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Greeks in Buffalo

When I was in 7th or 8th grade I took an interest in Greek architecture and was particularly infatuated with the tympanum sculptures which often decorate the pediments of Greek temples. The pediment is the triangular end of a sloped roof.  The tympanum is the decorated triangular space in the pediment.  Sometimes a tympanum can fill an arch over a door but for this story I am focusing on the Greek temple version.
If you are familiar with the Greek tympanum you know that they can be simple but are often super highly detailed.  Some versions employ engaged relief type sculpture where the figures are carved from the building cladding stones but are not free-standing.  The most extravagant versions become fully 3 dimensional statues which stand on the cornice ledge forming the bottom edge of the pediment. The resulting deep complex layering of shadows provides an extravagant decorative surface.  The figures typically tell a story and can include gods, goddesses, warriors, chariots, and horses among other things. I love how the sculptures reacted to the sloping roof eves.  As the space in the triangle gets bigger the sculptures get taller.  At the narrowest wedge of the pediment the figures are typically lying down in a reclined position. I have seen some with horse heads which appear to be emerging from the ground.  Tympanum became extraordinarily detailed at the height of Greek culture. We know them today as pure white marble but in the Greek era (and Roman) they were highly colored with paint to accent the extraordinary sculpted detail.
When I first took interest in this architectural feature I was new to the city, having just moved in from the suburbs.  I loved exploring my new city and I wondered if there was a pediment in Buffalo decorated in the Greek temple fashion. I looked and looked all over and found only moderately detailed relief type sculptures. For some reason I was sure there was one of the Greek type decorated pediments in Buffalo.  Finally, I realized that the tympanum I was looking for was at the south portico pediment of the Buffalo History Museum.  Woot!  I jumped on my bike and headed on over to see it.  Once up close I was a bit disappointed.  The ancient examples I was studying were far more detailed and much more complex. The ancient Greek figures are highly interactive resulting in a singular triangular composition.  In the Buffalo tympanum the figures are very simple and much more static. They stand as individual pieces with only subtle interaction between them.  The plain stone of the back wall almost forms a frame around each statue.
With the experience of age and a better camera lens I have come to appreciate these Buffalo tympanum sculptures much more.  Certainly, they are not of the master quality of ancient Greece.  But, these Buffalo sculptures are a civic treasure and should be a point of pride to the people of the city.  Upon closer inspection the individual statues are beautifully sculpted in a striped down almost Art Deco style ( I could not find a date for them but it is possible they came along in the Deco period).  The folds of the robes have a beautifully minimalist almost abstract form. When viewed from the front the figures are quite solitary and can stand on their own but as you move to the side they begin to work as one composition with great visual up and down swoops in a very dynamic unified composition.
The sculptures were created by Edmund Amateis.  They represent the forces of civilization. From right to left they are  “Philosophy” – reclining scholar with a dreaming stare,  “Industry” – a muscular man wielding a hammer and a riveted steel plate,  “Art” – a beautiful woman holding a paint pallet,  “Husbandry” – a matron carrying food,  “History” – a man in his prime standing straight at the highest point of the tympanum holding the hourglass of time and mirror of the past,  “Science” – a goddess holding a globe and measuring dividers,  “Mars” – shown with his sword at rest and armor pulled to the side leaving his breast exposed,  “Religion” – a maiden holding a leaf (or feather, I am not sure) kneeling in devotion,  “Law” – a young reclining man holding a book of laws.
It is worth a trip to see these sculptures up close.  Bring some binoculars or a good telephoto lens to see just how wonderful this great work of civic art really is.

Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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