The Parthenon as it has survived is much like the skeletal remains of a dinosaur – we can only glimpse the full magnificence of what it once was, and yet we are still awed by its shattered glory. What it must have looked like with its skin and bones intact! The Parthenon is a traditional peripteral temple (surrounded on all sides by columns), but built on a grander scale than any temple before it, Pericles’ grandest “imperishable monument” to Athens’ greatness: although its outside columns are arranged in the traditional ratio (X x 2X+1), the Parthenon’s columns number 8 x 17 instead of the average 6 x 13.
Built between 447-432 BC, the Parthenon has had a long history of varied uses in its twenty-five hundred year existence: harem quarters for a sultan, a Christian church, a cathedral, a mosque, and even a bell-tower.
And yet the building had remained structurally intact until the 17th century. On September 26, 1687 a Venetian shell exploded the gunpowder stored by the Turks in the cella of the Parthenon. The roof was blown off and most of the interior cella and its frieze, 6 columns on the South side (all not yet replaced) and 8 columns on the North side (reconstructed) were obliterated in a moment’s time.
Other less insidious damage is evident from this war as well: the cannonballs fired by the Venetians from Philopappos Hill have also left their indelible mark on the marble of the Parthenon.
The inside of the temple (naos) appears to be almost one big room now, but in antiquity it was divided into two separate spaces: the cella (“Hekatompedon”, because it was 100 Attic feet in length), and the opisthodomos, where the state treasury was kept (on the west side). The opisthodomos, or “back room,” was bordered by 4 Ionic columns (taller and slighter than Doric). The cella was divided by several rows of two-tiered Doric columns, and possibly sported a second-story viewing area. The grand attraction was Pheidias’ 40 foot tall chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena. Pausanias (I.24.5) provides many details, including mention of the sphinx and griffins on her helmet. Plutarch (Life of Pericles) tells us that charges of embezzlement against Pheidias were dropped when he proved all the gold was there by removing it and weighing it. The statue was reportedly transported in the 4th century AD to Constantinople and was never seen again.
The most glorious aspect of the Parthenon was surely its artwork, all of which was supervised by the great sculptor Pheidias. Pausanias tells us that the East pedimental sculpture group (east pedimental area shown in the photo) depicted the Birth of Athena from her father Zeus’ head (I.24.25), but we would not have know that without his help. The central section – showing the main subject, Athena – is thought to have been lost when the temple was converted into a church.
Much of the fabulous sculpture that has survived from the East pediment is displayed in the British Museum (some individual pieces are on display in the Acropolis Museum). Here we see the head of one horse of Selene, exhausted after running his course, now dipping below the horizon as the sun god Helios’ horses rise up from Oceanus to begin the day.
The West pedimental sculpture of the Parthenon depicts the contest for Attica between Athena and Poseidon. This sculpture group can be reconstructed thanks to Jacques Carrey’s detailed 1674 drawings. Just a few years later, the face of the west pediment changed forever. Morosini shattered the chariot and horses of Athena in a failed attempt to remove them, and the pediment suffered untold damage in the bombardment of the Parthenon during his war against the Turks.
Usually identified as the river god Illisos, this reclining figure graced the West Pediment. Pedimental corners are particularly difficult to fill, but this ingenious composition leaves little space unused.
92 metopes covered the four sides of the Parthenon, and they were all sculpted in high relief (another detail that sets the Parthenon apart from other temples). On each side of the building is depicted a different conflict, each of which is thought to allegorize the recent Greek (mostly Athenian) defeat of the Persians: Gigantomachy (east), Amazonomachy (west, shown in picture), Centauromachy (South) and the Trojan War (north).
Detail of the remaining SW metope of the Parthenon in situ. A close-up (below) of this same corner of the Parthenon can be used to illustrate an architectural peculiarity. An entire Doric temple can be reconstructed if just the distance from one gutta (they look like drip marks – perhaps modeled after water dripping from older wooden temples???) to the next is known: the six guttae are equally distributed on the regula, which is the same width as a triglyph, which is 2/3 the size of a metope…
The metopes on the south side of the Parthenon are in the best shape of all. Lord Elgin brought 14 south metopes to the British Museum in the early nineteenth century, where they can be seen today. Go to Dr. J’s Illustrated Parthenon Marbles for photos of all the metopes.
And, of course, there is the famous Parthenon frieze, one continuous band of sculpture 160 meters long depicting the Panathenaic Procession that bordered the top of the entire interior of the temple. The culminating moment is the delivery of the sacred peplos to Athena, which every four years was draped over her olive-wood statue in the Erechtheum. Much of the frieze was destroyed in the 1687 explosion, but about one-half is in the British Museum today, while various pieces survive elsewhere (some original slabs are even in situ on the Parthenon today). This slab is the inspiration for Keats’ “heifer lowing at the skies” in his Ode on a Grecian Urn.
Nor was the temple white, as many incorrectly think. This chunk shows clear remnants of a painted design. The hyperlink shows a display in the British Museum that reconstructs the border above the frieze in its true brightly colored appearance, as based on this model. By our standards, the Parthenon would have looked positively garish!
View of the Northern side of the Parthenon. Although the building appears perfectly rectilinear from afar, the architect Ictinus used several design tricks to create what is in fact a brilliant optical illusion. One of these tricks is called entasis, the bulge in the stylobate (foundation on which the columns stand). Proof of entasis is that the Parthenon fails the “hat test”: a hat left on one end of the stylobate cannot be seen from the other end if you crouch down and view it from ground level. The entasis of the Parthenon’s stylobate is clearly visible in this close-up.
Display of Parthenon akroteria (end roof pieces) and interlocking marble rooftile pieces. The Parthenon was unique in Greek architecture because it was the only structure made completely of marble, including the roof. (The roof of the inner cella had a wooden structure under the marble, and the first three courses of the building – hidden underground – were made of limestone).
This unused column drum, intended for use in the pre-Persian invasion version of the Parthenon, is about 5 feet in diameter… although not ready for production, this drum has undergone some of the three part fluting process: rough quarry fluting, workshop finish, and final finish. To the right is original carved set mark for placement of Parthenon column drum.