royal families of Cecrops and Erechtheus) while others, attempting to unify mythologically the afore-mentioned scenes with the ones of the Centauromachy, propose a subject related to the myths of the Centauromachy heroes.