What is the Parthenon?
The Parthenon is an iconic temple to Athena, patron goddess of ancient Athens, which has been used as a private house, Christian church, and mosque over the centuries.
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It’s hard not to be impressed by the towering symmetry of this iconic temple whose splendid marble columns can be seen for miles around. The 19th-century Irish painter and archaeologist Edward Dodwell claimed it was ‘the most unrivalled triumph of sculpture and architecture that the world ever saw’, whilst a hundred years later Modernist master architect Le Corbusier declared: ‘There has been nothing like it anywhere or at any period’.
The Parthenon is a temple dedicated to Athena, the patron goddess of ancient Athens. Its name refers to the parthenos (or maiden) part of her identity. It was constructed during the Classical Period – from the 440s to the 430s BC – as part of the Periclean building programme. Built on the foundations of an older temple to the goddess, the original exterior structure of the Parthenon consisted of eight columns on each end and 17 columns on each side, in architecturally exemplary alignment. In fact, the architects Ictinus and Callicrates used several intricate optical refinements to enhance the Parthenon visually. All the temple’s columns were tilted inwards to create the illusion of greater size, the spacing between corner columns was reduced to give the structure horizontal perspective, and each column was slightly swollen (known as entasis), to counteract the illusion that makes straight shafts appear concave.
The architecture above the columns alternated between dark blue triglyphs (tablets with three vertical grooves that act as a break) and 92 ornate metope panels. The metopes (in high relief) depicted scenes from famous mythical battles, all of which represented Greek victory: the Trojan War on the north side; the Lapiths and the half-horse, half-human Centaurs on the south side; the Olympian Gods versus the Giants (a god-like race who once upon a time tried to usurp their position on Mount Olympus) on the east; and the Greeks versus the Amazons (a race of female warriors) on the west. As well as coloured backgrounds, these metopes featured painted details – exposed flesh was left plain – and small metal embellishments to highlight things like weapons.
Two elaborate triangular pediment sculptures on the east and west façades portrayed the birth of Athena and the competition for Attica (Athens’ surrounding territory) between the city’s patron goddess and Poseidon, god of the sea. The interior structure comprised a porch with six columns at each end and two internal rooms. The main entrance (at the eastern end) led into the larger room that housed an enormous gold and ivory statue of Athena by Phidias, generally considered one of the finest craftsmen of the ancient world, and his team of assistants. The smaller room (at the western end) served as a city treasury, a kind of ‘national bank’. A continuous frieze in low relief ran around the entire length of the outer walls of the inner structure and showed a Panathenaic Procession, a major part of the city’s most important religious festival. Except for the wooden roof, the entire structure was made of marble from the quarries of Mount Penteli near Athens and its bleached white hues would have originally been decorated in vibrant blues, reds and greens.
The surviving Parthenon is the sum of its chequered history: its use as a private house amid rumours of sexual debauchery in the late 4th century BC; a 3rd-century-AD fire that ravaged the interior and roof, after which it may have stood ruined for a hundred years before a tradition of ‘repairing’ the building (often using parts of other Athenian monuments) began; its transformation into a Christian church after the Roman Byzantine emperors outlawed pagan worship by the 6th century AD, and then into a mosque under the Ottoman Empire. In the late 17th century, when Venetian canon fire against the Ottomans ignited a gunpowder store, the explosion devastated the Parthenon.
Gradually, much of its sculptural decoration was dispersed all over the world, most famously when the Scottish nobleman Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, removed half of the surviving sculptures and shipped them to Britain. After the 19th-century Greek War of Independence, restorations sought to purge any Ottoman influence – including a small mosque built in the ruins, which had also served as a battalion garrison – and return it to the Parthenon of Classical Athens. Recent restorations have attempted to be more sympathetic to all aspects of its history.
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