• Vivian Mellon Snyder

Historical and Technological Perceptions of the Great Altar of Pergamon

Updated: Nov 22, 2020


The Altar of Zeus at Pergamon, since its excavation and reassembly in Berlin, has garnered massive interest both from the general public and from scholars who accolade its embodiment of the Hellenistic baroque. Its Giants have been called burlesque- baring open, toothy mouths characteristic of the Hellenistic period, with contorted faces nearly expressing sound; perhaps they shout, scream in pain, and roar. It is a vivid, dramatic work, and its compositional complexity is perhaps unmatched by that of any other Hellenistic monuments. The work is so large, and its illustrated activities so interwoven, that examining the work’s intricate details while internalizing its more collective composition and relationship to surrounding architecture-- without seeing the work in person-- is nearly impossible. The increasing availability of 3D models, however, has in recent years improved the altar’s accessibility to those who are unable to see the monument in person. Beyond simulating the altar, these models also provide improved, innovative modes through which viewers might engage with the work. The advent of virtual viewing, however, is just the latest of many radical shifts in how the altar has been examined. A narrative of select lenses through which the Great Altar has been considered-- in Pergamon, unified Germany, the contemporary museum, and, most recently, in digital spaces-- sheds light on how mutable the perceptions of even “iconic” works are, as the setting (whether social or physical) in which they exist changes.

Photo of the altar at Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Pergamon was originally built as a fortress city during the early Hellenistic period. Following Attalos I’s victory over the Gauls and Seleucids, the city became the royal center of the Attalid Kingdom. Though the Kingdom was short-lived (230’s-133 BC), it’s leaders heavily invested in Pergamon’s cultural standing among older cities like Athens and Alexandria; capital was directed toward the construction of a library which rivaled even that of Athens, as well as several temples, palaces, and the Altar of Zeus. What remains of that altar today is not the altar proper-- whether an altar had ever existed at the site is, in fact, currently disputed-- but rather the architectural structure which would have surrounded an altar. The structure was incomplete when excavated, but it is generally agreed that the original site was composed of Ionic colonnades surrounding a raised courtyard. Two risalite framed a steep

(Fig 1.) ca. 180-175 BCE. Pergamon, Great Altar of Zeus, plan

staircase which led to a central courtyard (Fig. 1). The interior walls surrounding the courtyard were decorated by the low-relief Telephos Frieze, while the exterior base of the structure was decorated by the Gigantomachy Frieze. The latter has garnered more public and scholarly interest than the former, largely because its illustration of the Hellenistic baroque not only departs from several Classical traditions still retained during the early Hellenistic period, but because even among the limited body of late Hellenistic art, examples of the so-called baroque are rare and originate almost entirely from Pergamon and Rhodes. The ‘baroque’ works of Hellenistic Greece are defined by Pollitt as:

“a theatrical manner of representation which emphasizes emotional intensity and dramatic crisis… restless, undulating surfaces; agonized facial expressions; extreme contrasts of texture created by deep carving of the sculptural surface… and the use of ‘open’ forms which deny boundaries and tectonic balance.”

In its intensely dramatic depiction of the battle between the Olympian gods and Giants, the Great Altar’s Gigantomachy Frieze meets each of Pollnitt’s metrics of the Hellenistic baroque. The frieze’s rendering of activity, emotion, and a viscious power-dynamic lends it an indisputably theatrical effect. The faces of the Giants, who will inevitably be defeated, bare their teeth in pain and anguish. Their foreheads are marked by deep, waving creases which suggest their utter desperation (Fig. 2). The effect of such contorted expressions is made all the more dramatic by their juxtaposition against those of their opponents. The gods’ faces are consistently tranquil, composed even as they actively engage in battle (Fig. 3). The baroque is further demonstrated in the frieze’s rejection of traditional borders. The figures of the frieze-- who are carved in such deep relief that in many moments they resemble sculpture in the round-- activate the architecture of the altar. Figures' feet step out onto the projecting base; bodies of animals, gods, and Giants weave between the foreground and background; and the bodies of the defeated collapse pitifully, their limbs spilling onto the same staircase which viewers will ascend (Fig 4).


The frieze is monumentally large, compositionally elaborate, and stylistically innovative. These visual qualities, along with its illustration of the Gigantomachy supposedly meant to allude to the Attalids’ defeat of the Gauls, altogether might have suggested to its Hellenistic viewers the financial, cultural, and political supremacy of Pergamon. Discussion of the original reception of the frieze, however, will of course always require conjecture. What is less often considered, but much more ascertainable, is how the modern viewer engages with the Altar of Zeus.


Excavations of the altar began in 1878. Carl Humaan, a German engineer, led the team that would facilitate the collection, transportation, and reassembly of the altar’s many fragments. A museum was constructed in Berlin to display the reconstruction of the altar. Its arrival to Berlin in the 1880’s closely followed Germany’s unification and victory against France. As such, the Gigantomachy Frieze’s portrayal of power and collective force would prove tangential to its German audience at the time. The altar's acquisition, further, marked Germany as a cultural successor to the Greeks. Pergamon had constructed new libraries and temples which looked toward those of Athens. Likewise, Berlin’s museums looked toward Paris and Rome as they joined in the movement to collect monumental Greek works. Upon its exhibition, it seems to have been transformed from a monument to a monumental icon-- a visual conduit of power, a recipient of adoration. Its iconocity (and those of similar monuments in Paris and Rome), however, was not granted by its material substance, but rather it was created by its having been displayed in a museum.


Today, the majority of the altar’s fragments remain in Berlin despite having been relocated to the updated Pergamonmuseum. Still, the history of the altar's excavation and reception in Germany is echoed by art historians. A common claim among Hellenistic scholars is that the altar is “the most important structure extant from the second century,” but such notions of iconicity were conceived in the museum gallery and have been perpetuated by its treatment since.


It is, however, difficult to deny the necessary relationship between the Pergamonmuseum and the Great Altar; in art history’s recent memory, the (relatively) complete altar has only existed in the museum. Photographs of the work will never reflect its expansive, weaving composition of figures. As a solution, contour drawings have been used to form compositional maps of the frieze. When shown alongside photographs of the frieze, these drawings are indeed helpful in simultaneously rendering finer detail and the compositional relationship between distant regions of the frieze. Even still, such modes of representation fail to capture scale, viewing angle, varied lighting, or depth of relief. There is a discrepancy between any art work and an image of that work, of course, but the Gigantomachy Frieze’s uninterrupted stretches of deep relief make it uncommonly difficult to document. And until very recently, to visually digest the work, one must go to the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin.


3D imaging technology, however, is changing the relationship between the contemporary viewer and altar. The Pergamonmuseum is currently undergoing renovation which began in 2014. To ensure that, in some capacity, the Great Altar would remain accessible to the public during the museum’s projected 10 year remodeling, work was done to create a 3D model of the monument. The Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media supplied funding to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlinmuseum (and “encyclopaedic museum” composed of a network of partner museums, archival collections, and institutes) and Fraunhofer IGD to facilitate the project. The two institutions spent a week planning their project. The subsequent process of scanning the moment was handled by Fraunhofer IGD. A combination of photogrammetric and laser scan data was used to create the final model: first, a team led by Pedro Santos placed a laser scanner at each of 51 locations around the frieze, compiling 176 million 3D points per location. This resulted in a final mesh which was accurate to one or two millimeters. The laser scans were then synthesized with photogrammetric technology: 40,000 color photographs of the frieze, taken from 8,065 points of reference, were interlaced with the earlier data to render a model that was accurate to less than half a millimeter.


This accuracy is certainly impressive, but it’s worth noting that the full-resolution version of the 3D model is not the one which is made available to the public. Interested parties may reach out to the museum if they want access to this model, but a different version is available to the public through the museum’s website.


The model, currently only available in German, opens with a virtual, interactive plaque. Before exploring the altar, the user is given the option to read about early excavations of the monument, its original function, its architecture, and it’s subject, the Gigantomachy. The user clicks the “Zur 3D-Anwendung” button to begin exploring the work. The Pergamon Altar is shown exploded, with its east, north, and south friezes rotated to face the two west risalite (Fig. 5). The structure is rendered against a grey background, situated on a block pedestal. Clicking and dragging the mouse allows the user to view the structure from any angle, but there is a very limited zoom function. There is no continuous zoom; to view the work more closely, the user must first choose an individual wall or risalit of the frieze, then select an informational blurb from the virtual plaque on the right (Fig. 6). It is not possible to freely navigate the model, and instead users are able to rotate the model only from viewing points (centered on selected moments which have accompanying descriptions).


As such, this general-audience model prioritizes information over image; the zoomed model becomes mostly an illustration of its moments’ descriptions. Navigating the model is felt as a user’s experience rather than a visitor’s experience. Long loading screens, an arbitrary grey background, and low resolution are just a few of the many issues that break immersion while exploring the 3D space, reaffirming that the model is an inferior alternative to seeing the work in person until renovations will be completed (expected in 2024). It does seem to be an excellent learning tool; yet, the digital model makes no effort to simulate the viewing experience which one might have in the museum; neither does it utilize this digital space to accomplish what the physical museum cannot. The latter, looking forward, is a larger concern. The Pergamonmuseum will reopen in several years, and visitors will once again be able to navigate the physical space of the monument. In the immediate future, no 3D model-- even one utilizing virtual reality technology-- will be able to fully recreate experiencing the work in person. But exploring the realm of 3D modeling’s capacity for alternative modes of experience is more than achievable.

User-generated content regarding the Altar of Zeus exists outside of the museum’s own archive. Some of this content is, in many ways, superior to the museum’s. Sketchfab, an online platform for publishing 3D, VR (virtual reality), and AR (augmented reality) content, is the most popular means of sharing 3D models of sculpture and architecture. The website has been live since 2012, but only with more recent advancements has the software used to generate 3D models become more affordable and intuitive. More people than ever are able to create these models without professional assistance, and as a result the platform is no longer dominated by commodifiable work like 3D printing templates; since almost anyone with a computer or phone can make a model, more and more files are being uploaded for scholarly interest, as well as the sake of the viewing experience. The City University of New York’s school of journalism holds free workshops for utilizing these resources, which speaks to the growing trend of crowd-sourced documentation. The internet’s status as an archival tool is nothing new-- but the role of the general public in archiving three dimensional work certainly is. The Pergamon Altar is among the many artworks which has been rendered through the models of Sketchfab users. Two contributors in particular, Henryk Furs and Oleg Shuldyakov, have published models which achieve, respectively, detail and immersion beyond that of the Pergamonmuseum’s (publicly available) model.

Henryk Furs has published two models of Pergamon’s Gigantomachy Frieze to Sketchfab. Both are group details, one of the Zeus group (Fig. 7) and one of the Rhea-Kybele group (Fig. 8). Each of the two models are disembodied from their greater architectural context within the altar. At first glance, they both closely resemble even smaller fragments of the wall/risalit models published by the Pergamonmuseum. Like the museum’s, Furs’ models live within an arbitrary, ambient space against a dark grey background. The base molding and upper cornice are removed, sense of scale is unclear, and the work is not viewed from eye-level. These departures from realism do not, however, break the viewer’s immersion in the model. The Pergamon museum offers only an impossibly raised, level view of the frieze. Furs’ model, on the other hand, can be viewed from 360 degrees and features continuous zoom. Sketchfab’s lighting engine is clearly superior to the one used in the Pergamonmuseum’s model, which helps to visualize the extent of the frieze’s impressive relief. Details like barely-visible veins and the tiny, waving striations which render Zeus’ torch can be seen in Furs’ model (Fig. 9). In the Rhea-Kybele group, one can move the camera inside the lion’s mouth, seeing individual teeth and even the curving palate at the roof of the mouth (Fig. 10). These incredible details surpass the capacities of even photography and in-person viewing: because the base on which the frieze rests is so high, these details could not be seen to the same degree in person.

Oleg Shuldyakov’s model of the frieze, similarly, is able to achieve something which both Furs’ and Pergamonmuseum’s had not-- it entirely recreates the museum space. His model is not divided into group panels, like those of the others. His model, both detailed and offering continuous zoom, impressively illustrates the frieze in its fuller architectural context. On a computer, the model is fully traversable; in first-person mode, the viewer may move the camera through the model at a natural eye level. Alternatively, one may choose to view it from more impossible angles, the camera seemingly floating within the “air”. The model is not placed against a grey background, but rather it is rendered within a simulated Pergamonmuseum. As such, it captures the scale of the room and the altar itself (Fig. 11). Further, when viewers do decide to view the monument from aforementioned “impossible” angles, the view of the floor far below the camera constantly reminds them that this is not how the work would be viewed in person (Fig. 12).



Shuldyakov’s model highlights other issues with the Pergamonmuseum’s-- particularly the sections of the frieze between the risalite and steps of the altar. Moments in which Giants spill over on the altar’s steps activate the monument. As viewers climb the steps, they necessarily look down on the crumpled bodies of Giants below them. Thus, Giants do not merely decorate the architecture of the altar, but on the steps especially they seem to live within it. The limited working space as the steps rise to the level of the platform is utilized wonderfully. No gods appear in this space; they stand tall along the rest of the frieze which is at its full height. Here, the sculptors take masterful advantage of the limited working space determined by the architecture-- the giants are crushed within the increasingly small frame between the upper cornice and the steps.The effect visually activates the frieze as well as it reinforces the theme of absolute, predetermined victory over the other.


When viewers of the Pergamonaltar’s model click to see of the risalite in greater detail, only slight projections suggest the staircase’s presence. This diminishes the ability to perceive the relationship between the frieze and architecture which does cannot entirely contain the former’s figures. And, to reiterate, because the view is leveled to the frieze, is it difficult to grasp the scale and the height from which the work would naturally be viewed. It’s rather easy to forget that the sculpture in these moments would be looked down on by a standing museum visitor. To the model’s users who have seen the work before, this might be understood. But to those who have never seen the altar, or to those who may never see the altar due to a disability or their location, this poses a great disservice.


Shuldyakov’s model, fully traversable, does not have the same issue. Exploring the work in first-person mode enables the viewers to traverse across the museum floor. They may look up at the raised frieze, or down on the down on the Giants in such moments, as they virtually climb stairs (Fig. 12). Stone arches, which in the pergamon museum’s rendering may seem to be a part of the altar, are clarified to in fact be a part of the museums architecture (Fig. 13).

Looking forward, one might imagine what else could be achieved through virtually rendering the altar. If the space and lighting of the Pergamon Museum can be recreated, then the work en situ almost certainly could as well . Even if doing so would require large degrees of research and inevitable conjecture, the model could in the meantime be easily reoriented. The Pergamonmuseum’s model represents the altar exploded and with the decorated sides of the walls rotated toward one another. While for the physical altar this is necessary due to space constraints within the museum, the reasons for maintaining this composition in the 3D model are unclear. Further, the altar’s original composition of panels remains uncertain. With the right program, a 3-D model would allow scholars to freely rearrange the panels and immediately visualize how those changes might affect the whole. Finally, 3D modeling would also allow virtual restoration of the work without compromising the physical frieze.


The Great Altar has not only been perceived differently by its general audience because of a transformed setting --moved from its original site in Pergamon to its present location in Berlin’s Pergamonmuseum-- but the evolving social narratives surrounding it, as well as its recently dual existence in physical and virtual realms, have led to altered modes of viewing the monument. These transformations of perceptions correspond to key historical events in Greece, Germany, and (in the past few years) the digital space. The altar was conceived in the context of the culturally blooming city of Pergamon, whose leaders sought to make it an equally influential city as Athens. Pergamon's Great Altar indeed recalled the architecture of monuments in Athens; however, the altar had the fortune of being constructed within the small window of time and within one of the few regions that was participating in the Hellenistic baroque movement. When the monument was reconstructed in Berlin, the visual impact of its highly theatrical Hellenistic baroque style, along with its depiction of total victory over the other, allowed it to fit neatly within a narrative which portrayed Berlin, like Paris and Rome at the time, as a cultural successor to to Greece. Finally, major shifts in how the monument is experienced correspond to evolving technologies-- particularly 3D modeling and virtual reality. These technologies are hardly fully-formed, but already they drastically increase the visual accessibility of the frieze. The most immediate utility of such renderings is that the altar’s museum is undergoing a ten year renovation; but even after the completion of renovations, it seems that such models remain an alternative, and in some cases an innovative improvement, to viewing the work in person.




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