On Saturday we visited the Acropolis Museum in Athens. It is beautifully laid out, and naturally its artistic merit is unmistakeable. But there is more to it. It was not built to be art for art’s sake. Just as Plato and Aristotle have become philosophical icons not just for Greeks but for the whole western world, so also the Parthenon is iconic for western culture and architecture.

The theologian in me asks what it means. What does this icon affirm? There in the museum I felt a juxtaposition of two stories expressing radically different values.

The first is, classically, the Parthenon. Built when Athens was at the height of its power, it was intended as a symbol of supremacy. We are tops. During the Persian invasions Athens had been destroyed and its citizens had emigrated. When they drove the Persians out and returned to their city, they led the Greek alliance. Athens organised a pooling of funds to maintain the anti-Persian alliance. The alliance gradually turned into an empire. Taxation of other cities provided the funds for ambitious building projects like the Parthenon.

West pediment of the Parthenon, showing contest between Athena and PoseidonPower. Supremacy through victory. So most of the sculptures on the Parthenon depicted contests and victories.

I couldn’t help reflecting on the words of the New Testament scholar Marcus Borg: you can have empire or you can have democracy, but not both. He knew. He was, after all, American.

I was also reminded of the words of Jesus, looking at the temple in Jerusalem, warning that one day not one stone would be left upon another. If he had said it of the Parthenon it would have been an exaggeration, but one cannot help reflecting how brittle is supremacy through victory. Sooner or later the victory will be someone else’s, and erstwhile victor will join the ranks of the vanquished and the statues will get buried.

1711Kalavryta

The other story is of the countless votive offerings. People prayed to gods, or gave thanks, for one thing or another, and expressed it with a gift. Ordinary anxieties, ordinary gratitude.

I felt on more familiar ground here. Today every parish church has its collection of plaques and ornaments, given by someone in memory of someone or for some other cause. An event is special, and we mark it in some way that relates it to the divine.

I write this in the town of Kalavryta (right). It was in a nearby monastery that the Greeks declared their independence from the Turks in 1821, and began the rebellion that eventually established Greece as an independent state. On one day in 1943 the town’s entire male population was killed by the occupying Germans in retaliation for the resistance. Both events are recorded in public monuments (below right). Some events deserve memorials because they have a meaning that transcends – that points to significance and meaning beyond the ordinary.

Memorial to the men killed in Kalavryta in 1943

Both these stories provide plenty of artefacts for museums: temples, statues, plaques.

The proclamations of victory exalt winners. Today we value the Parthenon for different reasons, but when it was built it exuded superiority. Admire us, it said. Classical Greece, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, was full of competitiveness.

The other story tends not to be competitive at all. Instead of saying ‘Look at how much greater we are than our competitors’, it says ‘Look at how we are all part of something greater than ourselves’.

Is it possible to do both at once? I doubt it.