The Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning in Art & History

Finding Meaning at the British Museum

London - British Museum - 2411

Bloomsbury in central London is home to one of the world’s most famous museums, The British Museum. The British Museum is where I first fell in love with museums.

Established in 1753, it is one of the oldest public museums in the world. Containing over 7 million objects covering a period of 2 million years of global human and cultural history.

The secret to finding meaning from the British Museum is to understand, to feel and to be amazed by new insights, one masterpiece at a time.

Living in mindfulness means paying full attention to our current experience. When you get tired of the crowds, go visit The Parthenon Marbles and proceed to the East pediment sculptures. This is a scene of the major gods and goddesses portrayed as if they were really present during the birth of Athena. If you position yourself behind the east pediment sculptures, you will see what is pictured below. It shows two draped female figures seated on rectangular wooden chests, perhaps Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

Pediments of the Parthenon-British Museum-5

Originally these sculptures were set into the Parthenon pediment, no one could see this back view except the Olympian Gods. These statues were visible only from the front. The back view was not originally accessible to mortals. Let’s meditate on what only the Olympian Gods could see.

We notice the beautiful and flowing folds of the tunics. The figures are lifelike ready to move or stand up or turn around and object to your mortal presence. Mother and daughter are united as one. We notice the beauty and nobility of the body. We can imagine that we are back at Mount Olympus watching the Olympian gods.

In the ancient Greek religion and mythology, Demeter, Zeus’ sister, is the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, she presided over grains and the fertility of the earth. She and her daughter Persephone were the central figures of an earlier mythology that predated the Olympian pantheon of Gods.

The myth concerning these two figures is that Demeter’s virgin daughter Persephone was abducted by Hades, God of the underworld. Demeter was distraught and searched everywhere for her. Demeter was inconsolably preoccupied with her loss and her grief. The seasons failed, living things stopped growing and began to die. Faced with extinction on earth, Zeus, the king of all the gods, sent his messenger, Hermes to the underworld to bring Persephone back to Demeter. Hades agreed to release her if she had not eaten anything while in Hades, unfortunately Persephone had eaten pomegranate seeds. This indiscretion condemned Persephone to Hades and the underworld for a certain of months every year.

Every Spring, Demeter would ensure flowers bloomed and crops grew and the fields were green. Every Winter, when Persephone returned to the underworld, Demeter would ignore the crops and the flowers and let them die. Each Spring, Demeter would bring everything to life again, ready to welcome her daughter’s return.

FredericLeighton-TheReturnofPerspephone(1891)

Above is Frederic Leighton’s painting of Hermes helping Persephone to return to her mother Demeter after Zeus forced Hades to return Persephone. Sir Frederic Leighton (1830 – 1896)  was an English painter and sculptor. Frederic Leighton would have seen these Parthenon figures which would have inspired the beautiful folding and flowing dress in this picture and many of his other classical paintings. Many painters and sculptors of classical scenes would have been heavily influenced by the beauty and expression of the Parthenon sculptures we can see. Another example is the painting titled, Cymon and Iphigenia.

These Parthenon sculptures capture the culture and spirit of the Golden Age of Athens. A culture that celebrated perfection, beauty, the heroic and the noble.

We in modern times have many more opportunities and resources available than the ancient Athenians. Meditating on these sculptures allows us to reflect on the beauty in our lives and how we can bring more heroism and nobility to our lives.

Continuing to reflect on the two draped female figures we notice how close the two bodies are compared to the other figures in the pediment sculptures.

Reconstruction of the east pediment of the Parthenon 3

Above we can see one possible reconstruction of the front of the east pediment of the Parthenon, highlighting the comfortable and familiar body language between Demeter and Persephone.

The Myth of Demeter and her daughter Persephone reminds us of the different kinds of love in the world. It reminds us that when someone we love is missing, the world does feel like winter.  It reminds us of the anticipation of reuniting with someone we love and how it feels like spring.

What other reflections come to your mind when you meditate on these masterpieces from over 2,5000 year ago and the culture of Ancient Greece?

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Essential Facts about Demeter

  • Goddess of:        Agriculture, fertility, and the harvest
  • Abode:                 Mount Olympus, Greece
  • Symbol:               Cornucopia, wheat, torch, bread
  • Consorts:            Zeus, Poseidon and others
  • Parents:               Cronus and Rhea
  • Siblings:              Hestia, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, Zeus, Chiron
  • Children:             Persephone, Despoina and six other children

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“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Socrates

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Acknowledgement: This page is dedicated to Dimitra.

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Photo Credit: 1) © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar, via Wikimedia Commons 2) See page for author [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons 3) Frederic Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 4) By Tilemahos Efthimiadis [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons