The Nereid Monument at Xanthos, Lycia, Minor Asia

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Nereid Monument, British Museum, London

This monument is a tomb, built around 380 BC by Greek architects and sculptors, for a king of Lycia (in south-west Anatolia). It consists of an Ionic building, similar to a Greek temple, on top of a large podium, both richly decorated with sculpture.

The front pediment shows a royal court, and the rear a fight. The architrave frieze depicts a hunt (east and west sides), a battle (south side), and probably the preparation for a banquet (north side). The interior frieze shows a feast (north), sacrifice (west) and assembly (east), and the podium frieze a king receiving elders, a siege, fighting and horsemen.

Between the columns stand statues of women, often referred to as “Nereids”, from which the tomb takes its name. The monument was brought to the British Museum in the mid 19th century.(1)

Nereid Monument, British Museum, London

The Nereid Monument (taken from Xanthos by Charles Fellows) was probably built for Arbinas, a Lycian dynast, and his family.  His name appears on the inscribed pillar at Xanthos.  He is mentioned elsewhere as the builder of the Temple of Leto outside Xanthos, and other monuments on the acropolis of Xanthos.  Arbinas’s exploits are likened to those of a number of Greek heroes, and the theme of the podium frieze, a battle in the Greek manner, is possibly taken from the life of one of those heroes.  The smaller podium frieze shows the seige and surrender of a city and probably reflects a real event from the life of Arbinas, who died about 380 BC.The monument is Lykian, and is much influenced by the Ionic temples of the Acropolis of Athens and its lavish decorative sculpture, is a mixture of Greek and Lycian style and iconography. (4)

Nereid Monument, British Museum, London

The architecture has affinities with the Ionic temples of the later 5th century BC in Athens, notably the Nike Temple and Erechtheion on the Acropolis.  The sculpture too, shows strong influence from the Greek mainland and the sculptors, like the architect, were probably Greek.  The overall design of the monument, however, was subordinated to its function and, although the style of the scupture is Greek, much of what it portrays is Lycian. (4)

Nereid Monument, British Museum, London

On bis first visit to Xanthos, in April, 1838, Charles Fellows saw a single slab of the fourth frieze, and on his second visit, in April, 1840, he found a slab of the first frieze. The naval expedition of Jan., Feb., 1842, with which Fellows was associated, excavated the remains of the monument, and arranged for their transport to England. The position occupied by the Nereid Monument was the brow of a conspicuous though not lofty cliff, rising immediately above the main approach to the city, distant about half a mile from the Acropolis. The whole of the building, except a part of the solid substructure, had been shaken down by an earthquake, and when discovered the remains were scattered round the substructure and for a considerable distance down the slopes of the hill. (6)

Marble frieze from the Nereid Monument, British Museum, London

The Lycian culture is known to be one of the most important cultures of Iron Age in Anatolia. It has achieved masterpieces and has exerted a lasting influence. In architecture, the rock-cut tombs, pillar tombs and
pillar-mounted sarcophagus in Xanthos have no parallel. This type of funerary architecture is unique, and are located in still relatively preserved surroundings. Their value was recognized in antiquity and they influenced the art of neighboring provinces: the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus is directly an heir of the Xanthos Nereid Monument. In modern times, the fact that some architectural and sculptural members of outstanding artistic value were taken to London caused a world-wide recognition of their merit, and consequently, the Xanthos marbles became an important chapter in the history of ancient art. As a matter of fact,
Xanthos is already a part of the World Cultural heritage. (5)

The podium of the Nereid Monument enclosed the burial chamber. It was crowned with two carved friezes, one above the other. These show scenes of battle between warriors in Greek costume. The scenes perhaps represent exploits from the life of the ruler who was interred in the tomb, or mythical battle; it is possible that this confusion was intended. (2)

Relief showing warriors storming a city, Marble frieze slab from the Nereid Monument, British Museum, London

This slab shows a scene from the siege of a city. Warriors scale a ladder set up against defensive walls. Beneath two squatting figures strain on ropes to prevent it from being hurled backwards by defenders, while their comrades, carrying large round shields, begin to ascend.(2)

Statues from the Nereid Monument, British Museum, London

The daughters of the sea-deities Nereus and Doris are known as Nereids. Numbering between 50 and 100, they were popular figures in Greek literature. They were believed to be personifications of the waves of the ocean, and benign toward humanity. The best known of the Nereids were Amphitrite, consort of Poseidon (a sea and earthquake god); Thetis, wife of Peleus, king of the Myrmidons, and mother of the hero Achilles; and Galatea. (3)

Statue from the Nereid Monument, British Museum, London

This figure is draped in a fine chiton (tunic), its folds enlivened by the rush of the sea breeze against her. A mantle falls over her left shoulder. (3)

Statue from the Nereid Monument – detail, British Museum, London

She was carried along by a sea bird visible below the hem of her skirt. Her portrayal here is perhaps meant to suggest the means by which the soul of the deceased was transported to the afterlife. (3)

Statue from the Nereid Monument – detail, British Museum, London

Sources

1. University of Oxford, Classical Art Research Centre

2. British Museum, Marble frieze slab from the Nereid Monument

3. British Museum, Statue from the Nereid Monument 

Statue from the Nereid Monument – detail, British Museum, London

4. British Museum’s Lycian Collection

5. State of Conservation of World Heritage Properties in Europe, Turkey – Xanthos 

6. A. H. Smith, Catalogue of British Museum Sculpture II (1900)

Statue from the Nereid Monument , British Museum, London