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Sunday 5 May 2013

The Frieze of Parnassus

The Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens isn’t London’s most popular tourist attraction. When it was erected in 1872 it was the height of fashionable good taste, but within a few decades it had become a symbol of bad taste... and has remained so ever since. Personally I love high Victorian Gothic architecture, but I know I’m in a minority so I won’t go on about it.

The central focus of the Albert Memorial is, of course, the huge seated figure of Prince Albert (the consort of Queen Victoria). But there are many other sculptures that deserve (but rarely get) close scrutiny. In particular there’s the Frieze of Parnassus that surrounds the base of the memorial. This depicts 160-plus historical figures from the world of the Arts. Although it’s not obvious from my photograph, each of the figures is identified by name – the Wikipedia article has clearer photographs and a full list of names.

When faced with lists like this, it’s inevitable that questions of the “why didn’t they include X?” variety spring to mind. Of course, the figures are necessarily drawn from the limited range of cultures familiar to mid-19th century Londoners – the ancient world of Egypt, Greece and Rome, and the post-renaissance world of Western Europe. In addition, the figures are limited to five specific categories – Poets, Musicians, Painters, Sculptors and Architects. But even within these constraints there are some notable omissions. I thought it would be interesting to go through all the people I’ve mentioned in previous posts who meet the basic criteria, and see which of them are included and which aren’t.


There aren’t as many poets depicted as you might expect. This is because they share the south side of the frieze (that’s the one in my photograph) with musicians.

Shakespeare is one of only three English poets to make it onto the frieze. He featured previously in connection with the authorship question and the ghost in Hamlet. If you’re interested in the latter, then watch this space – there’s more paranormal Shakespeare in the pipeline.

Alexander Pope (who featured in Angels in Machines last year) is a good example of someone who ought to be on the frieze but isn’t. The only post-Shakespeare English poet who does make the cut is John Milton, who was mentioned in passing in The Great Pyramid, and other British inventions – due to his rather nutty suggestion that the Greek philosopher Pythagoras got all his ideas from the ancient Britons. Oddly, Pythagoras appears on the frieze as a “poet” too, four places to the left of Milton.

Two of Britain’s greatest poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (featured in The Person from Porlock and The Ancient Mariner) and Lord Byron (featured in The Year Without a Summer) don’t make it onto the frieze, whereas Goethe and Schiller – two German poets of the same period – do.

Of the other non-English poets depicted on the frieze, Homer was featured in Space Odyssey and Dante in Dante’s Divine Comic Book.


Haydn, Mozart and Weber are the only three composers featured in Fortean Opera who died before the Frieze of Parnassus was created – and they are all on it.

Four of the composers mentioned in Philip K. Dick, music critic meet the same criterion – but only three of them are on the frieze. Bach, Mozart (again) and Beethoven made it, but Schubert didn’t.


Botticelli, who featured in The Mystic Nativity, is conspicuously absent from the Frieze of Parnassus. This is odd because, as I said in that post, Botticelli “had a major influence on British painting of the Victorian period”. It’s even stranger that Botticelli’s more obscure contemporary Ghirlandaio is on the frieze.

Looking at the various omissions – Pope, Byron, Coleridge, Schubert, Botticelli – it strikes me they are all purveyors of what might be called “accessible” art. Maybe they weren’t considered sufficiently heavyweight to be commemorated in stone!

That’s certainly not true of the other great figures of the Florentine Renaissance—Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo—who are all there on the frieze. In fact Michelangelo makes two appearances, both as a painter and as a sculptor! Both Michelangelo and Leonardo were featured in The Da Vinci Code and medieval symbolism, with Michelangelo also cropping up in A sixteenth century dinosaur and Leonardo in Underground Art and Crashed UFO in London. Raphael featured in my post about The School of Athens (which also mentions Pythagoras, referred to earlier).

Bellini was the subject of Descent into Limbo, and Mantegna was also mentioned in that post. Both Bellini and Mantegna are shown on the frieze.

The only other Italian artist I remember featuring is Agostino Carracci, in Bacchus and Ariadne. If you look back at that distinctly R-rated post, you won’t be surprised to learn the Victorians didn’t include Agostino in their frieze. However, Agostino’s brother Annibale Carracci (mentioned in the same post) did make the cut.

Vermeer (who featured in Chasing Vermeer... and Charles Fort) isn’t on the frieze – possibly because he falls in the “too accessible” category. But I was pleased to see that Hogarth – the epitome of accessible art – is right up there on the Frieze of Parnassus. Hogarth featured in Paranormal investigation, 18th century style and Another historical myth-conception.

Turner (who featured in Enigmatic Art) is on the frieze, but needless to say his populist contemporary John Martin (featured in Art and Archaeology) isn’t. Incidentally, one of Martin’s most characteristic works is “Joshua commanding the Sun to stand still upon Gibeon” (1816). I recently came across another version of the same scene that Martin painted in 1848 in a more Turneresque style. They’re both reproduced here (1816 top and 1848 bottom) so you can decide which you like best (I think they’re both great pictures).


I can only remember mentioning a sculptor once – that was Donatello in Alien simulacrum, one of my very first blog posts. Anyway, Donatello is there on the Frieze of Parnassus.


As far as the Frieze of Parnassus is concerned, the “architects” of the ancient world aren’t really architects but patrons of architecture – the people who commissioned the buildings, rather than the people who designed them (the identities of the latter being lost in the mists of time). So, for example, “Cheops” is depicted as the architect of the Great Pyramid. Interest in Egyptology was still relatively new when the Albert Memorial was built, and the great wave of pyramidiocy that swept over the English-speaking world came later (see The Great Pyramid, and other British inventions, already mentioned above).

One of the oddest inclusions is Sennacherib, who would have been best known in Victorian times as the villain of a popular poem by Lord Byron (who unlike Sennacherib didn’t make it onto the Frieze of Parnassus). Presumably Sennacherib was considered the “architect” of the city of Nineveh, which had only recently been unearthed by archaeologists when the Albert Memorial was built. Sennacherib was mentioned in my posts on The Bible's Excluded Middle, Gods of the Bible and The Siege of Lachish... the last being about my ebook of the same title (which will tell you all you need to know about Sennacherib, should you choose to buy it).

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