At the heart of the world-famous Pergamonmuseum is the Pergamon Altar. It was built during the reign of King Eumenes II (197–156 B.C.E.) in the city Pergamon which today is a part of Turkey.
The partial reconstructions of the 2000-year-old building is one of the best-known monuments of Hellenistic art.
Only the west side of the Altar has been completely reconstructed in the museum with original frieze panels and some parts of the original architecture. The friezes from the other sides are arranged on the opposite walls of the room. More than 100 larger-than-life figures are depicted on the frieze – which is also known under the names Giant Frieze or Great Frieze – the original of which was 100 metres long.
The friezes of the high altar show the mythic battle between gods and giants, it commemorates the military successes of the rulers of Pergamon. The so-called Gigantomachy is a widespread subject in Greek art: The gods as the guarantors of a just order are opposed by the mortal giants as the personification of chaotic-seeming natural forces. Different gods are depicted in each direction of the enormous frieze. Let's give them a short visit!
The east frieze of the Altar
From the steep road behind the Great Altar sanctuary, a visitor would enter the terrace through the main gate and immediately face the east frieze of the Altar. At the centre of this frieze, the scene of the battle against the Giants is dominated by the Olympians and Herakles.
The East frieze of the Altar (2nd Quarter 2nd century BCE) by UnknownPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Next to Hera, Zeus’ four-horse chariot is probably led by the messenger goddess Iris (preserved only in one huge wing).
A tall erect athletic with the flowing robe dominates the battle scene, it is Zeus, the father of the Gods.
He appears to have defeated two giants already, the third to the far right rises up with raised arms as if to defend off the blow but Zeus is striking back. Originally he was probably holding a lightning bold in his right hand. The giant is about to receive its deathly blow.
Zeus‘ daughter Athena tears Alcyoneus away from the protective power of the earth. The serpent sent by her tenses for the lethal blow. Earth Mother Gaia pleads in vain for the life of her son.
The goddess defeats the giant.
South frieze of the Altar (2nd Quarter 2nd century BCE) by UnknownPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Along with her mother Phoibe, Asteria heads the sequence of Titans who preside over the forces of light and time. Asteria wrenches back the head of a snake-legged Giant in order to drive her sword into his chest. Phoibe drives a long torch at a retreating Giant.
Among the feathers of this powerful figure with spreading wings, owl masks are tucked. This may be Uranos, father of the Titans and god of the night sky
He is about to deliver a violent sword stroke to his enemy, who is already on his knees. In a vain attempt to defend himself, the Giant raises his fist wrapped in an animal skin.
The next group to the left shows a young god (Aither?) wrestling with a lion-headed, snake-legged Giant. Although the centre of the south frieze is less well preserved, the moon goddess Selene appears astride a mule facing left.
Helios knocks down two Giants with his four-horse chariot while Eos rides on ahead. Sitting side-saddle on her mount, ...
...Eos was likely shown driving a torch into the bull-headed, snake-legged Giant advancing from the left.
The burly monster, armed with bull horns, is being attacked by multiple gods and goddesses at the same time.
The north frieze of the Altar
On the north side, on the wall to the left of the Altar, other night and fate deities appear such as the Moirai and the Gorgons. As well as the Olympian gods are to be seen here, such as Aphrodite with the lance and Poseidon, the god of the sea, who rises from the water with a horse and chariot.
The north frieze of the Altar (2nd Quarter 2nd century BCE) by UnknownPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
In the centre of the north frieze, a young goddess charges to the right. Her hair is pinned back and her garment swirls around her.
She hurls a vase with a snake wrapped around it at her enemy, who is already falling to the ground. This extraordinary female figure has been interpreted as Nyx, goddess of the night, or Persephone, queen of the Underworld.
Medusa, a Gorgon and one of the diabolical daughters of the ancient sea gods, ...
... grips a fleeing snake-legged Giant by the hair and raises her sword for the fatal blow, while the second Gorgon drives her spear into the chest of an opponent lying on the ground.
A third Gorgon, the “lion goddess” attacks ...
... a powerful Giant with scaly wings and snake legs. He tries to deflect the sharp spear aimed at him while the lion attacks his comrade, biting him in the left arm.
The sea god’s retinue occupies the west side of the northern wing of the Altar. Poseidon's son, Triton – a fantastical creature with a sea snake tail, horse body, and human torso – joins his mother Amphitrite.
Altar scaffolded (2014/2014) by Thieme, PeterPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Currently, the frieze is completely scaffolded and visitors to the Pergamonmuseum can not visit it.
A complex but necessary protection – since 2013, as part of the master plan Museum Island the Pergamonmuseum has been partially restored. The room containing the Pergamon Altar is expected to remain closed to the public until 2023.
Pergamon Panorama (2011/2011) by Asisi, YadegarPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Gods and giants are brought back to life – in a detailed projection in glorious colour. As long as the Pergamon Altar stays closed, there is a monumental alternative available for visitors; life in ancient Pergamon on a 30 metre high all-round panorama screen. This detailed reconstruction was made by Berlin artist Yadegar Asisi and his team.
Archaeological input bringing with it the weight of 130 years of research was supplied by the Collection of Classical Antiquities. This gigantic, colourful panorama of the ancient city can be seen from the autumn of 2018 until the reopening of the Pergamon Altar, anticipated to be in 2023.
3D Model Pergamon Altar (2nd Quarter 2nd century BCE) by UnknownPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Zeus, Athena, Nyx – captured exactly to the micrometre. The interactive 3D model means, too, that the Great Altar of Pergamon can be explored in detail. With the support of the federal government and the scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute, the Collection of Classical Antiquities completed a laborious 3D scan in September 2014 before the extensive restoration work started – a fascinating visualisation of this more than 2,000 year-old masterpiece of Hellenistic art.
Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Concept / Editing: Astrid Alexander
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz