The Naked Glory of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Pediment Sculpture

Ancient Greek Figures on Pediment of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Gigantic in size, unusual in color and proudly displaying their private parts, the pantheon of ancient Greek gods and goddesses ensconced at the top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art building may be one of the city’s most overlooked cultural treasures. Entitled “Western Civilization,” the arrangement of highly-colored ceramic statues features Grecian deities, humans, a cave-dwelling monster, several animals and an anthropomorphic tree. It’s been overlooking the city from the highest point on Fairmount Hill for nearly a century.

If you spend any time on the Philadelphia Museum of Art‘s huge front plaza (the plateau to which the Rocky steps ascend) you may notice that, although they pass below it by the thousands, few visitors ever really notice the massive pediment sculpture 90 feet above them. But binoculars or a telephoto lens provide quite a different sight. What a popular selfie experience it would make at ground level; imagine standing, selfie stick in hand, between a 12-foot-high Zeus, penis in full view, and Aphrodite, the Goddess of love, all but totally naked beside him.

‘Sacred and profane love’
In the 1920s, the figures were molded, cast, and fired at the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company in Perth Amboy, N.J., in huge new kilns built to handle the extraordinary project. The architect called the pediment display “Western Civilization,” saying it commemorated “the influences that shaped Western art, with the central, supreme Zeus representing the creative force or the will of man.” The whole thing, he said, “symbolized the two great defining themes of human art and civilization: sacred and profane love.”

Seen up close, the ceramic figures of the pediment sculpture are striking in how completely new and unblemished they look after so many decades of continuous exposure to the elements.

Exterior of the Northern wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
The tableau of polychrome terracotta Grecian figures is in the pediment of the northern wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When unveiled in 1932, it was said to be the most ambitious polychrome terra cotta sculptural project since the days of Ancient Greece.
The glazed polychrome terra cotta statuary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's focal pediment.
Polychrome, which simply means “many colors,” was a a glazing technique used by the Greeks to brightly color their religious statuary. Terra cotta is a kind of earthenware — a ceramic — that is fired in a kiln. The project required research to re-establish the art and skill of creating such massive polychrome terra cotta figures.
Pediment statuary on the ancient Temple of Zeus in Greece.
More than 2,400 years ago, at the zenith of ancient Greek culture, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia had pediments filled with sculptural tableaus of the gods. This is what that temple looked like.
The Museum of Art pediment figures identified
In the 1920s, Philadelphia’s leaders were determined to enhance the city’s status by building an art museum as grand as the classical temples of Ancient Greece. Much of the museum’s architecture, along with its pediment sculpture, was modeled on those of the ancient Temple of Zeus.
Statuary of Eos, Greek goddess of the dawn
In the far left corner of the pediment is the Owl, the bird of the night. Pushing away from the night is Eos, goddess of the dawn.
Statuary of Nous, the ancient Greek personification of human intellect
Next to Eos is Nous, the ancient Greek personification of human intellect and wisdom.
Statues of Adonis, lover of Aphrodite and Eros, the Greek love god.
On the left, with his lyre, is Adonis, mortal lover of the goddess Aphrodite, who died but rose back to life. The winged figure to his right is Eros, the love god.
Statue of ancient Greek's Demeter, protector of marriage and the young child, Triptolemus, who she saved.
Next to Zeus is Demeter, protector of marriage. She holds the hand of Triptolemus, an ill child whose life she saved. Providing a sense of the figures’ size is the Art Museum photo of the child figure when it was being cast.
Statues of ancient Greek princess Ariadne and Daphne, the virgin river nymph
Holding her cloak in a wing-like pose is Ariadne, the princess who gave Theseus a ball of string so he could find his way back from the labyrinth after killing the monstrous Minotaur. The tree in the background is Daphne, the virgin river nymph. She was turned into a laurel tree by her father, the river god, to prevent her from being raped by the god of music and dance.
Statues of ancient Greek figures Theseus and the Minotaur he killed.
On the left is Theseus, who killed the Minotaur. In myth, he went on to become the King of Athens, famed for his bravery.
Statue of the Minotaur monster of Greek myth
The ghastly result of the sun god’s daughter’s sexual encounter with a bull, the Minotaur had cloven hooves, animal legs and a human torso. Myths have him terrorizing the region of ancient Greece, feeding on young males and virgin girls until Theseus killed him.
Statue of the ancient Greek spirit Python
In the shadow of the Minotaur is the serpent Python, an earth spirit who lived at Delphi, which ancient Greeks believed to be the center of the known world. Python was an enemy of Zeus.
Unadorned pediment at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
The three pediments surrounding the Museum’s eastern courtyard were supposed to have similar groups of polychrome statuary. But after the heroic labors required to produce the first set, Atlantic Terra Cotta Company went bankrupt and closed. Today, the other two pediments remain empty.