Our Treasures: Exploding a Mysterious Sculpture at the Whangārei Museum

The bust measures 21 cm and is made of pewter. Photo / Provided

By Ashleigh McLarin – Curator of Exhibits at Whangārei Museum, Kiwi North

Objects tell stories and as these articles prove, there are countless stories to discover in our collection.

The symbolism on the crested helmet was a point of interest, but my research revealed other unforeseen intrigue – a case of unconfirmed identity.

Although I didn’t know who represented this bust when I encountered it in one of our collection repositories, I quickly identified it, or so I thought.

There are many copies of identical busts. Some copies are sketched on paper and others are carved or cast in marble, plaster, bronze or silver.

This bust is 21 cm high and is made of pewter (2019.37.1). Some of these busts reside in prestigious European museums like the Vatican Museum, the Royal Academy of Arts and the British Museum.

I was delighted to have identified this man – it was Menelaus, king of Sparta. Menelaus was Helen’s husband, and it was her kidnapping that started the Trojan War. Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon, united the Greek people and fought a long conflict that ended with the Trojan Horse scheme.

The story was falling into place but then I came across a contradiction: other sites identified this bust as Ajax.

It turns out that all of these busts are based on sculptures known as the Pasquino Group. This group of statues are believed to be copies of an original Hellenistic bronze dating from 200-150 BCE.

They depict two male figures, one carrying the limp, lifeless body of the other. The Paquino group has been interpreted as either Menelaus carrying the body of Patroclus or Ajax carrying the body of Achilles. The busts are copies of these larger sculptures, centering on the active figure, Menelaus or Ajax.

There is no definitive answer as to who this number is – it is still up for debate.

So what does symbolism imply for the individual? In ancient Greece, centaurs represented bestial impulses against which a civilized man must fight. This struggle is depicted on the helmet.

The battle between an eagle and a serpent represents the battle between good and evil. It also symbolizes an important battle, which for Menelaus and Ajax was the Trojan War.

And finally, two balanced lions are on each top of the earpiece. Lions symbolize the strength of the wearer. Menelaus and Ajax were fierce warriors.

Many of these bust copies were made in the 19th century. At that time, ancient Greece was of popular interest. Philhellenism was an intellectual movement that had a deep love for Greek culture.

Greek mythology was valued because the stories were universal. The trials and tribulations of gods and mortals were relatable because we could understand their emotions and actions.

The presence of these mythological stories in the art of Western civilization is profound. Nothing more than the Trojan War, which is told through literature and art.

As the borders are now open, you have the opportunity to visit renowned museums abroad.

Still, know that you don’t need to travel more than 17,000 km to see Menelaus/Ajax – a bust lives right here in the Whangārei Museum.

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