During the time when Pericles was at the head of the state at Athens he spared no pains and no money to make the city beautiful. He himself was a lover and patron of the arts, and he was determined that Athens should become the very centre of art and refinement, and that she should have splendid public buildings and splendid sculptures and paintings. So he gathered round him all the great sculptors and painters, and set them to work to carry out his ambitious plans; and some of you know that the “Age of Pericles” is still spoken of as an age in which art advanced towards and attained to a marvellous perfection.
On the Acropolis, or Citadel of Athens, rose the magnificent Temple of Athena, called the Parthenon, built under the direction of Phidias, the most celebrated sculptor of that time, who adorned it with many of his works, and especially with the huge statue of Athena in ivory, forty-seven feet in height. The Acropolis was also enriched with another figure of Athena in bronze—also the work of Phidias.
The statue was called the “Athena Promachus”; that is “The Defender.” If you turn to your Grecian History you will find a full description of the Parthenon and the other temples of the gods and heroes and guardian deities of the city. But I want to tell you something about Phidias himself, and little Iris, an image-maker’s daughter.
It was in the year 450 B.C., in the early summer, and Phidias, who had been working all the day, strolled quietly along the streets of Athens.
As he passed by the Agora (or market-place), he chanced to look up, and he saw a young girl of about thirteen years sitting near him. Her face was of the purest beauty; her head was gracefully poised on her shoulders; her expression was sadness itself. She looked poor and in distress. She came forward and begged for help; and there was something in her manner, as well as in her face, which made Phidias pause and listen to her.
“My father lies ill,” she said plaintively, “and he cannot do his work, and so we can get no food: nothing to make him well and strong again. If I could only do his work for him I should not mind; and then I should not beg. He does not know I came out to beg—he would never forgive me; but I could not bear to see him lying there without food.”
“And who is your father?” asked Phidias kindly.
“His name is Aristćus,” she said, “and he is a maker of images—little clay figures of gods and goddesses and heroes. Indeed, he is clever; and I am sure you would praise the ‘Hercules’ he finished before he was taken ill.”
“Take me to your home,” Phidias said to the girl; as they passed on together he asked her many questions about the image-maker. She was proud of her father; and Phidias smiled to himself when he heard her speak of this father as though he were the greatest sculptor in Athens. He liked to hear her speak so enthusiastically.
“Is it not wonderful,” she said, “to take the clay and work in into forms? Not everyone could do that—could you do it?”
“Perhaps not so well as your father,” he answered kindly. “Still, I can do it.”
A sudden thought struck Iris.
“Perhaps you would help father?” she said eagerly. “Ah! but I ought not to have said that.”
“Perhaps I can help him,” replied Phidias good-naturedly. “Anyway, take me to him.”
She led him through some side streets into the poorest parts of the city, and stopped before a little window, where a few roughly-wrought images and vases were exposed to view. She beckoned to him to follow her, and opening the door, crept gently into a room which served as their workshop and dwelling-place. Phidias saw a man stretched out on a couch at the farther end of the room, near a bench where many images and pots of all sorts lay unfinished.
“This is our home,” whispered Iris proudly, “and that is my father yonder.”
The image-maker looked up and called for Iris.
“I am so faint, child,” he murmured. “If I could only become strong again I could get back to my work. It is so hard to lie here and die.”
Phidias bent over him.
“You shall not die,” he said, “if money can do you any good. I met your little daughter, and she told me that you were an image-maker; and that interested me, because I, too, can make images, though perhaps not as well as you. Still, I thought I should like to come and see you and help you; and if you will let me, I will try and make a few images for you, so that your daughter may go out and sell them, and bring you home money. And meanwhile, she shall fetch you some food to nourish you.”
Then he turned to Iris, and putting some coins into her hands bade her go out and bring what she thought fit. She did not know how to thank him, but hurried away on her glad errand, and Phidias talked kindly to his fellow-worker, and then, throwing aside his cloak, sat down at the bench and busied himself with modelling the clay.
It was so different from his ordinary work that he could not help smiling.
“This is rather easier,” he thought to himself, “than carving from the marble a statue of Athena. What a strange occupation!” Nevertheless, he was so interested in modelling the quaint little images that he did not perceive that Iris had returned, until he looked up, and saw her standing near him, watching him with wonder, which she could not conceal.
“Oh, how clever!” she cried. “Father, if you could only see what he is doing!”
“Nay, child,” said the sculptor, laughing; “get your father his food, and leave me to my work. I am going to model a little image of the goddess Athena, for I think the folk will like to buy that, since that rogue Phidias has set up his statue of her in the Parthenon.”
“Phidias, the prince of sculptors!” said the image-maker. “May the gods preserve his life; for he is the greatest glory of all Athens!”
“Ay,” said Iris, as she prepared her father’s food, “that is what we all call him—the greatest glory of all Athens.”
“We think of him,” said Aristćus, feebly, “and that helps us in our work. Yes, it helps even us poor image-makers. When I saw the beautiful Athena I came home cheered and encouraged. May Phidias be watched over and blessed all his life!”
The tears came into the eyes of Phidias as he bent over his work; it was a pleasure to him to think that his fame gained for him a resting-place of love and gratitude in the hearts of the poorest citizens of Athens. He valued this tribute of the image-maker far more than the praises of the rich and great. Before he left, he saw that both father and daughter were much refreshed by the food which his bounty had given to them, and he bade Aristćus be of good cheer, because he would surely regain his health and strength.
“And because you love your art,” he said, “I shall be a friend to you and help you. And I shall come again to-morrow and do some work for you—that is to say, if you approve of what I have already done, and then Iris will be able to go out and sell the figures.”
He hastened away before they were able to thank him, and he left them wondering who this new friend could be. They talked of him for a long time, of his kindness and his skill; and Aristćus dreamt that night about the stranger who had come to work for him.
The next day Phidias came again, and took his place at the image-maker’s bench, just as if he were always accustomed to sit there. Aristćus, who was better, watched him curiously, but asked no questions.
But Iris said to him: “My father and I talk of you, and wonder who you are.”
“Perhaps I shall tell you some day,” he answered. “There, child, what do you think of that little vase? When it is baked it will be a pretty thing.”
As the days went on, the image-maker recovered his strength; and meanwhile Phidias had filled the little shop with dainty-wrought images and graceful vases, such as had never been seen there before.
One evening, when Aristćus was leaning against Iris, and admiring the stranger’s work, the door opened and Phidias came in.
“What, friend,” he said cheerily, “you are better to-night I see!”
“Last night,” said Aristćus, “I dreamt that the friend who held out a brother’s hand to me and helped me in my trouble was the great Phidias himself. It did not seem wonderful to me, for only the great do such things as you have done for me. You must be great.”
“I do not know about that,” said the sculptor, smiling, “and after all, I have not done so much for you. I have only helped a brother-workman: for I am an image-maker too—and my name is Phidias.”
Then Aristćus bent down and reverently kissed the great sculptor’s hands.
“I cannot find words with which to thank you,” he murmured, “but I shall pray to the gods night and day that they will for ever bless Phidias, and keep his fame pure, and his hands strong to fashion forms of beauty. And this I know well: that he will always have a resting-place of love and gratitude in the poor image-maker’s heart.”
And Phidias went on his way, tenfold richer and happier for the image-maker’s words. For there is something lovelier than fame and wealth, my children; it is the opportunity of giving the best of one’s self and the best of one’s powers to aid those of our fellow-workers who need our active help.