Gods and Heroes from the Parthenon at the GC

August 10, 2017

Casts of iconic art from the Parthenon now grace the Graduate Center's lobby and Mina Rees Library, thanks to a generous loan from the City College of New York.

Casts of iconic art from the Parthenon now grace the Graduate Center's lobby and Mina Rees Library, thanks to a generous loan from the City College of New York.

For more than 100 years, the casts were used to teach art and art history classes at CCNY.

The 24 early casts in the collection are direct copies made from molds of the marbles - friezes, metopes, and pediments - that decorated the Parthenon's exterior.

The friezes, widely admired for their composition, portray 5th century B.C. Athenians in religious procession. The metopes are of distinct scenes, and the pediments depict Greek gods, such as Dionysus (god of wine and related pleasures), and episodes from Greek mythology.

A rare view of the Dionysus's back. At the Parthenon, Dionysus faced out from a pediment (or gable).


The original marbles were moved from Athens to Britain in the early 1800s by the seventh Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce. While the removal remains controversial, the casts were intended to promote study and appreciation of Greek art.

The CCNY casts are thought to be among the first to arrive in the United States, and they are believed to carry surface details that were subsequently lost from the originals as a result of restoration in 1961.


The Parthenon casts were used to teach art and art history at the City College of New York for over 100 years.

Acquired by CCNY in 1852, the casts were housed in the art department for more than 100 years.

When the casts were purchased, the Parthenon marbles were widely considered the greatest works of art ever created, and Phidias, their assumed maker, was the go-to exemplar of sculptural genius.

In 1992, the building that housed the casts was torn down due to asbestos and new construction, and the casts were sent to a conservator in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA) underwrote the cost of restoring the casts and housed them at Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue - the foundation's U.S. headquarters.

The recent sale of the building and a planned refurbishment of the lobby meant that the casts needed a new home, and the GC stepped up.

"Mounting the City College frieze in the Graduate Center preserves a key piece of CUNY's history as an institution offering access to artworks and texts traditionally claimed as the exclusive property of the elite," said Joy Connolly, GC provost and professor of classics. "The complex history of the original marbles, still unresolved, reminds us of ongoing debates over cultural ownership and the changing role of Greece and Rome in European and American politics and culture."

The opportunity to display the CCNY antique plaster casts of the Parthenon sculptures is one of those moments when everything came together at the right time, said Ray Ring, facilities planning director at the GC. "I believe that Trowbridge and Livingston, the original architects of the B. Altman department store, and Gwathmey Siegel & Associate Architects, the architects that renovated the building for the Graduate Center, as well as Benjamin Altman, store owner and art collector, would be very pleased with this addition to the building."


The head of one of the horses of moon goddess Selene, responsible for pulling the moon across the sky.

"I am delighted that these important works are returning to an arena dedicated to scholarship," said Keith Wilson, director of the Center for the Humanities at the GC. "For years, they have been foundational objects for study, encouraging close attention to the material artifacts of another culture and another time. We at the GC are carrying on a vital tradition."

Professor Harriet Senie  (GC/CCNY, Art History) played a lead role in finding support for preserving and ultimately displaying the casts.

"Thanks to excellent conservation by Connie Hansen, funded by the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation USA, these remarkable casts are believed to be closer to the originals than the originals, which have suffered some rough wear," said Senie. "I'm delighted that they will be at the Graduate Center where they will continue to be appreciated and studied by students and accessible to the general public."

Casts of the Parthenon frieze adorn the Graduate Center's lobby.

Wilson added that the casts' display at the GC's home - the former B. Altman and Company department story - is fitting in another way. Benjamin Altman, an avid art collector, was the first major client of art dealer Henry Duveen. It was Duveen's nephew Joseph who funded the gallery that now houses the original Parthenon marbles at the British Museum in London.

"It is not entirely fanciful to say the money spent in Altman's store on Ladies Mile in midtown Manhattan ultimately ended up housing the Elgin marbles whose casts now furnish the old store's walls - a tale of two empires," Wilson said.


In the GC lobby are two large metopes showing centaurs and lapith in combat. One more metope is located in the library. Over the entrance to the library are two blocks from the west frieze showing galloping horsemen. Over the entrance to the Elebash Recital Hall are two blocks showing a chariot race and horsemen.

"In the library we had the opportunity to reunite 12 sections of the north frieze, in a 40-foot long sequence, showing galloping horsemen in the procession celebrating  the birth of Athena," Ring said. "There are three sections from the east frieze showing seated Greek gods, including Hermes, Dionysus, Demeter, and Ares. From the east faade pediment of the Parthenon we have the complete three dimensional sculptures of Dionysus and the horse head from Selene's chariot that brought the moon every night."

The casts are on long-term loan from CCNY. The ones in the library will be visible to passersby through the large picture windows facing Fifth Avenue (at 34th Street). The GC's lobby is open to the public.

Financial support for the conservation and restoration of the casts and their reinstallation at the GC was provided by the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA).

See the full gallery.

Photos by Alex Irklievski