Seated Gods and Goddesses from The Eastern Frieze of The Parthenon, Athens

Cat. No. 462

104cm x 134cm

Object Domicile

The Greek frieze is one of two replica frieze casts still found on Michaelis School of Fine Art's campus. The Greek frieze was initially used to teach art students how to draw in a Western style. This particular one now hangs above a bookcase in the front foyer of the Hiddingh Hall library.

Object Origin

Gallery of Casts, Covent Garden, Russell Street, Westminster, England 1907

D. Brucciani & Co. began making moulds and casts of the British Museums' classical sculptures, bronzes and other pieces, which they then sold commercially. These were popular in the nineteenth century, where it was fashionable to have casts of sculptural works in one's home. The collection of casts that the Greek frieze was a part of was purchased in 1908, under the terms of Sir Alfred Beit's will.

For centuries, especially between the fifteenth and early twentieth centuries, the importance and beauty of Greco-Roman statuary was widespread; the art was seen to be a “natural and obvious good”, and was copied and collected by famous museums, influential families and European courts and palaces. The European sense of importance spread and soon art schools and academies started purchasing these antique statuary casts, especially in the mid-seventeenth century, for the study of the statuary. Art students were provided with a wide selection of “noble” poses and gestures to reproduce in their own art, which resulted in them internalizing the techniques of ancient Greco-Roman sculptures (Tietze 2018: 316-318). The cast of the seated deities on the East frieze block of the Parthenon is a product of that European sense of importance.

European systems of thoughts and supremacy in the system of value has become more apparent as the discipline of art history and education spread over time, showing the way we are recording, synthesizing, teaching and preserving history (Sherrard, 2017: 1). The primacy of a white, European system of value, what can be called Eurocentrism, can be reduced to a single problem: “the belief in a single canon, a single timeline, or a single hegemonic center” (Sherrard 2017: 1). The object I am interested in for this object study is a cast of the seated deities Poseidon, Apollo and Artemis, on block VI of the eastern frieze from the Parthenon. The cast is part of the University of Cape Town’s Works of Art Collection and is one of two frieze casts that hang in the front foyer of Hiddingh Hall Library, on Hiddingh Campus. Before hanging in the library, the cast was part of the study collection of antique and later classical statuary at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, where art students were being taught to reproduce copies of the art, and learn Western styles of drawing. This study will discuss the space and time the cast occupied in South Africa, and the formerly-popular practice of reproducing and distributing of Greco-Roman art, especially in formerly colonize countries. The essay will also focus on the Eurocentric need for art academies and institutions to use antique casts for educational purposes.

The seated deities on the eastern frieze
The cast of the seated deities on the eastern frieze from the Parthenon, in Athens, is 104cm x 134cm in size, and depicts the gods Poseidon, Apollo and the goddess Arthemis, seated together; the cast is made of plaster, and was never painted or decorated, rather leaving it in a pristine, white state, as the original supposedly would have been found. For authenticity, the damaged area of the original has been kept in the same condition, with the rest of the cast merely being filled in by plaster. The cast looks old and weathered, as if it too has faced centuries of natural conditions, vandalization and looting, yet it holds the classical appeal of looking antique and valuable, which would have been the goal of the cast’s creator, D. Brucciani & Co (Figure 1).

Domenicho (Domenico) Brucciani (1815- 1880) was born in Lucca, Italy and later migrated to England in the first half of the nineteenth century, where he established his business in producing casts of sculptural works from international collections (Royal Academy, 2018). Brucciani owned his own showroom near Covent Garden, by 1937, selling cast copies to the British Museum and the South Kensington (now Victoria and Albert) Museum. Twenty years later, and D. Brucciani & Co. was working for the British Museum, making moulds and casts of classical sculptures, bronzes and other art pieces, to be sold commercially (Royal Academy, 2018).

The original Eastern frieze block is part of the Parthenon, a temple on the Acropolis, in Athens, built between 447 and 432 B.C.E. in the Age of Pericles (Cartwright, 2012). The temple was dedicated to the city’s patron deity Athena, and depicts Athens as being one of the main reasosn Greece defeated the Persian armies, led by Darius and Xerxes, during the Persian Wars. All of the sculptures were painted by the Greeks, mostly in bright red, blue and gold; details such as weapons and horses’ reigns were usually bronze, while coloured glass were used for eyes (Carthwright, 2012). The last few decades have seen scientists working to study the traces of paint, inlay and gold leaf still found on Greek statuary, using digitizing technology to restore the original polychromy (Bond, 2017). From block VI itself, Poseidon’s trident was added in gold paint, Apollo wore a gold wreath (shown in the holes in his hair), and Artemis had a sling of gold rope draped over her robes (Figure 2). The original frieze block arrived and stayed at the British Museum donated by Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, after he removed the friezes and sculptures from the Parthenon in the nineteenth century, before being shipped to Britain; there is no evidence that Lord Elgin was given permission to take the marbles (Cartwright, 2012).

The copying and distribution of the frieze cast
D. Brucciani & Co. was successful during Brucciani’s lifetime, and a few decades after, capitalizing on the nineteenth century’s fashion of having plaster casts of sculptural works in homes, art institutions and museums (Art Gallery, 2018). In November of 1908, the eastern frieze cast arrived with a second large consignment of statuary in Cape Town, from London, made by the antique cast-making company (Tietze, 2018: 316). The frieze was 1 of 146 pieces sent to the Cape Town Art Gallery (later called the National Gallery, and now known as Iziko South African National Gallery (ISANG)), purchased under Sir Alfred Beit’s will with a “view to furthering the educational needs of the Cape” (Tietze, 2018: 316). For centuries, especially between the fifteenth and early twentieth centuries, the importance and beauty of Greco-Roman statuary was widespread; the art was seen to be a “natural and obvious good”, getting copied and collected by famous museums, influential families and European courts and palaces (Tietze, 2018: 315). The European sense of importance spread, and soon art schools and academies started purchasing these antique statuary casts, especially in the mid-seventeenth century, for the study of the statuary and providing art students with a wide selection of “noble” poses and gestures to reproduce in their own art, internalizing the techniques of ancient Greco-Roman sculptures (Tietze 2018: 316-318).

Before the Beit bequest in South Africa, other British colonies received antique casts from Britain, such as Australia and New Zealand (Tietze 2018: 323). The Australian Museum in Sydney received a gift of casts in 1854, while the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne purchased a collection between 1859 and 1872. The Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, were given a gift of casts in 1873, with a similar gift given to Auckland Museum in 1878 (Tietze 2018: 323). “… [By] letting Western/European cultures construct a narrative of history that only they can contribute, it is a gratification of white culture, and thus a gratification of Eurocentric ideals … We might reasonable recognize the notions that art and discipline of art history are inextricably intertwined with European colonization” states UBC Wiki (2012). Practicing art and studying the history in countries once colonized, especially with South Africa and Oceania in this study, shows how little is truly questioned about which disciplines are enabled and encouraged, and which (especially ‘local’ arts) is discouraged. The risk of recreating Western perspectives is thus high. Art is often used by the dominating (for example, the British in this case) as a ‘stratagem’ to “exemplify their knowledge” of the natural, giving a validation of the power the colonizers wield over the colonized, thus the “natural and obvious good” of Greco-Roman art what the West says it is (Tietze, 2018: 315).

An Imperial Agenda
Sir Alfred Beit had a taste for Northern European schools of painting, favouring Dutch and Flemish genre painting and English 18th century portraiture, thus the likeliness that Beit suggested to purchase of antique statuary is unlikely (Tietze 2018: 318). Though Beit did possess some antique bronzes and majolica, the purchase of the statuary seemed strange. Thus, if it was not a bequest by Beit, it would have come from the executors of his will, Dr. Jameson and Lewis Mitchell, both close friends with Cecil Rhodes. The three men, along with Beit, were key players in South Africa’s “imperial endeavour”, and were magnetized by Rhodes’ imperial goals for the country. The antique statuary were central to Rhodes’ vision, offering political, cultural, and artistic inspirations for South Africa (Tietze, 2018: 319). Rhodes wished to turn the country into an empire (319). For all of Rhodes’ ambition, it seems that the main motivation for the purchase of the casts’ came from another member of the imperial inner circle, Rudyard Kipling. Mitchell Lewis, having called the Art Gallery about the coming arrival of the antique statuary, is quoted to have said “this is simply to tell you that Kipling’s happy thought is taking effect” (Tietze 2018 320). Kipling, Rhodes and others in the imperial circle spoke at length about South Africa’s, and especially the Cape’s political future, with Kipling championing the imperial project (Tietze 2018: 321).

The imperial goals of the British empire, and men like Kipling and Rhodes, acted as erasures of the brownness of Greco-Romans, appropriating (stealing) a culture not theirs to take. Eurocentrism claims culture that have never been white or European, and denies the existence of it beyond what Eurocentrism takes (Art & Popular Culture, 2018). The bare marble of Greco-Roman sculptures have been romanticized for centuries, with many art experts and classical experts refusing to acknowledge that the “pure, marble-white Antiquity” was indeed painted, showing the brown skin colour of Greco-Romans, and the other cultures they depicted in their statuary (Bond 2017). Burial practices, early restoration practices, and historic (often by looters and tomb raiders) cleaning methods all reduced the polychromy of these marble sculptures, in effect erasing the identity of these people all to fit the white agenda of colonizers (Bond, 2017).

The movement of the East Greek frieze cast
Upon arriving in Cape Town, the antique statuary were handed over to Thomas Muir, the Cape Superintendent-General of Education (Tietze 2018: 322). Despite Rhodes and his inner circle’s grand plans for the statuary, they ended up in an art gallery crammed into the annexe of the South African Museum (SAM), to await the building of a proper gallery. South Africa’s art scene at time of the statuary’s arrival was one of anti-classical artistic mode; local art was promoted, especially landscape scenes, portraiture and still life following (Tietze 2018: 325). The then-Cape Town art gallery, with the unenthusiasm that the casts were met with, ended up placing the pieces into a lower of the gallery. While the gallery’s trustees wrote that they “appreciated the thoughtful and generous gift”, the casts were still a source of embarrassment (Tietze, 2018: 327). The casts were treated as exhibits not to be seen by visitors of the gallery, so the exhibit was hidden behind a screen; many of the pieces were nude, and while the Greeks’ main motif of art was idealizing the naked body, the “epitome of Beauty”, for Cape Town art-gallery-visitors, the body should remain well-hidden (Tietze 2018: 327).

When the Cape Town Art School merged into the University of Cape Town’s newly formed school of art -the Michaelis School of Fine Art- in the 1920s, the importance of the Beit collection rose (Tietze, 2018: 329). John Wheatley, arriving in 1925, who became the first Chair of Fine Arts at the university, requested some of the Beit casts from the art gallery, one of which ended up being the eastern frieze cast. Wheatley wished for Michaelis art students to learn how to replicate the human body and natural forms from the Greeks (Tietze, 2018: 329). Wheatley’s vision of using these Greek casts fit perfectly with Rhodes and his inner circle’s imperial visions. Though the studying of antiquity increased. And while the drawing of ‘antique features’ in Michaelis’ curriculum was available, it seemed that from evidence provided by the Examiners’ reports, very little was taught practically, and was rarely chosen by the art students (Tietze, 2018: 329).

Neville Dubow, Director of Michaelis School in the 1980s, remembered a few of the casts, looking bedraggled, damage caused by the weather, in the courtyard of the campus, when he joined the staff in the 1960s; other casts were in the sculpture studios (Tietze 2018: 332). The 1970s in South Africa has a growth in artistic iconoclasm, while the Beit collection represented a stifled, older order, and Dubow recalled how the casts were often daubed with paint and defaced by students during that decade. The casts have since been removed, with only the two frieze casts remaining on campus, both hanging high, above bookcases in the foyer of Hiddingh Hall Library, where they are not often inquired upon or noticed (Tietze, 2018: 332). The library is an interesting place for the friezes, and could be seen as a lingering attempt to use them for educational purposes, or a place of consignment rejected by the art school. The fashion of purchasing antique casts lost popularity in the later twentieth century, but can still be found at art institutions and universities, as I have seen at Stellenbosch University’s Ancient Cultures department, here at Hiddingh Hall Library, and occasionally in the office of historical experts and lecturers.

The future of the Greek frieze cast
UCT’s Works of Art Task Force was created as part of a mandate, by the university, to relook at all art institutions at UCT; this means that the task force is in the process of reconsidering all installations, either to give them a fresh, or see what relevance they still have[1] This is a multi-task, hence the committee will take some time to get to all the spaces on the campus. The committee has not yet looked at the art (including the two Greek frieze casts in the foyer) in Hiddingh Hall Library, though Ms. Daehnke has been having conversations with librarian Solvej Voster since December 2018, asking whether there have been any requests for changes in the art at Hiddingh Hall Library, or conversations held about the art at the library. Ms. Voster responded that there have been no concerns or requests. Thus, for now the Greek frieze cast(s) remains in Hiddingh Hal Library until the committee have decided what course of action to take, regarding its future.

This object study on the cast of the seated deities Poseidon, Apollo and Artemis discussed the space and time the cast occupied, from London to Michaelis School, and the reasons behind the acquisition of the Beit cast collection. The essay also looked at art, the imperial vision of Cecil Rhodes and his inner circle for South Africa, the colonization of art and the impact the European/Western sense of importance on antique art has on former colonies such as South Africa. Finally, the essay looked at the reception of the Beit bequest in South Africa, where it currently occupies a space, and what the future of the cast looks like.

[1] N. Daehnke, 2019, Personal communications, 5 April.


I would like to sincerely thank Lyndall Cain, Karen Ijumba and Prof. Pippa Skotnes for guidance in improving this object study, and giving the best possible object ecology for the Greek frieze cast. I would also like to thank Mary van de Blommestein and Nadja Daehnke (members of the Work of Arts Task Force) for always answering my questions to the best of their abilities. A sincere thank you goes to Anna Tietze for suggesting that I read her work on the Greek frieze cast, and being willing to meet up with me if I required any further information. Finally, I would like to thank the librarians at Hiddingh Hall Library, especially Solvej Voster, for being patient and kind with me and all my inquiries on the Greek frieze cast, and giving me all the information the library has on the two casts. Contribute information to this page