Ancient Art and the Environment in Which it Exists By Valerie McDermott

For over 30 years, Greece and England have been in a legal dispute over the Elgin Marbles, each side claiming that the sculptures belong to them. The British focus on the environmental effects that the marbles have been exposed to in Greece, whereas the Greeks insist that the sculptures were illegally taken from the Acropolis. When analyzed using Laudato Si by Pope Francis, and the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, both Greece and England have valid arguments.

Pope Francis’s Laudato Si is an informative text that details several approaches to social and environmental issues in the modern world in the context of Catholicism and Catholic Social Teaching. The text focuses on the harm that is being done to God’s creation, “our Sister, Mother Earth” as humanity continues to abuse and destroy natural resources (LS, par. 1). Pope Francis also discusses the responsibilities of humanity to preserve the earth and all that God has provided to us. One theme that is emphasized is social ecology, which describes the relationship between the environment and society. It focuses on the “interrelation between ecosystems and between the various spheres of social interaction” and “if everything is related, then the health of a society’s institutions has consequences for the environment and the quality of human life” (LS, par. 141, 142). This idea of institutions that make up the social atmosphere has direct connections to the environment and how humans interact with the planet. Pope Francis employs the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, such as care for God’s creation and the call to family, community, and participation.

In Chapter 4 of Laudato Si, Pope Francis calls for a cultural revolution to help bring about change in social ecology and in the environment. He also discusses cultural ecology and how “it is not a matter of tearing down and building new cities … Rather, there is a need to incorporate the history, culture, and architecture of each place, thus serving its original identity” (LS, par. 143). This means that in order to move forward, one must respect the preexisting culture and ways of life in that society. Cultural ecology is what helps to establish institutions, which guide society. These institutions help form the basis of social ecology, as discussed in Laudato Si. One example of an institution is art museums. These wonderful facilities are able to preserve and display pieces of art from many cultures all around the world and from many different time periods. Art plays a key role in helping shape society, and museums exist as institutions that help keep those ancient cultures intact, though this is not without disputes about which artifacts belong in which museums or countries.

In particular, the ongoing legal battle over the Elgin Marbles between England and Greece showcases the importance of art in the context of culture and the interconnectedness of society and the environment. In 1803, Thomas Bruce, also known as Lord Elgin, traveled to Greece and found the statues from the pediment of the Parthenon on the ground, most of which had been broken. Upon seeing the art just being taken over by the surrounding earth, Lord Elgin took many of the sculptures back to England with him and displayed them in his home in London, which allowed many to visit and appreciate these ancient works of art (Josse/Scala 2017). By 1817, the sculptures were placed in the British Museum in London, where they are still on public display, in a climate controlled, clean air environment. Lord Elgin, had also removed one of the Caryatids from the Erechtheion in Athens. These maiden figures acted as columns for a smaller temple on the Acropolis. The five remaining Caryatids have since been placed in a climate controlled museum in Athens, along with all other sculptures from the Parthenon. However, the difference between the Caryatids in Athens when compared with the one in London is obvious. The current environment has had a tremendous impact on the statues when left defenseless to pollution and the elements.

The discoloration is clear when comparing the left figure, from the British Museum, and the right side, the remaining Caryatids in Greece.

The impact that pollution has had on these priceless works of art forms the basis of the legal battle between England and Greece over where the Elgin Marbles belong, in terms of ownership and geographical location. The English argue that the marbles should remain in the British Museum where they have been cared for and restored for the past 200 years (Dunn, 2019). Greece argues that Lord Elgin illegally removed the marbles from the Parthenon, and they belong to the Greeks as part of their history and culture. The British have taken the stance that the Greeks did not care for these pieces, and, until recently, they did not have a climate controlled place to house both the Pediment sculptures and the sixth Caryatid. Furthermore, they had left the Parthenon pieces on the ground, broken and damaged for centuries, and Lord Elgin was able to restore the sculptures, for the most part, to their former glory (Dunn, 2019).

The idea of caring for creation is a key principle of Catholic Social Teaching, and in Laudato Si by Pope Francis. Christians believe that God created man as part of creation, so this means that art created by man is also considered to be part of creation, as it can be used to express faith. Creation, in the context of art, are the sculptures and architecture themselves. They were sculpted with immense care and detail, similar to the amount of love that God poured into Mother Earth, according to the Christian faith. Art was a way for the Ancient Greeks to worship and honor their gods. It would bring the community together to participate in the rituals and sacrifices to their patron god, who was Athena for Athens. The idea of coming together to practice and engage in one’s faith is another pillar of Catholic Social Teaching. Pope Francis states “it is not enough to seek the beauty of design. More precious still is the service we offer to another kind of beauty: people’s quality of life, their adaptation to the environment, encounter and mutual assistance” (LS, par. 150). This shows how it is not sufficient to just appreciate the art and the world around us, but rather we need to engage in the environment and with other people to eventually understand how the world is deteriorating in front of our lives. He writes that “there is also a need to protect those common areas, visual landmarks”, like the Acropolis (LS, par. 151). We need to care for both the environment and the spaces that it acts in. The Parthenon was an ancient space for people to worship Athena, with both prayer and rituals taking place outside of the temple, in the area in front of the temple. This idea of outdoor service and active engagement with the earth is not foreign.

Caring for the art is the main argument as to why the British should keep the Elgin Marbles. When Lord Elgin took the sculptures back to England, they were cleaned and maintained and then put on display in a protective public space. The care that has been provided to the sculptures since being placed in the British Museum is undeniable, especially when comparing the Caryatid in the museum to the figures that were left exposed to pollution and the environment. The faces of the Caryatids that remained at the Erechtheion have been flattened by the wind and sea mist, and the dresses are discolored, turning a rust color as opposed to the marble color of the figure in the British Museum. This discoloration is mostly due to air pollution from the city of Athens. As Pope Francis writes, “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (LS, par. 21). In the context of art and sculpture, the figures have begun to look less magical, as they have been deteriorating for centuries, and the environment has eaten away at the marble, turning rust-colored, and the faces have been flattened by the wind. The argument that the English make when considering the environmental effects is that the Greeks have left these priceless figures unprotected, and the effects are clear. The marbles that the British Museum have maintained are in a much better state when compared to the ones left in Greece.

The connection between the care of art and the care of the environment, along with an active engagement with both are central themes of both Catholic Social Teaching and Pope Francis’s Laudato Si. The call for preservation is clear, “this sister (Mother Earth) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her” (LS, par. 2). The effects of pollution on art is evident when examining the Parthenon sculptures and the Caryatids from the Erechtheion. The English had removed the sculptures and one of the maiden figures restored them and placed them in a controlled environment for public admiration, whereas the Greeks had left the remaining figures exposed to pollution, which has affected the beauty of the sculpture. A legal battle over where the figures belong, in terms of both ownership and location, has been raging for almost half of a century, each country, Greece, and England claiming to have the means and right to continue the care for the art. This idea of caring for creation, whether it be sculpture or the environment is key to understanding how to better engage with the earth, according to Catholic Social Teaching. Participation in all spheres must be active in order to enact change, whether it be in environment, art appreciation, or in institutions that have influence over many, like museums. Admiration of Mother Earth and the art of Ancient Greece continue to be interwoven, as most of the works were placed in outdoor worship spaces, all of which need to be protected for future generations to experience and appreciate.

Despite both England and Greece have valid arguments, the Elgin Marbles are a key part of Ancient Greek culture and identity. They represent the history of their people, as well as their appreciation for beauty and all of God(s)'s creations at the height of the Classical Era. Greece, though the did abandon the sculptures for centuries, have created a museum with deliberately empty spaces, awaiting the Elgin Marbles and the ability to display the complete collection of the artifacts that remain.

The Acropolis Museum is eagerly awaiting the chance display the sixth Caryatid, with the space remaining open, symbolizing how the museum is prepared to care for the sculpture.


Dunn, Josephine. “Ancient Greece.” 9 Apr. 2019, Scranton, Hyland Hall.

Franziskus, and Naomi Oreskes. Encyclical on Climate Change Et Inequality: on Care for Our Common Home. Melville House, 2015.

Josse/Scala, et al. “How the Parthenon Lost Its Marbles.” National Geographic, 28 Mar. 2017, www.nationalgeographic.com/archaeology-and-history/magazine/2017/03-04/parthenon-sculptures-british-museum-controversy/.

NewsHour, PBS. “Rescued or Seized? Greece's Long Fight with UK over Parthenon Marbles.” YouTube, YouTube, 22 Sept. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=_q_anSjKpIM.

“Parthenon Sculptures.” British Museum, www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/news_and_press/statements/parthenon_sculptures.aspx.

Poggioli, Sylvia. “Greece Unveils Museum Meant For 'Stolen' Sculptures.” NPR, NPR, 19 Oct. 2009, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113889188.

Ακρόπολης, Acropolis Museum - Μουσείο. “Συντήρηση Καρυάτιδας (Conserving the Caryatids).” YouTube, YouTube, 29 June 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwCNfQh8Woo.

Created By
Valerie McDermott


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