Nikolaos Gyzis (1842-1901)

Audio tour

Pallas Athena (design for the flag of the University of Athens), 1887, mixed media (charcoal, pastel, gouache and watercolour on coloured paper, collage; edged by fabric band), 185.5 x 113.7 cm

The emblematic work in front of you is the design that Nikolaos Gyzis created in 1887, after accepting an invitation by the University of Athens to be the one to design the banner, or else the flag of the institution. The central theme – in perfect harmony with all the values advocated by the country’s highest educational establishment – is goddess Athena, an eternal symbol of wisdom, astuteness, prudence, strength, valour and democracy. The ancient myth, a vehicle of timeless and ever-topical symbols, has been a rich source of inspiration for a large section of the painter’s works. Taking as reference the statues of the archaic period and in the spirit of Jugendstil, Gyzis depicts the goddess in an upright and imposing stance, wrapped in her Doric peplos (gown), holding a spear and a shield, the symbols of her combativeness.

Her gaze is transcendent and turned towards the horizon, the future. Gyzis draws in a linear and austere manner, using earthy colours that bring out the steadiness, consistency and reliability of his symbol. Equally interesting is the lack of any plasticity in the rendition of the goddess, as well as the over-accentuation of her firm character via the flat colour.

Goddess Athena, the protectress of numerous heroes of the ancient times, is called upon by the artist’s work to embrace in her wisdom the institution and its students. In a letter to his father-in-law, Gyzis mentions that for the specific piece he had met with much “difficulty” while seeking to achieve harmony in the composition. Finally, the end result was to his satisfaction, although it received several negative comments by the Greek public at the time. Be that as it may, the completeness of the work and the prominent position it deservedly holds in the history of modern Greek art, stand as proof of its enduringly great value.