The goddess of wisdom and warfare stares, cold and uncompromising, past the viewer, the intricate designs in her thoughts eclipsing any connection she might achieve with the audience. Her bird, the owl, looms with a similar gaze of blank intensity, its gold ruffles matching the pleats of Athena's mail. And the pattern of both blends with the orbs trailing into the background, so that the two figures seem an apparition emerging from the darkness. Athena herself hardly conveys any human vitality; rather, her divinity expresses itself a metallic artificiality. Her hair's color resembles the helmet's to the extent that one can barely distinguish the two; her eyes glow with the dull gold of her gear; and her thin arm, tapering skeletally toward the wrist in the odd lighting, is a mere trifle next to the metallic block from which it grows. Athena, divine patron of the arts, adopts the quality of the very art she inspires. Her gilded trunk resembles the picture frame itself, angled and etched with vague designs, and her neck, face, and arm appear as shafts of marble or white wood. Yet she represents only the material, only the raw and the formless, as if requiring a human artist to refine her and endow her with life.

The dark background suggests some stone wall, with the woman on the top left drawn as if part of a fresco. But otherwise this world suggests little of craft, little of skill, only a stony gloom waiting to be sheared away by some sculptor's tool. One must wonder how far off is Athena's gaze that the world around her should stand so lifeless, creative inspiration either having long left or still awaiting invocation.


1. What may the nude figure in the left foreground represent, and why position her there?

2. What is the significance of the face inscribed on Athena's breastplate?

3. What is the relationship between Athena and the woman in the left background? What does the latter appear to be doing?

4. Does Athena seem a portent more of creation or of death and destruction? Why characterize her in the way that Klimt does?

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Aesthetes & Decadents Paintings of the Decadence Gustav Klimt Leading questions

Last modified 29 April 2009