The Parthenon

The Parthenon at the Acropolis of Athens.

The Parthenon at the Acropolis of Athens is a Doric temple with Ionic architectural features built on the foundations of the Hecatompedon designed by Themistocles.  The Parthenon was designed by Ictinos and Callicrates, the architects who worked for Pericles in the Acropolis reconstruction. It had eight columns at its main facades and 17 columns in each side (it was then a peripteral octostyle temple). A peculiarity of the Parthenon is that the room behind its big cella or opisthodomos was relatively large.

Plan of the Parthenon showing the arrangement of the sculptural decoration of the pediments and metopes.

When the Parthenon was built the traditional Doric style had reached to perfection. All the temple’s horizontal lines are slightly curved in order to overcome the deviations of perspective. This fact was revealed in 1847 by the English architect Francis Penrose who became famous when he discovered the slight curvature of the horizontal lines in the layout of the Parthenon. The building was constructed in 12 years from 448 to 437 BCE. The sculptural decoration was not yet finished when Phidias was banished from Athens, so his disciples had to finish the sculptures under Pericles’ orders. Phidias, who was once a sculptor originally trained in bronze casting, made in clay or plaster the models for the Parthenon’s statues which under his direction were later completed in Pentelic marble (a type of marble brought from the mount Pentelicus) by his assistants. The decor (which was performed between 447 and 432) is distributed in the facade, the metopes, pediments, and under the portico in a frieze without triglyphs that runs without interruption. For many reasons the Parthenon sculptures are considered one of the great artistic accomplishments achieved by mankind.

Nowadays all of the Parthenon’s decoration appears very destroyed. The pediment of the western facade represented the contest between Athena and Poseidon to claim the right of the city’s patronage. In this pediment both, Athena and Poseidon, hit with their weapons the ground of the Acropolis: the goddess made the olive tree to sprout from a rock while the god offers the horse, a precious gift, but according to the Athenians less precious than the tree gave by the goddess.  This scene is also attended by the first semi-divine inhabitants of Athens, Cecrops and Erechtheus, with their wives and children.

Reconstruction of the west pediment of the Parthenon with the contest between Athena and Poseidon.

In his chronicles, Pausanias said that the sculptures of the east pediment represented the miraculous birth of Athena from the head of Zeus. The figures located in the angles of this pediment are the only that have survived: the Hours and the Fates, deities who preside over birth and death. The very idea of birth and death were portrayed by the symbols of the Sun and Moon with the heads of their chariots’ horses located in the acute angles of the pediment. The rearing horses of Helios announce the day, while those of Selene (goddess of the night) passively bow their heads down.  Athena was born in that hour of light “the dawn” thus described by the Parthenon’s sculptors. Only two heads have been preserved from the statues of the pediments of the Parthenon: one is that of a young man leaning, usually designated with the name of Theseus or Dionysos, the other is a female head that is supposed to be that of a Victory that was once part of the east pediment.

Reconstruction of the east pediment of the Parthenon representing the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus.
The Fates: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, the three figures seated on the right side of the East pediment of the Parthenon (British Museum). The cold wind of death agitates the clothes of the three deities.
The surviving statues of the right hand corner of the East pediment of the Parthenon. From left to right: Helios (Sun) in his chariot, Dionysos or Theseus, Demeter and Kore, and Artemis (British Museum).
Horse head from Selene’s chariot, sculpture from the left corner of the East pediment of the Parthenon (British Museum).
Dionysos or Theseus, sculpture from the East pediment of the Parthenon.

The metopes of the four facades consisted of a series of 92 squares in high relief where different scenes were represented: the battles of the Athenians against the Centaurs, the Amazons, and the barbarian Greeks of Asia during the Trojan War.

In the Southern metopes of the Parthenon, Phidias depicted the battles between Centaurs and Lapiths or Centauromachy (Metope No. 30, Louvre).

In contrast to these heroic compositions, under the large portico was a famous frieze representing a procession in which all citizens of Athens participated in a parade.  Different members the social classes were portrayed: these were the citizens of Athens who faithfully came to the Acropolis sanctuary to worship Athena. This civic ceremony, or Panathenaic festivities, gathered every year and was attended by all the people of Athens. Every four years this same festivity was celebrated with greater pomposity in order to bring a new robe or peplos to the goddess. Initially the old wooden idol of Athena needed a new wool peplum, later this traditional custom was also observed and the new peplum was given to the priest at the entrance of the Parthenon.  This peplum was then hanged all year round in the cella right next to the gold and ivory statue of Athena Parthenos sculpted by Phidias.

Distribution of reliefs along the frieze of the Parthenon.
Diagram showing the cross section of the east end of the Parthenon, note the location of the frieze between the main body of the temple and the metopes.

The frieze that surrounded the entire building was 160 meters long and was engraved in low relief with figures half life-size. The novelty of this frieze lies not just in the fact of introducing a composition of civilian life for the decoration of a temple, but rather in the naturalism in which each group of citizens was represented. From old citizens wearing mantles, the long lines of girls and matrons, the young men riding horses, the priests and bourgeois to the water carriers, all these people walked toward the eastern facade where the main entrance to the temple was located and the place where the peplos had to be offered to the goddess. Beautifully represented, in the area of the frieze that corresponds to the center of the facade the citizens’ parade is interrupted and the viewer is suddenly transferred to the regions of the Olympus. This scene included the figures of the twelve Greek higher deities which were supposed to attend the civic ceremony from the heavens. These figures of the Greek Gods were made by Phidias himself.

Detail of the frieze of the Ergastines (Louvre) a fragment of the Parthenon frieze, representing the daughters of the best families of Athens who wove and embroidered the new peplos for the goddess Athena and who march in line to offer it during the Panathenaic procession.
The hydraiphoroi or hydray bearers (water-vessel carriers), (National Museum of Athens), detail of the frieze of the Parthenon.
Young riders (British Museum), detail of the frieze of the Parthenon.
Detail of the frieze of the Parthenon depicting Poseidon, Apollo and Artemis (Acropolis Museum, Athens), the first two converse languidly while Artemis turns her gaze elsewhere.
A full-scale replica of the original Parthenon is located in Centennial Park, in Nashville, Tennessee. The replica was built in 1897 as part of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition.