June 2017

Two Panathenaic Peploi: A Robe and a Tapestry

So-called "Peplos Scene" from the Parthenon frieze (panels E31-35). The scene may depict the peplos garment being folded by an Arrhephoros (?) and a chief priest.

So-called “Peplos Scene” from the east Parthenon frieze (panels E31-35). The scene may depict the peplos garment being folded by a child (perhaps a weaver) and a chief priest. Mansfield believes that this image depicts the smaller peplos/robe of the annual Lesser Panathenaia.

A few weeks ago, I was doing some research on the traditional Greek garment, the peplos. Each year a special peplos was woven to decorate a statue of Athena on the acropolis of Athens. This garment was woven in celebration of the Panathenaic festival that took place every year in honor of Athena’s birthday. The typical annual celebration is called the Lesser Panathenaia, and every four years a spectacular celebration, the Greater Panathenaia would take place.

Phidias, model of Athena Parthenos (now lost) within the Parthenon, ca. 438 BC. Statue was approximately 39 feet tall and made of gold and ivory.

Phidias, model of Athena Parthenos (now lost) within the Parthenon, ca. 438 BC. Statue was approximately 11-12 meters (about 40 feet tall) and made of gold and ivory.

Up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t realize that this special Panathenaic peplos was a topic of deliberation among scholars. I thought that only an ancient wooden statue of Athena, called Athena Polias, was the only statue of Athena that was decorated for these celebrations.1 However, I came across a website which explained that an additional peplos was made every four years for the Greater Panathenaia celebration, and this different peplos was created for the monumental, chryselephantine (gold-and-ivory) statue of Athena Parthenos that Phidias created for the cella of the Parthenon. Incredulous, I wrote the owner of the website to ask for more information. He directed me a dissertation from 1985 by John Magruder Mansfield. I also found a 1992 exhibition catalog called Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens.

Manfield argues that there should be a distinction between the type of peploi that were created; this distinction can helps to clarify the semantic confusion caused by the Greeks using the word “peplos” in different contexts.2 A smaller peplos/robe was created by privileged women and given to Athena Polias at the Lesser Panathenaia. In contrast, a large peplos/tapestry was made by professional male weavers, who were selected by competition, and this large peplos/tapestry (between 16-64 square meters in area) was carried in procession as the sail of the Panathenaic Ship at the Greater Panathenaia celebration.3 This argument regarding a monumental-sized tapestry helps to resolve the historical descriptions of the Greater Panathenaia event, since the Panathenaic Ship is thought by many to be an actual maritime ship, perhaps captured from an enemy, and pulled on wheels.4 “In his comedy The Macedonians, written in c. 400, the poet Strattis refers to ‘countless men’ hauling on ropes to raise the peplos to the top of the mast, and others refer to the considerable expense of the ropes and tackle needed to do the job.”5

Therefore, it appears that two peploi were woven for the Greater Panathenaia celebrations, both a peplos/tapestry for the ship and a peplos/robe for the wooden cult statue of Athena Polias. Mansfield argues that the great peplos/tapestry of the Greater Panathenaia was decorated with the gigantomachy (the battle between the Olympian gods and the Titan giants), whereas the smaller peplos/robe was plain.6

Some scholars posit or imply that the peplos/tapestry could have been offered to, and not draped on Athena Parthenos, the gold-and-ivory cult statue in the Parthenon.This makes sense to me, and would help to reconcile the probability that the ancient Greeks did not feel compelled to embellished Athena Parthenos with a cloth, since the sculpture was already ornately decorated in ivory and gold. And we know that the tradition of creating the monumental peplos/tapestry was in practice before Lachares stripped the cult statue of its gold in order to pay troops in 296 BCE, so the creation of the peplos/tapestry tradition wasn’t out of an initial motivation to cover the despoiled statue. Instead, classicist Lewis suggests that the ancient peplos rite was transferred to the Athena Parthenos statue was soon as it was finished.8 The large peplos/tapestry would have been costly to create, so it is likely that it was hung in the Parthenon or the Temple of Athena Polias on the acropolis for the next four years, perhaps as a backdrop to one of the statues.9

It is difficult to know the specifics of how these peploi appeared and how they were used, beyond textual documents. For one thing, the woven cloth no longer exists. Additionally, the statues of Athena Polias or Athena Parthenos do not exist today either. But the process of weaving these tapestries and using them in conjunction with sculpture is still important to art historians, so we can learn how art was produced and how it functioned in ancient Athens.

1 It is likely that the Athena Polias was located in a temple (which dates around 525 BCE) that was next to the Erectheion; later, later the wooden statue was moved to the Erechtheion. For more history regarding the placement of this wooden statue, see See also Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway, “Images of Athena on the Akropolis,” in Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens by Jenifer Neils, ed. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 125-127

2 John Magruder Mansfield, The Robe of Athena and the Panathenaic “Peplos,” PhD dissertation (University of California, Berkley, 1985), 16-17. See also E. J W. Barber, “The Peplos of Athena,” in Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens by Jenifer Neils, ed. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 114.

3 Mansfield, 5-8. See Ridgway, 123.

4 Ridgway, 123.

5 Barber, 114. See also Mansfield, 47, 71-74.

6 Ridgway, 123 

7 Ridgway, footnote on 210.

8 D. Lewis, “Athena’s Robe,” Scripta Classica Israelica 5 (1979-1980): 28-29.

9 Mansfield, 55.


Fragonard’s “The Swing” and “Portrait of a Lady”

Fragonard, "The Swing," 1766. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Fragonard, “The Swing,” 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Tonight I am feeling very sheepish. About three or four months ago, a student mentioned to me that Fragonard’s The Swing served as a point of inspiration for “Portrait of a Lady.” I found a copy of Henry James’ novel The Portrait of a Lady a few days later. Now, after reading 660+ pages and finishing the book, I was left rather confused as to what my student meant, so I went online to read some commentary. Only then did I realize that my student was referring to William Carlos Williams’ poem “Portrait of a Lady” and not the Henry James novel! I don’t regret reading lengthy book at all, but I feel less confused and won’t try to dwell on which suitors are courting Isabel Archer (or perhaps Pansy?) in this Fragonard painting anymore!

Instead, the William Carlos Williams poem has very direct references to Rococo art and painters. This is the poem, which was first published in The Dial in 1920:

Your thighs are apple trees

whose blossoms touch the sky.

Which sky? The sky where Watteau hung a lady’s slipper.

Your knees are a southern breeze — or

a gust of snow. Agh! what

sort of a man was Fragonard?

— As if that answered

anything. –Ah, yes. Below

the knees, since the tune drops that way, it is one of those white summer days,

the tall grass of your ankles

flickers upon the shore —

Which shore?

Agh, petals maybe. How

should I know?

Which shore? Which shore?

–the petals from some hidden

apple tree — Which shore?

I said petals from an apple tree.

I’ve been reading commentary, scholarly interpretations, and watching a short lecture segment (though disregard some of the art historical commentary in the video, since it is a bit inaccurate) on this poem, and thinking about how this poem encapsulates the difficulties of poetic words and conventions in terms of expression. The poem seems to show the problems which poets can face, especially since there are two voices which interrupt the flow of the expressive content. There are even other exclamations which disrupt the flow, too: the first “agh!” may have been exclaimed when the speaker realized that he meant to say “Fragonard” instead of “Watteau” when first referencing to the artist of The Swing.1

Given the historical context of his poem and how the disjointed style of the poem is interpreted as a precursor to postmodernism, interesting to me that these two Rococo artists were mentioned. Watteau is the earlier of the two artists, and he really served as a pioneer for the Rococo style. On one hand, Watteau’s art can be interpreted as expressing conflicting emotions and voices (the subject matter of his artistic output is associated with pleasure and sadness, perhaps typified in his comedia dell’art painting Italian Players from 1720), which parallels the disjointed and interrupted conversation of the speakers in the poem.2 Watteau also was a bit of a radical artist for his time, since his “fete galante” paintings of the aristocracy did not fit the conventional requirements for academic history paintings, and this unconventional approach to art mirrors the unconventional form of disjointed expression in Williams’ poem.3

Fragonard, detail of "The Swing," 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Fragonard, detail of “The Swing,” 1767. Oil on canvas. Wallace Collection

Obviously, Williams was considering the themes like love and eroticism when he made a reference to Fragonard’s The Swing, since a woman is accompanied by two suitors and she kicks off her shoe (and reveals what is underneath her dress) at the suitor who is hidden in the bushes. Fragonard is a later Rococo artist who followed in Watteau’s wake, and I think his socially-accepted painting style and traditional career don’t have the same parallels to the radical style of poetry that Williams used. However, from a compositional standpoint, I like how compositional lines meander through the painting (such as the branch which zig-zags in the upper left corner, see above); these visual lines complement the nonlinear, back-and-forth voices presented in the poem.

Yinka Shonibare, The Swing (after Fragonard)', 2001. Tate Modern

Yinka Shonibare, “The Swing (after Fragonard),” 2001. Tate Modern

Really, I think the best work of art today that encompasses Williams’ poem is Yinka Shinobare’s installation “The Swing (after Fragonard)” from the Tate Modern. Since the Fragonard painting has become iconic, Shinobare’s composition is familiar to the viewer but also strange: the tree lacks a trunk and the principal subject lacks a head. This familiar-and-strange reaction is similar to what is conveyed through Williams’ poem, since the poem attempts to reference the traditional language of poetry (like using a metaphor about an apple tree), but the metaphors are intentionally used in an ineffective way. Since Shinobare intentionally omits aspects of Fragonard’s composition, this disjointed appearance mirrors the disjointed flow of Williams’ poem.

Shinobare detail

Yinka Shonibare, detail of “The Swing (after Fragonard),” 2001. Tate Modern

The skin of Shinobare’s model is also dark and she wears a print that references African textiles which have a complex global history regarding colonial production and international consumption. These references to the complexities of globalization and visually acknowledging multiple voices seems to be a fitting parallel with how Williams’ poem is seen in relation to postmodernism – a movement which accepts the multiplicities of meanings and perspectives.

Do you see any other parallels between Williams’ poem and either the Fragonard painting or Shinobare’s installation?

1 See Thomas Dilworth, “On ‘Portrait of a Lady,'” The Explicator 56.2 (Winter 1998). Available online:

2 For more information on how Watteau’s art is associated with conflicting emotions and interpretations, see Linda Walsh, “Subjects, Society, Style: Changing Evaluations of Watteau and His Art” in The Changing Status of the Artist by Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods (Open University Press, 1999), 220-248.

3 Ibid., 235-238.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.