Destroy the Temple, Make a Museum

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A helpful reader pointed out this thoughtful and insightful essay by Louis A. Ruprecht at Religion Dispatches about the politics of plunder, repatriation, and display of classical pagan art. At the center of the story is the controversy over who owns the Elgin Marbles (Britain or Greece) that were looted from the Athenian Parthenon and Acropolis.

“What is clear is that Lord Elgin used his position as ambassador to Istanbul to gain access to the Athenian Akropolis — as well as the right to remove objects from the temple for further study. It is not clear that the sultan who granted the permission imagined Elgin taking these things away permanently, but that is what Elgin arranged. The Greeks object that the Turks had no business giving Greek marbles away, but of course, then our quarrel is with the whole structure of nineteenth century gunpowder imperialism. To demand the return of all such ill-gotten goods would hasten the end of the modern public art museum as we know it today. But again, the Greeks insist that this case is unique, not a precedent-setter.”

What makes this essay so unique as opposed to other break-downs over the controversy concerning the marbles is Ruprecht’s willingness to explore the strange reality of pagan sacred objects becoming secularized “national treasures” used to reflect the glory of the  (often Christian-dominated) nations that posses them.

“That religious statuary has been re-conceived as national treasure is but one of the oddities — and one of the transformations — managed by the modern public art museum … Lord Elgin looted an ancient Greek temple in the name of British glory, installing the marbles eventually in a new kind of modern shrine, a museum. Athens has now built a glorious new museum to hold the marbles Lord Elgin did not take, in tandem with plaster casts of the ones that are still in London. The Greeks are now demanding the return of all the marbles, which would tear a very large hole in the British Museum collection. In all of these debates about history and national identity, about national treasure and the virtues of repatriation—and very much as Quatremère lamented—it is the ancient religiosity of the pieces that have been lost to view.”

Stranger still, is the irony of a Greek Orthodox Church who supports these (now safely secularized) pagan temple items being restored to their country, yet want to edit a museum film showing the many indignities and damages wrought on the Parthenon by ancient Christians.

“The animated segment showed figures clad in black climbing up ladders and destroying part of the Parthenon frieze; the scene referred to well-documented episodes of destruction that took place in the early Byzantine period (5th-8th centuries A.D.), when Christians often demolished monuments and temples belonging to the old pagan era. Many parts from those temples were used to build churches. The Parthenon itself suffered some damage but was spared a worse fate by being converted into a church. Church officials contended the film misrepresented the attitude of the Greek Orthodox Church toward Greece’s ancient heritage.”

Though, after an outpouring of outrage and accusations of censorship, the film is being restored.

“Greece’s new Acropolis Museum on Tuesday said it will undo controversial editing of a video showing the Parthenon temple vandalised by early Christians in a row that has sparked complaints of Church-backed censorship. The video will be restored after its maker, renowned French-Greek filmaker Costa-Gavras, said he meant to attach no blame to Christian priests for the destruction, museum director Dimitris Pantermalis said.”

In the closing of his essay, Ruprecht warns that “when religion is deleted from the museum, it tends to be replaced by nationalism”. These objects, objects that were once part of a thriving religious culture, are now treasures used to reflect the glory of the nations and politicians who posses them. Can we honor the pagan religious past contained within these items instead of devolving into mere nationalism and historical revisionism? Must we destroy the temple to make a museum?