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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Symbol of Democracy and Classical Art: the Parthenon

It is a readily recognizable icon that every schoolchild knows - the Parthenon.  It is the most important surviving example of classical Greek art and an icon for Athenian democracy.  Built on the Acropolis, the seat of the Delian league, in the mid-5th century BCE, it was then and still is considered the finest example of a Doric temple ever built.

It's said that the Greeks have a word for it, but where the word "parthenon" came from is debatable.  The word "parthénos" has an unclear etymology.  It means a maiden or girl, but also means a virgin or unmarried woman.  It was applied to Athena and Artemis, maiden goddesses.  "Virgin" seems to be the reference, as "parthenoi" are the virgins who safeguard the city.  The parthenon may have been a room in the temple, which one is unknown, that were the "virgin's apartments", and may have referred to a room where a peplos, a garment, was woven and given to Athena by the Arrephoros, young girls who served in the cult of Athena.

Block V (fragment) from the east frieze of the Parthenon, circa 447-433 BCE.
This shows a new peplos being brought for Athena.  This is one of the so-called
"Elgin" marbles in the British Museum.  Click here to see their take on them.

Originally it was the home of a massive chryselephantine sculpture of Athena made by Phidias, called "Athena Parthenos".  It was the most famous cult image, and was the masterpiece of the most acclaimed sculptor in ancient Greece.  There have been a number of replicas, which is how we know about it, for the original has been lost.  Begun about 447 BCE, the gold sheets which covered it were removed in 296 BCE and were replaced by gilded bronze plates.  In 165 BCE it was damaged by fire, but repaired.  It remained in the Parthenon until the 5th century CE, and was mentioned in an account in the 10th century CE in Constantinople, where it was taken, but may have been destroyed in another fire.

The Varvakeion Athena, a Roman copy made of marble in the 2nd
century CE, is considered to be most faithful to the original.  Her
garment is belted by a pair of serpents, a winged Nike stands on her
right hand, and a sphinx in the center of her headdress. 

The Parthenon is no stranger to damage and destruction.  The first attempt to build a temple for Athena Parthenos was just after the battle of Marathon in 490-488 BCE.  It was replaced by a larger temple which was still being built when the Acropolis was destroyed by the Persians in 480 BCE.  During the "golden age" of Pericles the Acropolis was the site of an important project which included the Parthenon.  Under the general supervision of Phidias, architects Kallikrates and Iktinos began work in 447 BCE and completed it by 432 BCE.  Some of the decorations took another year to complete.

An engraving from A. Rosengarten, 1898,
A Handbook of Architectural Styles, NY.

The platform it is built on, or stylobate, is where the pillars stand, and has a slight parabolic curvature upward to reinforce the structure and deflect rain.  The columns lean inwards slightly, and if they were extended they would meet about a mile above the center of the structure.  There is a slight bulge to the columns, known as entasis, which was used since the pyramids in Egypt and even during the Renaissance.  Although some studies claim that its proportions approximate the golden ratio, recent studies claim otherwise.

The Parthenon was a treasury, used to store the votive offerings to the gods, of the Delian League which was moved from Delos once the Parthenon was completed. Consistent with a treasury building, there were a series of marble panels, metopes, on the outside walls.  Each side had a different subject.  Some have been destroyed, primarily from a cannonball in 1687 during a Venetian attack; fifteen from the southern wall were removed and are part of the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum.

A centaur and a lapith fighting.  From the southern wall, currently in London.

The southern wall showed the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs.  The Lapiths were a legendary people from Thessaly in Greek mythology.  At a wedding feast where the centaurs were not invited, they crashed the scene and tried raping the women.  The centaurs were kicked out and expelled from Thessaly.  What is known of the missing metopes is from drawings done in 1674, and their subject matter is not clear.  In March this year five metopes were discovered in the southern wall of the Acropolis.  They were most likely placed there in efforts to repair and extend the wall when the Acropolis was used as a fortress in the 18th century.

Another metope from the southern wall, also in the British Museum.

The eastern metopes were over the main entrance, and show the battle between the Olympian gods and the giants.  They are in poor condition, and identification of the figures is guesswork.

The eastern metopes.

The northern metopes show scenes from the Trojan War.  The western metopes depict the invasion of Athens by Amazons, however, because of the Amazons in eastern clothing, scholars consider them to really be about the Persian wars.

The western metopes.

The Parthenon frieze is a relief sculpture of marble that was on the Parthenon's exterior walls, carved in situ circa 440 BCE.  Again there is argument here whether it depicts the Panathenaic procession or the sacrifice of Pandora.  Making up the majority of the "Elgin marbles", most of it is in the British Museum.

The British Museum's display of most of the Parthenon frieze.

Although the Parthenon was originally a temple, this is not in the conventional sense.  There was a small shrine in the structure, the statue of Athena, and a treasury.  It served as a temple to Athena until the 5th century CE, when it was converted to a Christian church.  It became an important pilgrimage site in Byzantine times, where it was known as the Church of the Parthenos Maria (Virgin Mary).  During the Latin Empire (1204 - 1261) it became a Roman Catholic church.  The conversion from temple to church involved removing much of the interior and creating an apse, and led to the removal and possible destruction of some of the sculptures.

Southern side of the Parthenon.

When Athens fell to the Ottomans in 1456, part of the Parthenon was made into a mosque and a minaret was added.  Although the Ottomans remained respectful of monuments in their acquired territories, they did not make any efforts to preserve them.  It was under their auspices that the Parthenon was almost destroyed.  In September of 1687 a band of Venetians surrounded the Acropolis and fired cannonballs at it and the Turks within.  The worst damage occurred when a cannonball hit the stores of gunpowder inside.  In the looting that followed, sculptures and pieces of them were taken.

Fragment of a shell believed to be from the Venetians in the
(you guessed it!) British Museum.

In the 18th century there arose a group of archaeologists and travelers who succumbed to philhellenism -  the love of Greek culture.  Efforts were made to survey the ruins of classical Athens, and in 1801 the British ambassador to Constantinople, the Earl of Elgin, obtained written permission from the Sultan to study and make casts of the antiquities of the Acropolis; demolish recent construction; and remove sculptures from them.  This is spurious, as the document is nonexistent.  He detached sculptures from the buildings, and bought some from local denizens.  Some of the sculptures were sawn in half to make their transport to England easier.

Sculptures from the east pediment, thought to be Hestia, Dione, and Aphrodite.
Currently in the British Museum.

According to the British Museum's website (see link above), Lord Elgin's actions were examined by Parliament and found to be legal, and the sculptures taken were acquired by the Museum in 1816.  Negotiations by the Greek government for the return of these Greek treasures has been going on since 1983, to no avail.

Although the Parthenon will never be restored to its original glory, efforts are being made by the Greek government to restore both its structural and aesthetic integrity.  Archaeologists and architects work with modern equipment and computers to determine original states as much as possible.  Earlier reconstruction efforts that were incorrect are being dismantled, as are some of the methods used, such as using iron pins which have caused erosion.  Newer metal work is being done with titanium.

Even in its decline and its state of damage, the beauty overwhelms, especially in person.  A testament to the artistic genius of 2,500 years ago, the Parthenon still stands as evidence of one of the best achievements of humankind.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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