An Exploration into the Great Temple using The Anacharsis as a Guide
On this page:
1. A Mixture of the Doric and Ionic Orders- How the architects flawlessly merged both orders.
2. The Parthenon Friezes- what do they depict and do they hide a secret meaning?
3. The Parthenon Pediments- Depictions of Triumph
4. The Parthenon Metopes- What stories do they tell?
5. The Athena Parthenos Statue- Majestic Beauty
6. The Parthenon as a Treasury
7. Architectural Refinements
8. The Elgin Marbles
9. Current Excavation Projects
10. How has the Parthenon Changed Over Time
The image above is an illustration of the Parthenon from the fictional travelogue of Anarcarsis the Younger (4th century BCE). This comes from the 4th edition of the book, translated into English, and published in 1806. “Your eyes have long been turning to that famous temple of Minerva, one of the noblest ornaments of Athens, which is known by the name of the Parthenon” (Anacharsis, 220-221). Anacharsis was not exaggerating when he writes about the noble and beautiful Parthenon. Though thought to have been constructed between 447 and 432 BCE, today, the Parthenon still stands, retaining its majesty and might some 2500 years later. Many of its columns remain in tact, though it is in need of repair. The following quotes are from the Anacharsis, and are cited in the Anacharsis as being written by Ictinus, one of the two architects employed by Pericles. The other architect was listed as Callicrates.
“From whatever quarter the traveler arrives whether by sea or land, he views it rearing up its lofty head above the city and the citadel. It is of the Doric order, and built of that beautiful white marble found in the quarries of Pentelicus, a mountain in Attica.” (Anacharsis, 225)
While I hate to disagree with Anacharsis, the mammoth structure of the Parthenon is 8 columns across by 17 columns wide, and has both Doric and Ionic elements. Each of the columns which surround the temple are Doric (matching the description seen in Anacharsis), however the continuous frieze (mentioned above) which surrounds the Cella is more characteristic of an Ionic temple. In terms of architectural refinement, the Parthenon is an absolute masterpiece. A plan of the arcithecture of the Parthenon can be seen to the right. Note the doric columns which surround the entire structure, in addition to a cella and large back porch or pro-naos.
One of the most prominent features of the Parthenon are its beautiful friezes. Most scholars believe that the Parthenon friezes represent the Panathenaic Procession, which is a festival that honored the goddess Athena, and was started by King Erechteus. The festival was held every year, and there was special significance to the festival every fourth year. On the last day of the festival, a magnificent procession would follow to Athena’s temple on the Acropolis and place a peplos cloak on her statue. Anacharsis cites Ictinus in his description of these friezes below:
“It is one hundred feet wide, about two hundred and twenty-six broad, and about sixty-nine in height. The portico is double at the two fronts, and single on each side. Along the exterior face of the nave runs a frieze or architrave, on which is represented a procession in honour of Minerva. These busso-relievos have added greatly to the fame of the artists by whom they were executed.” (Anacharsis, 226)
These friezes have recently been called into question by the archaeologist and Professor at New York University (NYU), Joan Connelly. Connelly, after searching for many years to better understand what story (or stories) was (or were) depicted in the Parthenon friezes, has come up with a different interpretation. Being such an important and grand temple, it should follow that these friezes depict story of utmost importance to the Athenian people. Connelly states of the friezes, it is “a band of sculpted relief showing 378 human and 245 animal figures.” It is also “the largest and most detailed revelation of Athenian consciousness we have… this moving portrayal of noble faces from the distant past, … the largest, most elaborate narrative tableau the Athenians have left for us.” (Connelly, adapted from the NY Times).
After much searching, she found fragments of the lost play “Erechtheus”, written by Euripides. The play suggests that King Erechtheus (whose temple is just across the way from the Parthenon on the North side of the Acropolis) is advised by the Oracles to sacrifice his daughter in order to save the city of Athens. Through further examination, Connelly believes that this darker history is what is portrayed by the friezes on the Parthenon. Connelly has written a book on the topic “The Parthenon Enigma”, and further information on the book as well as her research can be found in the New York Times article “If It Pleases the Gods” written by Caroline Alexander. Though we may never know what the friezes actually represent, both interpretations help to give insight into the ancient customs of the Athenians.
Seen above is a recreation of the west pediment of the Parthenon. As stated by Pausanias in his Description of Greece, “[1.24.5] As you enter the temple that they name the Parthenon, all the sculptures you see on what is called the pediment refer to the birth of Athena, those on the rear pediment represent the contest for the land between Athena and Poseidon.” The recreation above is of the west (or rear) pediment, which shows contest between Athena and Poseidon as to who would be the patron deity of Athens. Mythology tells us that Poseidon, in order to show why he should be the patron deity, lifted his trident and pointed it at the Earth. From that spot a spring of water burst out of the ground. The people were thrilled, but to their dismay, the water was salt water, and therefore undrinkable. When it was Athena’s turn, she knelt down and planted something in the ground. From that spot, and olive tree emerged, symbolizing peace. As the name suggests, Athena won and the city was named Athens.
Below, one can see the east pediment, which depicts the birth of Athena. This reconstruction shows Zeus and Athena, as well as many others. From mythology, we know that Athena was born of the head of Zeus. With so much imagery of Athena, it is clear that Athena is extremely important to the city of Athens.
The metopes of the Parthenon also have distinct themes depending on the location. The idea of having both a continuous frieze as well as metopes was relatively new to the High Classical Period (when the Parthenon was built) being that it mixed elements from both the Doric (metopes) and Ionic (friezes) orders. The north metopes of the Parthenon depict scenes from the Trojan war, while the south metopes depict scenes from the Battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths. A depiction of a south metope can be seen to the right. Also known as Centaurmachy, the metopes tell the story of centaurs being invited to a wedding feast, but not used to wine, became unruly, eventually ending in a fight. Theseus comes to the aid of the Lapiths, and eventually helps to defeat the centaurs.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Parthenon was the Athena Parthenos statue, which stood tall in the center of the cella. Ictinus, whom Anacharsis cites, seems to not stop talking about how beautiful and magnificent the cult figure is. The following is an excerpt from the Anacharsis. As inferred by the length of the passage, Ictinus was clearly proud of the work of Phidias, and the beauty that was the Athena Parthenos statue.
“Within this temple is that statue so celebrated for its size, the richness of its materials, and the exquisite beauty of the workmanship. By the sublime majesty that irradiates the features and the whole figure of Minerva, we easily recognize the hand of Phidias. The ideas of this artist were so sublime, that he has succeeded better, if possible, in the representation of the gods, than in that of mortals. We are almost tempted to say that he had viewed the latter from too great a height, but the former on a near approach.”(Anacharsis, 226)
“This figure is twenty-six cubits high. The goddess is erect, covered with the aegis and a long tunic, holding in one hand a lance, in the other a victory near four cubits high. Her helmet, on which is a sphinx, is ornamented on each side with two griffins. On the outside of the shield, which lies at the feet of the goddess, Phidias has represented the battle of the Amazons; on the inside, the combat of the gods and giants; on her buskins, that of the Lapithae and Centaurs; and on the pedestal, the birth of Pandora, and a variety of other subjects. The visible parts of the body are of ivory, except the eyes, the iris of which is imitated by a particular kind of stone. This able artist has exhibited a wonderful degree of taste in the execution of his work, and proved that his genius still retained its superiority even in the most minute details.”(Anacharsis, 227)
“Before he began this statue, he was obliged to give an account, to the assembly of the people, of the materials which he intended to employ. He gave the preference to marble, because its splendor subsists longest. Thus far he was listened to with attention; but when he added that it was the cheapest, he was commanded to say no more, and it was determined that the statue should be formed of gold and ivory.” (Anacharsis, 227)
“For this purpose gold was selected, and it was necessary to provide a quantity of the weight of forty talents. Phidias, by the suggestions of Pericles, applied this in such a way as easily to admit of being taken off. Two motives induced Pericles to give this advice. He foresaw that a time might come when it should be necessary to employ this gold for the urgent necessities of the state, a measure which he in fact proposed at the beginning of the Peloponnesian war. He foresaw likewise that himself as well as Phidias might hereafter be accused of having applied part of it to other purposes, and of this they afterwards really were accused; but by the precautions they had used, the slanderous charge only redounded to the dishonor of their enemies.”(Anacharsis 228)
“Phidias was reproached likewise with having sculptured his own portrait, with that of his patron, on the shield of Minerva. He had there represented himself in the character of an old man in the act of throwing a huge stone; and it is pretended that, by an ingenious piece of mechanism, this figure was so connected with the whole as to make it impossible to remove it, without disuniting and totally destroying the statue. Pericles appears fighting with an Amazon. His arm extended, and holding a javelin, hides from the spectator one half of his countenance. This object of the artist in this partial concealment, is only to engage the attention of curiosity.”(Anacharsis, 229)
Pausanias also talks about the beautiful statue of Athena Parthenos in his account of Description of Greece. He states “[1.24.5] Their ritual, then, is such as I have described. The statue itself is made of ivory and gold. On the middle of her helmet is placed a likeness of the Sphinx – the tale of the Sphinx I will give when I come to my description of Boeotia – and on either side of the helmet are griffins in relief.” This quote gives us a good picture of the statue which is recreated in the picture to the left.
Athena Parthenos means in Greek, Athena the maiden, and is a representation of the chaste goddess. The sculpture was constructed of gold and ivory, which is known in Greek as chryselephantine. The sculpture itself unfortunately did not survive, however there are many mentions of it in literature, and further many reproductions have been created throughout the years. In the reproduction seen to the left, note the relative size of the structure and how awe-inspiring that must have been for the ancient Greeks. According to the PBS Documentary “Secrets of the Parthenon”, as well as mention above in the Anacharsis, there was a plan to remove all of the gold and ivory from the Athena Parthenos statue, in order to help finance and support the city of Athens. Soon after this, the city fell, only supporting the mystery and reverence which surrounds this statue.
As seen below, it is suggested in the Anacharsis that the Parthenon doubled for many as an early form of a bank. Treasures that people did not want to leave as home would be placed into the treasury, which was annexed to the temple. Deposits to this treasury either could be made for safe keeping, or as offerings to the goddess Athena.
“To this temple is annexed a treasury, in which individuals deposit such sums of money as they choose not to keep at home. There likewise are preserved the offerings made to the goddess, which consist of crowns, vases, and little figures of the divinities, of gold or silver. The Athenian women likewise frequently make offerings in this temple, of their rings, bracelets, and necklaces. These are entrusted to the treasurers of the goddess, who have them under their care during the year they remain in office; on the expiration of which time they deliver to their successors a list, specifying the weight of each article, and the name of the donor. The inventory, which is immediately cut in marble, is a testimonial of the fidelity of the keepers, and an incentive to private liberality.” (Anacharsis, 229)
The overall architecture of the Parthenon is truly a marvel and is something that left many of the architects working on the restoration of this temple truly baffled. Manolis Korres is working on securing and supporting this ancient structure, but his job of puzzling together to different bits and pieces of the Parthenon has become trickier due to the lengths at which ancient architects went to in order to avoid optical illusions. Pericles, the person responsible for planning the Parthenon (as well as many other buildings of the high classical period), knew that straight lines over a long area gave the illusion of sagging. In order to account for this, Pericles designed the entire building so that each column slightly curved inward. Further, the stylobate (the foundation which the columns sit on) is also curved, and the columns seem to swell at the middle. These little tricks make a big difference when looking at the Parthenon. From far away it is known for its pristine straight lines, but it is interesting to note that in reality there is not a single straight line in the Parthenon. In the picture above, one can see that the columns are leaning ever so slightly inward, helping to give the illusion of straight lines. While this was a genius move by Pericles, it is an absolute headache for Manolis Korres and his team.
Many of the beautiful aspects of this temple are no longer at the ancient site. Thomas Bruce, who was the 7th Earl of Elgin, was a Scottish ambassador to the Ottoman empire. The Turks allowed him to take many ancient artifacts to England in the 1800s, where they remain to this day. Some of his loot, known as the Elgin Marbles, includes 17 figures from the pediments of the Parthenon, 15 of the original 92 of the metope panels, in particular ones depicting the battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs, and 247 feet of the Parthenon frieze. This is nearly half of the surviving sculpture which still remains at the Parthenon site. While some believe that Lord Elgin did a great service by saving a preserving these artifacts, others argue that these treasures, as well as the many other treasures he took from ancient Greece, belongs to the country in which they were discovered. Even to this day, the debate continues as Greece has actually installed voting booths to poll how their citizens feel about the debate. Amal Clooney, a prominent British lawyer, and wife of American actor George Clooney, is taking on the case that these priceless sculptures belong in Athens and not in London. Ms. Clooney, as well as many others, has been working to return Greece’s ancient history to its proper place.
Work has been ongoing at the Parthenon since 1975, and now after almost 40 years, work is still ongoing, with hopes of completing the project in 2020. As mentioned above, this work is being led by Manolis Korres, a Greek architect who has undertaken the mammoth job of putting this giant jig-saw puzzle back together again. The reason it is taking so long is due to the careful consideration which the architects are using to restore the Parthenon to its original glory. In addition, due to the optical illusions employed by Pericles, each original piece of the Parthenon has an exact spot where it fits in. Finding all of these pieces, and then finding exactly where they fit in can be quite the challenge.
Another set-back to this project has been the flawed restoration which was completed in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. In this project, columns drums were inserted and iron clamps were used to hold pieces of the marble together. The problem is that many of the columns were restored in the wrong places, and the iron clamps rusted and expanded, cracking even more of the original marble. By taking care to fix these problems, once this restoration is complete, the Parthenon will stand for many more years to come.
Another exciting aspect of the Parthenon restoration project is a new lecture that is being held on February 12th, 2015. The lectured entitled “A New Reconstruction of the Archaic Parthenon” , will be airing from Athens and can be watched live on this date, or from their archives starting a week after February 12th. The lecture is being sponsored by The American School of Classical Studies at Athens and can be seen at this link:
The Parthenon is thought to have been constructed around 447 BC, but what has happened to it in the thousands of years since then. Upon its completion, the Parthenon was used as a temple to the goddess Athena Parthenos and there also indications of its use as a treasury for the storage of financial reserves. Some also go so far as to say that the beautiful statue of Athena Parthenos was a way to store gold and ivory, and that the statue could be stripped of valuable material to help fund Athens. This use of the temple is confirmed in the Anacharsis.
By the 6th century, Greece fell to the Christian Byzantines, who converted the Parthenon into a church. When the Turkish Ottoman empire captured Athens in 1458, they converted it into an Ottoman mosque. 200 years later, Venetians against the Ottoman empire bombed the Parthenon, as it was being used to store ammunition. By 1800, Lord Elgin made a deal with the Turks to strip the Parthenon of much of its fine art and bring it back to London. Further destruction was done with the flawed reconstruction of the 1890s. The last reconstruction, starting in 1975, will hopefully restore the Parthenon back to its former glory. With such a history of destruction and abuse, it is no wonder that this monument is taking so long to restore.
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